Person of the Week: Kathryn Bigelow

Action film director has broken through the glass ceiling.

Feb. 5, 2010— -- Kathryn Bigelow is not fond of being in front of the camera; the 58-year old film director would much prefer to be behind it.

"I'm kind of very shy by nature," she said in an interview with Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, on the ABC News Now show "Popcorn."

These days, the 6-foot-tall, lanky Bigelow can't avoid the spotlight following the critical success of her film "The Hurt Locker." The tense, gritty, mostly handheld-camera-filmed movie takes place in Iraq in 2004 and follows an elite Army bomb squad assigned to find and defuse explosives.

A.O Scott, a film critic for the New York Times, called it "the best non-documentary feature made yet about Iraq." Richard Corliss from Time magazine said it is a "near perfect war film." Roger Ebert of the Chicago-Sun Times deemed Bigelow "a master of stories about men and women who choose to be in physical danger."

Bigelow may call herself shy by nature, but the one thing this director does not shy away from is action. From "Blue Steel" in 1990, about a female cop being stalked by a psychopathic killer, to the cult favorite "Point Break" in 1991, about an FBI agent posing as a surfer trying to catch armed robbers, Bigelow's films are pumped up with energy, movement and adrenalin.

"She has a real muscularity to her filmmaking," freelance film journalist Ari Karpel told ABC News.

"Every one of her movies has a kinetic feeling that just grabs you," said Karpel, who has written on the film industry for Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times.

Bigelow studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute in the mid-1970s, but soon after made the switch to film and graduated from Columbia University's film program.

Breaking Boundaries in a Man's World

Much has been made of the fact that Bigelow, nominated for a best director Academy Award this year for "The Hurt Locker," is one of only four women to ever be nominated for the honor. If she wins, Bigelow will be the first woman to ever do so.

Last Saturday, Bigelow became the first woman to ever win the Director's Guild of America prize in its 60 year history.

Bigelow approaches the praise with caution.

"I hope someday we can lose the modifier [female director]," Bigelow told the Huffington Post, "and that becomes a moot point whether the person is male or female, and they're just filmmakers making statements that they believe in."

That said, Bigelow recognizes the impact her success can have on others, and welcomes the idea that, "I can be a role model and give some young, female filmmaker the impression that the impossible is possible, and that if you're tenacious enough, that you can go to Jordan and shoot in the punishing heat of the summer."

Battle of the Exes

"The Hurt Locker" has been nominated for nine Academy Awards -- the same number of awards as the 3-D blockbuster epic "Avatar," directed by fellow director and ex-husband, James Cameron. The two are reportedly still good friends.

"As fellow filmmakers, we're sort of on this journey, in a way, together," said Bigelow. "I think there's a kind of respect out there among filmmakers that are operating with a degree of integrity. It's a community."

Cameron has produced a number of Bigelow's movies, including "Point Break" and "Strange Days," the latter of which he also wrote.

Making a Film about War

The Iraq war has traditionally been a sort of "third rail" film for directors. Films depicting the war have seen little box office success and not much critical acclaim.

So what compelled Bigelow to make "The Hurt Locker"?

"It was an opportunity not only to live life in the day of a bomb tech but also put the audience into the shoes of those men and women who are going out there," she said.

Based on the accounts of journalist Mark Boal, who was embedded with three bomb technicians in Iraq in 2004, "The Hurt Locker" has been hailed for its realistic depiction of war.

"I think it was an opportunity to be very reportorial and authentic," she said. "What you and I would run from, they walk towards 10,12, 15 times a day. I thought it was a pretty interesting psychology to examine this in a movie."

Bigelow cast three mostly unknown actors as her leads and shot the film in Jordan.

"I dragged them all to the Middle East in the hot, punishing summer sun," she said.

Made on a shoestring budget of $11 million with independent financing -- to put that into perspective, "Avatar" cost approximately $300 million to make -- Bigelow did not have to answer to any studios telling her what to do.

"In making the film independently, I kind of created a mandate," she said. "Three elements which were very important for me were having total creative control, final cut and the opportunity to cast these incredible actors."

Her lead actor, Jeremy Renner, also has been nominated for an Academy Award.

"I think [Bigelow's] very observant and gets into places that most people don't," said the 39-year old actor, who played the daredevil Sgt. William James. "I think that's why the movie turned out the way it did."

While a number of Bigelow's films have achieved popular and cult status over her 30-year career, none has received nearly as much critical acclaim as "The Hurt Locker."

She is showing no signs of stopping, with talks underway of teaming up with writer Mark Boal again for an action-adventure film in South America.

"What film can do is take you on a journey," she said. "It can put you there. And you walk out of the theater, maybe you're brushing sand off your pants because you felt like you were there. That is the great gift of film."