Detroit: Interview with Oscar-Winning Director Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman in Oscar’s history to have won the Best Director Award, for The Hurt Locker, in 2009.  Though she was not recognized in 2012 for her helming, her film, Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

Involvement in the Project

Kathryn Bigelow: I think it was early 2015 and Mark told me this story of the Algiers Motel and it was somewhat concurrent with the Ferguson, Missouri incident in this country.  That was definitely an extremely emotional moment I thought, and hearing this story and how moving it was and the fact that it had been 50 years and yet sadly it felt very contemporary and timely.  So that really was the impetus to at least to have at least have a more meaningful conversation about developing a screenplay.  And that’s where it began.

Who Should Tell These Stories?

KB: It’s a great question, and that was probably one of my initial questions going into it.  And I felt that honestly, am I the right director for this?  No, but it’s a story that needed to be told and I was able to tell it.  But I was also at the same time thinking race is something we all need to deal with and we all need a systemic racism like you see in the movie, that we all need to take responsibility for.  And so I felt it was a really important story to tell, and that mitigated any of my hesitations.

Casting British Actors

KB: Well I also have an Australian actor and I have an actor from Ireland, those also play roles in the movie.  I look for extremely talented individuals.  Officer Flynn is from Australia.  And Officer Demons is from Ireland.  So yeah, it’s kind of very I guess, it does run the gamut of being from all over the world. But I really look for talent and if the accent is undistinguishable, then it’s all about performance, and I kind of come at it from a very neutral perspective. So performance is what really drives me to make a decision for an actor.

Book about the issue

KB: I couldn’t get the rights.  It was the wish of the author, who is deceased that his particular book not be turned into a film.  I don’t know the details, but what was important to all of us was to re-report it. There’s tremendous amount of research on the Detroit Rebellion as was the Algiers Motel.  The Detroit Free Press, a really terrific newspaper, there were four journalists that won Pulitzers for reporting on the Rebellion itself. So it’s a very well reported event. Consequently, that provided the research behind all of the characters and also all of the visual material like the documentary footage and still images, crime scene photos. The three individuals that I met with, Melvin Dismukes, Billy Hisel and Larry Cleveland Reed, they were incredibly forthcoming in describing their experiences of this situation and the tragedy that unfolded before them.  That sort of specificity was very galvanizing.


Melvin Dismukes

KB: Dismukes is the character played by John Boyega, he plays the security guard and in fact he was a security guard at a grocery store across the street from the Algiers, and he saw the muzzle flash and heard the report of gunfire. He was one of the first people to, along with National Guard detail and state police, and then Detroit police, to enter the Algiers Motel, looking for the weapon that had been responsible for the gunfire and the muzzle flash.

Julie’s Character

KB: Julie is played by Hannah Murray, one of the girls, she is the more sort of dark haired girl, and the one who got a tremendous amount of, she is somewhat heretical in her responses to people, very strong, and to this day she is very strong. She was on the set with me every day and I would do a sequence and I would look back at her and she would, most times, nine times out of ten, she would say great, great, and then I put my hand over her hand on the wall and so I would go over to the wall and incorporate that.  So that degree of specificity was extremely important.  And then Larry Reed, I will say for both Melvin and Larry, this event kind of broke them in a way, emotionally, spiritually, physically and you are aware of that when you spend time with them and this is almost kind of a PTSD and they had been to war and back.  And I don’t think you go through an experience like that and remain unscarred.

Police Officers?

KB: Two of them are deceased. The reporting and research were from the perspective of the victims. There is a lot of court testimony, so their voice is in it, through court testimony, documents, transcripts, and the Freedom of Permission Act Request.  There definitely a large body of research to draw from and that is what was the spine of this piece.

Horror of Racism Now

KB: The predominant reason to make a movie like this is to encourage a conversation, especially about as something as tragic in our culture as, you can look at it as systemic racism and institutionalized racism, unconscious bias, it’s really a travesty.  I was speaking to a friend of mine who grew up in South Africa, and the conversation around truth and reconciliation, how they deal with apartheid, is very outspoken–appears to be a very productive conversation.  The conversation about race here is, I won’t say it’s non-existent, but I would love to, or I hope that this movie would encourage if not more stories to come forward, but to be a meaningful part of a conversation to begin to bridge that divide. A couple of things have already begun. We had a screening on Capitol Hill last week, seven days ago, hosted by Representative John Conyers, who is playing in the movie by Laz Alonso, the man on top of the car with the megaphone, saying you don’t need to burn, we are going to solve this.  A lovely man.  He has a Bill before Congress to end racial profiling and he was using this film to encourage conversation with Congress men and women, towards the passing of that Bill.  As a filmmaker I think, entertainment alone, especially right now, is not enough.

Casting and Shooting

KB: Our casting, I predominately did that through improvisation.  I would set up situations and do it as improv sequences.  And that was really helpful, because it helped me see how a person responded to standing against the wall with their hands against that, and being frisked for a weapon.  It wasn’t kind of a more traditional casting process, where you have the script and read the lines.  It was more physicalized, because it was a very physical piece.  My impetus going into it was to humanize the unthinkable.  I wanted to recreate these situations, even in the audition process, to see how a particular person would react.