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Her Underwater Canvas

Director Kathryn Bigelow's art-school lessons were surprisingly handy for a submarine thriller

July 14, 2002|RICHARD NATALE

One of Kathryn Bigelow's teachers in art school instructed his students to find their "most productive weakness."

That seemingly contradictory bit of advice remained lodged somewhere in a corner of her mind, and when she began directing movies, Bigelow discovered what her weakness was. "Withstanding pressure," she says. So she set out to conquer it.

"I learned to treat the reality of constant pressure on a movie set abstractly, like it was a mental process," she says.

It's a character trait that was called on during the shooting of "K-19: The Widowmaker." A $100-million Soviet submarine drama based on a true incident on a nuclear sub in 1961, the film took seven years to complete--but the shoot itself finished on time and on budget.

The credit for that, all agree, rests squarely on Bigelow's shoulders. "It was a huge logistical undertaking," says Harrison Ford, who stars as the sub's Capt. Alexei Vostrikov. "But I don't remember ever facing the feeling of chaos. Directors have to be able to think on their feet when the time isn't there, the light isn't there, when the capacity of an actor to perform isn't there--and they have to find a way to make it work anyway. Kathryn never would have survived if she hadn't been able to do that."

But it's the 50-year-old director's art school background, rather than her newfound grace under pressure, that comes up repeatedly in an interview. At other times, she compares the work of her B-movie heroes--directors Samuel Fuller and Anthony Mann--to the "pure expression" of Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning. She explains her ability to flout conventions about women directing action movies by saying her instincts were honed during her early years as an artist.

"In painting, there are no preconceived notions of what's possible. You're always starting with a blank canvas," she says. "And that's what's given me strength."

"K-19" is based on the maiden, disaster-prone voyage of a Soviet nuclear submarine in 1961. The threat of a nuclear meltdown aboard the sub is a harrowing, little-known chapter in the history of the Cold War. It was only through the clear thinking of the sub's captain and the heroism of its crew that a disaster of global significance was averted.

Suppressed for three decades, the story of the K-19 came to light in the early '90s after the demise of the Soviet Union. Rights to the story were immediately scooped up by National Geographic's film division after executives there saw a British-made documentary on the subject, says Christine Whitaker, the company's executive vice president of production.

A story that focuses on Russian submariners and told from their point of view may have seemed an odd choice for an English-language feature film, but "one of the primary reasons we were attracted to it," Whitaker says, "is that National Geographic has been turning the camera on other cultures for 115 years. It fit in with our mission'' of expanding into feature films.

Whitaker thought of Bigelow, who had made her name with fast-paced action stories, including the biker-horror film "Near Dark" (1987); the psychological cop thriller "Blue Steel" (1990), starring Jamie Lee Curtis; the action adventure "Point Break" (1991) with Keanu Reeves; and the apocalyptic sci-fi drama "Strange Days" (1995) with Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett (her former husband, James Cameron, was a producer and co-writer on that).

"From our first meeting," Whitaker says, Bigelow "understood the humanity behind the story. It wasn't just a submarine thriller. It was about men rising above their circumstances and their politics to do something for the greater good."

The opportunity to illuminate this obscure chapter in history was as much a learning experience for Bigelow as she hopes it will be for the audience. "I had no idea of the Russian psychology at the time. For me, they were horrible people who were going to push a button and destroy the world.

"This was such a great opportunity to put a human face to some incredibly brave individuals without whom our lives would have been changed."

Bigelow developed the script with playwright Christopher Kyle for the British production company Working Title. That was the easy part. The project was stalled when Universal Pictures announced another submarine drama, "U-571," released in 2000, and Bigelow went off to make a more personal independent project, "The Weight of Water," starring Sean Penn and Elizabeth Hurley; after several delays, "The Weight of Water" is to be released in November.

After Working Title put "K-19" in turnaround about three years ago, it was shopped to a number of companies. The overseas independent company Intermedia agreed to finance the movie that, by this time, also had an expensive star, Ford, attached. During production, Intermedia contracted with Paramount Pictures to distribute the film in the U.S. and certain key countries abroad.

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