Fall 2017

Passion Player

Kathryn Bigelow's socially relevant cinema invites a more active engagement with the viewer


Director Kathryn Bigelow. (Photographed by Kevin Scanlon)

The gut-punching impact that often characterizes Kathryn Bigelow's films happens by design. For her, audience engagement must be active, if not all-encompassing. She rarely wastes time easing the viewer in: There's the police raid that opens Detroit and triggers a riot; the land-mine defusing gone awry that introduces the audience to The Hurt Locker and keeps viewers on the edge of their seats; and the failed Code Red exercise that establishes the conflict between a demoted submarine commander and his successor in K-19: The Widowmaker.

It's no coincidence that these films are based on fact. For Bigelow, the lessons of the past, no matter how distant, are best thrown into relief when history appears to be unfolding before our eyes, and the parallels to current events are unmistakable.

In Bigelow's movie world, fortitude is tested to the limits, beliefs are shaken to the core, tension is palpable, the action hair-raising. And there's no room for complacency: witness Jessica Chastain's CIA analyst in Zero Dark Thirty, whose pursuit of Osama bin Laden is so obsessive that it puts her at odds with everyone around her; or Keanu Reeves' FBI agent in Point Break, who's so recklessly gung-ho that he's willing to stare death in the face to get his man.

If the topicality—and attendant controversy—of Bigelow's recent output has been pushed to the fore, her earlier work is pure entertainment marked by a tendency to mix and subvert established genres. Near Dark incorporates Western tropes into the vampire thriller; Strange Days is equal parts apocalyptic cautionary tale and doomed love story; and The Weight of Water juxtaposes the failed dreams and petty resentments of a modern marriage with a Victorian murder mystery fueled by jealousy and forbidden impulses. In all three, fear and desire, and sex and violence, are inextricably linked.

In the process, Bigelow has been a magnet for actors, providing springboards for the likes of Willem Dafoe (The Loveless), Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) and Algee Smith and Will Poulter (Detroit). Even leading players are willing to tackle the briefest supporting parts in her movies (Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes in Hurt Locker; Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt and James Gandolfini, among many others, in Zero Dark Thirty).

The DGA-and Oscar-winning director recently sat down with DGA Quarterly on a sweltering day in Los Angeles.

(Top) The feature Detroit depicts the riots that erupted in that city in 1967. (Bottom) Bigelow worked with actor Will Poulter on the movie, which filmed primarily in Boston, where tax incentives were advantageous. (Photos: Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Distribution)

Q: First of all, how did the DGA membership screenings of Detroit go, and how did they differ from, say, the media screenings?

A: Both the DGA [screenings in Los Angeles] with Paris [Barclay] and [in New York] with Paul Schrader covered a range of material that seemed insightful and relevant. It was spirited conversation. It was more conversational than question-and-answer.

It is always more interesting to me when we are covering newer territory, and they both brought their personal insights to the table.

The difference [from a media event] is the sense of community. Speaking as a director, we work in such a hermetically sealed space for months and months, if not a few years. Then to reveal what you have been working on for an extended period of time in front of a community of your peers, it feels comfortable and supportive.

I look forward every year to the DGA's Feature Directors Night for that reason. Again, directing is a somewhat solipsistic process. I always feel like I am trespassing when I visit another director's set even though I am fascinated by it.

Q: The word a lot of people use for your movies is "visceral." It is the reason why many people go to the movies, to be moved, to come out of the experience with deep feeling.

A: You are basically describing an active relationship between the viewer and the screen as opposed to a passive one. I was interested in [Detroit's] socially relevant content, and that immersion can create empathy—not sympathy, empathy. And through empathy you potentially are engaged enough to look at this content in a brand-new way that may facilitate engagement. An immersive style of filmmaking can create a more active relationship with the content. But I have been interested in a kind of more visceral cinema pretty much from the beginning.

