Zero Dark Thirty, the multifaceted story of the hunt to find Osama bin Laden, marks producer/director Kathryn Bigelow’s second collaboration with writer Mark Boal and her most ambitious production to date. The film encompasses sweeping events spanning nearly a decade across multiple countries and involving a cast of hundreds. From the naturalistic performances of an ensemble that includes Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, and Edgar Ramirez, to innovative cinematography in extreme low-light conditions, to the painstakingly layered art direction, every facet of the production became a proving ground for Bigelow to make living history come alive on screen.
At the film’s press day, Bigelow, Boal, Chastain and Clarke talked about the challenges of telling a story where the audience already knows the ending, how all the characters are based on real people, why the Department of Defense did not vet the script, why they included enhanced interrogation scenes, how Bigelow collaborated with her creative team on the look and tone of the film, and why the raid was the most logistically demanding scene. Chastain also discussed how she approached Maya, the film’s strong central character, and revealed she’s now starring in The Heiress on Broadway.
Question: It must be very gratifying to become Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow and have everyone anticipate your next movie and assume it’s going to be good. Is a part of you feeling like, “Hello, where were you for K-19 and Strange Days and The Weight of Water?”
Kathryn Bigelow: No, I’m just so gratified. Obviously, The Hurt Locker received a certain amount of attention and I’m so honored by that. It was both a very surprising experience, but also again just so gratifying.
There was news today about a Navy Seal killed in a rescue operation. Do you have any thoughts on what happened and the fact that they’re still out there putting their lives on the line today to protect our country?
Mark Boal: I don’t think either of us has seen that report. We’ve been in our hotel room. Have you seen that?
Jason Clarke: No. I haven’t seen anything.
Bigelow: I did see that report. Yes.
Do you have anything that you’d like to say?
Bigelow: Well, just other than it’s a real tragedy.
So much of this movie is based on fact. How much of Jessica’s character came from reality?
Boal: All the characters in the movie are based on real people. The dialogue is written because it’s a screenplay and I’m compressing ten years into two hours. I took the information people gave me and had to reconstruct things to tell a story.
This is a film of a militarily sensitive nature. Did you have any concern for your own personal security in real life or about revealing certain things?
Boal: No, not really.
Boal: Knock on wood.
Bigelow: The DOD didn’t vet the screenplay. Had we gone down that road, there might have been a lot more assets available to us. 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.
Kathryn, can you talk about the difficulty of doing a film about something that many people already know so many aspects?
Bigelow: Well, certainly, it doesn’t lend itself to spoilers. I think what was so strong and what struck me so much about the screenplay was how inherently dramatic the story is and was and that ten year journey was. It was a very riveting, galvanizing story that gave us a real glimpse into the intelligence hunt on the ground through the eyes of the characters that Jessica and Jason play 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 paid both personally and then some of their colleagues who did not survive. It was inherently a very dramatic piece. The fact that you knew the ending only amplified the drama.
Jessica, what type of research did you do to try and make your character as real as possible?
Jessica Chastain: I had three months before we started shooting. I went to school for it, I guess. I nicknamed Mark “the professor.” 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. I did some reading. I found two books that were particularly helpful, The Looming Tower (The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright) and Michael Scheuer’s book, Osama bin Laden. I was never able to meet the real woman it’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. So, instead of going “OK…Jessica Chastain as CIA agent, this is what I would do,” I tried to answer why she was recruited out of school. There’s a child’s drawing in Pakistan, American candy, certain things that would be reminders of the life that she was becoming a stranger to. I had to create on my own, but still stay faithful to the woman I’m portraying.
Chastain: I talked to Mark Boal.
Directing is a male dominated profession, but you’ve proven women can do just as good a job. The CIA seems similar, but this film focuses on a female agent who is highly competent. Was that part of the attraction?
Bigelow: Good question. I have to say that if that character at the center of that hunt had been a man, I would have been very happy and eager to engage in that story as well. What was important to me was that this was 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. She is not defined by a love interest. She is defined by her actions. I think that’s a character that’s very inspiring and is beautifully played by Jessica. It was exciting to me. I will say that I was surprised and excited that it was a woman. I was thrilled that it was a woman and to find out that there were women at the center of this hunt, but there were also a lot of men who worked very, very hard as well. It was a very wonderful screenplay, so I was very happy.
