The Oscars Issue: Kathryn Bigelow on ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

December 29th, 2012

Columbia Pictures

A scene from “Zero Dark Thirty.”


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 Ms. 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 Ms. Bigelow put it over a late-afternoon lunch recently. But it is hard 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 Ms. Bigelow’s work.

Does Ms. Bigelow agree? She was reluctant to contradict Mr. 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 — Ms. 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 that 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,” Ms. Bigelow said.

Keeping attention on the craftsmanship of “Zero Dark Thirty” has been difficult, in part because Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Boal, who won the original screenplay Oscar for “The Hurt Locker,” have succeeded — perhaps a bit too well — in renewing a conversation about America’s use of torture to fight terrorism. Their movie depicts Maya (Jessica Chastain) using “enhanced interrogation” techniques to extract information from Qaeda 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 Ms. Bigelow — who, based on the prizes she’s received so far for “Zero Dark Thirty,” may very well win a second directing Oscar at the Academy Awards on Feb. 24 — 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). No, on this chilly Los Angeles day, over her bowl of mushroom soup at a secluded restaurant near Mulholland Drive, Ms. Bigelow wanted to discuss her “Zero Dark Thirty” crew, people like the production designer Jeremy Hindle.

Mr. Hindle was in charge of meticulously reconstructing the Pakistan compound where Bin Laden was found. The multistory set, built in the Jordanian desert, allowed Ms. 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.”

Ms. 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 Mr. Ottosson described the cut-cut-cut as “a cross between a cat purring and a quiet lawn mower.”) Ms. 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 ?-hour picture. Oh, and Greig Fraser, her “tremendous” cinematographer, who pulled off shooting the raid sequence with night-vision technology after Ms. Bigelow decided that filming in the dark was the only way to capture that moment realistically.

At this point Mr. 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.”

Ms. Bigelow said quietly, “That’s true.”

It’s hard to imagine any other director of this stature (of any gender) being so self-effacing. These masters of the universe typically flick an obligatory mention or two toward senior crew members, but then it’s back to me, me, me. Ms. Bigelow, meanwhile, 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.

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