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Inside Mark Boal’s and Kathryn Bigelow’s Mad Dash to Make Zero Dark Thirty

Mark Boal was on the phone with the CIA. It was April 29, 2011, fourteen months after he had collected a pair of Academy Awards for writing and producing The Hurt Locker, and he was back at work. Boal had spent the better part of the years since 9/11 as a journalist, traveling in hot zones, embedding with troops, and covering the “war on terror.” Now, he and director Kathryn Bigelow, his Hurt Locker partner, were deep into a new project—not a sequel but a different kind of war story, which would take both of them back into that film’s difficult location shoots and Bush-era moral murk. Their plan was to depict the ill-fated attempt, just months after 9/11, to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora. Their story would be what Boal calls an “East meets West” drama—“of cultural differences,” adds Bigelow—“irreconcilable,” adds Boal. “To an extent,” says Bigelow. “But I don’t want to give away the whole—” says Boal. “Okay,” says Bigelow. The two have worked together for about a decade, since Bigelow brought Boal into the business, and this intimately negotiated finishing of each other’s sentences, overwriting each other’s language, is actually the way they talk, at least in front of a reporter.

Boal—who, at 39, still considers himself as much a journalist as a screenwriter—had spent more than a year researching and writing and was close to finishing a screenplay. “I wasn’t done done, like, ready to shoot,” he says, “but I was far enough along so that I was spending money to have scouts in Kazakhstan,” which was to double for Afghanistan. He was also far enough along to deploy both the carrot and the stick in his ongoing back-and-forth with the CIA. Boal had to make the agency believe that it couldn’t prevent the telling of a story that, “let’s face it, was a military and intelligence failure,” he says, and at the same time convince his contacts there that he and Bigelow would handle the subject responsibly enough that the agency might want to help them understand what happened. “I was trying to set up a fact-checking call,” he says of that Friday evening. “I said, ‘We’ll be fair, but I have a number of questions for you.’ And they said, ‘Great, but can we punt this to next week?’ ”

Two days later, on May 1, Boal and Bigelow were in his Los Angeles office, working into the evening, when their phones started to fill with messages from friends and colleagues passing along rumors of some very big news. That night, along with the rest of America, they watched President Obama enter the East Room of the White House and announce that Navy SEALS had killed Bin Laden in a raid on a residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In the spirit of the moment, neither of them mentioned that their movie was now, in all likelihood, about to fall apart.

The Tora Bora movie did, in fact, self-combust, but just eighteen months later, Zero Dark Thirty, the tough, unsparing film that rose from its ashes, is about to land right in the thick of an already congested Oscar race. (Last week, the New York Film Critics Circle awarded the movie, which opens December 19, Best Film and Best Director.) Before the raid, the filmmakers had planned to make a narrowly focused, closed-ended story that would have ended on a note of irresolution and futility. But Zero Dark Thirty is something else: a stark procedural epic that stretches from 2001 to 2011—ten years of fitful intelligence progress and setbacks so staggering that, by the time the virtuosic reenactment of the Abbottabad raid arrives, audiences will be tallying what that achievement cost America, and what costs may be yet to come. It’s a movie that confirms Bigelow and Boal’s position as probably our most prominent and least sentimental cultural custodians of the post-9/11 war era.

When, on Oscar night in early 2010, Kathryn Bigelow made history as the first woman to earn a Best Director statuette, it seemed less the bestowal of a prize than a long-overdue coronation. Until that moment, Bigelow had been, in the words of Amy Pascal, the co-chairman of Zero Dark Thirty distributor Sony Pictures, “one of the most overlooked, underappreciated directors working—including by our own community.” The intensity of that language reflects the degree to which Bigelow was, in taking the stage for what she called “the moment of a lifetime,” being heralded more as a benchmark than as a person—Hollywood’s Great Lady of the Glass Ceiling.

