In this week’s cover story, TIME looks at the career of Kathryn Bigelow, who made history in 2010 as the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker, and who has followed that triumph with one of the most controversial movies in memory. Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow’s second collaboration with the journalist and screenwriter Mark Boal, chronicles the decade-long manhunt of Osama bin Laden, including brutal scenes of American operatives practicing torture at CIA black sites in the years following 9/11. The movie has earned high praise and healthy ticket sales, hitting No. 1 at the box office in its first week of wide release and collecting five Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. But almost from the moment it began screening for the press last month, experts have been attacking Zero Dark Thirty, believing that it tacitly endorses torture as an effective intelligence-gathering tool. Its critics include senators (three of whom called it “grossly inaccurate and misleading”), journalists (The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer said it was “false advertising for waterboarding”) and pundits with a flare for hyperbole (Naomi Wolf compared Bigelow to Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl).
In some ways, Bigelow, 61, is an unlikely figure to find at the center of this firestorm. She spent her early adulthood as a painter and conceptual artist in 1970s Manhattan, counting Susan Sontag, Brice Marden and Vito Acconci as early mentors and Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman and Philip Glass as peers. After she transitioned into filmmaking in the early ’80s, she eventually veered toward muscular, high-intensity action movies such as Point Break and Strange Days before stripping back her style for the lean, you-are-there observational mode of The Hurt Locker, which embedded with an American bomb-disposal team in Iraq.
Bigelow is perhaps the finest action director at work today: in Zero Dark Thirty, she choreographs the predawn raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, with breathtaking suspense and precision, as well as a chilling matter-of-factness that drains the sequence of elation or jingoism. That detachment—the filmmaker’s decision to show us what people do, and not necessarily what they think or feel, or what the viewer should think or feel about them—might explain the wildly divergent reactions to Zero Dark Thirty. The movie leaves it up to the audience to measure the human cost of the 10-year quest to find bin Laden and dismantle al-Qaeda, and to judge the actions of CIA trackers like Maya (Jessica Chastain).
In the TIME profile, which subscribers can read here, Zero Dark Thirty and Bigelow’s career are put into context by her past and current collaborators (including Boal and actors Chastain, Willem Dafoe and Jamie Lee Curtis) as well as by her critics (including former CIA director Michael Hayden). TIME sat down with Bigelow in New York City; excerpts from that conversation, as well as from follow-ups via telephone and e-mail, are below.
TIME: What have the last few weeks been like for you? Were you expecting this kind of response?
Kathryn Bigelow: Well, yes and no. Yes, because this territory has been controversial since the early part of the decade. So I knew that the film was going to be controversial, though perhaps I didn’t anticipate this kind of volume. But I feel we got it right. I’m proud of the movie, and I stand behind it completely. I think that it’s a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force. It questions what was done in the name of finding bin Laden.
What was it like for you and your actors to shoot the torture scenes?
On a personal level, those scenes were really hard to do. The audience wants to look away but knows they shouldn’t. It’s wrenching and difficult, and that is acknowledged in the cues we see in Jessica Chastain. She looks away; she covers her mouth. That is how many people in the audience react, or how they would react if they were in that room. It’s the kind of thing we instinctively rebel against. That says something about the larger issue here, too, which is that it’s easier to turn away from it than face it. It paints an honest picture of what was happening, and we are only beginning to come to terms with it.
All of your films, Zero Dark Thirty included, have a nuanced take on heroism. They don’t necessarily give us a protagonist to root for, or sometimes we’re rooting for a character who isn’t always doing the right thing.
They’re fundamentally very human—they’re not all right and not all wrong. Human nature is multifaceted and flawed. But I also think that Jessica Chastain’s character is extremely courageous.
What kind of liberties did you take in staging the torture scenes? Was it all based on Mark Boal’s reporting, or did you allow some artistic license?
Those are firsthand accounts. But perhaps a film can’t be held to the same level of scrutiny as a Senate report. It’s a film. So it’s got actors. It’s got sets. And editorial choices, composite characters, compressions and ellipses—10 years compressed in two-and-a-half hours.
A lot of the criticism of the movie has been based around the impression that it implicitly endorses enhanced interrogation techniques by showing that they get results.
Where there’s clarity in the world, there’s clarity in the film. Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan—that’s clarity. And where there’s ambiguity in the world, there’s ambiguity in the film. If you look at the experts on the subject matter, whether it’s Mark Bowden [author of The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden] or David Ignatius [of the Washington Post], they all say that some information came out of the detainee program. Maybe once the Senate report is declassified, we’ll have more information. Maybe advocating a little more transparency in government would be a healthy step.
Let’s turn away from the Zero Dark Thirty controversy and get into the Wayback Machine. You grew up in northern California…
In San Carlos, Calif., in the Bay Area. My mother was an English teacher and my father managed a paint factory. I guess his great passion in life would have been to be a cartoonist, but he could never figure out how to go from A to B. But he would draw for me, day in, day out—sketches, caricatures. He thought of himself as extremely unattractive, and he would exaggerate his features. I’ve often wondered where my fascination with art came from, and my father was part of it. I was painting from the age of six.
