As Zero Dark Thirty opens across the country, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time researching and talking about the director, Kathryn Bigelow. I tell friends she’s the first female director to win an Oscar ever, in eighty-two years of the Academy’s existence. “Ever, ever?” “Ever, ever.” But she’s also an intriguing character. Before she made her way to film, Bigelow was a painter. A recent New Yorker article describes her struggles in New York City before her fame.
In the seventies, when Bigelow moved to New York from San Francisco, she lived a few blocks from Ground Zero. She had a painting scholarship sponsored by the Whitney Museum, and she lived off Reade Street, in an old bank vault beneath a branch of OTB. Sometimes she slept in a sleeping bag. She was part of the conceptual-art collective Art & Language, and she hung out with Susan Sontag and Philip Glass, who was then driving a cab. To make money, she and Glass rented lofts and renovated them.
“I would find the lofts,” she said. “They were these old print factories, in SoHo and Tribeca. There’d be mounds of dried ink on the floors, and I would sand them. I’d do the floors and put up the walls. And Philip Glass would do the plumbing. We would live in the lofts while we were renovating them, and then we’d charge people a fixture fee.”
In an interview posted by The Guardian, Bigelow shares how painting influences her filmmaking. Compositionally, she looks at the screen much as she would at a canvas, looking for the “tension,” and the “balance or lack of balance” within the frame. Perhaps the most illuminating moment in this interview occurs when the interviewer asks if Richard Serra’s spiral-shaped installation at the Bilbao Guggenheim in Spain informed a shot in Hurt Locker of “swirling helicopters.” She responds by referring to a theory in law called The Clean Room Theory, which states “you can’t unlearn what you already know.” Essentially, Bigelow is hitting on what every artist experiences—art is an expression of life and the two shape and form each other.