Bigelow never expressed public frustration at being made into a symbol, but she never quite acquiesced to it either—as anyone who sees Zero Dark Thirty will realize, triumphalism isn’t her thing, even at moments of triumph. Nor did she ever indicate that she saw herself as overlooked or underappreciated, though that was hard to argue, especially when people spent more time discussing her two-year marriage to James Cameron in the late eighties than her extensive filmography. Bigelow is 61, a number that seems like a typo when you meet her, but one that reminds you she has the résumé of a veteran: Her long pre–Hurt Locker career encompassed a quarter-century of successes, misses, cult triumphs like Point Break and Near Dark, compromises, and, though you won’t hear it from her, opportunities she should have had but didn’t. The Hurt Locker’s six Oscars offered a chance to change that equation—to make what Boal calls “the big studio movie that you do after you win, after you get some cachet and stuff.” Bigelow’s partnership with Boal, who met her about ten years ago when she inquired about a story he’d written for Playboy, has taken her into new and rewarding territory, his journalistic cred a complement to her unsentimental, realist aesthetic. Their collaboration—she calls herself “a delivery system for Mark’s content”—is so intense that many assume it is, or was, romantic, something the two have never acknowledged, denied, or discussed. In conversation, that intensity is something to behold.

After the Oscars, when their Tora Bora project still couldn’t find any takers, they sold a large-scale drug-war drama called Triple Frontier to Paramount. (Boal: “I wasn’t ready to pitch it, so she said—” Bigelow: “I’ll talk you through it in the car on the way.” Boal: “She has this theory, what is it, the door handle—” Bigelow: “Doorknob.” Boal: “That when you go through the door—” Bigelow: “It’ll sort of jell.”) The project was hot; Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp were rumored as co-leads. “And then it stalled,” says Bigelow. “So that’s when we jumped back to Bin Laden.”

Bigelow and Boal had had the Tora Bora project in mind for a while, but even after The Hurt Locker, they couldn’t sell it to a studio; the subject has long been considered box-office poison, and despite all the acclaim, Hurt Locker was the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner since the fifties. Instead, they secured $45 million in financing independently from Megan Ellison’s company Annapurna Pictures. A 26-year-old movie lover and investor-producer, Ellison is the daughter of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and—there is no delicate way to put this—unbelievably rich. In the last two years, she has plunged into the business as a sort of SoCal Medici for American auteurs (she’s backed films for, among others, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, and Bennett Miller). She agreed to give Bigelow complete creative and business control. For a while, it seemed like everything was settling into place.

Of course, Bigelow and Boal had always known Bin Laden might be killed or captured. Even as he wrote and she started to puzzle through how to re-create the distinctive and forbidding Afghanistan terrain, the two of them had the what-if conversation “many times,” she says. “We had it pretty close to May 1, actually.”

“I was fairly convinced that another decade was going to go by,” says Boal. “That they would find him as an old man in Caracas or something. That was a pretty reasonable opinion to hold if you were familiar with the way the intelligence case had been developing. The trail had gone cold. So I don’t think I was the only person who was surprised. Half of Congress was surprised.”

At first, Bigelow and Boal thought their movie could be saved—that all Bin Laden’s killing had done to the story was to give it a new climax. Besides, the project that nobody had wanted to touch a month or a year earlier was, overnight, a hot property. After the news broke, “I hate to admit it, but we called her right up,” Pascal says. “We knew she and Mark were working on this, and then and there we said, ‘Hey, are you still doing that movie? Let’s get together!’ ” Without seeing a script, Sony committed to distribute the film. Pascal imagined it would probably be a mission-driven narrative focused primarily on the raid, a guaranteed showcase for Bigelow’s phenomenal skills as a director of action.

“I might’ve pitched it that way,” Boal says, a little sheepishly. “I didn’t know what it was. Probably for a month after he was killed, I was trying really hard to frame these two events—2001 in Afghanistan, 2011 in Pakistan—into one narrative.”

“We talked about it a lot,” says Bigelow.

“You were more of a holdout than I was,” says Boal.

“I was really hungry to hang on to the first version,” says Bigelow. “Even if it was a kind of compressed version of that film, an opening or a prologue.” But two months after the raid, they both came to the same conclusion: There were no possible fixes—and even if there were, “it would be perverse,” says Boal, to try to market a movie about failing to capture Bin Laden in the wake of his killing. In the end, the only element of the original project that would survive into Zero Dark Thirty turned out to be its first two minutes, a wrenching sonic collage of voices from 9/11—first responders, emergency operators, worried family members, frantic victims—that immediately and brutally reopens the wounds of that day. Everything else—two years of work—was scrapped.

