LOS ANGELES—Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, the winning duo behind the Oscar-winning film “The Hurt Locker,” have done it again. “Zero Dark Thirty,” which can be considered a companion piece to “Hurt Locker,” is a riveting film on the hunt for Osama bin Laden—made more compelling by the revelation that a young female CIA agent played a big role in the search and in the raid that killed the most wanted terrorist leader.
Mark’s thrilling screenplay, Kathryn’s sharp direction and Jessica Chastain’s superb portrayal of the CIA operative (based on a real agent) could make them very busy this awards season. In a glowing review, Time magazine’s Richard Corliss raved about the “Zero Dark Thirty” script.
The critic wrote: “In the tradition of Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ and Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Right Stuff,’ Boal tracked down the particulars of a sensational exploit and, skipping the ‘non-fiction novel’ stage, created an original screenplay that provides a streamlined timeline of the hunt for Bin Laden. The word ‘docudrama’ doesn’t hint at Boal’s achievement. This is movie journalism that snaps and stings, that purifies a decade’s clamor and clutter into narrative clarity, with a salutary kick.”
“Zero Dark Thirty,” derived from the military jargon for dark of night as well as the time (12:30 a.m.) when the Navy Seals first walked in on Bin Laden’s compound, started as an altogether different project for Mark and Kathryn. “Kathryn and I were interested in the story of Bin Laden for a number of years,” explained Mark. “We started working on that around 2006.”
The Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The Hurt Locker” recounted: “We were preparing to make a film about Tora Bora in Afghanistan (where there was a failed attempt to find Bin Laden). We were a couple of months away from shooting that, and then Bin Laden was killed. The script that I had written became ancient history. I had to choose between throwing away two years of work and starting over. That’s the price you pay when you do something topical and journalistic.”
Mark recalled that he asked Kathryn what to do. “She said, ‘Just start again.’ I usually listen to her so I started researching the intelligence and military operation behind the May 1 raid. That was in May 2011 and a couple of months into that research, I went to Washington, did all the things that reporters do every day—knock on doors, interview people, ask questions. If the door isn’t open, you go around the back. If the back door isn’t open, you go through the window.”
Mark’s door-knocking yielded something that gives “Zero Dark Thirty” its surprise element and additional significance. He said: “A month or two into that, I heard from one of my sources that a young woman had played an important role in the team that captured Bin Laden. I was interested in that because I didn’t know that women played such a prominent role in the intelligence community. I started to direct my research toward that. I was surprised to find that many women within the intelligence community were doing really important front line work.”
The role of Maya, the female CIA agent, gives Jessica a strong chance for a best actress nomination, a well-deserved jump from her fine supporting performances in “The Help,” “Take Shelter” and “The Debt.” But Mark said that, as was his usual practice, he didn’t write the character with any actress in mind.
“I just write from life as much as I can,” he said. “When we were first talking about Jessica, she had obviously had these amazing performances the year before. She was a force to be reckoned with … but she had a job. She was working on another movie (‘Oblivion’), so she wasn’t available. Then, through some begging and persuasion, she dropped out of that film and
came to ours. We were really lucky.”
Asked for details about Jessica’s character—a very intriguing woman who was virtually the only one in her team who was tenacious in her hunch that Bin Laden was in that compound in
Pakistan—Mark answered: “Force of nature is a good phrase because she is off-the-charts persistent. She doesn’t take no for an answer. We see her evolution— from somebody who is almost like a fish out of water, coming into Pakistan for the first time, not at all prepared for the harshness of the world she’s about to enter. She gradually becomes tougher than the men around her, or at least she becomes more certain of herself.”
Maya, said Mark, “is a great kind of classic movie character and it helped that it was true. But it’s also a great narrative device to follow a strong person as she faces challenges on all fronts … by the way, that’s also historically accurate.”
On the evolution of Maya, who is horrified when she watches for the first time a detainee being tortured, Mark said: “Nobody grows up thinking that’s what he’s going to do. This is not true biographical detail, but let’s say somebody in his twenties goes to Georgetown [University], gets a law degree, ends up being an analyst at the CIA, thinking he’s going to work on Latin America oil policy … and then 9/11 happens. He decides he’s going to do something more topical, and he switches to counter-terrorism. A year and a half later, he gets a foreign posting and discovers that the CIA is involved in harsh interrogation tactics. He finds himself in a room and it’s part of his job. What will he do?”
