Hanging with bikers, vampires and surfing bank robbers, Kathryn Bigelow has made a name for herself chasing after adrenaline. After mixed reviews and a bad box office break for her Soviet submarine flick K-19: The Widowmaker, Bigelow developed one of writer Mark Boal‘s articles into a television series for Fox called The Inside, then chose to work with him to turn his experiences embedded in Baghdad-patrolling bomb squad into The Hurt Locker. The film — which she never took to studios, opting instead for independent financing and freedom — was a marvel, earning a massive amount of critical love and earning both the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director for Bigelow.
She’s a fierce talent who has weathered a decades-long career to emerge as an important modern storyteller who takes on difficult, true-life events and spins them into profound works.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a woman who likes to blow things up for a living.
Ignore the Glass Ceiling
“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.”
There’s no way to improve upon that statement.
Stand The Heat
“We started shooting [The Hurt Locker], just because of the nature of actors’ schedules, in July in 2007 in Amman, and Amman has a slight elevation. I had also scouted Kuwait, which at that time of year, is truly punishing. I think the day I was there, it was about 135 degrees. I couldn’t even imagine what 135 degrees could feel like. It sort of feels like you’re standing in front of an overheated car with the hood up, but you can’t get rid of the car; it’s just this blast of hot air, and it’s very punishing. That was Kuwait.
Anyway, we were in Jordan, and there was an average temperature of about 115 degrees, and the most challenging aspect was putting that bomb suit on Jeremy [Renner] every day. Jeremy is an extraordinarily talented actor, but you’re asking him in that kind of climate to put on a piece of wardrobe—it wasn’t just wardrobe, but an actual bomb suit—that weighed between 80 and 100 pounds. Every day. You know, spend all day in it. That was really punishing. I was very sensitive to his needs and his oxygen levels, and trying to keep him as comfortable as possible, there’s only so much that can be done. That was probably the most difficult physical, logistical aspect of the shoot.”
All of this was in service of getting as great a sense of authenticity as possible. Bigelow also mentions that going to a studio would result (amongst other things) with them probably wanting to shoot in Morocco if they could even see fit to leave the California desert. That might have been an option, but Bigelow wanted something better, especially in hiring Arabs to play Arabs. As a consequence, they had thermometer-busting heat to deal with, and through all that, her concern was for her lead actor.
That’s why this tip can also be called “No Complaining.” If Bigelow can risk dehydration, what’s stopping you from filming in your own backyard?
Prepare to Risk (and Keep) Your Job
Also, be on the lookout for your Director Making Moment – when doing what’s right for the film means potentially doing the impossible and definitely taking a leap of faith.
Don’t Hold Back
“If you hold a mirror up to society, and you don’t like what you see, you can’t fault the mirror. It’s a mirror. I think that on the eve of the millennium, a point in time only four years from now, the clock is ticking, the same social issues and racial tensions still exist, the environment still needs reexamination so you don’t forget it when the lights come up. Strange Days is provocative. Without revealing too much, I would say that it feels like we are driving toward a highly chaotic, explosive, volatile, Armageddon-like ending. Obviously, the riot footage came out of the L.A. riots. I mean, I was there. I experienced that.
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 that I think is always valuable.”
Bigelow has often, of course, also talked in the same terms about The Hurt Locker — finding the intensity of the real-life situation by shooting from Humvee-level and attempting to capture the danger in a grounded way even while working with a fictional framework. We’re also talking about the director who portrayed Osama Bin Laden’s death on screen. She trades in stark reality now, although she’s dealt with violence nearly all her career.
There’s More to Filmmaking Than Making the Film
“The research [for Zero Dark Thirty] took us more time than filming the whole movie. The facts and figures kept going back and forth. We had people who were hesitant to talk about what they did, although they were all proud of it.”
So here’s the bad part. Filmmaking isn’t all getting behind a camera, calling “Action!” and telling an intern to go grab one of those frosted donuts from craft service. Everyone knows that, but it’s also easy to fall into the trap of being story-ready with something that’s no close to being done. As much as it feels like school, research can be the greatest tool in ensuring a script is strong where it needs to be in order to let the character arcs and dialog shine through. In other words, getting the reality of your world wrong (and even invented worlds need a reality) can be a huge distraction when you’re trying to share characters and situations with an audience. Get that right at the script level, and you’ll have a solid foundation to build everything else on. Even if you’re not shooting a true-life story that’s still fresh in people’s minds, you’ll still want to avoid tripping yourself up on clarity and consistency.
Find the Story Behind the Big Story
What Have We Learned
Refusing to fold into easily into the studio system, taking on severe subject matter with grace and intelligence, and finding the humanity even amid larger-than-life scenarios. These are the actions of a filmmaker with tenacity and, if not fearlessness, the bravery to tackle the fear that naturally arises.
For those looking to tackle similar subjects, she’s an inspiration, but there are keen lessons here even for those who don’t care to narratively hunt down Osama Bin Laden. First among them: instead of stifling your passion, finding a way to make everything work despite the risk.
Second: invest in an air conditioner.