On Dec. 19 of this year, only 19 months after Osama bin Laden was killed by a team of Navy SEALs, Kathryn Bigelow’s new film detailing how the C.I.A. and military hunted down the terrorist will hit theaters. Drawing from intensive research, Zero Dark Thirty — which stars Jessica Chastain as a dogged C.I.A. agent — is part procedural and part true-life action thriller, and in this week’s issue of EW, Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (who collaborated previously on Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker) give their first interview together about how they made the intense, hyper-realistic film.
Accuracy was one of the primary issues for the two of them, both with the C.I.A. detective story and when it came to the climactic raid on bin Laden’s compound. “It’s a very accurate, we hope, rendition of how the SEALs entered, what they did on each floor,” says Boal. “Kathryn spent a lot of time trying to make sure all of that was correct, down to who was on what step when, how they went around a corner.” Not only that, the filmmakers also completely recreated the compound itself near the Dead Sea in Jordan. “We built [a real house],” says Bigelow. “You would naturally consider building each floor on a different stage in North Hollywood or something. But it was as close to the exact dimensions of the real building as possible. Those environments were at times extremely cramped, extremely hot and airless. But the thing that was so uncanny was, you definitely felt the presence of the people whose house this was, even though of course we were in Jordan, not Abbottobad. It had been so faithfully recreated that it almost brought them to life in a very eerie, strange way. You’re spending a month in this place, day and night. It was unnerving. On May 1 [2012, the one-year anniversary of bin Laden’s killing] we were shooting. It was only a year prior that the real raid happened.”
Bigelow and Boal also worked hard to make sure the movie would not put anyone in danger. “All of the characters in the film are based on real people,” says Boal. “But we went to great lengths to make sure that their identities wouldn’t be in any way jeopardized by the film. We made sure not to cast actors who bore physical resemblances to the people [they played]. And also not to put things in the film that would allow anybody to draw a dotted line. Because, look, a lot of these people are still working. We take protecting those people very seriously.”
Still, Zero Dark Thirty has caused some controversy — even before its critics have seen it. Last year, U.S. Rep. Peter King called for an investigation of whether the filmmakers were given inappropriate access to classified information. “There’s a lot that has been said about this film which is just misinformed,” says Boal. “I hope people see the movie and judge for themselves.” As to what it felt like to be the target of political criticism, Boal says, “If you’re asking me if it was fun, the answer is it was not fun. If you’re asking me if it was surreal, it was surreal.” Adds Bigelow, “I think we were confindent finally that the material would speak for itself. Obviously those comments were not based on having read the script.” Boal laughs. “No, the comments were made before I even wrote the script!”
Check out the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly for more of this exclusive interview.