Kathryn Bigelow – Director Overview

It’s kind of surprising, but this week’s Detroit is the first movie Kathryn Bigelow has directed in five years. In an era where random dudes are being pulled from single-camera TV comedies and lining up seven movies over five years out of the gate, that Bigelow has often gone three years or more between movies seems notable.

It’s even more surprising considering the consistent high quality of the movies she’s helmed. While not all of these have gone on to be considered cinematic classics, they almost uniformly are really good movies, largely due to her influence. So with Detroit in theaters now, it’s a good time to look back at her previous efforts to see how the trailers for each has sold the movie to audiences.

Near Dark (1987)

Near Dark would fit so well in today’s cinematic marketplace I’m honestly surprised there hasn’t been a feature or TV remake. The story revolves around Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), who becomes part of a group of traveling vampires after meeting – and being bit by – the lovely Mae (Jenny Wright). Things get complicated due to the presence of the violent Severen (the late Bill Paxton) and the protective leader of the group Hooker (Lance Henriksen).

The trailer for this 1987 drama, Bigelow’s second movie, surprisingly doesn’t play up the vampire aspect of the story to much. There’s plenty of talk, either in the dialogue of the characters or in the narration, about how nighttime is the most dangerous and that daylight will be much safer, but vampirism isn’t mentioned explicitly. Instead the activities of the gang are presented mostly as just psychopathic, people who just enjoy violence and want to see if the new recruit will pull his weight.

Blue Steel (1990)

Let’s all fondly remember the 80s and early 90s, when Jamie Lee Curtis was a dependable and powerful leading lady, capable of being funny in ensembles or leading dramas on her own. Blue Steel falls into the latter category, with Curtis starring as a rookie cop who is suspended after the questionable shooting of someone holding up a grocery store. Through a series of circumstances, she becomes involved with a stock trader (Ron Silver) who winds up being at the heart of a mystery Curtis’ Megan Turner is investigating.

As the trailer starts we get the backstory that she’s being suspended after the shooting that no one can corroborate was justified. We see that incident and see Silver’s Hunt take her gun, which is part of the problem. It then goes on to show that he uses that gun to go on a killing spree of his own, with the complication being that he and Turner used to date. It’s selling a story of violent obsession and is tense and pulse-pounding.

Point Break (1991)

I think we all know the story of Point Break, which features Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah, a cop who goes undercover to break up a gang of thieves led by Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). This is no ordinary gang, though, as they’re all involved in extreme sports such as surfing, skydiving and more. So in order to fully become accepted by Bodhi and his crew, Utah has to become just as good as them. the two bond, making Utah’s betrayal that much more emotionally impactful.

Reeves is certainly the focal point of the trailer. We get the background of The Ex Presidents (the name the gang as adopted due to their habit of wearing masks of former presidents during their heists), and see how committed they are to not only crime but sports. Likewise, we watch as Utah is given his assignment and begins to become part of the surfing and sporting lifestyle. There’s not a whole lot here about the brotherhood that forms between the cop and the criminal, showing the main appeal in 1991 was deemed to be the presence and personalities of Reeves and Swayze.

Strange Days (1995)

Bigelow’s 1995 movie Strange Days took advantage of the emerging presence of the web and increased interest in the cyberpunk works of William Gibson and others. Set just four years out in 1999, the story follows ex-cop Lenny (Ralph Fiennes), who now deals in black market discs of people’s personalities and emotions that others can plug into their own cybernetic implants and experience for themselves. He gets pulled even deeper into the underworld when he receives a disc containing the memories of a murderer and is motivated to investigate it for himself.


“Have you ever jacked in?” Nero asks as the trailer begins. It’s explained that experiencing someone else’s memories and emotions is better than TV, better than any kind of artificial high. We see the setting is the last day of 1999 and that Nero has started getting disks he’s not comfortable with from someone he doesn’t know. The violence increases as police, criminals and others all come after the tape for their own reasons, all set against the backdrop of the dark days when the world might end when the clock strikes midnight.

The Weight of Water (2000)

Jean (Catherine McCormack) is a newspaper photographer who travels with her husband Thomas (Sean Penn) and others to New Hampshire as part of her research into the murder of two women in 1873. Tensions arise as Thomas openly flirts with Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley), one of their companions. Meanwhile Jean becomes increasingly convinced that the century-old murders were not committed by the man who was ultimately hanged for them but by a third woman exacting revenge for that man’s failure to requite her love.

