Just before dawn one morning in July 2008, Kathryn Bigelow was setting up a shot for The Hurt Locker in the Jordanian desert. The movie, which won this year’s Oscar for best picture and earned Bigelow the best-director award, follows an explosive-ordnance-disposal bomb technician who dismantles roadside IEDs in Iraq. The scene calls for the tech and two co-workers to detonate a bomb in the middle of the desert, and Bigelow wanted to shoot them from a high sand dune. This meant that the crew had to tote their gear to the top of a hill in the brutal summer heat. “There were a lot of macho guys on the set, British SAS, not to mention all these young, studly actors, and all those guys were falling by the wayside,” says Mark Boal, who wrote and coproduced The Hurt Locker. “I drive past one of the crew who’s literally puking on the side of the road. People are dying on this hill. I drive up, and Kathryn is already at the top. She’s beaten everyone up there.”
Bigelow, 58, laughs off the story when Boal tells it over dinner in Los Angeles. As we eat, Boal does most of the talking. The director says she prefers observing to participating, and her gracious but reserved manner makes it hard to imagine her commanding a crew of sweaty faux soldiers in the desert. “You have a salad with her, she’s very well spoken, but she’s pretty soft,” says Jeremy Renner, who plays the maverick bomb tech in the film. “In social situations she can be painfully shy.”
At this point in her career, Bigelow is weary of the notion that being a woman affects how she works. Critics can’t seem to get over the idea that a female director could devote herself to making adrenaline-charged films that owe more to Ridley Scott than Nora Ephron; around Oscar time the press was filled with pointless speculation about whether Bigelow was, as Salon put it, a “feminist pioneer or tough guy in drag.” At the same time, it’s hard to believe that she would not have a few thoughts on the subject.
But Bigelow is far more interested in talking about the look of her movie: how many cameras she used (four); the way she storyboarded each scene; the effort she took to make sure the bomb explosions appeared authentic. “I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about what my aptitude is, and I really think it’s to push the medium,” she says. “It’s not about breaking gender roles or genre traditions.”
In The Hurt Locker, Renner’s character, Sergeant James, evokes iconic images of American masculinity: in his padded, helmeted bomb suit he looks like an astronaut striding onto the moon. He’s not just a soldier; he’s a renegade, ignoring protocol to do things his way. Not only does he defuse bombs as if he’s unwrapping lollipops, but he outdrinks, outfights, and outshoots his squadmates. But Bigelow sees him less as a commentary on popular images of masculinity than as an exploration of the modern hero. While exemplary at his job, James can barely function in noncombat zones. “He’s evocative of a John Wayne type, but updated to accommodate the complexities of this character, who is almost attracted to the world’s most dangerous job,” she says.
Bigelow grew up in an outlying suburb of San Francisco, the only child of a librarian and the manager of a paint factory. “My dad dreamed of being a cartoonist, but he never achieved it, and it kind of broke my heart,” she says. She studied painting at CalArts, then moved to New York for a fellowship from the Whitney Museum. She initially immersed herself in the downtown art scene but soon began experimenting with film. A master’s in film criticism from Columbia left her in love with directors such as Pasolini and Fassbinder. Then one night she went to a double bill of Mean Streets and The Wild Bunch, and had an epiphany. “It took all my semiotic Lacanian deconstructivist saturation and torqued it,” she says. “I realized there’s a more muscular approach to filmmaking that I found very inspiring.”
She first applied this approach to Near Dark, about a vampire clan in the American West. In The Hurt Locker, Renner’s performance is intensely charged without feeling stylized; some scenes, such as when the bomb techs patrol the streets of Baghdad, have a documentary feel. “We were aggressively trying to stay away from all of the familiar tropes that deflate the tension,” says Bigelow. “Even music—it’s repetitive, so it’s comforting. The minute you take that away and just have sound design, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Given Bigelow’s reserve and her preference for tranquillity in her personal life—her living room is so large and sparsely decorated that our voices practically echo—it’s hard to understand why she’s chosen such high-stakes filmmaking. Perhaps it’s as simple as this: she may be a Lacan-steeped, conceptual-art-based auteur, but she also really likes going to the middle of the desert and blowing stuff up.