Behind The Scenes On Zero Dark Thirty

Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of AwardsLine.

Fast and furious is perhaps the best way to describe the making of Zero Dark Thirty, something Jessica Chastain found out the day after attending last year’s Oscar ceremony.

“I flew 25 hours to Chandigarh, India. I got off the plane and I called in, just kind of joking, ‘I’m here guys, ready to go!’ ” Chastain recalls. “And they said, ‘OK, come on in!’ I didn’t go through hair and makeup—nothing. They put me in a robe, they sent me to a market, I had no idea what time of day it was, and they just started shooting. And it was like that from the get-go.”

Rarely are movies put together as rapidly and with as much timeliness as Zero Dark Thirty, which recounts the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden and culminates in the May 1, 2011, U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed the 9/11 terrorist leader.

Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty closely follows the real-life raid on Osama bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty closely follows the real-life raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan.

Director Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to earn the best director Oscar for 2008’s Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker, says the story was too compelling to not do. “I suppose there were certainly a lot of options out there, which I was grateful for, but I really felt that this was the story to tell,” she says. “It’s a mystery, it’s a story that was out there, and I think has touched many, many, many lives the world over, and I felt it was a great opportunity to tackle this.”

Bigelow also relished the chance to continue working with Mark Boal, who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for The Hurt Locker and tapped into his experience as a journalist to uncover and write the story behind the raid. “I appreciate the scope and the challenges that he writes into his screenplays,” Bigelow says.

Boal and Bigelow originally planned to shoot a movie about bin Laden eluding capture in the mountains of Tora Bora in 2001, and were close to starting principal photography when the al Qaeda leader was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Starting from scratch, Boal dove into researching the events that lead to the raid. Working with the public-affairs offices of various government agencies as well as tapping into contacts he had accumulated as a journalist covering America’s post-9/11 wars and the veterans who fight them, Boal assembled the script quickly from first-hand accounts.

The energy Boal put into the script was perfect for Bigelow. “He was certainly reporting this story as it was unfolding, and there’s a kind of urgency and timeliness to that,” she says. “And at the same time, I think we both felt a responsibility to tell it in a certain way, to tell it responsibly, and to be faithful to the research.”

Backing the production was producer Megan Ellison, who funded the movie through her Annapurna Pictures shingle. Bigelow says Ellison was tremendously supportive of the project and the filmmakers’ desire to get it right. “We were fortunate that she agreed to finance the movie and enable us to retain creative control,” she says.

Jessica Chastain stars as a relentless CIA agent pursuing bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty.
Jessica Chastain stars as a relentless CIA agent pursuing bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty.

The script ended up with more than 120 speaking roles and 112 sets, with the lead role of Maya—a CIA analyst who unapologetically and obsessively tracks down bin Laden in order to kill him—requiring an actress who could portray steely resolve while navigating the labyrinthine world and linguistic gymnastics of real-life espionage.

Chastain, a first-time Oscar nominee for The Help, was Bigelow’s first choice for the role. “I just felt that her intensity, her focus, her innate intelligence was something that would give the character an incredible amount of credibility,” she says.

Among the keys for getting into Maya’s head was learning the reality of life as a CIA analyst—including the importance of status in that world, which is essential to Maya’s character arc. “Maya is at the very bottom end of it and as she actually starts to fight back against it, she claims her own status to get people to listen to her,” Chastain says.

The intensity of shooting on a very tight schedule in such distant places as Jordan and India also informed Chastain’s take on Maya. “Being a woman in that part of the world, it changes your energy and your physicality,” says Chastain. “It desexualizes you because you don’t want to be seen as a woman.”

Among the most challenging scenes were the realistic portrayals of torture, including a sequence in which Dan, a CIA interrogator played by Jason Clarke, waterboards a suspected al Qaeda informant.

“As an actor, I was relieved that Mark and Kathryn were telling the whole story. These things happened,” says Clarke. “We shot it quite quickly. It was set up in an environment that was as realistic as possible. (With) the other actor, we established the bond we needed to trust each other.”

The logistics were a big and satisfying challenge for Bigelow to tackle. “We were shooting on and prepping on two continents simultaneously, in India and in Jordan, and we had to choreograph the entire raid early in preproduction, which meant you had to have figured out that whole section of the movie, which is arguably the most difficult to shoot, when you’re probably eight weeks out,” she says.

For the raid sequence that is the climax of the movie, the production re-created bin Laden’s Pakistan compound as completely as possible. The model had to not only look as accurate as possible, it had to accommodate the shoot—including having a strong enough foundation to withstand the rotor wash from the Black Hawk helicopters that were going to hover over it, says Bigelow.

“That had to all be choreographed—all of our shots, everything about that structure, how we were going to shoot it—well before we started principal photography and well before we were to shoot the raid in the first place, which was not going to be shot until mid to late April,” says Bigelow.

From the start, the subject matter drew unexpected political attention, with pundits and pols assigning partisan motives to the movie before it even had a script and inaccurately reporting that the production was given inappropriate access to classified material.