Speaking of active engagement, if you look at The Hurt Locker and Detroit, I think they have that in common. They are stories that unfold in a fairly immediate way in front of you, around you, in spite of you, with you. And yet, Zero Dark was a linear march through time toward an irrevocable conclusion. So, [a] very different concept, but the other two films feel more immersive. In The Hurt Locker, you find yourself walking up to a pair of wires sticking out of the dirt. Is it an improvised explosive device or not? You will only know when you're down there and you pull the dirt away and you have about two and a half minutes to make your decision before your coordinates are called in to a nearby sniper. So the content necessitated an immediacy, and I felt that the visual language needed to complement that content.

And so I felt that it was a natural evolution, that I was drawn to material which was more kinetic than not. I invite you and encourage you to lean in. Perhaps an example of this might be the foot chase in Point Break.

Q: There is a lot of hand-held work in your movies, especially the last three. When you have that much camera movement, does that mean you are not blocking scenes, not doing storyboards? Are you staying away from anything that is too much of a blueprint going in?

A: I used to storyboard a lot. For instance, Near Dark was boarded beginning to end. I was still at that point figuring out the language of film and trying to personalize it to the extent I felt comfortable. As my confidence level increased, I began to let go of the boards insofar as I could see the scenes on the page and they began to unfold in my mind's eye.

I do a rough blocking with the actors, and in the case of [DP] Barry Ackroyd, he would not want to witness that rough blocking, not unlike a wildlife photographer, where you don't know where the animal is going to appear and disappear. Then every take, he would change up the position of the cameras, both on The Hurt Locker and on Detroit. In the case of The Hurt Locker, we used four cameras, and on Detroit, three cameras. Sometimes we would work with limited focus marks to create a sense of spontaneity and surprise.

[Actor] John Boyega mentioned the experience on the set of Detroit was like being in a theater on a stage because there is nothing there but you and the story unfolding; the crew had disappeared. Barry would light whole areas, for example, the entire hallway and all the rooms adjacent to it, so you can keep going with the story. When the crew is no longer part of the mechanics of performance, it can be a very freeing way for the actor to work.

Q: Was there any tripod work?

A: None.

Q: What about in Zero Dark or Hurt Locker?

A: On Zero Dark Thirty, [DP] Greig Fraser used a tripod but with a camera balanced on a sandbag. So there was still some movement in the lens. And in The Hurt Locker, everything was hand-held. The only shots that were not hand-held were the locked-off shots done with the Phantom [camera]. Specifically, the extreme close-ups of the shockwave or overpressure effect prior to a detonation.

Q: You mean when the ground is lifting up from a bomb blast?

A: Exactly. It happens before the particulate matter is expended. It is extremely lethal: Overpressure causes all the air spaces in your body to collapse.

Q: You told Variety and I quote: "I am compelled to make emotionally, socially and politically challenging pieces. That is what intrigues me." Is there a part of you that is as much a journalist as an artist?

A: I think the medium has a really profound reach, and so what is interesting to me is material that is potentially meaningful and potentially relevant. And in the case of those three films [Hurt Locker, Zero Dark and Detroit], they were somewhat timely. I mean, Iraq was certainly somewhat under-reported or thought of as being under-reported. And so the opportunity to unpack that engagement, which was a contested engagement, had some relevance. It was a particular engagement unlike any that this country had ever experienced before. There weren't ground troops in a conventional sense; this was an insurgency that used improvised explosive devices. It can be as simple as a garage opener, a good example of asymmetrical warfare. We have up-armored Humvees and have a difficult time defeating a $15 garage opener.

The insurgency is willing to die. The opposing side is not. That is really disruptive in terms of how the calculus will play out.


"Once I feel [a movie] is important enough to make, then it is your passion, your drive and your determination that take it to the next level."


Q: In today's Hollywood, how difficult is it for a filmmaker of your stature to get a project off the ground and in production?

A: I wish I made more films. I could probably then answer that because there would be more opportunities to test that theory.

Q: I'm talking about a project that you want to make your way that is uncompromised.

A: Each project comes with its own set of challenges. I mean, Hurt Locker, for instance, my agent at the time may have said something like "I have sent this to more production companies than I have any other project I have ever been involved with. Iraq is just not going to sell." And finally there was one person who stepped up to the plate. There are so many variables. There is the variable of the story itself, there is the political climate, the appetite for it in the marketplace... the financing, the budget. But in order to pursue the realization of a story, a script, an idea, I need to feel really strongly about it. That is—not whether or not it can be realized, it is whether or not it is worth making. That's really the threshold. And once I feel it is important enough to make, then it is your passion, your drive and your determination that take it to the next level.

