Now it makes perfect sense that Kathryn Bigelow would direct "Zero Dark Thirty," the controversial new film that chronicles the hunt for Osama bin Laden; three years ago, she won an Academy Award for directing "The Hurt Locker," arguably the defining film about the Iraq War.
Before "The Hurt Locker," however, Bigelow had taken a seven-year break from feature filmmaking (after 2002's "K-19: The Widowmaker") and was best known for fan favorites like "Point Break" and cerebral thrillers like "Strange Days." It wasn't until teaming with Mark Boal -- a war journalist who had embedded himself with American bomb squads in Iraq and eventually wrote the screenplay for "The Hurt Locker," also an Oscar winner -- that the Academy Awards started paying attention. The two have re-teamed for "Zero Dark Thirty" and, yes, many assume Oscar will pay attention once again.
"Zero Dark Thirty" eschews the private lives of its subjects -- something even "The Hurt Locker" touched on, briefly -- to instead present a thrilling encapsulation of eight years of legwork by U.S. intelligence agencies. It's a film that almost didn't happen: Boal had already written a treatment of the script before bin Laden had been found and killed. As Boal and Bigelow explain, the events of May 1, 2011 forced them to start from scratch.
I met both Bigelow and Boal at a Midtown Manhattan hotel earlier in December to discuss the trials, frustrations and eventual success of their Oscar hopeful, "Zero Dark Thirty." (The duo have since made a statement about the criticism that "Zero Dark Thirty" is pro-torture; you can read that here.)
I get the feeling you guys are both really busy.
Boal: I'm just really tired, because working on this thing, we just finished it. So forgive me if there's some slight exhaustion in my voice, but we literally finished the movie a couple weeks ago, and then ‑‑
Bigelow: But we were happy to sit here with you, don't get us wrong!
It's always strange to hear it was just finished right before you saw it. That almost doesn't seem possible.
Boal: Believe me, it's possible.
Bigelow: Oh my God. I'd be very happy to show you my schedule.
That would be the whole interview, "See? Right here, 9 a.m..."
Bigelow: In fact, you don't even have to write anything. Just re-print my schedule.
OK. Actually, I'd read that if that were on the Internet.
Bigelow: [Laughs] Why not? Many hours in a dark room. It's really repetitive.
This script was finished before bin Laden was killed. Is it really true that after bin Laden was killed, you almost didn't rewrite it?
Boal: Well, I didn't know what to do. I mean, I was married to the material and it was just a choice of either walk away from it, lose two years of work and never think about bin Laden again, or lose two years of work and start fresh. But I was pretty into the subject at that point, so...
Was that always a concern? Like, "any day they could catch him"?
Boal: Well, it was, but then I kind of convinced myself, as the years went on, that he was gonna be found, in his 80s, you know, in Caracas, or something. Just in sort of ‑‑ you know, I didn't think they were going to catch him.
Did you have mixed emotions that night he was killed, because of all the work?
Boal: No, I mean, I honestly wasn't thinking about the work right away. Because, first of all, it was personal -- like, 9/11 and bin Laden. But, also, it wasn't immediately clear what had happened. It only took me a couple of months to realize there wasn't a lot of narrative through-line between the one story and the other. At first, I actually thought, Oh, well, probably some of the guys I know were on that raid. At first, I was thinking, OK, it's a new last 20 pages, but that's not the end of the world. So anyway, it also supplanted at a certain point by the excitement of being on a story that was so mysterious and fascinating and ...
Boal: And unfolding and kind of rich. You know, it would be wrong to mischaracterize it as ... there's nothing sadder than an unproduced screenplay; I will say that. But I got over that pretty quickly in the excitement of the story.
"Zero Dark Thirty" and "The Hurt Locker" are nothing alike, but was there any concern for you that people were going to say, "Oh, she's doing another war on terror movie"?
Bigelow: Actually, that didn't occur to me, no. It was really more the excitement of working in that kind of journalistic space, you know? Again, like what Mark was just talking about: a story that's kind of unfolding in real time. And, you know, he's reporting it in real time and then we're going into pre-production and then finally going into production -- so trying to keep a kind of degree of urgency and timeliness to the material, which it seemed like the material warranted. I mean, I was shooting the raid on May 1st at, like, 3 in the morning -- May 1, 2012. And I looked around at my crew and the cast and realized, this only had happened ‑‑ it hasn't even been a year since this happened, and here we are recreating it. So there was something kind of, I suppose kind of exhilarating about that.
When you were finishing it, there was controversy that it would be a very pro-Obama movie before election. Was that frustrating?
Bigelow: Well, I think we both knew, eventually, the film would be finished and it would speak for itself and it would answer those questions. But, you know, we certainly had to wait till we were finished.
Boal: But there was something fairly ‑‑
Bigelow: Yeah, it was frustrating.
Boal: It was surreal.
In what way?
Boal: Well, some people are characterizing ‑‑ they were characterizing a movie before it even existed. It was like, that's surreal. You know, they were like, "This movie will feature scenes at the White House [with Obama] making gutsy decisions." And I haven't even written a page! I'm like, "How do they know what I'm going to do?" I don't even know what I'm going to do. For God's sake, I know I have a deadline, but, you know? It's like, okay, well, gee. That was just surreal.
