Author’s Note: I wrote this profile in January 2013 as Zero Dark Thirty was opening nationwide, but I realized it never migrated to this blog. So here it is.
“If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies.” -Kathryn Bigelow
If someone made a movie about Kathryn Bigelow’s career, it contains all the elements for a success story. A comeback story, if you will.
Her first film, The Loveless, a biker movie set in the 1950s starring Willem Defoe, introduced Bigelow and her highly stylized approach to the independent film scene.
In 1987, Near Dark, a vampire Western by Bigelow was released and quickly disappeared into video stores. However, the movie gained a cult following for its dynamic cinematic style.
Already questions arose about a female director’s place in the action movie world. During filming for Blue Steel, Bigelow said: “There’s nothing, culturally or socially, that would limit women to the more ephemeral, sensitive subjects or men to hardware films.” The director said she wanted to “push the limits” of her subject, whether it be vampires or a police case.
Although Blue Steel had bigger names than her last two pictures—Jaime Lee Curtis was the lead—it was still unsuccessful at the box office.
Point Break (1991) was Bigelow’s most financially successful film, making over $100 million at the box office. It featured Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze as bank robbing surfers.
Bigelow’s 1995 picture Strange Days, starred Ralph Fiennes in a futuristic version of Los Angeles, and was written and produced by Bigelow’s ex-husband, director James Cameron. It was a commercial and critical flop, but much of the blame was placed on Cameron for its failure.
After nearly an eight year absence, Bigelow found her footing again and came back with a high tension film with political and philosophical weight, The Hurt Locker. Set during the Iraq War, it explores the work and lives of Army bomb squad technicians.
During an interview with The A.V. Club, Bigelow was asked about the seven year gap between pictures. “I became familiar with Mark Boal’s journalism….These things take time, is all I’m trying to say. I think what people don’t realize is how long these things can take in development. I’ve always developed all my own pieces, and they’re time consumers,” Bigelow said.
The Hurt Locker was based off Mark Boal’s reporting during his time on an embed with a bomb squad in Baghdad. The film, which featured unknown actors and had a documentary, ‘day in the life’ style, was nominated for many awards, including nine Academy Awards.
Bigelow, nominated for Best Director, was ironically up against her ex-husband James Cameron, for his work on his self-proclaimed labor of love, Avatar.
On March 7, 2010, Bigelow became the first female director to win an Academy Award. The Hurt Locker also won Best Picture and Boal was awarded for Best Screenplay.
Bigelow’s next release in 2002, K-19: The Widowmaker, starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, was yet another box office flop.
Although her stylistic choices as a director were admired, the typical Hollywood studio action movie was not doing Bigelow any favors.
Bigelow grew up in Northern California, where she studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. While there, she was accepted into the Whitney Museum’s independent study program. While in New York, Bigelow apprenticed with artists Vito Acconci, Richard Serra, and Lawrence Weiner.
She earned a master’s degree from Columbia University, studying film theory and criticism. Bigelow continued to work with avant garde and conceptual artists after earning her degree and in 1978, began work on a short film, The Set-Up.
In typical Bigelow style, The Set-Up, was a film commentating on the violence in film.The Set-Up portrays two men fighting, as voice overs deconstruct the violent images. Bigelow asked her actors to punch and hit each other during the film’s all-night shoot. Director Milos Forman, teaching at Columbia at the time, liked the short, and Bigelow used it as part of her application to Columbia’s MFA film program, where she studied screenwriting and directing.
Bigelow was not stymied by tepid box office reception for her early films or any possible reluctance by Hollywood to have a woman direct high-paced films, but she prefers to work outside of the studio system.
With Hurt Locker, Bigelow wanted to film in the Middle East and she knew this would garner her a lot of no’s in terms of securing financing from a studio. “I also wanted to retain complete creative control, I wanted final cut, and I wanted the opportunity to cast breakout, emerging talent,” Bigelow said.
The team of Bigelow and Boal seems to fit Bigelow’s desire to use film to comment on society. “If you hold up a mirror to society and you don’t like what you see, you can’t fault the mirror. The toughest decision was not wanting to shy away from anything, trying to keep the truth of the moment, of the social environment. It’s not that I condone violence. I don’t. It’s an indictment. I would say the film is cautionary, a wake-up call, and I think that is always valuable.” Bigelow said these words in regard to her movie Strange Days and the social and racial tensions in Los Angeles after the riots in the 1990s, but the same could easily apply to the contents of The Hurt Locker.