“Now, that sucked,” says Boal, laughing. And it’s not as if he could complain to friends that the death of Osama bin Laden ruined his movie. “No,” he says dryly. “Because there’s nothing sadder in the world than an unmade screenplay, right?”

That summer, before reconceiving the project, Boal had gotten back in touch with the CIA, pushing for access to fresh details both about the Abbottabad raid and the intelligence that led up to it, and pressing his case that, among many newly hatched Bin Laden projects, theirs was the likeliest to reach the finish line. It worked. According to memos released at the request of the conservative group Judicial Watch, the CIA decided to cooperate because “Mark and Kathryn’s movie is going to be the first and the biggest. It’s got the most money behind it, and two Oscar winners onboard.” The CIA recommended extending preferential treatment to Boal, noting that the project had “the full knowledge and support of Director Panetta” (played in the film by James Gandolfini). Judicial Watch and GOP noisemakers like Long Island congressman Peter King were hungry for evidence that the CIA was offering inappropriate cooperation—and possibly revealing classified material—so Hollywood could make a movie that would get President Obama reelected. But the two most scandalous reveals in the CIA memos are (1) that the agency is rather too agog about Hollywood (one Argo-esque e-mail discusses the importance of establishing “stronger relationships with CAA”) and (2) that the CIA uses emoticons. “I want you to note how good I’ve been about not mentioning the premiere tickets :-),” wrote George Little, at the time the agency’s director of public affairs, to Boal.

The raid’s backstory was hard to come by, but as he researched, Boal began to hear from intelligence insiders about a woman—a CIA “targeter” who had worked on virtually nothing but finding Bin Laden for a decade. By the time Boal returned from reporting in Washington to Los Angeles, he and
Bigelow knew they had found the narrative spine of their film in the character they called Maya.

The “girl”—as she is referred to in one of Zero Dark Thirty’s climactic lines—is a subject about which the filmmakers remain cagey. Since she is still an active agent, Boal won’t say whether they ever spoke face-to-face (“We’re probably not gonna get into the weeds of who we met with or didn’t meet with, ever”). But it’s clear that he wanted the film to move past the traditional definition of docudrama that has stretched from All the President’s Men to United 93 and into a genre he calls a “hybrid of the filmic and the journalistic”—a piece of entertainment that doesn’t just re-create a story but advances it. Maya was the missing piece—the element that might make that happen.

“The juicy thing about Maya was the surprise of it,” Bigelow explains. “That there was this person who did this. But I don’t want you to think I was either excited about or resisting doing it because it was a woman. The excitement was because the character was central to the story. The fact that there is this other dynamic was exciting, too, but not … motivating. Not decisive.”

“I think what you’re saying is, if I had said, ‘Hey, it’s a guy,’ you would have been just as happy,” says Boal.

“Exactly,” she says. A couple of minutes later, though, she circles back to it. “At the first New York screening, this woman came out of the theater, and she was crying and shaking, and she came up to me and said, ‘It wasn’t a woman, though, was it?’ And I said, ‘No, it was!’ There’s something exciting to me as a filmmaker to work with the hand you’re dealt. And with Maya, we happened to be dealt a royal flush.”

Bigelow on location filming Zero Dark Thirty.

Still, Boal and Bigelow didn’t make it easy on themselves. Killing Bin Laden was rumored to be the on-the-nose working title, but ultimately they went with the catchy-but-WTF Zero Dark Thirty (it apparently means 12:30 a.m., when the raid took place). They chose to confront the audience with an excruciating sustained sequence of waterboarding, abuse, and humiliation in the first twenty minutes, presenting the scenes in a defiantly uninflected observational style that already has people arguing about whether the movie is endorsing, condemning, or forgoing judgment about torture. They didn’t cast stars; the major male role, a CIA interrogator called Dan, is played by Australian actor Jason Clarke, and Jessica Chastain was not yet an Oscar nominee or a Broadway leading lady when she signed to play Maya. “I love movie stars, don’t get me wrong,” says Bigelow, “but in a piece like this, where you want the aesthetic to feel as real as possible, you need the audience to be able to create an original relationship with the person onscreen.”