As the trailer starts we see the two couples in present day setting out on a boat for some time at sea. There’s some setup that Jean has come to investigate the murders, accompanied by her husband, brother-in-law and his wife (Adaline). Scenes, and narration, about the simmering desires and tensions aboard the boat are intercut with scenes pulled from the past of the trial that followed the murders and it’s clear there are parallels between the two stories. Again, this is all about building up the tension to the point where the audience can’t wait to find out what happens next.

K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

Bigelow started to expand the scope of the stories she told with K-19: The Widowmaker. In the movie, Harrison Ford plays the captain of a Russian nuclear submarine on its maiden voyage in 1961, the height of the Cold War. The nuclear plant that powers the sub experiences a catastrophic failure on that voyage, one that could not only destroy the ship and kill its crew but be interpreted as a sign of war that could have worldwide repercussions.

We meet Ford’s Captain Vostroikov as the trailer opens and see that he’s being given a mission to command a sub not just as a demonstration of Russia’s power but a response to perceived U.S. provocation. Various events, including contact with an American sub, create tensions between Vostroikov and a political officer played by Liam Neeson. The narration tells us it’s based on an “astonishing true story” as the reactor meltdown occurs, leading the captain to make impossible decisions to save his boat and his crew and prevent all-out war.

The Hurt Locker (2008)

If Bigelow wasn’t a household name before 2008, she was when she directed The Hurt Locker. We meet Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) as he arrives in Iraq to help disarm bombs. The story follows not just James but others in his crew as they all deal with the psychological impact of living in a war zone. James’ methods are a bit off-book, which brings him into conflict with others in the squad, including Sgt. Sanborn, played by Anthony Mackie.

The trailer starts just as James arrives in Iraq and begins to acquaint himself with his new deployment. We watch as he takes off his protective gear to deal with one particular bomb, a move the others question. It’s clear his unorthodox methods aren’t always appreciated by those who depend on him to save their lives. Still, they all bond as they all know they’re working toward the same end and devoted to the same mission. It ends with shots of James’ personal life and family, showing the emotional stake he has in surviving each and every task he’s sent out on.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Staying in the political and military realm, Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker, for which she won a Best Director Academy Award, was Zero Dark Thirty. This time the focus was on Maya, a fictional CIA analyst played by Jessica Chastain who’s been tasked with finding Osama bin Laden in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Beginning in 2003, the story follows Maya as she uses every method available to her to turn sources, decipher intercepted communications and more to bring justice to bin Laden.

There are lots of hijab and guns and more as the trailer opens, accompanied by comments from an interrogator about how he’s not a nice guy. We meet Maya and we see how dedicated she is to her job and how good she is at doing it, though it’s often frustrating. 10 years go by and she’s still at it, culminating with a mission to find bin Laden that not everyone in the agency is convinced will work. It ends with the SEAL team opening a remote house in the desert, presumably on the raid that would ultimately take down the terrorist leader.

While Bigelow has focused, particularly in the last 10 years, on political stories (including Detroit), the common theme throughout her work is tension. Sometimes that’s on a boat of people with evolving relationships, sometimes it’s in an RV full of vampires, sometimes it’s in a bomb disposal unit deployed to Iraq. The marketing of her movies has worked to highlight not just the action but the relationships between those involved, with all of creating pulse-pounding moments that the audience is asked to invest in.

Detroit – Marketing Recap

detroit poster 2Summer is usually when studios put out movies that don’t challenge audiences all that intensely. People want to be entertained, not lectured to. Dunkirk challenged that a couple weeks ago and now Detroit seeks to do likewise, only more so.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the movie stars John Boyega and others in a story based on the true events that took place in the titular city 50 years ago. Specifically, it’s focused on the raid by police of the Algiers Motel in Detroit and the subsequent death of three black men and the severe beatings of other men and women. That raid took place during protests and riots by black citizens in the city that emerged following an earlier confrontation and was followed by continued unrest that culminated in the National Guard and other military elements being sent in. What precisely happened in the Algiers was never made entirely clear and, just as is too common today, subsequent trials exonerated the officers involved.

The Posters

detroit pic 1The first poster employs a tactic that’s being used more and more, that of shifting the perspective to show an image that is actually a landscape that’s turned on its side to be in portrait format. Some of the copy is oriented for portrait but the main photo of cops holding back a group of protestors and the title are both landscape. The photo is a bit beaten up like it’s been handled and stored for decades and is worn. It’s pretty effective at establishing the setting and story without giving away too much. “It’s time we knew” is the copy that tells us we’re getting some story we likely aren’t aware of.

