“Zero Dark Thirty”
Roger Durling with director Kathryn Bigelow and writer/producer Mark Boal
Durling: Welcome. Mark, I want to start with you. Your approach, your screenplay is one of the boldest things I’ve seen and I’m not exaggerating. It reminded me when I read In Cold Blood, the novel. It’s a mixture between literature and historical events; it is its own unique thing. I was wondering if you can talk about your approach to this subject matter.
Mark Boal: Thank you. I’ll take that as a compliment. The approach was to try, and capture the essence of ten years in two and a half hours and to tell the story through the eyes of this character Maya. The people in the film are based on real people. I did a lot of homework and research for the movie and a lot of primary sourcing, some of which has been the subject of speculation and investigation. It’s really just the idea of trying to bring the audience behind the scenes of a subject that’s obviously at times controversial, but is largely so hidden from public view and try to tell the story of how this happened and what’s been happening over the past 10 years. For me, as a person who reads the newspaper, I was always curious.
Durling: You started this project way before The Hurt Locker, right?
Boal: It was around that time, we’ve been working on it for about five or six years, so it’s been awhile.
Durling: Kathryn how did the project shift? I know that you guys started working on it and the film was originally about the hunt for Osama bin Laden and then all of a sudden a year ago Osama bin Laden was captured and the film shifted. Can you talk about that process?
Bigelow: Well at first we were interested in the story which took place around December 6th, 2001. It was the first assaulters into the Toraboa Mountain Range where they felt Osama bin Laden was hiding, and in fact he was, but it was a failed hunt because he escaped out the back door through a corridor into Pakistan. Mark was writing about two-thirds or three-quarters into the screenplay when May 1st, 2011 happened. We realized that history had certainly impacted our story. At first I think we thought of it more as a last act, but as he began to do research and reporting, he realized that the intelligence hunt itself over the ten years was so inherently dramatic and kind of extraordinary and like he said, it’s an opportunity to see what has happened over the last ten years and why did it take so long, why was it so difficult and begin to answer those questions and who are the people, those professionals, who dedicated their lives and in some ways sacrificed their lives for such an extraordinary mission.
Durling: Mark, you basically thrust us, the audience, in that opening sequence, which is the torture sequence, the same way that the character Maya gets parachuted into this situation. Can you tell us why you made the choice to start it that way?
Boal: Well, the one overlap between the two movies was the opening, which was 9/11 and the voices of actual recorded calls. We felt this was possibly an appropriate way to remind all of us of what had happened. And the rest of the movie unfolds chronologically in rough parallel to the events. Really America’s big response to 9/11 was, as we know, two wars; but in terms of the CIA, their response was what they called the Detainee Program, so it was there because that was the actual historical sequence of events. I felt that it was important for people to get a sense of what these things were, what had been done in this country and other countries in the name of national security. And of course we have probably all read about water boarding and heard about some of the things but I think there’s something very worthwhile about not turning a blind eye to that, not trying to sanitize the past and we certainly don’t want to portray this as occurring over tea and cookies at the Ritz because that’s not how it happened. It just seemed like there’s a very brutal and very dark side of this story and it happens to have occurred after 9/11 so that’s why we started the movie that way.
Durling: Kathryn, how difficult was it to direct that scene and for the actors as well? I can imagine it must have been really hard for the actors too.
Bigelow: Certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever encountered. I probably could say it for the actors as well. But, at the same time I think we felt, as Mark said, a sense of responsibility and it was part of that history and also all the intricacies of it. In other words, yes, it was brutal; but what’s interesting in the story is, that didn’t net a result. The result failed and the Khobar attack happened. In fact a piece of information was secured over a lunch of humus, so I think that’s an interesting aspect of it. And of course that leads to a dead end and the information that was really critical, which was the man’s name itself, “Ibrahim Sayeed”, which had been in the files all along since 2001. There’s an interesting digression that I think is fascinating and also all the methods that were utilized like electronic surveillance, trap and trace on the cell phone calls, and good old fashioned boots on the ground sleuthing. There’s a myriad of methods that were utilized that occurred over this 10 year period. Also remember that this is 10 years compressed into two and a half hours, so some of the characters have had to be composited. We’ve only just had an opportunity to indicate all these other methodologies in our ability and need to compress it into two and a half hours.
