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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Director Kathryn Bigelow On The Hurt Locker

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The U.S. occupation of Iraq has inspired a panoply of cinematic depictions. Despite their topicality, these films have ended up being box office duds. The Hurt Locker, which focuses on a bomb disposal unit in Baghdad, has been greeted by a chorus of critical plaudits. Perhaps these encomiums will portend widespread popularity among the ticket buying public. I had a chance to sit down with Kathryn Bigelow, the director of The Hurt Locker, for a wide-ranging discussion about the film and the nature of war.

Originally, Bigelow had planned to shoot the film in Kuwait. However, when she and the crew arrived, they discovered that shooting there wasn't a viable option. Bigelow recounted, "It was 135 degrees. It was like somebody had a hot engine in your face and you can't get rid of it. I mean, you are just sucking in this hot air. Everyone would become dehydrated."

She described the relocation, "We took off to Jordan and it was great because it has got an elevation of about 2,500 feet. Instead of being 135, it had that low desert heat, average temperature 110." There was another advantage to the new setting. As Bigelow explained, "This is an urban movie and there is nothing in Kuwait that looks like anything in Baghdad. Amman did have sections that kind of looked like Baghdad.

"We were shooting in the summer in Jordan and the bomb suit is not an art department creation," she continued. "It was a real bomb suit made out of Kevlar and ceramic plates. It weighs about a hundred pounds. So, you add that to whatever the punishing temperature was of the day. But, those kinds of challenges were offset by some of the great bonuses. For instance, in Amman, at the time we were shooting, there were about 750,000 refugees from the war, many of whom were actors. So utilizing them in a shoot as speaking parts as well as background extras, that offset some of the arduous aspects."

The Hurt Locker embodies a strong sense of spontaneity, suggesting that it had been improvised on the set. Bigelow clarified, "Once the script was done, I boarded it out. But, that was before we even scouted location. So, then once you get to location, once you get a sense of the geography, and the geography is really key to the audience understanding the conflict, where you are in relation to the bomb for instance. One of our objectives was to really humanize these soldiers. At the same time, you want to jump from the micro to the macro. Seeing the soldiers in context, but never losing sight of an emotional connection with them.

"Then, you kind of begin to let go of the boards and then you find a style that seems very reportorial," she continued. "Wanting to protect that reportorial nature and humanize the soldier, so it's sort of fluid and instinctual."

Previously, Bigelow has directed such films as Point Break, Strange Days and K-19: The Widowmaker. Did her approach to this film represent a departure from her prior style? "I think that each one comes from the story itself and basically it is sort of dictated by content to form, rather than form to content," she said. "That's why I wanted to protect the reportorial nature of this film.

"Consequently, you want to have the camera be somewhat live, fluid, and unpredictable. And that's really, I think, the key principle of life on the ground as a soldier in that particular conflict, the randomness and the chaos of it. She grew emphatic, "You want to underscore that. Then, it's a question of balance and instinct and I suppose craft. You don't want to hit it too hard, too soft, but it was beautifully calibrated in the script."

The Hurt Locker includes Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes in circumscribed roles. However, the major parts are played by lesser-known actors. Jeremy Renner portrays the lead, the somewhat quixotic head of the three-man bomb disposal unit. Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty support him as the underlings on his squad. Bigelow touted the advantages of using actors, who are unfamiliar to the audience, "Well, not only to avoid distracting from the plot, but to protect and preserve the element of surprise. Many times, when you have a more familiar face, you go he is so-and-so, he can't die till the end. So, you know they're fine. You subconsciously, if not consciously, tend to relax. And that's not the case here. You are going to look at this conflict through the soldier's perspective, you are not allowed to relax." She acknowledged, "I do tend to like to work with unknown actors." Bigelow praised her cast as, "Breakout talents. They are just so extraordinary.

"Every other sector of the military has had their movie, they've had films about Navy SEALS, about Air Force Pilots, you name it, but they have never had a film about bomb techs." She elaborated, "They do what they do with a fair amount of anonymity. They are in their own world. Now, there is a filmic translation that people can understand, up close and personal, what a day in the life of a bomb tech might be."

The Hurt Locker offers the bird's eye view on the Iraq conflict that a soldier might have. It assiduously avoids polemics. I asked Bigelow how the process of making the film impacted her own perspective on U.S. foreign policy and the nature of war. She dexterously sidestepped the first part of the question to focus on the latter component, "I entered the project thinking war is hell and certainly am leaving it thinking war is hell. It gave me an appreciation and admiration that there are men and women out there risking their lives. We are looking at incredibly heroic individuals, but also thinking about the price of heroism. So, the experience was pretty moving, just getting up close and personal with this particular conflict from the standpoint of t he soldiers, who are kind of at the epicenter of it, the bomb techs."

The Hurt Locker opens in Milwaukee on Friday, July 24.