Most strikingly, Boal and Bigelow chose to keep Zero Dark Thirty as in-the-moment as possible. Virtually all we know of Maya and Dan is what we see them do onscreen. Their backgrounds, their personal lives, whatever decisions led them to the Islamabad prison where we first encounter them, are left for us to fill in, or—perhaps more to the point—to dismiss as irrelevant. “Everyone says ‘backstory’ like if you don’t have it, you’re missing a pillar of the house,” says Boal. “I’m not a huge Freudian. When I meet somebody, I’m not interested in what they were doing when they were 6. I like characters that are defined in the very existential present tense.”

“It is a very, very different kind of narrative,” Pascal acknowledges. “It doesn’t have three acts. It doesn’t tell its story conventionally. But we felt that if, at the end, you feel the way you’re supposed to feel, that after this epic but also intimate odyssey, the world has changed, then it didn’t matter if there was a traditional ‘character arc.’ ”

Production took place over a tight fourteen weeks this spring in India and Jordan. Those who were there talk of a spirit of camaraderie, but the mood wasn’t light. “You know, I’m a hippie vegan girl from Northern California,” says Chastain, laughing. “I’m not comfortable in this subject matter at all.” With the help of Boal—who did unusual on-set double-duty as screenwriter and hands-on producer—she threw herself into research, but still, after a week of shooting the torture and interrogation scenes, “there was one day when I had to walk away and just start crying, which was even harder because my character was not like that at all. When I watch the scene, I can see that my eyes were a little red.”

“There were no big trailers or anything,” says Clarke, noting the difficulty of working in areas hostile to signs of American excess. “We tried to maintain a very small footprint in the places we were shooting. The production was small and focused, without fat, because it wasn’t necessarily a great idea to have it look like a huge movie set.” One shoot, in an actual prison in Jordan, was especially hard on Chastain. “One day, we drove up to the gate and they wouldn’t let us through,” she remembers. “I said, ‘What’s happening?’ And the driver said, ‘You have to get out of the car. The guards want to see you walk.’ I was so angry. I thought, Well, I could just turn around and go back to the hotel and then the movie doesn’t get made, or I can get out of the car and walk past these guys who haven’t seen a woman in a long time. I didn’t necessarily feel completely safe.”

Boal fretted all through the production about the ongoing outcry from the right. (The actual film barely engages with politics: There is one sly joke at Donald Rumsfeld’s expense, and the transition from Bush to Obama is experienced by the main characters only as a distant news report.) “I knew that the movie, once it was completed, would speak for itself,” says Boal. “But I was very concerned during production that the political conversation would get so loud that it would reach the level of interference. I mean, to shoot in India and Jordan involves interactions with those governments.”

“When you’re dressing streets in India to look like Pakistan,” says Bigelow, “it’s not uncomplicated.”

They would shoot for six days, and on the seventh, Bigelow would lead the cast and crew in dry runs for the fearsomely complex sequence that ends the movie. Re-creating the Abbottabad raid required the construction of a full-scale replica of the three-story building in which Bin Laden was concealed, and not, says Bigelow, “the usual thing of two-by-fours and painted canvas. We really built it—we put pylons into the ground so that the structure would withstand the rotor wash of Blackhawk helicopters coming right near it.” Oh, they also built two helicopters after consulting with avionics experts about what the stealth helicopters used in the raid, which have never been photographed, might look like.

“I approached it months in advance,” says Bigelow. “The goal was to be as accurate as we possibly could without, obviously, having been there. I didn’t want it to feel like a movie. So it had to be shot on a virtually moonless night. That meant having very little illumination, and I found a cinematographer who agreed with that.” Bigelow envisioned the raid unfolding in long takes that would follow the SEALS from the helicopters to the outside of the compound and through the doors, then up two flights of stairs. “Ordinarily, yeah, you’d probably take every floor and put it on a different stage. But because I wanted all these contiguous shots, that wasn’t an option.”