Durling: Mark, I’m going to continue funning on you. The character of Maya—your choice of not giving us the exposition on her character is terrific. I’m just wondering if you can tell us why you made that choice?
Boal: There’s a practical consideration, in terms of not wanting to put anybody’s identity at risk; but there’s also the aesthetic consideration, which is probably more to the point. Personally, I think that if a scene is well-written—and the dialogue is all what I wrote, it’s based on what people told me but I actually had to write it down as a writer—you should understand the character’s motivation from the scene. One of the challenging things for me on this was that I had never written a female lead before. And The Hurt Locker was of course three guys, in a very ‘macho’ way battling it out. I glommed on to this idea of a woman who isn’t defined by men; well, maybe by the man she’s searching, but not strictly speaking, defined by men. She’s not defined by a sexual neurosis in her past or defined by some man that’s either victimizing her of she’s victimizing; but is in fact more reflective of the times we live in. A woman who is dedicated to her work, maybe obsessive about it, maybe fanatical; but, it really felt like an opportunity for me to write a slightly more progressive picture of a woman than you might ordinarily see in Hollywood films.
Durling: What I felt, which I loved, is that she’s so driven and who cares about all the other stuff. She’s a killing machine.
Boal: You never see people say that about male characters, like “How come you don’t explain why he’s so tough?” For some reason, you can assert that with a male character and people just go with it.
Durling: Kathryn, I want to ask you a totally geeky question. It’s about the lighting. I love the fact—and correct me if I didn’t see this correctly—when Maya is in the CIA Headquarters and in her offices, everything is clear; but when we’re outside in the streets everything becomes more ‘milky’ and more ‘dazed’. I thought it paralleled Maya’s journey, as well.
Bigelow: Well that’s an interesting assessment. I have to say that logistics dictated there. When we’re in an interior—we shot the Islamabad embassy in India—we shot it in a town called Chandigarh and that’s about three hours from the Pakistan border. In that part of the world there’s a particulate matter in the air so when we’re in an interior, it was of course very clear, but when you’re outside—you could almost describe it as a haze—there is a diaphanous quality to the air there that was photographed. And of course the cinematographer, Greig Fraser and I thought it was fabulous. Anyway, it came with the territory and that’s the nature of that part of the world and I don’t know where it exactly comes from. It was a nice quality that we definitely maximized.
Durling: In the last sequence that we just saw that darkness—I can’t explain it. We’ve never seen anything like that on screen. Can you describe how you guys arrived to that look?
Bigelow: Well, thank you. It took the courage of a great cinematographer, I have to say, but the story mandated a moonless night. We wanted it to feel dark, truly dark, and have a chiaroscuro quality. That necessitated us shooting digitally. The whole movie we shot digitally so that we could have a lot of latitude and actually have a very low light condition that we would shoot in. The digital does not require the exposure that film does, so that gave us a lot of latitude. Greig invented these beautiful soft boxes that would hang over the set and give a ‘milky’ ever so sheer kind of light that would bathe the set for what we called “objectivision,” which is when you look at something as if with the naked eye. Then—this is where it got interesting—we had to take all the light away for the night vision lenses. We actually got real night vision lenses. We didn’t do that (the sequence) in some CG after market way. We actually attached a night vision lens to the camera lens and in order for that to be operable you have to have a no light situation and it picks up this cosmic dust in the air, if you will, and illuminates it. So, we had to take all the light away from the set and if you can imagine a one hundred person crew and 22 Seals stumbling around this environment with absolutely no light whatsoever, unless of course you had night vision capability. That was an interesting prototypical approach, for us, to filmmaking. But, it was so important for both Mark and I to put the audience into the shoes, both of the characters on the intelligence hunt and also of the Seals themselves and actually have them experience this raid, almost in real time.
Durling: Mark, the bunker at the end, Osama’s compound, was based on all your research and it was built to look just like the real thing?
