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Interview: Kathryn Bigelow on Making The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker is a work of exhaustive filmic intricacy that required Bigelow to contemplate even “the sound of heat and dust, and the sun.”

Interview: Kathryn Bigelow on Making The Hurt Locker

“There’s a price for that kind of heroism,” Kathryn Bigelow says of The Hurt Locker’s lead character, an ingenious Army grunt who stares bombs in the face for his daily bread and who slowly comes to appreciate the immense toll that such death-defying work takes on the psyche. Depictions of men under nerve-melting pressure are frequent in Bigelow’s famously kinetic oeuvre, which spans two decades and includes the deliriously inventive cowboy-vampire pastiche Near Dark and the darkly spiritual surf saga Point Break, but rarely have form and favored subject been so expertly harmonized as in Hurt Locker. Earlier this week, the director called me up to discuss the film and those who inspired it. A master class in experiential action cinema from one of its most learned professors, this barely-fictionalized, ground-level look at the U.S. Army’s Explosive Ordinance Disposal technicians is so immersive that it’s practically tactile, a work of exhaustive filmic intricacy that required Bigelow to contemplate even “the sound of heat and dust, and the sun,” as she tells it.

I was just reading an old magazine interview you gave for Strange Days, in which you said, “As our society progresses, genuine experience becomes riskier and the desire for it increases.” The context for that was virtual reality, of course, but doesn’t it also sort of explain why someone would volunteer to diffuse bombs?

Very, very interesting question, and I would say that it’s hard to generalize why a person would choose Explosive Ordinance Disposal. Also, just to back up a bit, one has to be invited into the Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit after you’ve decided that you’re going to pursue the military. My understanding is that there are all these aptitude tests to take first and then, if you’ve scored extremely highly, you can be invited into the EOD. So, it’s a pretty rarified world that these EOD techs exist in, and I’m not sure, but my humble opinion is that it’s way more complicated than that. These are men who, as you indicated, have gone into this profession by choice, and it’s perhaps the most dangerous job in the world. They have volunteered and every single day they go out there, sometimes at the risk—the peril—of a potential sacrifice of their own, and they are saving thousands of lives by disarming or at least rendering safe these explosive ordinances.

And they’re affected by it in varying degrees, of course. You gave Jeremy Renner’s lead bomb tech character this quality of implacable cheeriness, an imperviousness to danger that unnerves his colleagues and keeps them distant from him. Do you think there’s some correlation between anti-social tendencies and the job itself, which seemingly no normal person would do?

I don’t really have the stats to make that sort of assessment, but I definitely think that it takes a very, very courageous individual, certainly a very brave one, and there was a comment that [screenwriter] Mark Boal made when he came back from his embed; he said that courage is not the absence of fear, it’s maintaining your sense of humor in the face of fear. The job itself, this profession, is so inherently dangerous, and yet it does happen to be at the epicenter of this particular conflict, and I think that it takes a pretty extraordinary human being to do it, one who is perhaps a very complicated psychological mix. So, I think it would be hard for me to give you a compact answer. I wouldn’t hazard one since I’m not a psychologist. Nonetheless, we did certainly show some other bomb techs; there is a myriad of psychologies and personalities there, and they’ve all decided to do this job.

As someone who strives to create immersive cinema, did you find it necessary to get into the headspace of these guys and share their experiences? I heard that you tried to cross the border into Iraq.

Well, the genesis of the piece was Mark Boal’s embed, as you know, in Baghdad in 2004, with a bomb squad. So, it began as a piece of reporting and my feeling as a filmmaker was that I really wanted to maintain that reportorial quality. He was sort of parachuted in—I mean figuratively, not literally. He was parachuted into the daily life of a bomb squad tech and I wanted to basically put the audience into the shoes of not only the reporter, but also the soldier on the ground. I wanted to give the audience a real, boots-on-the-ground, you-are-there look at what it would be like to have the world’s most dangerous job. So, that necessitated a kind of presentational, reportorial, immediate, raw, visceral approach. That really is what I wanted to maintain: the authenticity, the accuracy, the specificity of what Mark brought back from his embed. He wrote and crafted a magnificent script. I also had these three—well, several—extraordinary actors and we were shooting in the Middle East. It’s a movie about the Middle East and it’s also about that particular conflict. I wanted to get as close to the conflict as possible, and because of the large scale of the sets (bomb disarmament mandates a three hundred meter containment area), I needed to be able to shoot in vast areas. In choosing Amman, Jordan, which is on the border of Iraq—not the city itself, but the country—I was able to turn the camera 360 degrees and have the architecture and the mise-en-scène be as accurate as possible. Nonetheless, it’s still a fictionalization of a day in the life of a bomb tech.

How did you go about marrying that visceral, reportorial style with Marco Beltrami’s score? Was he okay with the score being used so sparingly?