Even with the film finished, the political reactions are unexpected. “People seem to be misreading the film as advocating torture, which is just preposterous,” Boal says. “If you actually look at the film, we show the torture not yielding information and not preventing an attack—that information is coughed up over a civilized lunch. I guess this is par for the course of making something that touches people’s political turf.”

Q&A: Mark Boal on Zero Dark Thirty

Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of AwardsLine.

As both a journalist and a screenwriter, Mark Boal is no stranger to writing about modern soldiers and the wars they fight.

Zero Dark Thirty reunites Boal with director Kathryn Bigelow—both won Oscars for The Hurt Locker—to chronicle the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It’s a subject that made the movie infamous long before its release as pols and pundits accused the White House of trying to bolster its image by granting Boal and Bigelow improper access to classified information about the May 2011 raid that killed the Al Qaeda leader.

While Boal denies the charges—the released documents fail to prove improper access—the movie itself has at last emerged to defy political pigeonholing and throw a surprise shock into awards season. Eschewing policymakers and presidents, Zero Dark Thirty relies on first-hand accounts of events and focuses on CIA analyst Maya, who spends a decade obsessively hunting bin Laden. Like all the characters in the movie, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, is based on a real person—though not so much so that anyone can identify the real agent.

Speaking with AwardsLine less than a day after Zero Dark Thirty first screened, Boal reflected on the intense process of putting together a complex film under such unusual pressures.

AWARDSLINE: You’ve been telling stories about today’s soldiers and modern wars. What do you find so attractive about these subjects?

MARK BOAL: Ever since 9/11, I found myself interested in chronicling the war and the war on terror and the way that this giant machinery was affecting individuals. As a screenwriter, I’m fascinated by people that put themselves at such great risk. And there’s so many inherently dramatic components—for example, the intelligence community—that make fertile ground for a dramatist.

AWARDSLINE: You were working on a movie about bin Laden’s 2001 escape into the caves of Afghanistan. How far had you gotten on that project and what kind of state was it in when bin Laden was reported killed?

BOAL: We were planning to shoot late that summer.

AWARDSLINE: What was your first thought about the movie when you heard he had been killed?

BOAL: I was thinking about friends I had lost on 9/11, to be honest with you. But eventually I came around and started thinking about it narratively, as a screenwriter, and it occurred to me that I had a lot of work to do and that I’d probably have to throw out years of work.

AWARDSLINE: How did you gather your first-hand accounts? Were you going through official channels or were you tracking down people on your own and using your own contacts?

BOAL: It was a combination of all three of those methods. I certainly went through official channels, the public-affairs offices of the relevant agencies, as any reporter would do. I also did independent reporting, and you just kind of follow your nose and you build what you know one interview at a time.

AWARDSLINE: How quickly did the script come together?

BOAL: I felt like I was working with a gun to my head because I felt a lot of competitive pressure to do it quickly. It was a couple or three months of writing, and another three months of research. I was researching while I was writing.

AWARDSLINE: How much did the script change through production?

BOAL: We shot the first draft, more or less, but I was always tweaking scenes on set. There were no conceptual revisions, really, but once I get a sense for an actor and how the dialogue sounds coming out of his or her mouth, I like to craft the character to what I perceive to be their strengths. Probably not a day went by when I didn’t churn out revisions of existing pages.

AWARDSLINE: A lot has been made in the media of the production getting assistance from the government in researching the movie. How did you approach the government and what kind of assistance did they provide?

BOAL: If you’re trying to do your homework, as I was, the first thing you do is you go directly to the offices that are set up and designed to work with reporters or book authors or screenwriters. That’s what their job is: Communicate the facts and the goals of whatever agency they work for. That relationship between people seeking information and government agencies sharing the information is one of the foundations of this system that we have. What was unusual in this case was we got caught up in an election year and our movie became a chew toy, a talking point in a presidential election campaign. There were all sorts of things that were said about the film that were just not true.

AWARDSLINE: How fictionalized is the Maya character and what are some of the challenges of writing this kind of character?

BOAL: It’s what screenwriters do all the time when they work from life. Part of what astonished me in my research is there were a lot of women involved in this hunt that played a big role, and I just wasn’t aware of that side of the CIA. I chose to tell the story through her eyes because that seemed to be to me the most dynamic and interesting way to do it. You’re also trying to dramatize events to tell a story most effectively. That doesn’t mean the events aren’t true, it just means you’re making them as dramatic as you possibly can. Then there were also things that I did to the character that I’m not going to discuss for obvious reasons to make sure that nobody would be able to watch the movie and draw a dotted line between a character in the film and somebody in real life.

AWARDSLINE: Was it a conscious choice to steer clear of putting politicians in the film except for brief glimpses of TV news reports?

BOAL: That was a creative choice. For better or worse, most of my writing life has been about people that work behind the scenes. I’m interested in finding extraordinary moments in otherwise normal people. Not to say there couldn’t be a great movie about the White House—I’m sure there will be some day, and somebody should write that movie. It just won’t be me.