Boal: Yes, Jeremy Hindle, who did the production design—this was actually his first film—built an exact replica of Osama Bin Laden’s compound. He put pile-ons, 9 feet under the ground, made it all out of rock and cement and the doors opened and the lights went on because Kathryn was flying helicopters around it so it had to be an actual building that would withstand the rotor wash. We had some research at what the inside looked like and some news guys had been in there so there was a little bit of video and I had done some reporting on it too. He built it. Bushes. We had to bring in water to the desert to water these ridiculous plants he put there. The graffiti was replicated and the cracks in the wall. Everything was very carefully done to make it seem—more than seem authentic, it was authentic actually.
Bigelow: Even down to the tile and the floor, he replicated. It was really pretty detailed.
Durling: I meant to ask this from the get-go, you have such a huge success with The Hurt Locker, both winning together Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writer, did you guys feel a pressure together to follow up with this film?
Boal: We actually tried to make a studio movie as a follow-up, but it didn’t work out. That was the first idea.
Bigelow: I was interested in perhaps the attempt, but my heart wasn’t in it. This was a piece that meant a lot to me and working in the world of the independent and working on material that for me was so sensitive. One can argue or at least say “No one’s life has not been touched by the war on terror.” For both of us, it became something very important. To work on a film, which I’m sure would be wonderful some day, that had less meaning, I don’t know if I would be able to put my heart into it quite the way I did this.
Durling: In casting, how did you come about getting Jessica Chastain to play the part?
Bigelow: Great good fortune of the movie gods. I was able to see a rough cut of Coriolanus because of my friend Ralph Fiennes, who directed it, had put her in as Virgilia. I thought she was extraordinary and I asked him immediately “Who is this woman?” I hadn’t seen her before and it was such a beautifully, subtle, carefully nuanced performance and yet so powerful at the same time. When Mark finished the script and there was this very strong character of Maya who is, as you say, very tenacious, but at the same time there’s a lot of emotional nuance even in a delivery like “Twenty detainees recognize this photograph of Abu Agman”. I immediately went to her but she wasn’t available and I began to cast around for somebody else. The problem is, when you start to see a movie with somebody in the part, it was impossible for me to re-group. We just moved heaven and earth and made it happen. I was very lucky because I think she’s astounding.
Durling: Mark, the locations in which you shot—you shot in India, you also shot in Pakistan and in Jordan—can you tell us about the difficulties of shooting in those countries?
Boal: Well, I mean, every movie is hard. I didn’t quite think this one would be that hard when we set out. We were politicized before I even started writing and then when we got to those countries—we had made a movie in the Middle East so we had some experience in Jordan. In India, there is a huge thriving film industry there as everybody knows and they love their movies in India, they love them. They write endlessly about them in the newspapers. If somebody takes a lunch break in the middle of a movie, that’s news in the Indian newspaper. There was a lot of press about our movie in India, most of which wasn’t true. For a while, there was a story going for a week about how Brad Pitt was secretly in our movie and I was just hiding him from the press, but he was really there. It was intense, but we had a great time. Then Pakistan was Second Unit, and there’s a little bit of security things that you have to take into account when you shoot in countries like this. We had bomb squads on set and that sort of thing but by in large, I think it was a good experience.
Bigelow: I will say there, shooting in India—like the market scenes and some of those sequences with Édgar Ramírez—it took a tiny bit of a learning curve, I mean, you figure it out immediately. But when you go into a marketplace with your actor and with your camera and there are about 2,000 people all of whom turn and look at the camera, you figure it out immediately. We had to create these diversionary sets where we would send you off with a camera and an actor over there as if that was the set, while we would sneak off to the right and try to get the footage and what we needed in the scene. We probably would get two takes and then they realize it’s actually you and you’re over there. Anyway, it was this game of chicken, but it was enjoyable. Like Mark said, it’s a country that loves film and loves the fact that you’re there making a movie. It was a great environment to work in.
Durling: Excellent. Thank you both so much for coming. Congratulations.
Bigelow: Thank you very much.