There are few films in recent times that have been prejudged as much as yours before anybody has seen it. Now that people are starting to see it, there is this discomfort level with having to accept the fact that the enhanced interrogation, as the story is told, yielded the clue that led to the discovery of where Osama bin Laden was in Abbottabad. Did your perspective on it change as you were doing the movie?
Boal: I know better than to speak before Jessica, but I’m going to jump in, because there are a couple of premises in your question that I want to take issue with, if that’s okay, and then the writer will hide under the table. First of all, I think that it’s a gross misrepresentation of the film to suggest that it shows this intelligence operation coming down to any single piece of information. I understand those scenes are graphic and unsparing and unsentimental, but I think 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 that information came into the CIA, including in that particular scene. It shows that torture didn’t stop the attack that the characters are worried about and that the information that Jessica and Jason’s characters hear about occurs over a relatively civilized, with emphasis on relatively civilized, context of a hummus and tabouli lunch. But the first part of your question is totally true. The film was a political chew toy before I even wrote a word, and I think that will unfortunately continue and people will bring what they want to see. Our intention was to show the complexity of this debate which is fairly complicated and hopefully have people judge for themselves, but there does appear to be a mischaracterization on that front.
Chastain: That said, I can talk to you a little bit about the idea of what the film was before it came out. I am the worst at keeping secrets. I am the kind of person that the second I buy someone a Christmas present, I tell them what I bought them. I don’t wait until Christmas. I’m not good at it. When I was cast in this, I was so excited about this character of Maya. I found her to be really inspiring, and the script was incredible. It was so eye-opening, but I had to keep it a secret. There was a lot of press coming out, and people were speculating that I was a Navy Seal wife and all this stuff. I had to hold my tongue for a year. I’m very excited that people are now seeing the film, and they’re realizing 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 that these people found themselves in, in playing the character, I felt so much compassion for this woman who really sacrificed so much for this mission. In our film, she becomes a stranger to herself at the end of the film. I loved her from the moment I read her and saw what Mark had created. He took the dry facts of this manhunt, the greatest manhunt in history, and what he was able to do with the dry facts was to create this amazing arc and put the light on the people who worked so hard that never get the acknowledgement for that. I have an enormous amount of compassion for everything they dealt with.
Clarke: I can say that those scenes were really difficult to shoot, but what I loved about the character, and I was always grateful to the people at this table, was that the journey of that man is there for all to see. You get to see exactly what happens, and the fact that it’s coming back into the debate and everything else means that it’s film showing in a way what you can’t understand in a book or in a journalist’s sound byte. For Dan (referring to his character), it’s like Manny Pacquiao. You find that if you want to get a bit of skin, you’d better give a bit of skin, and it costs.
Was there any thought of not including the intense interrogation because it is such a hot potato?
Bigelow: All I can say is personally, as they both mentioned, those sequences were difficult to shoot. I wish it was not part of our history, but it was.
There is a scene where Maya is on the phone and we see a child’s drawing on the wall behind her. Does your character have a child?
Chastain: In my backstory that I created from my imagination for my character, it wasn’t her child, but it was some other part of a family.
Clarke: I also had a child’s tattoo on a number of times. I think, in a way, it’s great to make those things up about how these people maintain this life so far away, doing what they do, and the little things that get them through. For me, the tattoo and maybe the drawings are just something to touch on that kicks you back to home in some kind of way.
Clarke: Well, that is one for the writer, but as an actor, you’re always worried that the monkey is out-acting you. But reading that script for the first time, I’m the same way. It was one of the scenes that really struck out to me. This is one for Mr. Boal.
Boal: I don’t know that I want to explain the symbolism, but it is something that was drawn from life. I was worried when we were shooting it that the monkeys weren’t going to do what they were supposed to do, which was grab the ice cream. The great rule of screenwriting is, don’t ever write anything involving children or animals for that reason. But they did great. They went right for the ice cream, just as scripted, so that was cool.
People tend to underestimate Maya throughout the film because she is beautiful and young and she ends up using that to her advantage. Has that ever come in handy in real life and how have you used it to your advantage?
Chastain: I have no idea how to answer that question. I think in the film, and what was great in this screenplay, and everything about her that’s in the movie, is that at first glance people would dismiss Maya because she appears to be younger than she is. The only thing I can relate to with that is I remember when I was 7 or 8 years old saying I’m going to be an actress when I grew up, and everyone looked at me but [they were] not listening to me. You know, I’m not 17 years old.
