Kathryn Bigelow Joins SMPA for Conversation Series

Academy Award-winning director discusses career, filmmaking process and the role of women in the movie industry.

Kathryn Bigelow
SMPA Fellow Douglas Wilson moderated questions students asked Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow.
October 30, 2013

By Julyssa Lopez

When asked about the role of women in filmmaking, Kathryn Bigelow had one point to emphasize to students at the Jack Morton Auditorium: “You’re defined by what you do.”

Ms. Bigelow is best known for her gritty, observational films about the war on terrorism. Although she was the first female director to win an Academy Award, for her movie “The Hurt Locker,” she told a group of George Washington students on Tuesday that the content of what people produce is more important than indexing directors as male or female. 

The conversation was organized by the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA) as part of its ongoing lecture series that also brought business mogul Ted Leonsis to campus this month.

Director of SMPA Frank Sesno opened the event and introduced Aaron Lobel, the founder and president of America Abroad Media, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting civil society through in-depth media programming. The organization had honored Ms. Bigelow’s work with an award the previous night.

Dr. Lobel then invited Douglas Wilson, an SMPA distinguished fellow, to the stage. Mr. Wilson met Ms. Bigelow while he served as the former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs at the Pentagon. She approached him about making a film detailing the search for terrorist Osama Bin Laden. While she was working on the film, Bin Laden was found and killed by a Navy SEAL team in May 2011, pivoting Ms. Bigelow’s project and turning it into the Oscar-nominated “Zero Dark Thirty.” Mr. Douglas called her “the most interesting and unusual woman I met” during his time at the Pentagon.

Ms. Bigelow chronicled her impressive career for students, explaining she started out as a painter. While studying in New York City, she began exploring with conceptual art and different mediums.

“I started making these short films,” she said. “It kind of found me—I didn’t know what I was doing was directing.”

There was a natural progression in her work, and her pieces grew longer. Ms. Bigelow earned a graduate degree that focused on film criticism at Columbia University, where she explored how voyeuristic film can be and why violence excites audiences. Ms. Bigelow said she was interested in films that asked the audience to experience a character’s situation themselves, something Mr. Wilson pointed out her films “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” do.

“I want to put the audience in the place that I want to be, and the only way I know how to do that is to make the narrative experiential and to put you in that person’s shoes, give you that problem, that dilemma and that process. Then you can decide yourself if this is something that’s worthwhile… It gives you an opportunity to judge and evaluate,” she said.

Years ago, Ms. Bigelow said she attended a dinner party with author Joan Didion and asked the writer how she starts her book-writing process. Ms. Didion replied she asks a question she doesn’t know the answer to, something that describes Ms. Bigelow’s own approach.

“‘Zero Dark Thirty’ started with just a question: Why did the hunt for Osama Bin Laden take 10 years? It’s a simple question,” she said.

Ms. Bigelow added that her work is inspired by underreported themes that she can’t find the answer to elsewhere. Particularly in “The Hurt Locker,” a film that tells the story of a bomb disposal team during the Iraq War, Ms. Bigelow said the question was about understanding the changing face of American war.

“The question for me was a question of psychology. [This war] wasn’t engagement where you were attacked in the sky or hand-to-hand … You’re walking around on perfectly empty dirt road streets that would implode. That was the war, and I didn’t understand that. I hadn’t seen anything that articulated that,” Ms. Bigelow said.

A student submitted a question, asking if women participating in the coverage of war made a difference in public perception. Ms. Bigelow explained that when she was working on “Zero Dark Thirty,” her research revealed that many of the CIA analysts working to locate Bin Laden were women.

“At first, I was shocked—then, I was shocked that I was shocked,” she said. “Why would I be surprised?”

The role of women in that film became an incredibly important and salient aspect of “Zero Dark Thirty,” something Ms. Bigelow said she took pride in.

The discussion also covered Ms. Bigelow’s particular filmmaking style, including her decision to cast lesser-known actors as leads in her movies. Her goal, she said, is to make her films accessible. She remembered looking around at the men and women in a mess hall while eating with troops during production for “The Hurt Locker,” and remembered feeling they were “salt of the earth.”

“They’re not recognizable, yet they’re beautifully recognizable,” she said. “So it was very important to cast someone who people could identify with that didn’t come with other baggage from another character or another movie.”

She also described the difficulties of making independent films on a small budget. Despite the struggle of finite resources and having to shoot quickly, Ms. Bigelow said she would rather sacrifice a movie budget than to compromise her artistic vision with a studio film.

Mr. Wilson asked if there was anything she wished she’d been told about filmmaking prior to her career. Ms. Bigelow explained that even if she had been told how hard the process would be and how many sacrifices she would have to make, it wouldn’t have changed anything.

“I would never have listened to what someone would have said, because you have to make mistakes, you have to learn by doing and you have to go down that dark difficult road at times,” she said. “But it’s all for this moment.”

Mr. Wilson ended the conversation by recalling his reaction to seeing “Zero Dark Thirty” for the first time. He was invited to a private screening for Pentagon officials and remembered feeling speechless when the final credits rolled. Former CIA Director Leon Panetta pulled him aside and asked him what he thought.

“She nailed it,” Mr. Wilson remembered saying.

He told Ms. Bigelow, “On behalf of all of us, thank you for being here and thank you for nailing it.”