The thing I kept thinking was, with both of you, did you guys see our last movie? It's not exactly "rah rah America."
Boal: Well, we also released a statement, by the way, that said, look, there's credit to go around, but the movie's going to be about the workforce. And the real heroes of this story are the military intelligence professionals. And we're not trying to do a political agenda thing here But of course, they're saying that [laughs].
Was there anything in this movie that the Obama Administration, or maybe even people from the Bush Administration, asked you to keep out?
Boal: No. I didn't even have those sort of type of communications with them, to be honest with you. And as far as the administration goes, there is no agenda to the film and I think there's credit to go around and I'm sure that people will look and see whatever political points they want. But no, I mean, we were just focused on telling a good story from the point of view of the, you know...
Bigelow: Men and women on the ground.
Boal: Yeah. Cinematically, what's gonna make this exciting? What's gonna to bring it to life? What's gonna put you in the center of the hunt is following the guy as he's in Peshawar through a marketplace. That's the movie I want to see, you know? So leave it to others to make the movie about the decision-making process in an office.
Did you find anything that you felt uncomfortable putting in there because it might put someone in jeopardy?
Boal: No. I mean ... not really. We obviously didn't put anything in that, in our humble estimation, might have been sensitive. But most of what we portray is about the human side of it. It's about the personality. It's about the heart of the story, the women, the men, the people that ‑‑ what they're like, as opposed to national security.
Bigelow: And bringing them to life, you know, and a look inside the intelligence community from the perspective of the men and women on the ground in these foreign postings. And how dangerous it is, and their dedication, their tenacity, their frustrations. And, I mean, Maya [Jessica Chastain's character] can't even go outside without wearing a burka, obviously for safety reasons; security reasons. So it's just filling in the puzzle from the standpoint of a process we rarely glimpse or have access to. And that was fascinating to me to bring that to life.
I was speaking with Jessica Chastain earlier and she mentioned that she has no idea which of the seven movies you saw her in last year that caught your attention.
Bigelow: Only seven [laughs]? Actually, it was "Coriolanus." Ralph [Fiennes] showed me a rough cut of that about three and a half years ago. And I immediately ‑‑ it was just like, who's playing Virgilia? And he said, "Oh, Jessica Chastain." And that was the first thing I had seen of her and there was something so beautifully subtle and nuanced about that performance. And coming up against somebody like Ralph, you know, it's a fairly substantive counterpart. So I immediately pegged her, but then, because of schedules, I didn't think she was going to be available. But then, of course, could imagine nobody else. And then moved heaven and earth and, you know, luck had it.
I was happy to see Chris Pratt in this movie. He brings some levity. Was that a big reason to cast him?
Bigelow: "We weren't supposed to crash that helicopter, were we?" I mean, the delivery is so perfect. Yeah, my feeling is he would provide that. He just has it naturally. There's also great gravitas to what he does and plays, as well. But he has this sort of natural levity that, I mean, it's almost hard to work with him without laughing the entire time. I mean, he's extremely talented.
Have either of you seen "Argo"?
Boal: I haven't seen anything this year. There's a list of movies that I want to see, and that's high on the list, but I haven't seen it yet.
Kyle Chandler's in that one, too.
Boal: Yeah. He's got a monopoly on CIA movies.
I'm always surprised by how many people don't realize the director of "The Hurt Locker" also directed "Point Break."
Bigelow: You know, I don't know. I suppose that they're both so diverse from one another. Yet, both challenging. Certainly, at that time, that was a really challenging movie to make, just for all the, you know, aquatic logistics. But I don't know. I think they're just ... they're so different.
Well, how picky are you? Because you had a long break between "Hurt Locker" and "K-19."
Bigelow: I think finding the right material ... and then when he had just come back; I knew Mark from his articles, his reporting that he had done. And I knew his work. And then he came back from Iraq and began to tell me these extraordinary stories and I realized that ... well, we both talked about the fact that that was a fairly under-reported war. And, you know, the EOD techs or IEDs, I mean, these are acronyms that were not necessarily familiar to the general public. And why not? You know? Why was this space so secretive? And so, gratefully, he decided to write a screenplay about it. And so, I don't know -- I was just very excited by that.
Where were both of you when you did find out the bin Laden thing happened? I found out from The Rock, of all people.
Boal: You found out from who?
Boal: Oh, The Rock.
Bigelow: I know, I know.
Boal: I didn't know that.
Bigelow: Well, along with ‑‑ wasn't there a doctor in Pakistan that was tweeting it?
Yeah, he was live-tweeting the raid.
Bigelow: He was live-tweeting the raid, and he lived about a block and a half away.
How did you guys find out?
Bigelow: E-mails and phone calls.
Boal: Yeah, I can't remember. It was something like that. I turned on the TV. Boring. I can come up with a better answer.
Bigelow: But true.
Boal: I'm going to think of a better answer.
It's not boring, that's the way information travels.
Boal: Carrier pigeons landed on my desk.
And said, "It's time to rewrite the script."
Boal: A scroll.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.