“Zero Dark Thirty,” the epic new film about the decade-long quest to bring down Osama bin Laden, is a movie of such unfathomable complexity that it’s hard to imagine anyone having the wherewithal or skill to corral this thing into a workable narrative. That task fell to the Oscar-winning duo behind Iraq War thriller “The Hurt Locker,” writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow.
Bigelow and Boal were able to synthesize a seemingly bottomless amount of data into a taut, rollicking, nearly three-hour real-life piece of masterful suspense filmmaking. We were lucky enough to get to sit down with Boal and Bigelow, who talked about what it was like wrangling the research into a narrative, the movie’s “chapter headings,” how Bigelow might be a serial killer and whether or not Area 51 was really involved in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
What made you delve into this immediately after “Hurt Locker?” Was there ever a moment where you were like “Maybe we should do a romantic comedy?”
Bigelow: [Laughs] That never came up.
Boal: I mean, it’s an exciting story. That was the main idea. It’s a mystery; it’s a thriller. We were just thinking, Yeah, that could work out.
And it was a different story initially, right?
Boal: Yeah but it covered the same ground, essentially.
You both did extensive research for the movie. Was there anything you really wanted to include but didn’t because of time?
Boal: We probably should have put more of the dog in, if we had our druthers.
The movie is obviously very based in the real world, but there seems to be some nods to movies from the ‘70s. Were there any touchstones that you were harkening back to?
Bigelow: I don’t know…
Boal: No, I would say the opposite. I overheard her and the director of photography always talking about not replicating shots they had seen in other films.
Bigelow: We were trying to stay as focused on the research as possible and try to bring that to life in a way that felt very authentic, in a way that is very specific unto itself.
Can you talk about the chapter headings in the movie? Jessica Chastain [who played Maya] said they weren’t in the script…
Bigelow: It was an idea of Mark’s as we were cutting it…
Boal: Yeah, you know, you never stop working on something.
Bigelow: It keeps evolving.
What was the intent for them? For me it made the movie more novelistic.
Bigelow: Oh, that’s interesting. It was a couple of different things: one, it was to chart the passage of time and enabled us to have an ellipses in the storytelling. So every time you had a date it was because of a specific event. And that enabled you to have another way, another methodology, of charting time. Also, it distills that part of the narrative down to its essence at each chapter heading.
Speaking of information, I feel like you don’t watch this film as much as you just download it into your brain. Did you ever worry that this movie would make peoples’ heads fly off their shoulders?
Bigelow: [Laughs] Oh my god! Heads fly off their shoulders! ‘What happened to those people?’
Boal: I think audiences are smarter than people give them credit for…
Bigelow: I agree.
Boal: So my test is if I can follow it, and I’m not the smartest guy in the room, I’m pretty sure other people would be able to. But it’s a ton of information for sure.
Bigelow: It’s also a glimpse into an environment, the intelligence community, that’s so rarely observed. So it’s kind of like watching a snow leopard: oh my god, it’s there, and then it’s gone. There’s something kind of fascinating about that.
How often did the actors consult with you for information about their characters? Did any of them come and ask you what their character was doing when they were ten?
Bigelow: Not necessarily when they were ten…
Boal: But what movie does that? What movie shows people when they were ten?
Well we had three “Star Wars” movies to explain how Darth Vader got in the cape.
Boal: [Laughs] Alright, alright bad example. But touché.
But did they ask for anything more specific?
Bigelow: Well, when you cut back to the bedroom and there’s an American flag next to the bed. That’s something.
Boal: I’m trying to think of a counter-example to “Star Wars.”
Bigelow: It’s just information. Just contextualizing these characters. There was a lot of research that a lot of the actors conducted. A lot of them spent time with Mark, in terms of research as well. They’re reading books like Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower” and Michael Scheuer’s “Osama Bin Laden.” It was some pretty rigorous research.
Did anyone ever say no to you in terms of actors?
Boal: She doesn’t tend to rack up a lot of passes.
Bigelow: I mean, what director doesn’t want to work with great talent? There were 120 speaking roles, so it was a field day. I just went after all the actors I know and covet and have wanted to work with. I was really fortunate in that sense. I kind of collect actors in the way that people collect art or something. Like “Oh I saw Jason [Clarke]…”
Boal: In your mind…
Bigelow: Yes, in my mind…
Boal: It’s not like she has a freezer full of them.
Just the heads!
Boal: Yes just the heads! God… Too many press interviews today… You sound like a f*cking serial killer.
Bigelow: I didn’t mention the heads — he mentioned the heads!
Boal: (In a menacing voice) I collect actors.
Bigelow: No, but, like, three years ago, I did an audition with Jason Clarke but it was for a project that didn’t really materialize. But I tracked him and thought, this was an extraordinary actor and extraordinary talent. So when Mark finished the script he was the first person I went to.
Boal: Tracked him… Lord…
Did you approach Edgar Ramirez because of “Carlos?”
Bigelow: Absolutely. We watched it and thought, Okay, that’s phenomenal.
Where did his character go?
Bigelow: Ground branch. He goes outside the wire. He’s one of those kinds of guys.
He has such great hair.
Boal: You could try and beat that hair back but it’s no use.
Bigelow: Probably wouldn’t want to.
I know the actors didn’t meet their real life counterparts, but did you guys act as a kind of go-between?
Boal: I mean, there’s a script, right? It’s like “How do you play Anna Karenina?” I’m not comparing this to that, I’m just saying it’s not that unusual to work from a script like that. And that was 90 percent of it. And 10 percent was if somebody had a question I would try and answer it. But there were a lot of worries about just trying to get down the stuff in the script.
Was Area 51 really a part of the operation?
Boal: Well, listen that part of the movie is based on overhead satellite imagery of Area 51, and without being too specific, the movie was based on a lot of research so… It’s not news that the US military have a lot of assets in that part of the world…
There has been some talk that you will return to the original version of the script [about a failed attempt to apprehend Bin Laden in 2002]. Is that still a possibility?
Boal: It’s still potentially in the cards but I don’t know how realistic that is.
You guys should just chill. Film a movie in Hawaii or something.
Bigelow: Where’s the tension?
Boal: Yeah, what would we film? I tried to schedule this press conference in Hawaii…
Bigelow: Why didn’t we do that?
Do you want to continue down this kind of docu-drama path?
Bigelow: I can’t even think beyond this at the moment. I literally finished the film two weeks ago.
“Zero Dark Thirty” opens wide on December 19