Q: Since your last three films were written by Mark Boal, how do you work together to decide what to make? What was the kernel of Detroit?

A: The story of the Algiers Motel was a story that his office had uncovered, and he pitched it to me. Ironically, this happened around the time of the decision not to indict the officer in the Michael Brown shooting. There was a lot of attention paid to police brutality and racial injustice. We both felt this was an important conversation; then, with the help of Annapurna Pictures, we began development of the screenplay.

Q: Was there ever a timetable that you needed to meet because of the 50th anniversary of that conflict this past summer?

A: Yes, the 50th anniversary came up in the conversation and it turned out that it was possible to meet that timeline. But the critical element was the story, and ensuring the content remained faithful to the research. So we met with the three primary survivors. Their rendition of the events, along with court records and testimonies, provided the spine of the story.

We wanted to shoot in Detroit but unfortunately they had—sadly, inexplicably—disbanded their incentives program a year prior. So we shot in Boston, but with several days on location in Detroit at the end.

Q: Why was that?

A: Massachusetts has a robust incentives program, 25% rebate on above and below the line, which is significant. So there was a fiscal imperative to shoot there.

Q: And did you finally find places in Boston that really could have been interchangeable with sections of Detroit?

A: I think with some help from our production designer, Jeremy Hindle, who was also the designer on Zero Dark, a phenomenal talent, through his eyes, yes. But what also helped was having first located the film in Detroit, we knew exactly what we wanted it to look like, so we were replicating those locations. Plus, being very sensitive to how the frame was handled in scope and location choice, it turned out to be an effective representation of Detroit.

Q: Did you get cooperation from the police force there or the military?

A: We had this wonderful tech adviser who was a policeman, now retired, but he had joined the force in 1968 and was very familiar with the rebellion of 1967. He was on the set every day, as was Julie [Hysell], who was one of the characters, or rather one of the victims, played by Hannah Murray. But between Bob O'Toole, who was the retired police officer, and Julie, who was on the set with me, they contributed to the authenticity of the telling of the story. Along with the help of [security guard and witness] Melvin Dismukes, who I met with and so did John Boyega [who plays him], and [singer] Larry Cleveland Reed, who was actually in one scene in the film, but he is a little bit more fragile so he could not be there every day.

Q: You don't seem to flinch from hot-button issues in your movies, whether it is American involvement in conflicts in the Middle East or police brutality or racial profiling. There is an execution-style killing of a black rapper in Strange Days that almost foretells what will happen in Detroit. Does your agent ever tell you, "Kathryn, can't you just kind of cool it on the next project?"

A: There is a responsibility in filmmaking because it has the capacity to reach a wide audience, that the messaging— either latently or explicitly—is what is critical. In Detroit, my hope was that people can learn from each other and, most importantly, people can change. That is what motivated me.

I am [also] interested in nonpredictive storytelling—when you take predictive variables away, meaning cinematic tropes, certain casting or backstory. So with Detroit, which I felt was fascinating about how Mark structured and handled the screenplay, there were a lot of characters plus a lot of story coming at you quite quickly and you are not sure who you are meant to identify with or empathize with. But that's not unlike life: It is very unpredictable. You don't know whether this person is going to live or die, so there is an innate tension. I find that creates a sense of reality, but it's also accurate.

(Top) Kathryn Bigelow films in Jordan, where temperatures reached north of 110 degrees, for The Hurt Locker, which earned her the DGA and Academy awards for directing—a first for a woman in both instances. (Bottom) Bigelow returned to the Middle East to direct her follow-up film, Zero Dark Thirty, which chronicled the hunt for Osama bin Laden. (Photos: (Top) Summit Entertainment; (Bottom) Photofest)

Q: How were you able to maintain the intensity level of the interrogation scene at the Algiers Motel in Detroit? Was there a safe word or signal for the actors when things got too rough?

