Zero Dark Thirty reunites filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who collaborated on the Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker. This time around, the duo chronicles the decade-long manhunt to find Osama Bin Laden, a manhunt which came to an end with the terrorist’s death on May 2nd, 2011. Though it begins its theatrical release this Friday, the movie has already won several prestigious awards including Best Film from Boston Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review.
Recently, Bigelow, Boal and Chastain attended a press day for the film in Los Angeles, where they spoke about making the film, how involved the Pentagon was, what kind of research went into it, how the film’s look and tone was created and much, much more.
Check it out below.
We Got This Covered: So much of this movie is based on facts but how much of Jessica Chastain’s character came from reality?
Mark Boal: All the characters in the movie are based on real people but I had to compress about ten years of research into about two hours. I took the information people gave me and had to reconstruct it to tell a story.
We Got This Covered: In doing a movie of a military sensitive nature, was there any concern for your own personal security in real life?
Mark Boal: No, not really. Knock on wood (laughs).
We Got This Covered: We understand that you worked with the Pentagon to make sure that no sensitive information was revealed. How involved were they in the making of this movie?
Kathryn Bigelow: Well, the DOD (Department of Defense) didn’t vet the screenplay. Had we gone down that road there would have been a lot more assets available to us, but I think it was a very smart decision on Mark’s part to work off his material and to not have that extra layer imposed on him.
We Got This Covered: What was the difficulty of making a movie about a story where so many people know most of the aspects about it?
Kathryn Bigelow: Well it certainly doesn’t lend itself to spoilers (laughs). What struck me about the screenplay was how inherently dramatic the story is, and it was a very riveting, galvanizing story that gave us a real glimpse of the intelligence hunt on the ground through the eyes of the characters that Jessica and Jason play and of what it would be like to hunt the world’s most dangerous man; the dedication, the courage, the sacrifice and the price that they pay personally. It was an inherently very dramatic piece and the fact that you knew the ending only amplified the drama.
We Got This Covered: Jessica, what kind of research did you do to try and make your character be as real as she can be?
Jessica Chastain: I had three months before we started shooting where I went to school for it I guess. I nicknamed Mark “the professor” and I would sit with him and go through the screenplay and ask a lot of questions about the character I was playing and about the CIA. Two books I read which were particularly helpful were “The Looming Towers” and Michael Scheuer’s book on Osama Bin Laden.
But because I was never able to meet the real woman my character’s based on because she’s an undercover agent, I had to use my imagination to fill in the blanks where the research couldn’t answer the questions. I tried to answer things like why she was recruited out of school. There’s a child’s drawing in Pakistan and other certain things which would be reminders of the life she was becoming a stranger to. I had to create on my own but still stay faithful to the woman I am portraying.
We Got This Covered: Did you talk to any CIA agents yourself?
Jessica Chastain: I talked to Mark Boal (laughs).
We Got This Covered: Kathryn, were you drawn to this movie because it had a strong female CIA agent at its center?
Kathryn Bigelow: If that character had been a man, I would have been very happy and eager to engage in that story as well. I think what was important to me was that this is a very strong character at the center of this hunt and that the movie doesn’t engage necessarily in gender politics about that character. She is not defined by a man or a love interest; she’s defined by her actions. I think that’s a character that’s very inspiring and is beautifully played by Jessica, so that was exciting to me. I will say I was surprised and thrilled that it was a woman and to find out that there were woman at the center of this hunt, but there were also a lot of men who worked very, very hard as well.
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We Got This Covered: The movie contains some unnerving scenes of suspected terrorists being tortured. Did you have a different attitude towards torture of this kind after having done this film?
Mark Boal: I think that it’s a gross misrepresentation of the film to suggest that it shows this intelligence operation coming out of any single piece of information. I understand those scenes are graphic, unsparing and unsentimental, but I think that what the film does over the course of more than two hours is show the complexity of the debate and the number of different ways information came into the CIA. It also shows that torture didn’t stop the attack that the characters were worried about and that the information that Jessica’s and Jason’s characters hear about occurs over a relatively civilized context of a lunch.
The film was a political chew toy before I even wrote a word, and I think that will unfortunately continue. People will bring what they want to see.
Jessica Chastain: I am the worst at keeping secrets. When I was cast in this I was so excited about this character of Maya. I found her to be really inspiring. The script was incredible and so eye-opening, but I had to keep it a secret and there was a lot of press coming out and people were speculating that I was a Navy Seal’s wife and all this stuff. I just had to really hold my tongue for a year. I’m very excited that people are now seeing this film and they’re realizing that it’s not a propaganda film and it doesn’t have an agenda. It just tries to show this moment in history as accurately as possible in regards to the difficult scenes these people found themselves in.
We Got This Covered: Jessica, what attracted you to the role, what did you like about the character?
Jessica Chastain: In playing this character I had so much compassion for this woman who really sacrificed so much for this mission. She becomes a stranger to herself at the end of the film and I just loved her from the moment I read what Mark created. He took the dry facts of this manhunt, the greatest manhunt in history, and what he was able to do with them was to create this amazing arc and really put the light on the people who work so hard and never get the acknowledgement for it. So I have an enormous amount of compassion for everything they dealt with.
We Got This Covered: Glenn Greenwald recently wrote that the movie’s trailer shows it to be pro-torture, but that’s clearly not the case. What was the discussion like beforehand when it came to showing enhanced interrogation? Did you consider not including it because it is such a touchy subject?
Kathryn Bigelow: I know nothing about the article. All I can say is that personally those sequences were very difficult to shoot. I wish it was not part of our history but it was.
We Got This Covered: Kathryn, how did you work with your creative team to create the look and tone of the movie?
Kathryn Bigelow: Well I had an extraordinarily talented crew. I think it was very important to us and certainly from the script to really give the audience a sort of “you are there” feel to this piece and kind of peel back the curtain of the intelligence hunt and get a glimpse of what it might be like to actually try to find a very sharp needle in a very big haystack, and to do it in a way that sort of feels like its unfolding in real time in front of you, around you and inside of it especially with the raid itself.
The raid was the most challenging logistically because we had to shoot in low light conditions to replicate a moonless night and then no light conditions to use the night vision goggles which were real night vision lenses that we adapted to our camera lenses, and they only work in a zero light condition. You have a hundred crew members and about twenty-two Navy SEALS traipsing around a pitch black rubble strewn set which was kind of interesting.
We Got This Covered: Jessica, how would you say Julliard prepared you to do a movie like Zero Dark Thirty?
Jessica Chastain: I spent four years studying Shakespeare and iambic pentameter and all that, and to be honest this text was more difficult than that. Not only has Mark taken the facts of what happened, but he’s also created a subtle character arc within it, and you find the humanity within what he’s created. So Julliard absolutely helped me when preparing to speak very complex language and it gave me the tools for the research I would need to do in order to be believable as a CIA agent.
We Got This Covered: Jessica, what was it like on set shooting the film, was it a good experience?
Jessica Chastain: This is the first film that I have ever done where I had no idea what it would look like when it was finished. The experience of making the film was incredibly intense. There was a lot of guerilla style filmmaking, we were always on our toes. We didn’t have a lot of time for things and there was a lot of material that we had to shoot very quickly. It’s almost having like a three month blackout that someone tapes and then you watch it and go “oh, that’s what happened.” I’ve seen the finished film only once but I’m going to see it again with an audience and I’m really excited for that.
That concludes our interview but we’d like to thank Jessica, Mark and Kathryn very much for talking with us. Be sure to check out Zero Dark Thirty, in theatres this Friday.Previous