Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal follow up their Oscar-winning drama ''The Hurt Locker'' with a politically charged true story. In their first major interview, they break their silence about their timely new film

By Rob Brunner
Updated November 23, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST
  • Movie

You know how this story ends: with heroic Navy SEALs, a cover-of-darkness raid, and Osama bin Laden’s bullet-riddled corpse in a compound in Pakistan. But what you likely don’t know is precisely what led up to that historic event — namely, the grueling investigative work that director Kathryn Bigelow, 60, and writer-producer Mark Boal, 39, capture in Zero Dark Thirty (rated R, opening Dec. 19 in NYC and L.A.). ”Simply put, it’s the story of a lifetime,” Bigelow says of the U.S. government’s long search for the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. ”This is the world’s most dangerous man — it was a manhunt that eluded a couple of administrations and took place over a decade. So I was fascinated by that. How did this happen? How did we find this house in Abbottabad? Who were the people responsible?”

Bigelow and Boal’s gritty procedural stars Jessica Chastain as a fiercely driven CIA agent and features Jason Clarke, James Gandolfini, and Kyle Chandler. It’s the filmmakers’ first project since their 2009 collaboration The Hurt Locker, which won six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. ”Every film is a mountain, and it never gets easy,” says Bigelow. ”But if anything, the acclaim we got [for The Hurt Locker] was encouraging to maybe push myself harder on the next film.”

You began working on a bin Laden movie in 2006. Then in May of 2011, a few months before you were going to start shooting, bin Laden was killed. How did you hear the news?
Kathryn Bigelow We were both in the office, working on the other project. Emails started coming in and telephones started ringing.
Mark Boal We were watching it on TV, and then I got an email saying there’s a request from a reporter who wants to know what this means for your movie. And I was like, ”Oh, right! That’s a really good question.”
Bigelow I knew immediately that we had to pivot. There was no hesitation. You can’t pretend it didn’t happen.
Boal After doing some homework, it became obvious that the story of how bin Laden was caught was more than enough for a movie. It’s like a real-life detective story. You have what’s probably the largest manhunt ever prosecuted. So that’s pretty fertile ground for drama.

Mark, you did an unusual amount of original reporting before writing the script. How did you go about it?
Boal I dove into it. I researched it and reported it much the way I would a magazine article. It was hard. I mean, this is a story that involves two of the most secretive agencies in the U.S. government [the CIA and the Defense Department]. But I just approached it as a journalist, talking to as many people as I could. And then as a dramatist — to take that information and bring it to the screen in a way that’s faithful to the homework but that puts the audience in the center of the action.

So how real is Zero Dark Thirty?
Boal The film is based on firsthand accounts of the people who were directly involved in the events that we portray.

In No Easy Day, this fall’s best-seller about the bin Laden raid, a former Navy SEAL writes about a real female CIA agent who was central to tracking down bin Laden. To what extent is Jessica Chastain’s character, Maya, based on a real person?
Boal All of the characters in the film are based on real people, including Maya. 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.
Bigelow What was fascinating to me was the tenacity of these individuals…just the sheer complexity and the psychology of what it takes to have such a telescoped pursuit, and the dedication and courage that it takes. Also, very little of that process is known outside of [the intelligence] community. How do you find a needle in a haystack? How do you find this guy who’s a courier? And then once you’ve found him, how do you track him back to a compound in Abbottabad?

President Obama is not portrayed in the film. Why did you make that decision?
Boal There will probably be many movies made about this subject, and [Obama’s point of view] is probably a great movie too. But the story we chose to tell was through the eyes of the workforce on the ground. To us, those are the people that you don’t know about. I know people will agree that the film is not partisan when they actually see it. That was never the intention. Just like in The Hurt Locker, we focused on the soldiers on the ground.

Last year, U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) called for an investigation into the access you were given when researching your script. That must have been pretty surreal.
Bigelow It was certainly distracting. But we had a start date, and quite honestly I had about 112 sets to build and over 120 speaking parts, so I was pretty focused on the job at hand.
Boal 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. But it was [leading up to] an election year, and I think we got caught up in that a little bit. I hope people see the movie and judge for themselves.
Bigelow We were confident that the material would speak for itself. Obviously, [King’s] comments were not based on having read the script.
Boal No, the comments were made before I even wrote the script! [Laughs]

Did you have any qualms about depicting waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques?
Boal It’s a short answer: It’s part of the history, and we wanted to show the history. Part of that is re-creating chase sequences, part of it is re-creating the psychological complexity of the interrogations, part of it is re-creating the personal struggles of the agents involved, part of it is re-creating the danger that they were in. You try to be faithful to the research.
Bigelow There’s no question it was difficult, but to deny it would have been to be inaccurate.

Jessica Chastain recently told EW that this film — which was mostly shot in Jordan and India — was the toughest one she’s ever made. What made it so hard?
Bigelow It was definitely the most challenging film I’ve ever encountered. You’re displaced for a long period of time, and you’re in an environment that’s a crush of humanity everywhere you turn. It’s physically hard. We shot it in 66 days, which for a film that takes place on three different continents is very ambitious. It was so hot. Somehow I find myself — with Hurt Locker, too — in these extremely hot locations.
Boal It’s always fun to shoot in a place where [a sign] says, ”Syria, 5 kilometers.”
Bigelow Also, it was the nature of the material. There’s a responsibility we all felt with handling this story. That carries a kind of weight and gravity.

The film climaxes, of course, with the raid on bin Laden’s compound. I’ve never seen anything like the way you shot those scenes, where you really can’t see what’s going on, but somehow you can.
Bigelow It’s not just night photography, it’s no-light photography. You’re in an environment that’s pitch-black. The story takes place not just at night but on a dark, moonless night.
Boal It’s a very accurate, we hope, rendition of how the SEALs entered, what they did on each floor. 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.
Bigelow The methodical nature of their movements — those were as researched as everything else, and then rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed. Imagine 150 people in an environment that’s rocky and has impediments everywhere, and you can’t see. So it was a fairly arduous shoot. [Laughs]

Where did you build the replica of bin Laden’s compound?
Bigelow In Jordan, near the Dead Sea. And we built [a real house]. 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. So those environments were at times extremely cramped, hot, and airless.
Boal We got to know the crew really well.
Bigelow But the thing that was so uncanny was, you definitely felt the presence of the people whose house this was, even though we were in Jordan, not Abbottabad. It had been so faithfully re-created that it almost brought them to life in a very eerie, strange way.

Any idea what your next project will be? Will you continue to collaborate?
Bigelow I hope so.
Boal This has been so momentous for both of us, and we both really put a lot of effort and blood and sweat into making this happen. It’s hard to think beyond the hunt for bin Laden right now.

Out of curiosity, how were you planning to end the bin Laden movie that got scrapped?
Boal Oh, I can’t tell you that. I need to save that for if we ever make that one.

Really? Is that a possibility?
Boal Yeah, I think so. Why not?

I can’t tell if you’re joking. Could you actually go back and make that as a prequel?
Boal No, I’m not joking.
Bigelow Possibly.
Boal But I think the last thing [either of us] wants to do right now is talk about making another movie.

Zero Dark Thirty

  • Movie
  • 156 minutes
  • Kathryn Bigelow