Kathryn Bigelow, the director known for 'Point Break,' delivers the best movie yet on the life of U.S. soldiers in the Iraq war.
Credit: Ed Araquel / Summit Entertainment

Despite a penchant for action thrillers, Kathryn Bigelow is impossible to pigeonhole. In three of her first four films, she delved into the psyche of bikers ('The Loveless'), vampires ('Near Dark'), and surfers ('Point Break'). Perhaps the one characteristic that unifies her nine films is her eye for detail (she was a painter before she moved into the director's chair), and her newest film, 'The Hurt Locker', is no different. The jarring, highly original story follows three U.S. bomb techs over several missions in and around Baghdad, each scene intensifying the bond between men whose lives are shaped by war. It's cerebral and wrenching, and it's the closest most of us will ever get to combat.

When did you know you wanted to make this film?
The minute [screenwriter] Mark Boal returned from Iraq and told me about a day in the life of a bomb tech. What was interesting was the specificity of this particular situation. Regardless of one's feelings about the war, there are guys who put on 80- to 120-pound bomb suits on 135-degree days and save lives at the potential sacrifice of their own. These are the unsung heroes.

Why did you pick three relatively unknown actors for your lead roles?
To heighten the suspense of not knowing who's going to live. There's a conventional reaction when you see a star: You anticipate he'll be a part of a particular denouement down the road, so you don't worry for that character. In 'The Hurt Locker,' after the first sequence, you realize all bets are off. 

How did you settle on shooting in Jordan?
I would have shot in Iraq if it had been possible. That's kind of a joke, but we did get close, at times five kilometers from the border. Architecturally, Jordan is a very good match for war-torn Baghdad. Plus, the military equipment was available. A bonus I had not anticipated was the one million Iraqi refugees in Amman, a contingent of whom were actors. All of our extras were Iraqi actors. Two of them told me they had been prisoners of the Americans in Iraq, and now they were playing prisoners in the film. It was surreal – and a little uncomfortable – but they laughed and said they were happy to have the work.

Was there any trouble filming?
The most intense occasion was when we filmed one sequence in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. As soon as we started, a crowd of young guys gathered around. Some rocks were thrown, and a few fights broke out. We filmed through it all. They soon realized that we were just doing the same shot over and over. They started to applaud at the end of each take.

What qualities in these characters did you find interesting?
Courage and heroism, but fragility under fire, too – the effective or ineffective ability to retain composure in a life or death situation. These are men who day in and day out come face-to-face with their own mortality. That creates a certain psychology.

Jeremy Renner's character in particular, Sgt. James, seems to thrive on that.
Yeah, for James there's almost an attractiveness to it. It's protocol as you approach the IED to ask for a 300-meter containment. I'm generalizing, but there's a point at about 50 meters out where you start thinking about your family. Then 25 meters out you're at the point of no return, and all of that disappears. You're making peace with the eventuality of whatever outcome is in front of you, because this is the job you chose to do.

What is it about how these men relate to each other that you found especially revelatory?
It was the way the script portrayed heroism and courage – not as a cartoonish quality, or an absence of fear, but as a certain kind of resilience in the face of fear. And as being, in the case of the lead character, a flight from intimacy. That was a price of heroism I hadn't thought about before.