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The Hurt Locker - Kathryn Bigelow interview

Kathryn Bigelow directs The Hurt Locker

Interview by Rob Carnevale

KATHRYN Bigelow talks about her explosive new Iraq drama The Hurt Locker, working with locals as extras, using big name stars for cameos and why she wanted to create a totally realistic experience for viewers about the day-to-day risks faced by bomb disposal experts…

Q. How difficult was it to get a film of this nature made?
Kathryn Bigelow: It was logistically challenging but it really all came from [writer] Mark [Boal]’s time in Baghdad in 2004… having an opportunity to work with first-hand observational material about a subject that’s very rich and abstract to most people. To unpack it a bit, to give it some specificity, was very exciting for me, and pulling all the elements together. It was pretty exciting.

Q. Did you try to shoot in Iraq at all? Because you shot quite close to the border…
Kathryn Bigelow: At one point we discussed it but I think somebody said something about snipers if we went across the border, so it was a decision that was not debated for long [smiles].

Q. Once you had the script in place, did it formulate itself?
Kathryn Bigelow: It really came with constant dialogue with Mark, and wanting to keep it reportorial, presentational, and not impose an “aesthetic” on it. In other words, the real objective was, how do you put the audience in position where the journalist was, where the eyes of the observer were? So you make it as experiential as possible, you put the audience basically into the boots of the soldier, give them a kind of “you are there, boots on the ground” look at a day in the life of a bomb tech in Baghdad 2004. So all the aesthetics came from the reporting, such as making sure the audience understands the geography of any given situation, that the ground troops contain an area which is approximately 300 metres, and then the EOD tech in the bomb suit takes what’s called “the lonely walk” all by himself. The war has stopped for him. He has no idea what he’s walking towards, and there’s no margin for error – so again, it’s an inherently dramatic piece that didn’t require a lot of cinematic embellishment.

Q. How surprised were you to learn that, with all the other technological advances, bomb disposal still means a guy with a pair of pliers and a steady hand?
Kathryn Bigelow: That’s what was so surprising to me, to begin to unpack the asymmetrical warfare out there. You’ve got a remote garage opener and a Cassio watch, and that can defeat such extraordinary military machines.

Q. How did the actors cope with filming during a heatwave in Jordan, especially when they had to suit up?
Kathryn Bigelow: It was hot. That was one of the more punishing elements, and the bomb suit – that was not a creation of wardrobe or the art department, it was a real bomb suit, made of Kevlar and ceramic plates, it weighs around 100 lbs and the average temperature during the day when we were shooting was 110 degrees. That was probably the most single challenging aspect of the film, but Jeremy [Renner] is not only extremely talented but very formidable and resilient. He pulled it off.

Q. How did you go about casting so many locals as extras and supporting characters?
Kathryn Bigelow: We had a wonderful casting director who was located in Jordan and knew that in Amman, at the time, there were probably about 750,000 Iraqi refugees. So we had access through her to these Iraqis, some of whom were actually actors. The suicide bomber at the end was a fairly well known actor in Baghdad, before the occupation, and when we were shooting he was a refugee in Amman. We put him in the movie and he gave us an incredibly emotive performance and I’ve actually stayed in touch with him – he’s now living in New Mexico, and I’m hoping he can keep working. That was one of the true surprises. We knew the architecture and the palate of the desert, we’d find phenomenal locations, but a surprise like that was gratifying.

Q. Why did you decide to cast several well-known names in cameo roles?
Kathryn Bigelow: Well, I do think that an audience approaches a particular actor within his relative stature with a degree of expectation, and if that actor’s going to come in harm’s way, you think it’ll be dangerous, it might be tense, but they’re going to survive. If you take that out of the equation, it definitely amplifies the tension.

Q. Did Ralph Fiennes owe you one after Strange Days?
Kathryn Bigelow: We’d wanted to work together ever since, and I know this is not quite in the way that we anticipated, but he was excited to not have to wear a suit. And Guy [Pearce] was fine with it too. I think it was kind of freeing in a way, because the entire weight of the piece was not on their shoulders, and that’s what they’re used to.