After high school, I went to the San Francisco Art Institute. I loved de Kooning and I loved big canvases and I loved oil, not acrylic. I loved the smell of it, and the giant brushes, and the goop—I mean, I was always covered head to toe in paint. I’d kneel down and the paint was so thick on my pants that it would crack. I would do these big pieces that were like Abstract Expressionist–Renaissance fusion—I would take a corner detail from a Raphael, blow it up and paint it in an Abstract Expressionist way.
And then at some point in college you went to New York and lived in a bank vault.
This was in the early 1970s. Unbeknownst to me, a professor of mine had submitted slides of my work to the Whitney Independent Study Program, and they accepted me. They gave me a studio in a bank vault in what would be Tribeca now, three stories below ground level in an off-track betting building. You actually couldn’t get a cab to take you down there. It wasn’t quite the Manhattan that we know now. So I’d be down in the freezing bank vault in a sleeping bag, hearing gunshots up top quite often. But none of us students were worried for ourselves. It was a great community that formed. We were constantly communicating to one another about what we were making, and trying to challenge one another. In film you don’t find that. Like, I never see other directors.
One of your advisors was Susan Sontag, which must have been intimidating.
I remember she would sit down, make herself comfortable, legs crossed, and she would gather her thoughts before she spoke, as you can only imagine. Back then, I was moving away from the paint to conceptual art, using the environment as a kind of sculptural component in and of itself with objects that I found on the street—these giant metal cylinders. The bank vault was a completely metal encased room, nothing but reflective surfaces, so I’d take these pipes, these thick metal tubes, and roll them across the floor and into one another, and they’d create this sound and it would reverberate against the space. I made a piece where I had a room where the pipes lived—on the floor, stationary and silent—and then a recording of the sounds they made. I guess it was about a sense of what’s possible.
You made your first feature, The Loveless, at the start of the 1980s. How did you make the transition from art to film?
Part of the big pivot from art to film was embracing the narrative, because what I had been doing thus far was either analytical or non-narrative. I think I had a conversation with Andy Warhol somewhere in all this, and Andy was saying that there’s something way more populist about film than art—that art’s very elitist, so you’re excluding a large audience.
Because art requires a framework, a set of references?
Yes, and film doesn’t. I remember going to the [Museum of Modern Art] and looking at the Maleviches and the Mondrians, and thinking, ‘The audience for this is very specific.’ It requires that you come to it with a certain amount of information, a context. And you don’t necessarily need that with film. A movie is accessible, available. That was exciting to me from a political standpoint.
So I decided to write something that was feature length and, for whatever reason, about motorcycles in the ’50s. I thought there was an interesting iconography of power in that. I was very influenced by Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind. I went to Switzerland to screen The Loveless for Sirk, and sadly he had lost his sight by then, but his wife sat beside him and told him what was happening as the film was unfolding. While I was in Switzerland, I also met Patricia Highsmith, and I had no money and she gave me a free option on one of her books for six months. I did the adaptation and I could never get that one made, but in doing that, I began to learn the grammar of screenwriting. And then I wrote Near Dark.
Near Dark was so far ahead of the curve on the vampire phenomenon.
There was something kind of heretical about that, because here you have these vampire characters that are supposed to be the bad guys, but they’re the good guys. The antagonists are protagonists.
A lot of your films have that complicated relationship with their protagonists. In Point Break, you don’t want the good guy to catch the bad guy. In Strange Days, the nominal hero is a mess. Even in The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner’s character—you care about him, you’re invested in him, but he keeps doing the wrong thing.
I wanted to dispense with all the movie tropes: the clean through-line, the idea of the hero. That was K-19: The Widowmaker—what was interesting to me about it was that there were no Americans. The Russians were the heroes. It was interesting trying to get that one financed because you’d be pitching it, saying, “This really happened—they averted a thermonuclear event off the coast of a NATO base.” I remember sitting in some executive’s office, and they said, “OK, but who are the good guys?” “What do you mean? The Russians are the good guys.” “No, I mean, who are the Americans?”
But by the time I got to Hurt Locker, I wanted to swing for the fences. I felt like I had a body of work behind me. I felt confident in the craft. And I was fascinated by the opportunity to speak about war. I think all wars are a tragedy, and to critique it, you have to look at it. And the best way to look at it is to experience it on the ground with the people fighting it. You know, I’m anti-war, but I’m pro–the people forced to engage with it. I didn’t necessarily look at it as a movie but more an opportunity to examine and experience the futility of war, to engage in that subject and treat it as a raw, primal, experiential observation.
(RICHARD CORLISS: The Hurt Locker: A Near-Perfect War Film)
And a conversation, too—the war was still going on.
Mark Boal opened up a window for me onto how you can make a film that’s part of the current conversation. It was an opportunity to make a deep dive into content that was contemporaneous, an opportunity to reflect in a way that might make you uncomfortable, which was something we continued with Zero Dark Thirty.
You know, we’ve walked into a debate that’s ongoing, and the film raised the volume on that debate. It’s kind of a testament to the medium. If you pick challenging, contemporaneous subjects that create controversy and noise around them, it puts you with Apocalypse Now, All the President’s Men, A Clockwork Orange, In the Heat of the Night, Battle of Algiers. That’s some very good company. So once you’ve opened the window on topical material, it’s very hard to close it. Holding up a contemporary mirror is more attractive to me now than ever.
TIME COVER: Art of Darkness