A: We, of course, stayed very sensitive to the emotional state of the cast. The scenes went on no longer than required. And I was quick to move on if I felt the actors were approaching their limit. The cast and crew maintained an extremely close camaraderie in part to foster a feeling of safety on set.

Q: There are a lot of logistical challenges in each of your movies, whether it is filming on water, in cramped quarters, staging war zones in American cities or filming in these very extreme climates of the Middle East. Has there ever been a logistical challenge that you backed down from or you just thought, 'This is too much, I can't do it within the budget that I have'?

A: Well, there's always a fiscal parameter, and that's important to take extremely seriously. I've always found a way … like the parachuting sequence in Point Break—people were saying, 'Oh, there's no way to do this.' And we figured out to strap [the actors] on these cranes, standing 60, 70, 80 feet off the ground, and be subjected to air movers blowing a significant poundage of air at them to replicate approximately 120 miles per hour. That is the speed of free-fall descent.

Hurt Locker was challenging predominantly because of the heat and those EOD [Explosive Ordinance Disposal] suits are filled with ceramic plates. And Jeremy [Renner] is wearing something that weighs close to 100 pounds in well over 110-degree weather. I wanted so badly to put a double in that suit, for the distant shots of his walking. But I'm sure for every filmmaker, it's in the details. And Jeremy, gratefully, realized that it had to be him. But that was one of the greatest challenges, to make sure that he was comfortable and drinking a lot of water to bring his core body temperature down.

If you think a challenge through rationally, clearly, patiently, not impulsively, you will find a solution. For example, you can find a way to shoot night-vision footage in the Middle East [as in Zero Dark Thirty]. And that was challenging because if you're wearing night-vision goggles, you can't have real light on the set, it'll hurt your eyes. Sort of like staring into the eclipse, because light is so profoundly magnified. However, the set can have virtually no light whatsoever. The terrain is very rocky, an undulating surface that you're traversing with a lot of equipment. So that was challenging, making sure that nobody was hurt.

Q: So the compound where bin Laden is killed, where was that constructed?

A: Just adjacent to the Dead Sea in Jordan. And this village had this valley that was virtually identical to the topography of that area in Pakistan. Jeremy [Hindle] basically built the compound from the ground up. That began when I first started shooting. And so every weekend, I would go visit him. And it was astonishing. Just seeing it appear, everything, down to the tile and the size of the hallways. He even planted the field opposite. It was an extraordinary feat of art department prowess.

Q: The detail of your films is uncanny, whether it's Keanu Reeves' football helmet alarm clock in Point Break or the scene in Zero Dark Thirty just before the CIA analyst played by Jennifer Ehle gets killed—the car with the explosives is entering the military compound and you see a black cat cross the road.

A: That really happened. There are cats all over Jordan, and this was a real military base that today is probably housing Syrian refugees but at the time of shooting was virtually empty. And when we were shooting a car coming down the alley, and this cat crosses, and it's a black cat… those are the kind of moments where you think, 'I guess it was meant to be.'

Q: Let's talk about your formative years as an art student.

A: I went to the San Francisco Art Institute to study abstract expressionist painting [with a] phenomenal teacher, Sam Tchakalian, who was a great painter. He had photographed my paintings and submitted them to the Whitney Independent Study program, [for] which (at the time) they take 15 students across the country, they give you a studio in New York and a group show at the end of the year. Two of my creative advisers were Susan Sontag and Brice Marden.

Q: So you were among the first wave of students in the program…

A: Not the first, but maybe the second or third year? I had this studio, which they had given me. It was a bank vault in the basement of an off-track betting building downtown in the Reed & Chambers area. And all the students had bank vaults. I was there until I graduated.

And then I did a post-graduate course in art history, I think rococo and baroque. [I thought], "I'll teach art history." That made sense to me.

And then I discovered film. Once in New York, I had moved away from the canvas. The New York art world was a very politically charged environment at the time. You're talking about early- to mid-'70s. I began working with the artist Lawrence Weiner, as well as the group Art & Language—all conceptual artists. So it was becoming less [about] the paint on a surface or a two-dimensional, non-narrative form, and more about the purpose of the art piece itself. How do you justify this piece of art within the context of the piece itself? Or why make art at all?

