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Director Kathryn Bigelow was nominated for a Golden Globe for her film "Zero Dark Thirty."

John Shearer, Associated Press - John Shearer/invision/ap

Kathryn Bigelow: Her focus is on the film

  • Article by: BROOKS BARNES
  • New York Times
  • January 15, 2013 - 4:29 PM

LOS ANGELES - Maya, the unyielding Osama bin Laden hunter at the center of Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," is defined only by her work. What psychological forces from her past drive her? We never find out. Is she in a relationship? Tiptoe toward that conversation, as one character does, and get shut down.

If you know Bigelow, Maya sounds awfully familiar.

Pick and parse all you like, at a certain point a film is just a film: "You just try to tell a good story that captures a moment in time, and hopefully that stands the test of time," as Bigelow put it over a late-afternoon lunch recently. But it is difficult to watch "Zero Dark Thirty" and not see a reflection of the filmmaker, perhaps not exactly as she is but as she would like to be.

"For those fans who want a stand-in for Kathryn, she has finally provided one," said Rajendra Roy, chief film curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which last year hosted a retrospective of Bigelow's work.

Does Bigelow agree? She was reluctant to contradict Roy but noted that there have been plenty of strong female characters in her films (like Angela Bassett in the 1995 drama "Strange Days"), and that she wasn't drawn to "Zero Dark Thirty" because of Maya.

"I just followed Mark's brilliant screenplay," she said, referring to Mark Boal.

As a female director who specializes in male-focused action movies -- and who, with "The Hurt Locker," became the first woman to win an Oscar for directing -- Bigelow, 61, is often defined first by her gender and second by what she puts on screen. It drives her crazy, she said, but she knows there isn't much she can do about it except steer attention back to her movies. Inch toward her private life by, say, asking about the time she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and her demeanor instantly cools. Shut down.

"One does long for the day when it's only about the work," Bigelow said.

Keeping attention on the craftsmanship of "Zero Dark Thirty," which got an Oscar nomination last week for best picture though not for Bigelow's direction, has been difficult in part because Bigelow and Boal have succeeded -- perhaps a bit too well -- in renewing a conversation about the United States' use of torture to fight terrorism.

Their movie depicts Maya (Jessica Chastain) using "enhanced interrogation" techniques to extract information from Al-Qaida detainees. The brutal scenes are presented with no obvious political tilt, creating a cinematic Rorschach test in which different viewers see what they want to see. The result has been a surge of debate and complaints about the movie's message.

But Bigelow was not particularly keen to discuss torture over lunch, she said, partly because she wants her work to speak for itself and partly because she is aware that any public comments could just add fuel to the fire (and partly because she was eating lunch).

On this chilly Los Angeles day, at a secluded restaurant near Mulholland Drive, Bigelow wanted to discuss her "Zero Dark Thirty" crew, people such as production designer Jeremy Hindle.

Hindle was in charge of meticulously reconstructing the Pakistan compound where Bin Laden was found. The multistory set, built in the Jordanian desert, allowed Bigelow to film her Navy SEALs searching the house in a few continuous takes -- "moving in like water," as she described it. "We wanted the rooms to be their actual size," she said. "Tight, narrow, airless spaces that would inform the performances."

Bigelow also singled out Paul Ottosson, a sound editor who created what she called the "stealth sound" that accompanies the helicopters used in the raid. (In an interview, Ottosson described the cut-cut-cut as "a cross between a cat purring and a quiet lawn mower.") Bigelow said: "Paul actually hired a sound artist in Pakistan to record the noise of the marketplace in the actual town where the scene was meant to take place. I mean, who does that?"

And don't forget Billy Goldenberg, she continued, because he was the one who helped edit 1.8 million feet of film, or about 370 hours of movie, down into a 2 1/2-hour picture. And Greig Fraser, her "tremendous" cinematographer, who pulled off shooting the raid sequence with night-vision technology after Bigelow decided that filming in the dark was the only way to capture that moment realistically.

At this point Boal, who had joined the lunch, interrupted.

"Kathryn, can you give yourself a little credit?" he said. "It was really risky -- there was no precedent for that kind of technique -- and you and Greig embarked on that risk together."

Bigelow said quietly, "That's true."

It's difficult to imagine any other director of this stature (of any gender) being so self-effacing. Bigelow rarely speaks in the first person and is startling in her graciousness, trying to pick up the check and apologizing for making a reporter drive up into the Hollywood Hills for lunch with her.

"She is one of the most generous directors I have ever seen," said Amy Pascal, co-chairwoman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which is distributing "Zero Dark Thirty." (The Oracle heiress Megan Ellison provided $45 million in financing.) "Everyone who works with her absolutely loves her," added Pascal, who visited the movie's set. That kind of talk from studio chiefs typically rolls eyes. With Bigelow it actually seems to be true.

Bigelow wasn't intending to follow "The Hurt Locker" with another picture about the military. She first turned to "Triple Frontier," a Paramount-backed thriller about drug-related crime in South America. When the studio cooled on the project, Bigelow and Boal started working on a movie about the unsuccessful hunt for Bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan.

After Bin Laden was killed, the pair immediately switched to a different narrative, with Boal, who also has been a freelance journalist, digging into how Bin Laden was finally tracked down. "I was interested in putting the audience into the shoes of the men and women in the thick of this hunt -- giving people a glimpse at the dedication and courage and sacrifice they made," Bigelow said.

Roy, the MoMA curator, said he was struck by how neatly "Zero Dark Thirty" fits into Bigelow's oeuvre.

"The through-line of her work is not violence, as some people suggest, but rigor," he said. "Over and over you see people, often young people, rigorously pursuing a goal."

Bigelow also likes to mix genres, and "Zero Dark Thirty," which could be described as part narrative feature and part documentary, is no exception, Roy noted. "Strange Days" (which was produced by her ex-husband, James Cameron) is a police drama with a science fiction twist, "Point Break" combines a surfer movie (all those wave-riding montages) with a heist thriller, and "Near Dark" from 1987 is at once a vampire horror film and a western. "She always creates a conversation, which is what great cinema does," Roy said.

Ask Bigelow about all of this, and she grows uncomfortable, and turns to what seems to be a favorite way of deflection attention: "Anyway, ... " she said, changing the subject.

Bigelow, who started out as a painter and pursued film after being influenced by such directors as Sam Peckinpah, came alive when chatting about cinematic techniques.

For instance she had this to say about the foot chase sequence from "Point Break," one of her more popular movies but not one especially recognized for its artistry: "We used subjective camera -- point of view -- and to accomplish it we used a Pogo Cam, sort of a camera mounted on a stick, with a little bit of gyrostabilizing. What excited me about that is how absolutely alive it made the frame."

Noticing that everyone at the table was transfixed, Bigelow became quiet again. "Well," she said, "anyway."

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