The striking imagery and offbeat sensibility Kathryn Bigelow exhibits in films such as “Point Break,” “Strange Days” and the cult classic “Near Dark” comes from a personalized visual sense she developed as an art student. Her new film, “The Hurt Locker,” a tense, evocative examination of an American bomb squad in Iraq, won grand prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival and is opening wider on Friday.
Bigelow talked with Eric Estrin about the confluence of art and film, discovering Willem Dafoe and her career’s watershed moment, courtesy of Walter Hill.
Film kind of found me, as opposed to me finding it. I was a painter studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, and I came to New York to the Whitney’s independent studies program, where I was introduced to conceptual art and political art. There, I connected with Lawrence Weiner, an extraordinary conceptual artist working in video and 16mm film at the time, as well as with Art & Language, another group of artists working not only with text but with film and video.
So film became an immersive and natural extension of what I was curious about in the art world.
I received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and made a short film called “The Setup,” and I finished it while I was going to graduate school in film at Columbia University. By that time, working with moving images and the dimension of time was really exciting to me.
Coming out of Columbia, I began to work with another filmmaker, Monty Montgomery, and we co-wrote a movie, “The Loveless.” That’s where I found Willem Dafoe. He was in a theater piece with the Wooster Group in the Performing Garage — I happened to see one of his performances and thought he would be right for the lead in “The Loveless,” which is a motorcycle movie that takes place in the ‘50s.
After that I was invited to the West Coast by another fellow colleague and artist, John Baldessari, who was then involved with CalArts. He invited me to be a visiting lecturer for one semester there and to design a course however I chose. So I did the course on “B” filmmakers of the ‘40s and ‘50s, because I was curious about them.
Each week I would show movies that I thought were extremely intriguing, and if the filmmaker was in the vicinity, I would ask him to speak with this class. It became a very, very popular class. I actually brought Edgar Ulmer’s wife and daughter to one of the classes, and we played his movie “Detour,” which I’m a big fan of.
What was great was the opportunity to spend time with these people and pick their brains about their experience. I was just drinking it up.
Concurrently, through a confluence of fate and will, Walter Hill saw “The Loveless” and cast Willem Dafoe in “Streets of Fire.” He also had a producing deal at Universal at the time and asked what I was interested in doing next — he would like to produce it. And suddenly I was thinking, Huh, this is an interesting opportunity that I should take advantage of.
There was a change of administration at the studio, which happens kind of frequently, and the script got lost in the shuffle. Nonetheless, the script was well received, and I got other offers as a result. That was a watershed moment in my career.
Soon thereafter I wrote a spec, “Near Dark.” I was interested in creating a hybrid genre, that of a Western and a horror movie, and I raised the money and shot that film.
And that introduced me to a wider part of the industry in a whole different way.