Kathryn Bigelow Talks THE HURT LOCKER With Mr. Beaks!
Published at: June 26, 2009, 6:20 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
At some point over the last twenty-three years, between ALIENS and the execrable TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, action cinema gave way to activity cinema. Whether this is a case of art imitating the clutter of everyday life, or just sheer laziness born out of by-committee filmmaking, I have no idea. I only know that the terse, muscular, no-bullshit style favored by my heroes - people like Walter Hill and John McTiernan - is so far out of vogue that an instant classic of the genre like Kathryn Bigelow's THE HURT LOCKER is currently being treated like art house fare.
This is especially frustrating because Bigelow's film isn't the least bit esoteric or inaccessible. Though there's plenty to deconstruct if that's your thing, THE HURT LOCKER is basically just a white-knuckler of a combat flick that takes the audience on a harrowing tour of duty with an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit in Iraq. Set during the height of the war, the movie follows a group of bomb techs (including Guy Pearce, Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) as they're called in to defuse Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), which, as we know all too well, quickly became the deadly weapon of choice for insurgents. The tension in the film is twofold: on one hand, you've got the intricately assembled bombs that have been hidden in everything from cars to human bodies; on the other, there are the Iraqi civilians who watch from windows and rooftops. Friend or foe? Wait long enough to find out, and you might just have a bullet tearing through your chest or a bomb going off in your face.
Though Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who based his excellent script on his own experiences as an embedded journalist during the war) are commenting on the addictive nature of warfare, the film isn't political at all. THE HURT LOCKER is about warriors and, occasionally, heroes who get a buzz from dancing around death for a living; it's about the fucked-up individuals without whom we cannot successfully wage war. And it is a reminder that Kathryn Bigelow is still one of our best action directors - even if her brand of action has more to do with old-fashioned stuff like character than artificial CG spectacle.
THE HURT LOCKER is only Bigelow's eighth feature since she made her debut twenty-seven years ago with THE LOVELESS (an interesting riff on THE WILD ONE starring Willem Dafoe). And while she is, in my mind, as gifted an action filmmaker as is working today, it's important to note that she has dabbled in many different genres (e.g. horror with NEAR DARK, sci-fi with STRANGE DAYS, and biblical epic with POINT BREAK). THE HURT LOCKER, obviously, is her war film. It is also her first masterpiece.
I spoke with Bigelow over the phone a few weeks ago, and tried my best to not sound like a fanboy who grew up worshipping NEAR DARK and, strangely enough, her killer episode of WILD PALMS (which concluded with a gunfight scored to The Animals' "House of the Rising Sun"). She very graciously never hung up on me.
Mr. Beaks: Was there ever a notion to try to set THE HURT LOCKER up at a studio?
Kathryn Bigelow: Actually, no. I've never made a studio film - which is perhaps not necessarily common knowledge. That's because studios have distributed or picked up my movies while we're in production. So, no, having access to a really terrific script, I wanted to protect it by maintaining complete creative control, final cut, and the opportunity to cast emerging talent. Those were my parameters going in. And working independently certainly gets you a long way there.
I also wanted to shoot it in the Middle East. I wanted to get as close to Iraq as possible. In fact, a couple of my locations were about five kilometers from the Iraqi border. So we were close. We were in Jordan, in and around the city of Amman. Basically, we raised the money independently, shot it independently, and we were fortunate enough to sell it to a distributor when we premiered [at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival].
Beaks: One of the keys was casting emerging talent. I can't imagine anyone other than Jeremy Renner in this role. But I wonder what would've happened had, say, Leonardo DiCaprio stumbled across this script and said, "This is my next movie." Though you wanted to go independent, do you think you could resist the extra money and exposure that might bring?
Bigelow: I think he's a fabulous actor, but I was so committed to Jeremy. I hate to speak in hypotheticals, but from early on, when the script was still somewhat unformed, I became aware of DAHMER and all of his subsequent work, and was extremely committed to Jeremy Renner being Sgt. James.
Beaks: In terms of story structure, how did you and Mark approach the story? Did you have specific set-pieces in mind first, and then build the characters out of those scenes?
Bigelow: As I'm sure you know, Mark was on a journalistic embed in Baghdad in the winter of 2004 with bomb squads. He was with various teams that would go out. You basically go out in the morning or afternoon, and... I think it's a solid forty-eight hours on, twenty-four hours off. It's fairly arduous and you basically move from suspicious objects to suspicious piles to suspicious wires; it's IED to IED to IED throughout the city. At the time, in 2004, I think Mark said there were twelve to fifteen teams of three to four men in Baghdad. This was kind of the beginning of the insurgency using IEDs as their primary weapons. I remember one of the techs turned to Mark while they were out on one of their missions and said, "We are the war. It's not a ground-to-ground or air-to-air war. It's ground troops patrolling the areas, looking for suspicious objects or wires or rubble piles and calling in the bomb squad." Now, there's obviously a lot more sophisticated equipment, but this was circa 2004.
So you come back from Iraq with this phenomenal firsthand observation about a day in the life of a bomb tech - or, as I would look at it, a day in the life of an individual who has the most dangerous job in the world. That dictated the structure of the script: that kind of reportorial, observational approach. And the character, to answer your other question, would be revealed through activity. So, in other words, imagine you as an audience member or a reporter as a fly on the wall observing these techs, and they reveal themselves bit-by-bit to you through activity.
Beaks: The most fascinating element about these missions is that as they're defusing these bombs, they're surrounded on every side by people who might want to do them harm. It's not like most bomb disarming scenes we see in movies. Usually, the focus is just on the man and the bomb.
