Kathryn Bigelow, who originally studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute before receiving a Master’s in Film from Columbia University and becoming a filmmaker, in 1981 co-wrote and directed her first feature film, The Loveless, which gained critical acclaim.
In the 1990s, she directed a trilogy of action films, Blue Steel (1990), Point Break (1991) and Strange Days (1995), written and produced by fellow Rolex Testimonee James Cameron. In these films she challenged the conventions of action cinema and garnered praise for her visual aesthetic.
Her position as a Hollywood heavyweight was solidified with her subsequent films, the political action-thrillers The Hurt Locker in 2008 and Zero Dark Thirty in 2012, both of which earned her Oscar nominations. For The Hurt Locker, Bigelow won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. With her most recent film, Detroit, Bigelow directed and produced a film based on the 1967 Detroit riots, exploring race-related violence in the United States. Her films provoke an examination of the politics that surround us, and have established the director as a true auteur. They have depicted incidents in time which act as a reflection on society, in turn, helping to define that same society.
The genesis of inspiration
How would you describe the mentoring process?
I don’t think you know at the time that it’s happening, that you’re passing on knowledge to somebody else. This is the authenticity of it. Looking at the process of inspiration or mentorship, however you want to describe it, it is really a process of transferring information, transferring knowledge, a way of thinking, and it’s unconscious. You don’t think, oh, I’m being mentored or my work is potentially providing a crucible for somebody else to learn from. It’s an invisible, intuitive process you can’t control.
It is really a process of transferring information, transferring knowledge, a way of thinking, and it’s unconscious.
Who was your mentor in those formative years as an artist?
Lawrence Weiner basically gave birth to an entire movement called conceptual art, and then transferred that to people, like me, who were emboldened by it. I found it to be a very exciting, transformative period, and you carry it with you in some way. It becomes part of your creative and intellectual construct and comes out in the work you do forever. That’s how that transferring of information and knowledge occurs. At least it was that way for me.
Would you agree the mentoring relationship is a two-way process?
It is not only incumbent on the person providing the knowledge or transferring the knowledge. It’s a dialectic. It’s a communication. It’s a way of providing a text and then how that text is received, and that is where knowledge is transferred. With Lawrence, it was always a conversation. He would be very challenging, challenge your ideas. Why do you want to make this? Why is that an interesting idea? He would pose these wonderful existential questions and over 10 years, we probably met at least a few times a week and we would have these great, rigorous conversations that were in equal parts challenging, exciting, frustrating. That, for me anyway, is the genesis of inspiration.
How is this transfer of knowledge perpetuated?
Receiving a particular work, or object, or text or a film, is transformative, it changes the way you see, your perception of the universe, and you internalize that. Then it becomes externalized in whatever you are doing – a conversation, a film, a painting, a text or a book. So there is a transmission of information that perpetuates itself, and is then re-internalized through other people. You’re informed by it. You’re influenced by it. A great work of art surprises you, you didn’t anticipate it, and when a film surprises me, that’s when I’m excited. I don’t want to anticipate something, a narrative construct. I want to be surprised by it. Lawrence Weiner opened my eyes to the process of both examination and surprise, and how art can enhance, inform. Our minds are very elastic.
You can never unlearn what you learn, you can never unknow what you know. We’re not like computers, we can’t hit delete. You have all of that information, all of those explorations, those discoveries, those influences, those inspirations. They live on with you.
Think of a coral reef with all these schools of fish. Those are all your influences. You’re swimming in this world and then they’re all around you. You are part of that coral reef that has influenced you, that has brushed up against you, been kind to you, been cruel to you. It is the sea of life that washes over you, buffets you like a current and you just try to stay afloat. There are times when you’re gasping for air. It is a challenging, rigorous process, especially if you’re being inspired by somebody who is so extraordinary and intimidating and humbling. It’s just transformative, there is no other way to describe it.