Q. The film doesn’t seem to take sides or offer any political view of the occupation – was it more important to concentrate on the humanity?
Kathryn Bigelow: I think the humanity was definitely what was most important, to look at the individual and how he copes with an extremely, almost unimaginably risky situation, so it’s Green Party politics! It’s neither Republican nor Democrat, but for me personally at the end of the day, it’s important to remind people that there are men and women who, right now, are taking that lonely walk. Regardless of what you feel about whether they should be there or not, it’s a reminder that they are risking their lives. They didn’t start this conflict.

Q. Have you had any feedback from the military or from soldiers who’ve seen the film?
Kathryn Bigelow: We’ve had a fair amount and it’s been very positive. I know I’ve had some soldiers come up to me saying they did two tours of duty in the same period of time, in which the film takes place, which is 2004, and it was exactly like that, according to them. We’ve had four-star generals, who were actually commanding generals in Iraq at that time, and they’ve given a really favourable response. And the EOD community has been really favourable too. So that’s been really gratifying.

Q. What were the differences shooting this film compared with others that you’ve made?
Kathryn Bigelow: The real signifying difference for this was the realism and the responsibility. This is a conflict that’s stll going on, and the fact that it’s reportorial-based. I think those were the three features that were unique for me. To work with subject matter that is current and ongoing, and wanting to preserve and protect the reportorial qualities. I think that’s its great strength, and that it makes specific the abstract, for the general public, meaning me, having some window onto a world that feels very opaque, certainly in the States, and somewhat under-reported. And the heightened degree of realism.

The fact that Mark was there, and then he was on set, and the opportunity to block a sequence, choreograph a sequence, and constantly be consulting… is this what it looked like? Without delving into classified material. Are we in the zone here? I’ve never had that. It’s always been imagined or fantastical, or historical. I’ve never had that liberty and luxury of first-hand observation. And the opportunity to work on material that’s potentially topical and relevant. I love it! I think if more journalists could move into film, film would be a better place.

Q. It’s been seven years since your last film, is that a reflection of Hollywood now?
Kathryn Bigelow: It could be a bit of both. I do tend to be very choosy about material. We started this in 2005, and we were shooting by 2007, so it was actually pretty fast. I’d finished all the press for K-19 [The Widowmaker] in 2002, and was then developing and looking for material. I think as the industry gets more corporate, it also gets more risk-adverse. Risk is actually a healthy place to be, dramatically speaking, because people will take more chances – and no-one’s taking any chances.

Q. Referring to one of your past movies, there are persistent rumours of Point Break getting a sequel? Is that true and will you be involved?
Kathryn Bigelow: I won’t be involved. I heard it was going to happen, then I heard it wasn’t going to happen… I’m just interested in war reporting now!

Q. What’s next for you?
Kathryn Bigelow: We’re working on something that Mark is writing, so hopefully we’ll kind of revisit this combination again. That takes place in South America, in a region called the triple frontiers – where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil meet. It’s kind of a fairly lawless area in South America, and potentially a very rich environment for much drama.

Q. Are you keen to give it the same aesthetic as The Hurt Locker?
Kathryn Bigelow: If it suits the material, yes. I quite like that style a lot, just because it allows for a kind of experiential film-making. It puts you there, and I think that’s what films can do that no other medium can. Prose can be very reflective, but film can create this almost pre-conscious, physiological reaction to something. Somebody was writing about The Hurt Locker and saying that during the scene where Eldridge is trying to clean the blood off the bullets, this writer was creating saliva in his mouth so that he could help – and then realising how ridiculous that was.

Nonetheless, I think there’s something intriguing about being able to make material, again if the story necessitates or provides an opportunity for that, for parachuting the audience into a particular moment, then he or she may not necessarily want to experience first hand, like walking toward a ticking bomb. I know I certainly wouldn’t want to walk toward one.

Read our review of The Hurt Locker