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Where the action is: Director Kathryn Bigelow goes deep with 'K-19: The Widowmaker'

It can't be easy being Kathryn Bigelow.

For many years now, she has been called Hollywood's only certifiable female action film director ("Blue Steel," "Strange Days") -- despite the recent entrance of Mimi Leder into the field with "Deep Impact" and "The Peacemaker." And yet if you ask her about it, she is clearly uneasy and evades discussion of both gender and genre and isn't happy to be characterized in any way.

She is, by far, the most successful director to ever emerge from the rarefied avant-garde of the art world (she was once an assistant to conceptual artist Vito Acconci).

In her former world, when people talk and write, it's evenly divided like so: Among the secure and clearheaded, you find cleverness and urbanity; among those desperate to impress you find obtuse, jargon-clotted B.S. and what's often derisively called "Artspeak." .

Ask about her past in the art world and you get quite a few answers worded in the latter, including a somewhat painfully foolish claim that a universally known ancient Chinese proverb was, in fact, originally said by linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

After some of her answers, all common sense seems to be flopping forlornly on the dock like a freshly caught flounder.

Among many in the art world -- but very few in the movie world -- the last things you expect are people expressing themselves clearly and simply.

She was also, at a point that long pre-dated his film "Titanic," married to director James Cameron. Ask about that and how the two filmmakers might have influenced one another and the frost rolls in from Greenland.

She suddenly remembers she's in a hurry.

And most writers who have ever interviewed her in person mention that she is a 6-foot-tall woman of altogether striking and unignorable beauty who couldn't enter a room inconspicuously if her life depended on it.

Only a fool, frankly, would ask about that on the phone.

So here she is on the phone ready to talk about her big new movie about a disabled Russian nuclear submarine with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, "K-19: The Widowmaker." It's a movie as striking as its creator and almost as lost and murky sometimes as the way she communicates.

Talking to her is like chatting with a queen exiled from a foreign land who constantly seeks to reassure everyone -- in heavily accented language -- how much she likes walking among the peasantry of her newfound land.

At the same time, she speaks, rather conspicuously, in "upspeak" -- that is, her voice at the end of most sentences goes up, as if she were asking a question like "do you have the scotch tape?"

Whatever Kathryn Bigelow might say, she is a singular figure.

A few words from a recent telephone conversation with her:

On her relative uniqueness as a successful Hollywood director from the world of avant-garde art.

I don't see it in terms of success or failure. I see it as one long learning bell curve.

You're on a particular point on that curve ... (My background) was amazingly useful. Because it's such a visual medium and finally, as in Wittgenstein's words, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Whether or not one agrees, it really is a provocative medium that tends to speak to the conscious and the unconscious. I come armed with a visual background. I wouldn't know what it would be like to be without that.

I had a tremendous advantage with respect to the blocking, the mise en scene, the ability to translate quickly and concisely.

I moved from painting to films in a way because of the disconnect. I was very interested in the fact that film could cross all class and cultural lines.

I suppose I was at the time -- this was at a time when the art world was predominantly dominated by conceptual art -- was maybe a bit too esoteric and required a body of information in order to appreciate some of the work.

What I thought was very interesting was how film is a magnificently populist medium. You could find yourself manipulating the spectacle and yet imbuing it with a consciousness at the same time. So that's really why I made the move."

On her relative uniqueness as a female action film director.

It's always hard to step outside yourself to look in, to take your position and be obligated to contextualize and historicize it. I don't really look at it like that. I don't think in that kind of vocabulary.

I'm motivated by character, I'm motivated by story. Obviously I'm drawn, for whatever reason, to incredibly visceral, strong content. Whether or not film making is gender-specific, I choose to think it isn't necessarily.

I think what one brings to it is life experience. Obviously, life experience is informed by gender, but I think that it's very, very important to not relegate it to a bifurcated look at the universe.

In the art world, you never discuss it in gender terms. You never say 'well, Eva Hess was an amazing woman sculptor' you just say she was an amazing sculptor. That's the world I come from.

My first exposure with people discussing one's work in terms of gender was film. I thought it was prosaic and provincial. I think it's an unusual analysis and handling.

On her sense of isolation.

Sadly, there isn't a sense of community (among filmmakers).

The only kind of shared experience I have talking about another director's process is really at Sundance when I'm a creative adviser and there are other directors and we kind of begin to share war stories. We find there are many shared experiences.

We have a lot in common with just about all the other filmmakers there. Otherwise it's a pretty solipsistic process. Certainly, when I'm a creative adviser at Sundance, I'm very, very accessible.
There's a lot of dialogue regarding how, why, what, where, when. Just the process. That's with both young men AND young women directors."

On the possibility of she and James Cameron influencing each other's films during their marriage.

In a way not unlike any two filmmakers influencing one another which is actually pretty limited because you really work off your own experience and the material is referencing what you found interesting in it.

I had dinner one night with Joan Didion. This was many years ago. I asked her about her process. She said 'I always start with a question for which I don't readily have the answer. By the end of the book I have the answer.' I think film making is, in some ways, a very similar process. It's personal to each and every filmmaker.

On getting "K-19: The Widowmaker" made:

In 1995, I heard about this particular (Russian) submarine and this group of men. I did quite a bit of research. I put it into development in 1996. And developed it over the course of the next several years. I went to Moscow quite a few times.

Met with the survivors (of the disabled sub). Met with the family members and those submariners that had been decorated.

I'd try to get as close to the mind-set as a Western individual could in order to put a face on an era shrouded in secrecy and perhaps relook at the Cold War.

And to look at ourselves, in the Cold War, through the eyes of what was, at the time, the enemy. And realize we're not quite as impervious to imperfections as we think.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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