Bigelow also wanted to shoot the entire raid two ways—once objectively and once through the night-vision goggles the SEALS wore. The goggles have an unearthly black-on-green effect that’s usually added in postproduction; in Zero Dark Thirty, the scenes were actually shot through those lenses. “You just can’t artificially create it,” she says. “When I look through night-vision goggles, I see the way light sparkles on whatever particulate matter is in the air—it creates a kind of exquisite filmic haze.” The Abbottabad set didn’t even have a removable wall, called a “wild” wall, that would allow a camera to take in an entire room. “It wasn’t a temptation for me, but it was for the art department,” says Bigelow. The production designer, she adds, “did create one. He said, ‘I know you’re going to want it.’ I said, ‘Which one is it? That one? Okay, we’re never going to use it. And,” she says, beaming, “I never wilded it!”

“Our whole focus was making sure we were looking right, moving right, sounding right,” says Chris Pratt, of Parks and Recreation, who makes a joltingly credible transformation into a Navy seal in the raid sequence. “It was not easy. There were twenty of us [actors] on night shoots all the way through. A lot of the time, even though we knew that Kathryn and Mark were right there, collaborating to get what they wanted, it could end up feeling a little chaotic. There were people who were frustrated, there were people who were pissed off. But through it all, Kathryn was the leader—she was able to just really focus on how we were going to get what we needed to get.”

“She was the captain,” says Chastain. “And her confidence meant everything to me, because I was playing a woman who was supposed to be confident and that could not be further from what I felt. People don’t know she does this, but sometimes I’d do a scene and right afterward, if you’ve done something she likes, she goes “Whoo!” Like she’s at a football game. Like, ‘Yeah! We’re doin’ it!’ It really helped.”

By the time Zero Dark Thirty wrapped in early June, Bigelow had shot 2 million feet of film, necessitating two editors working in tandem: There Will Be Blood’s Dylan Tichenor initially handled many of the agency sequences while Argo’s William Goldenberg concentrated on the raid.

Eighteen months from reconception to opening day represents a remarkably swift turnaround for a film, but still, the cultural landscape has changed even faster. For one thing, the raid has become a commodity. No Easy Day, a firsthand account written by a former member of seal Team Six, has been on best-seller lists for three months, and authors Peter Bergen and Mark Bowden have also published books about the mission (“Maya” appears as “Rose,” an “analyst in her mid-thirties … with deep knowledge of al-Qaeda,” on a couple of pages of Bergen’s book, and briefly as “Jen,” described as someone “who’d spent half a decade tracking” Bin Laden, in No Easy Day.) Everyone wants a piece of the SEALS: A somewhat slipshod docudrama about the raid aired last month on the National Geographic Channel, and a bunch of SEALS got to star in Act of Valor, a propaganda drama initiated by the Navy itself, that became a surprise hit last spring. Most prominently, Showtime’s Homeland, which hadn’t yet aired when Bin Laden was killed, is now finishing its second season, and the intensely driven Maya, whose mission seems to be her whole life and who is willing to be damaged by the damaging job she’s agreed to do, may call to mind that show’s Carrie Mathison.

“I never thought we were going to be first,” says Boal. “But I am trying to be the first one to bring this to the screen in a high-quality way with a brilliant director.” We’re wrapping up our conversation now, in a conference room on the Sony lot in Culver City—an unnatural habitat, since Bigelow is arguably the least on-the-lot director working in Hollywood. I ask the two whether they plan to work together again. Across the table, they exchange, not for the first time, a let’s-coordinate-our-answers glance. “I think we both want to,” says Boal. “It’s up to the movie gods.”

When Bigelow talks about the challenges of filming Zero Dark Thirty, it’s easy to assume she likes moviemaking to be hard. “I love it—” she starts, and then says, “No. Not to be hard. To be real. But yes, for this, arduousness should permeate the scene, the frame, the performance. I find that working with a story that is credible and real and not invented is very galvanizing. It’s kind of a grinding stone against which you can sharpen yourself.” But, I ask, while she’s shooting in a Jordanian prison or wrangling black-ops helicopters, does she ever say to herself, “The next movie I make is going to be easier”?

“Oh, I say it all the time,” she says, smiling. “All the time. I just don’t mean it.”

*This article originally appeared in the December 17, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Pej Behdarvand/New York Magazine; Pej Behdarvand/New York Magazine; Jonathan Olley/Zero Dark Thirty