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Interview: Kathryn Bigelow

The Hurt Locker director breaks out
By PETER KEOUGH  |  July 8, 2009

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Review: The Hurt Locker. By Peter Keough.

White-knuckle thrill rites: Bigelow puts the art into action. By Peter Keough.

Okay, so Kathryn Bigelow might be the only major filmmaker to have modeled for the Gap. And now, at 57, she could do so again. Although everyone makes a point of Bigelow's gender and height and good looks, what's germane is that even if she were short and had bushy eyebrows like Martin Scorsese, she still would be directing action pictures like no one since Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. With her latest, The Hurt Locker, creating terrific buzz, maybe she'll start getting the recognition she deserves.

Here's another point that might cause some to pause: the new film is about the war in Iraq. Not only did that war undo a presidency and the country's image in the eyes of the world, it has also spelled box-office death for all films on the subject. Until now, perhaps. The Hurt Locker won't be doing Transformers numbers, but it will probably beat out In the Valley of Elah (scripted, like The Hurt Locker, by Mark Boal, who drew on his experiences as an embedded journalist).

Unlike those previous Iraq movies, and unlike almost every other film released this summer, The Hurt Locker focuses on vivid characters in thrilling circumstances and renders what happens to them with lucidity, logic, and gut-wrenching suspense. It's the story of a bomb tech (Jeremy Renner) in Baghdad in 2004 whose job it is to defuse improvised explosive devices (IEDs). He does the job with uncanny skill, and, more important, he enjoys the rush of danger, just like the characters in almost all of Bigelow's movies, from Near Dark (1987) to Point Break (1991) to Strange Days (1995). A thrill that might not be shared by Bigelow herself after a rough flight in from New York to attend a screening of The Hurt Locker at the Harvard Film Archive.

How are you today?
Fine. Other than the plane was hit twice in midair by lightning. Did you ever have that happen?

Not that I've been aware of.
Oh, you would be! It was like a bullwhip snapped the whole plane. Bam! It was very intense. So I'm very happy to see you.

What an adrenaline rush! That's probably as close as you'll get to defusing a 155 [A Howitzer shell used in IEDs].
Let me knock on wood.

After the Harvard screening ofThe Hurt Locker,someone said, "This makes Michael Bay look like a wimp." What is the key to making a powerful action movie?
Emotional investment with the characters. Smart stories. If you're not emotionally engaged, cinematic prowess can't invent what is not there. And then there's keeping the audience oriented. Making sure the geography is very clear, especially in a movie like The Hurt Locker, where that is the key to understanding what a bomb tech does on a daily basis in Baghdad in 2004.

So, no Autobots.
No tricks. If you're creating excitement strictly from an editing standpoint, it has to be intrinsic to the story and the subject. It doesn't come from form, it comes from content. You are worried for the characters or you even break down the fourth wall and become them.

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