The torture scenes and other images in the film throb with gritty realism. Mark praised Kathryn for her strong direction. Their collaboration in “The Hurt Locker” led to a stunning Oscar best picture win over “Avatar” by James Cameron, Kathryn’s ex-husband.
Mark, who likewise coproduced “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” with Kathryn, said: “It’s been a huge privilege and pleasure for me. There are very few directors in this town who would take on this kind of material with such bravery and brilliant filmmaking.”
Corliss concurred in the Time review: “It’s a subject perfect for Bigelow. She has wrangled complex stories about cops (‘Blue Steel’), undercover FBI agents (‘Point Break’) and nuclear-submarine commanders (‘K19: The Widowmaker’) … proving herself one of cinema’s most inventive visual strategists and field commanders and, in a nice way, Hollywood’s ballsiest director.”
Mark pointed out that he happens to be surrounded by gutsy women. “My mom is a pretty tough cookie,” he said. “Both Jessica and Kathryn are very tenacious. They both love a challenge and this was a challenging movie in a lot of ways. We shot it in India—not that that’s anything special. People make movies in India all the time, but American productions dealing with counter-terrorism don’t go to India very often, and probably for a good reason.
“We shot the other half in the Middle East, which was even more challenging and, as you know, it’s a difficult place for a woman used to a Western mentality about freedom and everything. But Jessica and Kathryn are both incredibly smart, hardworking and super talented. So there’s a synergy and a mutual respect that I believe you see on the screen.”
Of the concern that some media men may try to uncover the real identities of the film’s characters, Mark said, “I’m very confident that there’s nothing in the film that will enable [anyone] to draw a dotted line between somebody in the film and somebody in real life.”
Mark declined to confirm if he met the CIA agent on whom Jessica’s character is based. He explained: “I met a lot of people involved in this, but … I’m sure you’d understand this as a journalist … I made a commitment to protect my sources. It’s very important to me that the people depicted in the film be able to continue to do the work that they’re doing. They are working undercover. Whether you agree with what they do or not, they are civil servants.”
In researching for his scripts, Mark applied his experience as a contributing writer for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and Playboy. “I do a lot of homework,” he said. “The only way I really know how to write something is, I have to go, meet and talk to a lot of people. I can’t just sit at home and imagine it. My imagination isn’t that good, so I go and do a lot of reporting and fill up notebooks.
“In this case, I wasn’t able to tape-record anything so I filled up a lot of notebooks. Then I came home and tried to stuff as many experiences, facts and people into my head as possible, organize it in some kind of narrative. There was so much pressure on me to do this quickly because I knew there were going to be other movies and TV movies. I wrote the script in three or four months, which was fast for me because ‘The Hurt Locker’ took me like, a year.”
Working on a script is “a two-stage process,” he said. “Stage one is, I’m a reporter. I go out and interview as if I was writing a book or a magazine article. Then stage two, I take all that
research, try to kill the reporter and let the dramatist [in me] shape it in a way that tells a
story—without making the reporter too angry. It’s very schizophrenic. There’s no way to take 10 years and put them in two hours without taking dramatic license … The other thing was, we were careful not to have anything in the film that depicted sensitive electronic or other espionage means that would put somebody in harm’s way.”
On a lighter note, Mark smiled when asked how they came up with the design of the stealth helicopters that ferried the Navy Seal Team 6 through Pakistani air defenses before landing in Abbottabad, where Bin Laden’s compound was. One of the top-secret choppers crashed, so the Seals had to destroy it with explosives.
“There was a tailpiece of the helicopter that survived the demolition of the Navy Seals,” Mark noted. “So, we were able to extrapolate from that tailpiece. There were also sources with whom I discussed the helicopter’s basic design.”
He added: “There was a little action figure that came out of China about three weeks after the raid. I had [one] on my desk. I happened to show it to somebody who had, let’s say, intimate knowledge of the actual stealth helicopters. He said, ‘Wow, that toy is pretty close.’ ”
Looking into the future, past the awards season which will likely make him a busy man, Mark disclosed that he’s writing a screenplay about WikiLeaks. “I optioned some material on that (a New York Times magazine story on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange). It’s fascinating. As a journalist, I’m all for government transparency and openness. The political climate around that has gotten pretty interesting. Politicians should be very careful when they weigh the risks of curtailing freedom of the press. That’s an issue that’s near and dear to my heart.”
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