Q: How did the New York art scene inform your work as a feature filmmaker?

A: I think I'm still working through that today. It was very political, and when I say "political," I mean relevant. In other words, what's the relevance of a particular piece of work? It's not only decorative, or maybe not decorative at all or even visually pleasing. I mean, you look at Joseph Beuys and his rooms filled with felt. So it was a heady, challenging time, and conceptual art, in and of itself, challenges the commodification of art.


"An immersive style of filmmaking can create a more active relationship with the content."


Q: So you were abstract expressionist as a painter but you could also teach the integrity of rococo masters like Fragonard or Watteau.

A: Well, I was being uncharacteristically practical. When you're in your 20s, your life is kind of circumscribed by all the various means you have of securing your next meal and a roof over your head. So of all the different odd jobs I had, one was to help Vito Acconci with some filmic pieces behind a performance installation he did at the Kitchen. And I remember him asking me, "Well, can you film these slogans in 16mm using my Bolex? They will be projected on the wall behind me as I perform." And I'm like, "Yes, of course." I have no idea how to use a Bolex. So I figured out how to use the camera, and I shot the material and put it up on the wall. And that was the beginning of something.

Of all the various means by which you try to stay alive in your early 20s, one was to fill out grant forms. And lo and behold, I got an NEA grant to shoot a short film. And that became The Set-Up (about why cinematic violence is so seductive). I shot it but ran out of money for editorial. And so, I thought, graduate school. I showed the footage to Miloš Forman, who was head of Columbia, and I was then on my way to a graduate degree in, ironically, the scholarship criticism track as opposed to the production track, because I was more intrigued by the analytical side of film.

Q: Because of your studies, do you find that what critics say about your work is informative? Or do you divorce yourself from their opinions?

A: I certainly take what they say to heart. But at the same time, just like back in the days as a painter, I am drawn to material out of instinct. It's a fairly primal response to a story or emotion or a way of looking at the world. It's not analytical.

Q: Your first film, The Loveless, was pure genre material—a biker movie.

A: Pure genre. Kenneth Anger was my inspiration.

Q: I was thinking The Wild One…

A: The Wild One yes. For sure. But look at Scorpio Rising, as well, which is a study of the iconography of power. But that's a very arcane way to look at that movie, because it doesn't come across, of course, that intellectually. I mean, you could analyze it that way, perhaps. The French might have. But coming out of Columbia, I was very involved with semiotics, French structuralism. I actually taught a class, with a friend of mine, Michael Oblowitz, on Deconstructed Cinema, which was an attempt to apply Lacanian theory to film.

Q: What theory?

A: Jacques Lacan. He was a French philosopher or structuralist who was very influential at the time. And I was moving back-and-forth between film and the philosophy department at Columbia. And I had a teacher named Sylvère Lotringer who was also one of the voiceovers on The Set-Up and one of the analyzers looking at the material and trying to unpack how a viewer responds in a particular way to the data that you're viewing. And I was also one of the editors of a magazine that he was publishing at Columbia, titled, Semiotext(e). And then out of that discourse came The Loveless.

Q: What types of movies were you drawn to when growing up? And when did you first become aware of what the director was doing?

A: Probably when I started directing. Growing up I was all art, all the time.

Q: So you weren't an avid movie watcher.

A: No, if I watched a film, it would have subtitles; I have always loved foreign films. But no, growing up, it was art. And I think I started painting at 6 or something. I'd take the train with my parents to San Francisco to go to museums.

(Top) Near Dark; (Middle) Point Break; (Bottom) Strange Days. (Photos: (Top) De Laurentiis Entertainment Group; (Middle & Bottom) Photofest)

Q: Tell me about your second feature, Near Dark.

A: Near Dark was a breakthrough for me. That film gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. First of all, I had a phenomenal cast. And I think I realized for the first time that I could do this, make films. This was a language that fascinated me, compelled me. I was interested in making a Western. And I knew that that was going to be difficult. And so I set about making it as a hybrid, a kind of horror/Western.

