EXCLUSIVE: The Key to Kathryn Bigelow's Genius: The Word 'No' Doesn't Exist

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“The time has come.”

Barbra Streisand spoke those four words on March 7, 2010,
just before anointing Kathryn Bigelow as the first -- and still the only --
woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director. Bigelow took home two golden
statues that night for The Hurt Locker, which
was also memorably awarded the Oscar for Best Picture over box-office titan Avatar. In the seven years since that
historic moment, zero women have been nominated for the award, with two of the
closest contenders being Bigelow herself (for 2012’s Best Picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty) and Ava DuVernay (for
2014’s Selma).

One could say that “the time has come” again for Bigelow,
but it’s not golden statues she’s looking for. With Detroit, in theaters on Aug. 4, Bigelow hopes the time has come for
audiences to learn about a previously untold tragedy that occurred at the
Algiers Motel during the 1967 riots in Detroit.

“It really began with the emotional connection to mainly
these victims and how to humanize that experience. And I think [in] humanizing
it, there’s a potential to create empathy,” Bigelow says. “And in creating
empathy, there’s potential for a conversation to develop and that would be my
greatest aspiration.”  

Bigelow explained that her producing partner and Academy
Award-winning screenwriter Mark Boal brought her the story of the tragedy around
the time of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. “So it seemed to
feel very contemporaneous, even though it was 50 years ago,” she says. The two
immediately decided to take on the challenge.

The true story centers on Detroit security guard Melvin
Dismukes (John Boyega) as he ends up in the middle of a violent confrontation between
a group of white police officers (led, in a vicious turn, by Will Poulter) and
a number of young black men (Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore)
and two white women at the motel.

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“I would much rather have a small role with two
lines in a Kathryn Bigelow [movie] than a lead role [in another one], because I
know she’s going to make the best film and make me look the best I can be,” Mackie
says of reteaming with the director who sent his career into overdrive. Bigelow
first cast the actor in The Hurt Locker and
he surged from there, going from supporting roles to superhero status, most
notably portraying Falcon in the Avengers
and Captain America films. The
pair is hoping they made magic again with Detroit

“Kathryn can ask me to do the outgoing message on her cell phone and I’m in. She has a way with me that I respect and appreciate and admire,” Mackie continues. And he’s not the only member of Bigelow’s cast who would do anything to work with her; the two ladies of the cast, Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray, reveled in the “rare” opportunity to work with a woman at the helm and praised the authenticity of her work. Latimore calls Bigelow a “visionary.” Poulter describes her as a “revolutionist,” adding that “she’s seeking to do more than just entertain people. She’s seeking to educate, inform and actually impact real societal change.” Boyega even jokes that he would play “the tire of a car” if Bigelow asked him to. 

In an effort to make the setting feel as real as possible,
Bigelow focused on improvisation from the time the cast auditioned; later, they
were given only partial scripts as production went along. “A lot of the times,
I don’t notice the camera,” Boyega explains, sharing the influence Bigelow’s
immersive style had on the finished product. “So you go through the scenes and
you expect some form of a cut and [instead you] just keep on going. The extras
will keep walking. You would hear the natural sirens you would in a police
station. [There’s an] awful sense of reality and it affects your
performance. And I think that in itself is the closest you’re ever
going to get to actually, you know, reliving that.”  

“When I read Detroit,
I knew it was an award season film,” Mackie recalls. “I knew that when Kathryn
and Mark [Boal] get together, they get together with one specific goal in mind
-- that’s to make the best film that they can make, and usually when
making the best film that you can make, little statues and recognition come
with that.”  

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In the history of the Academy Awards, only four women --
Bigelow, Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties),
Jane Campion (The Piano) and Sofia
Coppola (Lost in Translation), who,
earlier this year, became the second woman in the history of the Cannes Film
Festival to win the directing prize, for The
-- have been nominated for Best Director. And this year, there are
already whispers that two women could end up nominated in the category: a
repeat nomination for Bigelow and a first for Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins.

“I certainly am so excited for [Jenkins] and I think that
the more women that are doing -- that are out there achieving aspirations --
perhaps that’s an inspiration to pursue these careers,” Bigelow says
of Jenkins’ success and the rise in profile of other female directors,
particularly on TV, where three women were nominated for Outstanding Director
for a Drama Series while DuVernay picked up her first directing nomination at
the 69th Primetime Emmys. “I know it feels sort of abstract and impossible when
you’re just sort of knocking on doors, but it’s not. I’m here; she’s here.”

Concluding with advice for other female directors to follow
in her footsteps, Bigelow says, “I always tell women: Don’t take no for an
answer. No doesn’t exist.”

--Additional reporting by Nischelle Turner