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'Zero Dark Thirty' writer brings firsthand accounts to big screen

'Zero Dark Thirty,' set to open Dec. 19, is constructed largely on accounts by participants in the decade-long manhunt and the fateful raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan last year.

December 13, 2012|By Michael Ordoña | This post has been corrected, as indicated below.
  • Screenwriter Mark Boal had worked with Kathryn Bigelow on "The Hurt Locker" too.
Screenwriter Mark Boal had worked with Kathryn Bigelow on "The Hurt… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

Watching the first scene of "Zero Dark Thirty" is a jarring experience. Sort of like having a bag pulled off your head to find yourself in a windowless room, surrounded by very serious people.

"It's a controversial subject, to put it lightly. But nobody denies it happened," says writer-producer Mark Boal of the fact-based film's depiction of the CIA's interrogation techniques, including water-boarding. "I think it would have been worse not to include it. It's tough material, it's tough business. There are probably people who would rather this story not be told. There are Tea Party Republicans — I'd have to look up who they were — who were trying to make sure the movie didn't even get made."

But it wasn't just politicians who showed little interest in a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden being made … until after May 1, 2011.

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"A couple of times over the last six years, I tried to get a bin Laden movie going and was met with resistance and had to seek out indie financing," says Boal, "and even then it was tough — even after 'Hurt Locker.' However, after bin Laden was killed … we had a lot of marketplace support."

"Zero Dark Thirty" is based on good old-fashioned research. The film, set to open Friday, is constructed largely on first-hand accounts by participants in the decade-long manhunt and the fateful raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound last year. It was, to most observers, a fast-moving and continually developing story, but Boal says once production began, his rewrites were mostly for dramatic purposes.

"Tweaking dialogue, reframing sequences to fit a location, production exigencies …I like to write to the strengths of an actor and sometimes it takes me a while to see what those are," he says by phone.

"I had sort of stopped reporting by the time we started shooting. I'm sure if I think about it, there were a couple of pieces of late-breaking information about the raid. I had spoken to a lot of people, a large number of people, that had first-hand knowledge of the events. That Navy SEAL book ["No Easy Day," by the pseudonymous Mark Owen] didn't come out until we were in post. But I was glad to see we tracked pretty closely with his account."

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 In heroine Maya, a CIA targeter, Boal has created one of the more remarkable female characters of the year, brought to life by Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain.

As many viewers might be, Boal was surprised to find what an integral role female agents played in the manhunt. He chose to base his main character, Maya, on one such agent.

"There were other women who were involved in this who did not get portrayed in the film. I hope that some of their work is represented in her character as well," he says. "There's the character toward the back half of the film: 'Hey, I combed through the files and I found out who Ahmed al-Kuwaiti …' she's also inspired by first-hand accounts. I could have theoretically told the movie from her eyes too."

But Chastain as Maya, he says, "captures qualities that are true of a lot of women at the CIA —a sort of frank assertiveness and braininess, while still being feminine. A kind of confidence and ruthlessness. She's ruthless."

The film continues his collaboration with Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker"), which influences the way he writes.

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 "I spent a lot of time thinking about how what I'm writing is going to look after she directs it. So I'm not writing a screenplay in a vacuum. It's hard to explain that process because it's ephemeral and enveloping at the same time," he says.

"Kathryn is a world-class director. One of her particular skills is performance and making graphically powerful images. Knowing she can pull very subtle performances together gives me the permission to use a lot of subtext and not put everything into backstory or exposition. Also knowing that she's so graphically adept allows me to write scenes that for somebody else might be really challenging to make snap.

"The example I've given in the past was the garbage pile — one of the bomb-disposal scenes in 'Hurt Locker.' Everybody talks about those scenes being tense. But I know this because I wrote them: They're not inherently all that tense. That scene could easily look like somebody just sifting through rubble. But she's so graphically strong she can make that interesting. That allows me to be as lean and direct as I want to be."

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[Updated 10:36 a.m. Dec. 13: The article says that "Zero Dark Thirty" opens Friday. It opens Dec. 19. An earlier version of this post also had said the film opened Friday in the headline.]

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