Bigelow: Right, and unlike in other conflicts, there is no refuge, there is no Saigon. Even in the Green Zone, a mortar round can come through the roof. When I talked to the techs after their tours of duty or the Blackwater guys who were with us while we were shooting, it's basically a 24/7, 360-degree threat environment. I mean, the guy up on the balcony could be hanging out his laundry or calling in your coordinates for a sniper hit. It's one or the other! (Laughs in disbelief)
Beaks: One thing I don't think people take into account with these guys is how highly intelligent they have to be to get assigned to a bomb squad unit.
Bigelow: That's an aspect that's very, very critical. You're invited into EOD [Explosive Ordinance Disposal] because you've scored on an aptitude test at a very high level. You're definitely a rare kind of individual. And to amplify what you're saying, you have to take into consideration that this is a volunteer military. So these are individuals who have an extremely high IQ and have chosen - after being invited into EOD - to take on the most dangerous job in the world. When Mark came back and explained what it was like spending time with [the techs], that they were there by choice, provided a really interesting and rich psychological profile. And then I became aware of that book by Chris Hedges, WAR IS A FORCE THAT GIVES US MEANING, and in there... he's trying to unpack the nature of a volunteer military. And he speaks about the allure and attractiveness of combat - hence that quote at the beginning, "War is a drug."
(Laughs) It's complicated! I'm sorry! Yes, the film is designed as a piece of entertainment, which is why I think the script is so beautifully crafted. But there's also a high degree of substance and information that I particularly find very relevant.
Beaks: Absolutely! I'm really intrigued by that need to get back into it. And the fact that the biggest nightmare for [Sgt. James] is buying cereal at the grocery store. He can't imagine a life as horrifying as that, and would just prefer to be near death all the time.
Bigelow: I'll refer you back to Chris Hedges, who I think described it quite beautifully. He talked about the kind of purpose and meaning that he elicits in situ and that he can't find anywhere else. That type of individual. And I think that perfectly describes James. That kind of locking down on any given ordinance when everybody else in the city or area would be running from it. You see a kind of sense of purpose and meaning. And yet at the same time, they're very heroic and courageous individuals.
Beaks: And all of that comes through so palpably in Jeremy performance. I'm wondering how much of this you threw at him prior to shooting the film.
Bigelow: It was fairly evolved and well-articulated in the script. And on top of that, Jeremy spent time at Fort Irwin with the EOD techs there, and actually went through a kind of bomb squad boot camp if you will, where he put on a suit for the first time. That's a real heavy suit. It weighs approximately anywhere between 80 and 100 lbs. Those are real steel plates. It's not wardrobe. We shot in the Middle East in the summer with an average temperature of about 115 degrees. I obviously have profound respect for this actor.
But literally something as simple as his first exercise... the first exercise that they gave him - which apparently they give to everyone - was a pile of 200 paperclips on the floor, and you've got move one-by-one twenty feet away. First of all, you have limited oxygen. And, apparently, because of the heat inside the suit - which you compound with the elemental aspect of summer in Baghdad - your IQ drops ten to twenty points. And you're tasked to make what could potentially be a catastrophic decision. And that's when you're out in the field. I'm not talking about moving paperclips. But that's how they start you. It's a tremendous amount of rigor and precision and stamina that is required even before you get to the IED!(Laughs)
It's fascinating that the ground troops really stop the war for the bomb techs. The bomb techs are the star players; they're the quarterbacks of this particular conflict. So anyway, the ground troops have contained the 300 meter area, and the bomb tech, as you see with the opening sequence, is calling out their approximate relationship to the IED - 100 meters, 50 meters, 25 meters - as they get closer so that everybody is aware of his approach. I mean, let's say there's a tripwire, let's say there's a secondary initiating system, let's say there's a sniper hit... whatever. And they say at about 150 meters you're thinking of your family; you're trying to make peace with whatever you're about to encounter. And then at 25 meters, that's the point of no return, or what's referred to as the "kill zone". And sometimes not even a suit can help you there.
Beaks: I really want to ask you about the design and choreographing of these set-pieces. Do you storyboard?
Bigelow: I do board. In fact, I boarded all of the set pieces even while the script was in an early stage of development, before we had even found our locations. It gives me an opportunity to look at it graphically, and begin to imagine the choreography, the blocking, the camera positions, how many cameras I'll need, pacing, editing... I find it a really wonderful tool. But I also don't slavishly adhere to them. I tend to do one complete, fairly comprehensive pass, and then never look back. (Laughs) But what it does, is it gives... like, for instance, a shot that I find very kind of emblematic, where you're overhead and he's pulling up the det cord attached to the daisy chain? That's a shot that I found boarding and hung on to. But, yet, I basically wanted to let go of the boards so that [the film] doesn't feel too schematic and too mechanical, and feels very reportorial. That was really my overriding visual approach. And each take I would re-choreograph and re-position the cameras. The actor was never anticipating a camera either off his left or right shoulder; it was always kind of an element of surprise. And then because it was an element of surprise, it was easy to disappear in your mind.
What was so great about these actors - Jeremy, Anthony and Brian - had really done their homework. They knew how to work with the bomb suit, which does take two to three guys to put on, and what the protocol of bomb disarmament is. They were as close to replicating reality.
Beaks: I never questioned for a minute that these guys could do what they were doing onscreen.
Bigelow: Oh, thank you. That means so much. That sense of reality I think is really important. Within the EOD community, those who've seen it also appreciate its authenticity and its rigorous attention to detail.
THE HURT LOCKER opens this Friday, June 26th, in limited release. It will gradually go wider over the month of July. Do not miss it.