A second poster uses the same portrait orientation for the title while placing four close-up shots of members of the main cast in quad format around the poster. Again, the appeal is made that this comes from the director of Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker and is based on a shocking and “terrifying” true story of a time in America’s recent history.

The Trailers

The first trailer starts off with actual news footage from the 1967 violence that gripped the city. So we hear about the snipers that have everyone on edge and other actions. We meet Melvin, a security guard who’s just trying to do his job and keep things peaceful before cutting to a bus load of citizens who decide to hole up at a local motel until things calm down. Things begin to escalate when someone pulls a prank involving a starter pistol that no one outside knows is fake. So the police and national guard that are in the city raid the hotel and start looking for the gun. That brings everyone together as the burnt out military just wants answers, Melvin wants everyone to survive and the violence everywhere escalates.

It’s an incredibly effective and terrifying trailer that shows the historical context for the story and the very personal perspective we will be asked to follow. Boyega looks great as the cop who just wants to keep the peace and do his job. The violence keeps ramping up further and further and this looks like a gripping story.

As the second trailer opens we see Melvin is being questioned by the police about the events of the dramatic night. He recounts what he knows from his involvement as a security guard but it turns out the police have it in mind to pin at least some of the deaths at the hotel on him. It’s then the trailer pans out to set the historical context of what happened in the city as a whole and in the hotel where everything went down.

I kind of dig how this one takes a more personal approach to the story. It’s not just about the city, it’s about *this* guy and what happened to him and what he saw. That makes sense both from the point of view of connecting the audience very personally with the story and because hey, why not put Boyega front and center for at least part of the campaign, right?

Online and Social

When you load the official website it’s clear the site is built on Tumblr from the way content is laid out. The trailer starts playing in one of the tiles at the top of the page, with another letting you play a video that intercuts footage from the movie with an interview with a number of people who lived through the events depicted and the filmmakers.

Keep scrolling down the page and you’ll encounter a number of other photos from both the film and the news of the time. You can sort which ones you’d like to see by choosing either “Film” or “1967. The “Trailer” will play the final trailer for you.

Most importantly, more of the interviews can be found in “True Stories,” which gives you the same one seen at the top of the page as well as a second with more memories and insights.

The bottom of the page has links to the movie’s Instagram, Twitter and Facebook profiles.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

TV advertising kicked off with a spot that condensed the story down to show the racial climate that will be portrayed in the movie, with shots of kids acting tough and cops getting in everyone’s faces as tensions begin to boil over.

The second trailer was used pretty extensively in social ads on Twitter and Facebook. Key art was used for outdoor billboards as well as banner and other online ads.

Media and Publicity

One aspect of the movie got particular attention, namely that it was a movie about black people that was written by a white guy. Screenwriter Mark Boal addressed that disconnect head-on, discussing how he discovered the story, the responsibility he felt to tell it, working with Bigelow again and lots more.

Boyega also was a focus of the press, where he talked about taking on this role, what it’s been like to bounce between Star Wars and other projects and other topics like how familiar he was or wasn’t with this particular part of America’s history. Boyega also did the late night talk show rounds to promote the movie there.

detroit pic

As a well-known director it was good to see Bigelow get the spotlight as well. She and co-star Anthony Mackie did their own press appearances, was interviewed about how this movie fits into her body of work that focuses on real-life action and violence and otherwise talked about doing what she could to highlight a part of history.


This is a challenging movie to sell. It’s the kind of low-profile prestige movie that doesn’t usually get big release platforms these days. Indeed, I kept having to remind myself it wasn’t a Netflix original film, something they picked up at a festival.

The campaign hasn’t shied away from some difficult topics, though, including the attitudes and behaviors of the police and military who were in or sent to Detroit to deal with the situation. Boyega’s security guard character is clearly our entry point into the story, the one we’re following and who is shown to be beholden to two viewpoints, both that of law enforcement and his identity as a black man. It’s through his eyes that we see what’s happening and how things spiral out of control.

Not only is what’s being sold an important historical lesson – especially for people like me who knew of but weren’t all that familiar with what happened there – but it’s so incredibly timely to the world we live in now. It seems like once a month a new instance emerges of police killing unarmed black men, women and children and eventually being set free. Riots and protests have popped up around the country in the last three years in response to this and while none have reached the fever pitch of Detroit 50 years ago, they’re all reminders that we have a long way to go. The marketing of Detroit never makes that connection explicitly, but it’s there in the background for anyone who’s been watching the news.