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The Fretts on Film Interview: Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal on “Zero Dark Thirty”

December 17, 2012

Director Kathryn Bigelow and investigative journalist-turned-screenwriter-producer Mark Boal won Oscars for The Hurt Locker, and there’s a good chance they’ll be at the Academy podium again for Zero Dark Thirty, their harrowing docudrama about the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. I did a joint interview with the duo for The New York Daily News, and here’s more of the intel I gathered on the making of the film.

What made you want to do this next after the The Hurt Locker? Were you concerned about becoming pigeonholed by making another movie about the War on Terror?

MARK: I think it was more just the feeling of this is a great story. This is probably the greatest manhunt in human history or recent times. And the opportunity to bring it to the screen seemed like a worthwhile one to jump on.

KATHRYN: We were working on another iteration of this piece, and I think this was 6-8 months after we had finished Hurt Locker, and maybe even before it’s release, we had started talking about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. And then that was obviously a failed hunt, the first operation by special forces in December of 2001. And Mark was about 3/4 done with the screenplay and May 1, 2011 happened, and history necessitated much soul searching. We debated it for a while.

Did you think about scrapping it after he was killed?

MARK: It was a curveball with the question of how much do you change and how much can you keep?

What made you decide to tell it through the character of Maya?

MARK: That’s just more or less a creative choice. It seemed like it would make the best movie. I think it’s a good character. I hope people find it an interesting character. Any time you have an unlikely person in the center of a dangerous story, it’s a pretty good place to start.

ZERO-DARK-THIRTY-2_1600674aWhat did you see in Jessica Chastain to think she could carry this film?

KATHRYN: Everything. She’s extremely smart, she’s extremely focused, very dedicated, very courageous, very diligent, very tenacious and finding an actor that can deliver on all those fronts—credibly, beautifully—I couldn’t imagine anybody else.

Is she based on one person or is she a composite?

MARK: Everybody in the film are based on real people, including her.

Were any of those people actually on the set at any point or were they interviewed separately?

MARK: Separately.

Was it a decision to hold the film until after the election in any way?

MARK: No, no. That’s so not true. We finished the movie like 2 weeks ago. The decision of when to releases has to do with two things. Number 1, the availability of an actual film. Number 2, the internal dark art of trying to make money. That’s what studios care about–money. They don’t care about anything else, to be honest. I love those guys, but it’s show business. It’s not show-friends or show-politics.

On that note, Hurt Locker had a huge impact at the Oscars, but it didn’t seem to be able to bring a mass audience. It wasn’t a huge commercial blockbuster. It seems that maybe people didn’t want to confront that topic at that time. Do you think this can reach a wider audience because people are more ready to hear this particular story right now?

KATHRYN: I think they’re two different stories. There are all kinds of different factors, in addition to just the content. They are too long to enumerate.

MARK: We’re both producers on both those movies and I will say the standard is are people going to lose money or make money? That’s really the standard and so Hurt Locker—nobody lost money on that film, and that’s not bad.

Does the fact that this film has a happier ending make it more marketable?

MARK: You’re asking me to speculate about something that–I’m happy to have this conversation with you on January 23rd, when we can see all the numbers.

Even in terms of getting financing–you were having trouble getting studio backing before Osama Bin Laden was killed, and then still after. Is that correct?

MARK: This is correct, but you’re still asking me to call a pool game before it’s even been shot.

KATRHYN: It’s true.

MARK: But that is true. I think there was definitely more interest around town after Bin Laden was kiled. It’s a story that I think achieved a level of national intensity.

Do you have an opinion of the effectiveness of enhanced interrogations?

MARK: I think it’s important to emphasize–I don’t know why I’m answering all these questions, this is the last time I’m going to answer, then you can take over, Kathryn–but we didn’t know how to approach this film with an agenda of any kind. And it’s obviously a controversial subject and I think nobody disagrees with the record that it happened. We’re not trying to settle the ongoing debate—which by the way, is still a debate within the community of people that did it about efficacy, there are very interesting questions about morality—and that’s a debate that will probably continue in this country for quite some time. We’re not trying to settle scores. We were trying to be faithful to research that we did and tell a story that hopefully captures not just that, but the rest of the intel hunt…

KATHRYN: Like the electronic surveillance, phone calls, and good old-fashioned boots on the ground. It certainly was my intention to tell the story, be faithful to the research and not have an agenda and let the audience judge for themselves.

Was it difficult to shoot those scenes?

KATHRYN: It was difficult. But with a great cast, they really were dedicated and focused and confident.

MARK: Just going back to your other question, it’s amazing to me what people take away from the film because there is a key piece of information that’s actually given over lunch—they’re having falafel and a cigarette—so maybe it argues for the efficacy of falafel as an interrogation technique.

KATHRYN: The falafel approach!

MARK: If you want to break down the semiotics, it’s certainly in there.

I know you’re from New York, Mark, and you’ve talked about how this story was important to you. Why was it important to you to tell this story?

MARK: I mean, you know, the guy attacked my own town. And that bothered me. I used to drink down there. I think it’s a personal story for a lot of people, and it chronicles a period in our lives that really affected everybody.

KATHRYN: I can’t imagine anybody in America not having a personal connection to the event, even though I was on the West Coast and was deep in editing. I was very emotional, it really shut us down for a little bit. My hope is that we can grasp onto that narrative other images of courage and dedication and a glimpse into the intelligence community and the psychology and the individuals who are there working day and night, even as we speak as we’re having this conversation, to ensure our safety.

Any thoughts about your Oscar chances?

KATHRYN: Oh, I can’t think about that.

MARK: No. My only thought is that I am actually pretty happy for all of the people that worked on this film because there were a lot of 100 hour weeks and 80 hour weeks over the last year to get this done, and it’s nice to reach the finish line.

KATHRYN: And it’s completely a team effort so this is just so gratifying. It’s such an honor to have the whole team be appreciated and have the result be appreciated.

Are you going to work together on another film after this?

MARK: We’re going to make a film about movie journalism. [laughing]. I hope so.

Is it top secret?

MARK: If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that the less said, the better.

What is it about the partnership that works for you?

MARK: It’s working for me. That should be self-evident. She makes great films and I’m very lucky to have a director who wants to work with my stuff and can turn it into these knock out movies. What’s not to like?

In terms of the poetic license that you have to take in order to turn this into a movie–is it a case by case basis? Is there an overarching standard?

MARK: There’s actually like a drop-down menu on FinalDraft. [laughing] It’s a case-by-case thing. You’re taking 10 years into 2 hours. That’s a lot of it right there. And then it’s trying to tell a good story and be faithful to the research, but it’s a motion picture. First and foremost, it’s a movie, it’s not a documentary. Hopefully it’s more exciting than a documentary!

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