Q: With vampires.

A: Exactly. And so that strategy worked. It's not really a Western, but it is a Western.

Q: Blue Steel seemed to introduce some elements that we would see in your subsequent work: cops and criminals and the fine line between playing by the rules and exacting justice. What is it about that tension that you're so fascinated by?

A: What was interesting to me was kind of a heretical, irreverent look at a particular moment in time. You have this woman who's a police officer. And believe it or not, that was very difficult to get made because the police officer was a woman. I was asked to make her a man, and then we could get financing. I said no, the whole point of making this was that she was a woman. It seems so strange today to think of that as being an obstacle, but it was a big obstacle.

Q: Now in Point Break, there's a scene where the Lori Petty character says, "There's too much testosterone here." And then she talks about Keanu Reeves's "kamikaze look." What is it about these characters who feel most alive when they're in the most dangerous situations imaginable?

A: That's been a thematic thread that kept appearing for sure. And exactly as you describe it. In other words, you reaffirm your humanness by threatening it.

Q: There's very much of the bromance going on in that movie. There's this movie tradition where cops go undercover and get too close to their marks and develop a kind of mutual respect.

A: Right.

Q: So the maleness of that movie is very pronounced.

A: I'd have to probably be better adept at psychoanalyzing them and my intentions. I mean, my affinity for [Sam] Peckinpah is certainly no secret or surprise. But also my affinity for [Robert] Bresson. I feel like my influences oscillate from one to another.

Q: There's not a more still filmmaker than Bresson.

A: But the content is anything but still. Like Mouchette, ah, it's just magnificent, it's pure poetry.


"If you think a challenge through rationally, clearly, patiently, not impulsively, you will find a solution."


Q: Do you have a philosophy on why Point Break has such a rabid cult following?

A: I don't. But I'm asked about it constantly. I appreciate it because at the time, again, you're working in this hermetically sealed world. You don't know what you made. And Keanu [Reeves] was a relative unknown. Not Patrick [Swayze] though, but I think it was a good fit.

Q: You talked about the foot chase earlier, after the pivotal bank robbery.

A: We used something called a PogoCam then, which you would never do today; I mean, it was so primitive. But it was an iMo, which is a very small camera, with a wire on top to demarcate the frame. You don't look through the eyepiece because you're moving flat out, your arm is extended and you're trying to keep the subject within that wire frame.

Q: Is the camera operator running?

A: Running full out. Everybody's running full out. It was kinetic, it was immersive. I went to a screening and I noticed people's legs were moving. Unconsciously. And it's interesting because that's what Susan Sontag used to speak about. She would reference film and painting at the same time, about the process of identification. Why you identify with a particular character and what that process is. And it's an unconscious process. Not unlike a dream state.

Q: Do you think it also might have to do a little bit with the physical magnetism of the actors?

A: I think that's all part of the casting process. There's a magnetism. I'm drawn to these people. I tend to trust my instincts about that. They're profoundly talented, each and every one. And yet unique. I mean, they're not—they're not always necessarily conventionally beautiful, yet they're exquisite looking. And I enjoy looking at them in the cutting room for months on end. And I never tire of experiencing them.

But I think a lot of that has to do with what comes from inside too. Not only are they anatomically exquisite, but there's an intelligence and a surprise and a tension. And an imagination that they bring to the set, to the scene, that is inspiring to me.

I do tend to do a lot of improv when I'm casting. I'll give a group of actors a situation and ask them to work off it. And that reveals a lot about their confidence; if they own it, there's just nothing better than that moment.

Q: When you cast your films—in terms of your direct involvement—are you primarily concerned with the main actors or are you going down the line to the nonspeaking parts?

A: Everybody. Because you could have this phenomenal lead, and then they'll interact with a bit player that can't necessarily operate at that person's level or confidence. And it's not that they're better or worse, it's just that their facility isn't as acute. And it's almost as critical, if not more critical, to surround your leads with really talented actors who they can interact with so they can be challenged. Just like I like to be challenged. I think we all are at our best when we're challenged.