Clarke: (laughs) I have her at 22.
Chastain: I’ve been working for a while. I went to Juilliard. I played a dead body on TV. I did a lot of theater day players. I guess that kind of determination and “Listen to me! Cast me!” probably connects to Maya.
How did Juilliard prepare you for something like this?
Chastain: In regards to school, I spent four years studying Shakespeare – iambic pentameter and all that – and to be honest, this text was more difficult than that, because not only has Mark taken the facts of what happened, but he has also created a very subtle character arc within it, and you find the humanity within what he’s created. Juilliard 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.
Kathryn, can you talk about how you collaborated with your D.P. and creative team to create the look and the specific tone of the film?
Bigelow: I had an extraordinarily talented crew and a cinematographer named Greig Fraser, also an Australian, Jeremy Hindle, production designer, Paul Ottosson, sound designer, Alexander Desplat, composer, and both William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor for editors. 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. In other words, 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 feels like it’s unfolding in real time in front of you and around you. You’re inside 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 zero light conditions. You have about 100 crew members and 22 Seals traipsing around a pitch black, rubble-strewn set which was kind of interesting. But again, the desire was to make it feel like you are there. I don’t mean a lot of subjective camera, but nonetheless a kind of sense that it feels real and that it’s unfolding around you in real time.
Chastain: This was the first film I’ve ever done where I had no idea what it was going to look like when I 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. There’s a lot of material to shoot very quickly in crowds. For example, the scene in the hallway with Kyle Chandler when I hand him his ass, that one in particular, when I saw it, I was really embarrassed watching it, because I’ve never seen myself like that before. I guess it’s almost like having gone through a four-month black-out, and then someone has videotaped it, and you watch it and you go, “That’s what happened!” I saw it once three weeks ago, so that feeling was really kind of shocking, and I haven’t seen it with an audience yet. I’m going to see it tonight for the first time with an audience. I’m really excited about that.
Clarke: I found the way Kathryn shoots particularly [helpful]. It helps if you’ve been on a stage. There are four cameras going at the same time. It’s not the traditional way where film is shot with reverses. As an actor, that’s what you love. Once they get it all set-up, it’s just you and the other guy or the other girl or the other people in the scene, and you just do it, and the camera finds it, and you keep going without a sense of “Hey, find your light” or “We’re going to make this work” or whatever. It’s just you become in this zone of “let’s explore” like you do on stage. Each night you go back and you explore until she says, “Cut.” I think that really helped. When I watched the film for the first time, I was watching myself in all the scenes. I was stunned by how seamless and selfless Kathryn had made this film, and I say this with all honesty, I could not see one moment of stitching or making of the movie. It just seemed to go. You’re there to watch yourself or what’s been cut out, and it was just like “Bang!” It went through. There was nothing fancy. There was nothing ostentatious. It just jumped in that river and went all the way to the very end of the Amazon, and I came out of there like, “I think I’ve seen something amazing. I’d better be quiet here because …”
Clarke: You’re welcome.
Can you talk about the evolution of Maya from the beginning to the end of the movie? How did you handle that?
Chastain: Yes, there is a very definite arc for Maya. The wonderful thing about her, and actually the most difficult thing about her as an actor to play, is she is someone who does not explain her subtext. She doesn’t take the time to say how she feels. She doesn’t sit down and have a drink with someone and talk about her feelings. She’s so haunted by this mission. A lot of the arc had to almost be mapped out before we even started shooting, so much so that I found chapters in the script that were marked by different markers for her when something might change. And, of course, Kathryn and Mark were very involved in this with me. Is she brushing her hair? What kind of effort does she put into herself when we see her? So, we understand something about her before she even opens her mouth. So much of Maya is told without her explaining it. It has to be seen in her appearance and in her eyes and how she’s relating to the other characters. Because of that, for me, it’s more difficult than a character like Celia Foote where you work on the voice, you change your body, you show up, and you do a scene ten different ways, and you get to be open and big, and then just throw it to the wall and see what sticks. This is something you have to know what you’re doing before you show up. You can’t just make it up.
