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An interview with Kathryn Bigelow

Happy Fourth of July, all. On this holiday celebrated with fireworks perhaps it is appropriate to talk about those heroes who put their lives on the line to prevent things from exploding. Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" tells the story of the demolition experts in Iraq whose dangerous duty involves defusing the lethal improvised explosive devices (IEDs) set by insurgents and which have been responsible for a frightening death toll, both military and civilian.

Plus, it's the best film so far this year. But don't let that dissuade you. True, "Transformers" opened with about $200 million last weekend and "The Hurt Locker," which was released in only 4 theaters, made somewhat less (it will be expanding to more screens and cities on July 10, including Boston). But it did score about 91 on Metacritic. Which would you choose? A good question for Bigelow, no doubt, but when I spoke to her Friday, she seemed to have something else on her mind, as you will see.

PK: How are you today?

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

PK: Not that I've been aware of.

KB: 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.

PK: What an adrenaline rush. That's probably as close as you'll get to defusing a 155 [an artillery shell used in IEDs].

KB: Let me knock on wood.

PK: The second time was probably already boring.

KB: Just old hat.

PK: After the screening of "The Hurt Locker" another critic said that this makes Michael Bay look like a wimp. What is the key to making a powerful action movie?

KB: 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 are so many other factors so I don't want to be reductive. Like keeping the audience oriented, making sure the geography is very clear. Especially in a movie like "The Hurt Locker" where the audience's relation to an improvised explosive device is the key to your understanding of what a bomb tech does on a daily basis in Baghdad in 2004. And so I'd say emotional engagement with carefully crafted characters and a great script.

PK: So, no Autobots.

KB: No tricks. You put the camera low and you dutch the angle and you hit the side of the magazine when you turn the camera over. But if the intrinsic investment is not there, you can't invent it out of whole cloth.

PK: And easy on the rapid fire editing so people can follow what's going on?

KB: And geography. So people can be oriented geographically. If you're creating excitement purely from an editorial standpoint it has to be intrinsic to the story and the subject; it doesn't come from form, it comes from content.

PK: Intensity and clarity.

KB: Exactly. And the intensity comes from, one hopes anyway. emotional investment in the characters. You are worried for them or you break down the fourth wall and become them.

PK: Was the point-of-view camera something you started using after "Strange Days?"

KB: I did some p.o.v. in "Near Dark" and I think... it's a really successful tool if the story needs it and demands it. Total immersion and experiential cinema -- I know I've talked about it in other interviews -- where film and literature, not that literature can't be experiential, it is more reflective. But film is experiential. It can transport you to the desert basin of Baghdad in 2004 and put you up close and personal.

PK: Kind of like the SQUIDS [Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices, which record and replay personal experiences] in "Strange Days?"

KB: Kind of like that, but it's more literal. In the case of "The Hurt Locker" it's looking at a day in the life of a bomb tech in Baghdad in 2004 through the soldier's eyes in a boots on the ground way where you are there alongside these individuals who have the most dangerous job in the world. And you're walking toward what most people in the planet would run from. In the EOD [Explosive Ordinance Disposal, the units assigned to defuse IEDS] parlance they call it "the lonely walk." Because you're by yourself.

PK: With the big suit.

KB: Right.

PK: It's kind of like "High Noon."

KB: I know. I saw that when we were shooting it. I kind of imagined it in the script stage but getting to the location, we were in the middle east, and the nature of the light, the reflective surfaces of the sand, just creating this kind of classic palette and then this guy in the suit. The solo nature of the job.


PK: Is there a little bit of "The Wild Bunch" going on there too? The slow motion explosion for example.

KB: All of this came from Mark Boal.

PK: He's not here.

KB: No, he had to go to Florida with somebody.

PK: He had a bad feeling about the flight.

KB: He said if anyone is going to deal with lightning, it's going to be her. Anyway, he was on a journalistic embed in 2004 and 10, 12, 15 times a day they'd go to these coordinates that the ground troops had called in because of a suspicious rubble pile or a pair of wires or an empty garbage bag and.. they're not all 155s  but they're fairly heavy ordinance. When they are detonated or tragically, accidentall go off there's something called overpressure. That's what those shots are meant to indicate. Before the particulate matter is expended it's the gas that precedes the shrapnel. It travels at some ungodly speed. And that completely implodes any air pocket in your body.

PK: Ouch.

KB: That's what he means by, within 25 meters you're in the kill zone. The point of no return. Nobody can help you. These guys are like surgeons. Frighteningly intelligent. You have to have scored high on your IQ tests. [Only then are you] invited to the EOD. You need to have phenomenal motor skills and dexterity. You're able to make decisions under extreme multitude of decisions under extreme pressure so it really self-selects. It takes a special kind of person to make that lonely walk.

PK: Are they addicted to adrenaline or do they have a death wish?

 KB: It isn't meant to stand as a generalization and I wouldn't want to think of all of it as a death wish but I think they are incredibly courageous. If you've read read Chris Hedges book "War is Force that Gives us Meaning" he...

PK: Did you read it before or after you decided to make the movie?

KB: Before. And Mark read it before his embed. James is not any particular individual, but a kind of composite and fictionalization. I think between James and Sanborn and Eldredge you get a nice myriad of personalities.

PK: You get a lot of that good angel/ bad angel motif in a lot of your movies.

KB: That's true. I hadn't thought of that. That's why we need people like you. People to analyze. Not the gesticulators. Isn't that what the French critics say about American critics? "You gesticulate We analyze."

PK: We blurb.

KB: Thankfully. So, anyway, Hedges talks about the allure of war. And, mind you, this is an all volunteer military. It's a situation fairly unique to this conflict. So what Hedges tries to attack is that for some individuals combat provides an allure and attraction. It can provide that. Whether that attraction or allure, I don't know, intensifies your survival skills or not  it certainly does with someone like James who has a kind of reckless swagger...

PK: He's intuitive

KB: I think of him as an artist. Every IED , they are all prototypical. Not one is like another. And you have about 45 seconds to...

PK: The red wire or the blue wire...


KB: Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. It would be so much easier. But to make life or death decisions. If you're on the ground too long -- first of all you're by yourself. You've got a 200-300 meter cordoned-off area. The guy in the balcony might be calling in your coordinates for a sniper or just hanging out his laundry. But you don't want to be exposed too long. And he's like a surgeon with this ability to analyze this prototypical wiring or pressure plate or secondary or single or double or triple initiating device. But if you make a mistake -- it's not the patient who dies, you die.

PK: As the French critics would say, it's the ultimate deconstruction paradigm.

KB: Taking deconstruction to atomization. What would Lacan say about that?

PK: Deconstruct the artifice or it will deconstruct you.

KB: There's your lede.

NEXT: Beyond deconstructionism.

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