Yes, he was okay with it. Marco’s a very talented composer, and he and Buck Sanders were two gentlemen who worked together on the piece, but they also worked in concert with my sound designer, Paul Ottosson, who is also an extraordinary talent. My interest going into the film, having imagined it to be as immersive and reportorial a piece as possible, was that I wanted to sort of blur the distinction between sound design and score, and I presented this as an idea to both the sound designer and the composers and they both loved that, as a challenge. They thought that it would be a really interesting creative space in which to work. For instance, Paul Ottosson gave the composers many of his sound design tracks that he was also working with, things like the sounds of helicopters or F-14s flying overhead. It was like, if one could actually qualify the sound of heat and dust and the sun—there were just so many of these beautiful textures that he had and that he was working with. So, the composers were able to actually utilize the components of the sound design and begin to weave together subtly rhythmic and sonic textures that melded beautifully with the design. And it was really intended as that kind of cohesive collaboration right from the beginning.

In terms of your collaboration with the actors, did you present them with horror stories of things gone wrong on the job to instill that fearful, respect-the-bomb mindset? How did you give them a thousand-yard stare?

[laughs] Well, they’re very smart, talented, creative actors! They took it upon themselves to do a lot of the homework, certainly. Jeremy Renner spent some time with the EOD at Fort Irwin in California, and he was basically inducted into a kind of accelerated version of their training. He ended up being incredibly well-versed in the mechanics and logistics and processes of bomb disarmament, as was Anthony Mackie, who spent time in Fort Bragg and Brian Geraghty, who was in country once he got to the Middle East and spent time with some of our EOD technical advisors on location. All three of them, by choice, completely immersed themselves so that they would have the benefit of that understanding.

There’s a moment in the film I want to ask you about—it struck me as a sort of prototypical Kathryn Bigelow moment.

Uh-oh. [laughs]

No, no, just the grocery store scene. After one character has rotated back to the world, after all he’s been through, he’s sort of stymied and defeated by a wall of breakfast cereal. You seem to feel that our consumer society takes more from us than it gives, in terms of the human spirit.

I think that’s a really smart assessment and an interesting one, although I wouldn’t look at it quite so literally. You’re not wrong at all, but what I think is—here’s a guy who has spent however many days and however many tours of duty, in probably as high-risk a situation as is humanly possible, and he has this profound skill set that has kept him alive day in and day out. Then, you have the paradox of something so simple as a decision that people make many times during the day, the kind of mundane grocery store decision, and that’s just overwhelming for him. I think that’s an interesting aspect of war, or a look at the effects of war, rather. That’s where I think the script was so well crafted, in how it just kind of sneaks up on you. You know, here’s a man who is incredibly capable in what it is that he’s doing. He’s kept not only himself but his team alive day in and day out, but there is a price for that kind of heroism. That’s the price of that courage. This is where I think the characters were so carefully crafted by Mark, the writer.

You met a lot of these techs, these soldiers, in your research. By and large, did they seem to know who they were and what they were fighting for, or trying to achieve?

You mean understand what they were fighting for, politically? I think it’s hard to judge their level of self-awareness, but I did find them to be incredibly professional and, I suppose, they are grateful to be appreciated in a certain way. I think if you were to say to someone on the street “What is Explosive Ordinance Disposal?,” you’d probably find that it’s a pretty fair assessment to say that the general public is not necessarily aware of it. They’ve certainly heard words like IED and they know what a roadside bomb is, but they probably aren’t really aware of all the processes and the protocol and everything else that goes into identifying a live ordinance that’s tucked into a rubble pile, you know? So, I guess this was an opportunity for me to kind of share that specificity, and I was just struck by each one. Each of them is an individual, and each one different from the other. I suppose I was just struck by their courage.

I think with my generalization, I was trying to move toward asking you about masculinity in general, which is something your previous work indicates much interest in, as does this film. I think you’re our new Sam Peckinpah.

[laughs] Oh God, that’s very flattering! I’m sure that you can look at The Hurt Locker as a portrait of masculinity, and that certainly did factor into it, but specifically my interest was just to humanize these particular individuals. It’s more of a statement on that process of humanization. I make my choices about which films to do on a purely instinctual basis, and it’s really not until I have the luxury of moments like this when I suppose I have to go back over the choices I’ve made and analyze either the processes or the thoughts that were behind them. So, I was really just drawn by the opportunity to humanize them.

Your choices never flow from a desire to operate in or improve certain film genres? I ask because you’ve certainly done much to elevate action cinema in your day.

I never look at it from the standpoint of form. I always look at it from the standpoint of content. I’ve never approached [a project] as an opportunity to, let’s say, expand a form. I’ll approach it from the character and if the character takes me into a sort of presentation that necessitates tension, or suspense, or a kind of kinetic, experiential cinematic experience, then that’s fine, but it’s still informed and dictated by the character and the story itself. It’s not from the outside in, it’s always from the inside out. As long as it’s a provocative story with some evocative characters, it doesn’t matter whether those characters are sitting still and just talking in a room, or if there’s bloodshed to be had, you know? It still goes back to the story and the characters, which is always what I find compelling, and that’s what I found compelling with The Hurt Locker—not necessarily the form, but the authenticity of it, which was haunting and pervasive and provocative.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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