Director Kathryn Bigelow discusses The Hurt Locker – multiple-award winner, Oscar favourite regarded as the best fiction film on the Iraq war
In the early ’90s, Kathryn Bigelow was hailed as the first female director to cross over to mainstream Hollywood with films such as Near Dark and Point Break. Though her noughties have so far been quiet, her new film, The Hurt Locker, about the dangerous routines of bomb disposal experts (or ‘explosive ordnance disposal operators’ – EODs) in Iraq, is arguably also her best.
The Hurt Locker has received superb reviews. Do you enjoy reading reviews of your films?
Well, certainly these I have! I’ve read them and memorised them… No, only kidding. But it’s incredibly gratifying to see that sort of enthusiasm for the film.
When did you first come into contact with the film’s writer, Mark Boal?
I love reportage journalism and was a big fan of much of the writing Mark had done. We met just before he joined an EOD unit in Baghdad, and when he came back we started talking about his experiences with characters. I think it occurred to us simultaneously that this would be an interesting departure point for a film.
With the EODs, it feels like these fascinating, unheralded characters have been unearthed. These men are like surgeons. When you’re invited into EOD, you’ve proved you have an incredible motor dexterity and engineering acumen. You’ve got to be able to look at a nest of wires and make a call in seconds. If you’re out there for too long, the enemy will shoot you. Unlike a surgeon, though, if they make a mistake, the patient dies – if you make a mistake, you die.
The film strikes a good balance between action and character. On one hand, I feel that EODs arguably have the most dangerous job in the world. Yet in the US, it’s an all-volunteer military, so you’re then offered a very interesting psychological angle to deal with. What does it take to walk towards something that I imagine you and I would be running from?
Jeremy Renner’s gung-ho Sergeant James is the film’s key character. When you cast the movie, what qualities were you looking for? First and foremost I was looking for a brilliant actor, as most filmmakers do, I hope! I’d seen him in the film Dahmer, and even though his character is different in that film, the truth and honesty in the performance were there. I sent him the script – he was in London at the time shooting 28 Weeks Later… , we spent a few hours on the phone and I knew I was speaking to Sgt James. I cast him and we hadn’t even met.
Was Sgt James based on a real person? At the end of the day, it’s all a work of fiction, but I know Mark was inspired by people he spent time with that have aspects of Renner’s character. You get the bravado and swagger, but also the tenderness.
You choose to keep an emotional distance from the Iraqi locals. Why? This is a film told from the specific point of view of the US soldiers. Mark was there with the troops and the representation of the Iraqi insurgents is merely one man’s honest description of the situation. I’m sure it’s different now, but at the time when he went out, one of the big frustrations was the impossibility of communication. There were no language skills and not enough interpreters for everybody to use. Certainly it’s conjecture on my part, but this would have added to a real sense of isolation, confusion and, let’s be honest, a large element of threat. For lack of a better way to describe it, I feel this conflict has been very abstract, in that we think of war as having a front and rear, as maybe being fought in a field or in a jungle, but never in a densely populated urban setting. It’s the idea that there is no safe zone. Everywhere is volatile all the time. The Hurt Locker is in cinemas now.