Q: Strange Days seemed ahead of its time in terms of this technology that the Ralph Fiennes character is peddling, these kind of sensorial, experiential films. They very much put you in mind of virtual reality. And because your films are so visceral, is that where cinema is going for you?

A: I did shoot a VR piece. I've done two docs looking at the ivory trade, one from the demand side, and the other from the supply side; one which was animated, and one shot in VR. The animated one is called Last Days. You can see that online. The VR one is called The Protectors, made with the help of [VR production company] Here Be Dragons. [It] is about the rangers at Garamba National Park in the DRC. And if you know anything about the DRC, it's arguably the most dangerous place in the world right now. In The Protectors, I wanted to put you into the shoes of a park ranger whose sole job is to protect elephants from poachers. The main purpose, in addition to raising awareness, was to raise funds for equipment for these noble men.

VR is an effective empathy builder. And I would let content dictate the technology and not the technology dictate the content. I think that's a very important calculus to maintain.

Q: Do you foresee a time when feature films will be shot in VR? And what is holding us back from that?

A: Well, the dissemination of it is not like film. It's not shared. On the other hand, I did a showing of The Protectors, which was the largest simulcast that had been done thus far, approximately 520 people, all wearing their headsets. It makes for a very astonishing visual in the room, but it's a technology that is phenomenal when it's utilized in its most productive way. And that is to not just to dazzle but to build empathy, in my opinion. And the reason you build empathy here is to help a cause, which is really critical. Because if elephants become extinct, what's at stake is our humanity.

(Top) Blue Steel; (Bottom) K-19: The Widowmaker. (Photos: (Top) Everett; (Bottom) DGA Archives)

Q: How do you stand on fact versus fiction and the use of creative license?

A: Well, I think you have to bear in mind that Detroit is not a documentary; it's a movie, a movie that is extremely well researched. There's very little in the film that required filling gaps or discrepancies.

Q: It was reported that you filmed Detroit in chronological order. Is that something you've done in other films as well?

A: Yes, I shot Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty chronologically. But you do it within sequences—imagine the motel itself [in Detroit] as a sequence. Within that sequence, it was shot in chronological order. But the sequences are not necessarily done in chronological order because it depends on the locations. For example, I wanted to film the rebellion, which was at the beginning of Detroit in Detroit, but we had to shoot that at the end, because we were leaving Boston at that point.

Q: I have to say the combination of newsreel footage and newly filmed footage was absolutely seamless.

A: That's Barry [Ackroyd]. We discovered the documentary footage when we were doing our research. And then Barry found these vintage lenses that adapted to the Alexa Mini that gave the patina of being archival—it actually gave the image grain.

And so that melded beautifully, or rather pretty seamlessly, with the documentary footage.

Q: Speaking of grain, where do you fall in the whole film versus digital argument?

A: Well, it's like using VR. It really depends on what the content dictates. For instance, we had a lot of night in this, so digital enables you to shoot at night more easily.

Q: At what point in your filmmaking did you start going digital and not look back?

A: Zero Dark Thirty. Hurt Locker was Super 16mm. And I thought of shooting Detroit on Super 16mm because of it being a period piece. But then when I realized we could get the 16mm lenses for the digital cameras, we had the advantage of going digital, working at low light levels, and then the advantage of a vintage patina with the 16mm lenses. So it was kind of a perfect intersection.

Q: How has the DGA allowed you, or facilitated, your ability to make a living as a filmmaker?

A: I think being a support structure. Again, creating a sense of community. And commonality. And that provides a degree of confidence. And through confidence you have a better chance of accomplishing what you set out to do. And again, with that sense of community, sharing production challenges, sharing financing challenges. That's so much more important than you realize. It's an extremely necessary component to feel that there's a community supporting you.

DGA Interviews

Prominent directors reflecting on their body of
work through an extended and in-depth Q&A.

More from this issue
Check out the latest DGA Quarterly, featuring interviews with Kathryn Bigelow, Joe Pytka, Jordan Peele, Todd Haynes, Errol Morris, Alex Gibney, Marc Webb, Erin Ehrlich, Aline Brosh McKenna Brian Helgeland Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.