Bigelow: If I could just jump in on this, it’s such a testament to an extraordinary talent that Jessica is, that she had to find the beautifully and highly nuanced and subtly calibrated emotion of her character. For instance, in a scene where she’s delivering lines like “Twenty detainees confirmed that’s the photograph of Abu Ahmed.” You have this universe that is again so highly nuanced and carefully calibrated in a very narrow bandwidth of opportunity. There’s not, like she said, an opportunity to go to a bar and hang out with a friend. All that has to come out of this very story-rich format, and it’s a real testament to her talent that she could do that.
Bigelow: Our thinking was this is about the people, the men and women on the ground in the workforce, who found this house, and then therefore, found this man. Ultimately, it’s not really about him as much as it’s about them. They humanized that hunt and humanized that journey. It’s their story.
Kathryn, that scene at the Marriott Hotel was so real. How did you do that?
Bigelow: Did it surprise you?
Clarke: It surprised me! And I was there when you showed it to me.
Bigelow: Well, it was important. Certainly this is something that Mark made very clear in the screenplay, like what’s at stake. For every day that goes by that they don’t find this man, there could be another 9/11. There could be another London bombing. There could be another Khobar, another Marriott. It’s only 2-1/2 hours, so there were events that we didn’t have time for. That was what was important, to remind us of the ticking bomb, and Camp Chapman and Belawi (Homam Khalil al-Belawi).
How did you film it?
Bigelow: I had a great practical FX team. I had a great crew. They make what I do easy, I think. We rigged a room like this. It took probably about two weeks. I found the location, and then we would rig the whole place so it was ready to go. We had pulleys where people would be thrown across the floor on harnesses. Every single window was rigged to go. All the glass was replaced with a tempered glass so there was nothing dangerous in the set. With a lot of planning, you set it up, and gratefully, with the actors, that was one take. They were just perfect, perfect, perfect, and that was intense. It was very intense.
Chastain: I want to say something about filming that scene, because I’ve never done anything like that before. And, from all my friends who do the big action movies and stuff like that, they always talk about it like, “Oh, it just takes so long. It’s weeks and weeks. It takes forever. You can get so bored.” They had scheduled two days for that whole sequence, and Kathryn did it all in one day. We actually finished early. I remember showing up and saying, “Okay.” It was incredible to be an actor on that set with everything that they had put in place. For me, I didn’t feel like anyone was going to get hurt and I felt like there was no time to be wasted. It was fantastic. I watch the stuff that Kathryn puts together, especially the raid, and you can see why it’s so exciting. Being on that set, the organization and the focus was really intense.
Clarke: The other thing about this, the surprise, is that for that split second, Mark was about to take you into a conversation and a world. I mean, it’s so minute that it does it. It adds to what you said, the surprise. I remember the same thing. It was just like there’s another element there that he’s introduced and then “Bam!” This is when you’re kind of hoping for…
Chastain: It’s leading into it. Right.
Clarke: Yeah. And it does, because there were three other explosions leading up to that, and that one, you’re right, it’s very different and the circumstances around it.
Clarke: That’s part of it. It’s part of getting into character. That’s the wonderful integrity that everybody in this production brought to it. We’re going to try and bring integrity to it, and as an actor, there are difficult things, and we had instances in restaurants and all that. But these are the cloaks that these people put on and the worlds that they go in and do what they do. I was grateful that at every step we tried to be as authentic as possible. As an actor, you allow those things to inform you and it makes your job easier. That said, I always order my own food in a restaurant.
Chastain: He’s talking about a time when we went to a hotel restaurant in Amman, which is a pretty liberal city, I think, and the waiter wouldn’t give me a menu. He gave the men menus at the table, so Jason ordered for me that day.
Clarke: I knew what she wanted to eat.
Chastain: For me, it’s difficult being in that kind of a situation. I felt invisible as a woman. I don’t like that. Any time anything like that happened, it was just another log to the Maya fire, of her feeling invisible, like no one would listen to her or talk to her.
While you were on location, did you get to do any sightseeing or travel, and if so, where did you go?
Chastain: I loved Petra. It’s so amazing. I actually took one of the horse-drawn carriages. It was pretty crowded. I went during the day, but on certain days, they do the candle lights so I did both. It’s incredible. I also went to visit the Taj Mahal. The light is so pink and pretty. We had a couple of days off when the production moved to London, and I stopped at the Pyramids in Egypt.
Jessica, can you talk about what you are working on now?
Chastain: Yes, I’m doing a Broadway play called The Heiress. I just had a show yesterday.
Zero Dark Thirty opens in theaters on December 19th.