Kathryn Bigelow’s movies hit your bloodstream fast. They shred your nerves and make your palms sweat. Think of the skydiving scene in Point Break, the brutal techno-rape in Strange Days, or the gut-clenching defusing of an Iraqi car bomb in this year’s The Hurt Locker. Bigelow’s films are visceral experiences. ”That’s when I get excited,” she says. ”I’m drawn to filmmaking that can transport me. Film can immerse you, put you there. It’s almost physiological.”
The director, 58, has been breaking barriers for almost 30 years, and she is now on the verge of shattering a ceiling. Only three women have ever been nominated for Best Director: Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion, and Sofia Coppola. No woman has ever won. The Hurt Locker — a captivating, R-rated depiction of a cocksure Army staff sergeant (Jeremy Renner) and his elite squad charged with disarming bombs on the bewildering streets of Baghdad — has been honored by critics’ groups, landed on countless top 10 lists, and grabbed major Golden Globe nominations. Not only is Bigelow considered a lock for an Oscar nod, she’s the front-runner. ”It’s deeply moving,” she says of all the accolades. ”If the rotation of the earth were to end now, I’d be fine.”
In person, Bigelow is a striking presence. ”I was shocked when I met her,” says Jamie Lee Curtis, who starred in the director’s 1989 thriller, Blue Steel. ”She’s this gothic beauty. There’s something drastically wrong when the director is more beautiful than the leading actress.” She laughs. ”You know, we only had one contretemps making that movie: She wanted me to carry a bigger gun.” Bigelow is tall, warm, and cerebral. Ask what keeps her interested in directing, for instance, and she replies, ”I’m interested in social commentary. What’s most galvanizing for me is the opportunity to be topical and relevant and entertaining. That’s the holy grail.”
The Oscar would be cool too. In a bizarre twist, one man who may prevent Bigelow from making history is her ex-husband, James Cameron, who’s likely to be nominated for Avatar. Still, bloggers craving a War of the Roses on Oscar night will have to look elsewhere for drama. Bigelow and Cameron divorced 17 years ago, and have since worked together (he co-wrote and produced Strange Days). ”I just talked to him yesterday,” says Bigelow over coffee in Beverly Hills. ”I’ve seen Avatar and I love it, love it, love it. I’m honored to be in any conversation that includes him. However it all unfolds, it’s all great.” In fact, when Bigelow was deciding whether to make Locker, she asked for Cameron’s advice. ”Kathryn has been an uncompromising visionary for a long time,” Cameron says. ”That there’s all this heat on her now as a filmmaker is fantastic. It’s way overdue. She could have been an action-movie filmmaker, but she has always sought out these singular stories that mean something to her. She has never played by the Hollywood rules, even when she could have.”
Indeed, Bigelow has refused to be boxed in as a ”woman filmmaker.” She has never made a romantic drama or romantic comedy — the domain of almost every major female director. ”There are men and women who make those films brilliantly, but I’m not one of them,” Bigelow says, laughing at herself. ”They’re great, but it’s not my inclination.” Instead she has tackled everything from horror (Near Dark) to international submarine thrillers (K-19: The Widowmaker) to murder mysteries (The Weight of Water). ”I don’t do what I do to try and break a glass ceiling,” she says. ”But if the work inspires other people — men or women — if they see that what they thought was impossible is not impossible, that’s thrilling.” The discussion of her gender has annoyed her at times, but she’s made peace with it. ”I get it,” she says. ”You long for the day when the topic is moot, but we’re not there yet.”
Whatever battles she may have had to wage to thrive in the film industry, Bigelow keeps the scars hidden. In interviews over the years, she has lobbed questions about the challenges of being a female director back over the net as easily as a badminton birdie. Privately, though, she has helped guide the next generation. ”I really, really love her,” says actress-director Sarah Polley (Away From Her), who starred in The Weight of Water. ”A huge problem with trying to become a female filmmaker is that you don’t have a lot of role models. Kathryn was so encouraging, trying to include me in the process, showing me what she was doing.” Bigelow also gave Polley a bit of advice. Some of it was practical — never go over budget — but some of it revealed the drive that lies beneath Bigelow’s vision and intelligence. ”I’ll never forget it,” Polley says. ”She said, ‘As a woman, you have to be like a dog with a bone. Everybody is going to try and take the bone away from you. You have to be a dog.”’ And make movies with teeth.