Even though Bigelow’s Hurt Locker success gave her the cache to do whatever film she wanted, she chose to team with Boal again for her next project. “Once you embark on a project that is both topical and relevant, I suppose it sets a new bar,” Bigelow said.
Bigelow claims she’s a delivery system for Mark [Boal]’s content and their latest idea was to make a movie about the failed capture of Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora in late 2001. But even after Hurt Locker‘s success, Bigelow and Boal couldn’t sell the pitch to a studio. Backed by an independent investor, producer Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures, Boal and Bigelow continued to work on the project, after shopping it around Hollywood.
On May 1, 2011, Bigelow and Boal watched as President Obama informed the nation of Bin Laden’s death at the hands of a Navy SEALS team in Pakistan. The news turned out to be both good and bad for the Tora Bora project. The day after the news, Sony’s Amy Pascal, remembering their pitch from months earlier, called up Bigelow and asked if she was still doing a movie about Bin Laden. Sony agreed to distribute the picture before even really knowing what the picture was.
But writing a movie about the failed capture of Bin Laden seemed silly after his killing. Not wanting to scrap the entire script, Bigelow and Boal talked about trying to frame both events in one movie, but ultimately decided to drop the Tora Bora incident altogether.
Boal still faced a mountain of a task to get through in order to even begin piecing together a new script. He researched the events almost contemporaneously, uncovering information on the SEALS’ mission and about how the CIA finally, after four years of almost no news, tracked down Bin Laden. Although there is some contention about whether the CIA allowed Boal and Bigelow access to classified files in order to research the movie, the script was only the beginning.
Bigelow seems to have a penchant for never taking the easy way. Like with Hurt Locker, Bigelow wanted to cast mostly unknown actors (Jessica Chastain was not an Oscar nominee when she was cast.) “If you are dealing with characters who are meant to be true to life, I want it to be an original experience for the audience. I don’t want them thinking about a past performance of the actor,” Bigelow said during an interview on Charlie Rose.
Again, shooting took place in the Middle East, in Jordan and India, and the forty minute action sequence that ends the movie was the biggest object of all. Bigelow described the process: how the actors playing the SEALS team had to learn how special forces operate and how she had to work with the crew to figure out the logistics of shooting. The raid took place on a moonless night and Bigelow wanted to recreate it as well as use the night vision lenses the real SEALS would have used. “And we built the compound [where Bin Laden was killed] from the ground up,” Bigelow added.
Just as putting the film together wasn’t a simple process, Zero Dark Thirty‘s plot is not simple to describe. Boal and Bigelow say it’s really three stories in one: 1) How the CIA found someone to lead them to Bin Laden, 2) How they made the decision to go in, and 3) How they actually killed Bin Laden.
The story revolves around Jessica Chastain’s character, Maya, a CIA operative who followed a lead—one of many—that eventually leads to bin Laden.
Many assume the fact the main character is female is a creative choice made by Bigelow and Boal, but in Boal’s research, he found a female CIA agent was the one who worked on this particular lead over a period of many years.
“It wouldn’t have mattered to me if the main character was a man or woman,” Bigelow said. “I want to tell the story.” In a recent New York magazine Vulture interview, Bigelow recounted a story about a screening of the film in New York. “This woman came out of the theater, and she was crying and shaking, and she came up to me and said, ‘It wasn’t a woman, though, was it?’ And I said, ‘No, it was!’”
Upon its release, there was criticism from politicians and critics alike saying the film supported the use of torture to gain intelligence information.
Both have tried to address the accusations, but Bigelow might have said it best in a recent acceptance speech after winning Best Director at the New York Film Critics Circle. “I thankfully want to say that I’m standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices,” Bigelow said. “No author could ever write about them, and no filmmaker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.”
On Thursday, January 10, when the Academy Award nominations were announced, Bigelow was not nominated for Best Director. Zero Dark Thirty garnered nominations for Chastain, Boal’s screenplay, and Best Picture.
Maybe the lack of a nomination for Bigelow this year will simply lead to another great comeback story when she makes her next picture.
When asked if the next film she’s going to make will be easier than filming in 130 degree heat or Jordanian prisons, Bigelow confesses she often promises herself the next film will be easier. “Oh, I say it all the time,” she said. “All the time. I just don’t mean it.”