Kathryn Bigelow takes on different tour of duty with 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Kathryn Bigelow works on the set of "Zero Dark Thirty."

Photo by Jonathan Olley, ©2012 Zero Dark Thirty, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Kathryn Bigelow works on the set of "Zero Dark Thirty."

For a decade, an elite team of intelligence and military operatives, working in secret across the globe, devoted themselves to a single goal: to find ...

Rating: R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language

Length: 157 minutes

Released: January 11, 2013 Nationwide

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Writer: Mark Boal

More info and showtimes »

HOLLYWOOD — Kathryn Bigelow is in an elite category. She is the first woman to win an Academy Award for directing a feature film—that film being 2008's war drama "The Hurt Locker." (She also picked up a statue for producing that film.)

Bigelow reteams with "Hurt Locker's" Academy Award winning screenwriter Mark Boal to tackle yet another extraordinary U.S. defense operation, the long and frustrating hunt for and ultimate capture of Osama bin Laden, in "Zero Dark Thirty." The title is a military reference to the dark of night, which was the time when the secret Navy SEALs mission took place. A small but well-trained unit stormed the terrorist leader's residence in Pakistan and took him out in 2011. The story is told through the eyes of a young, tenacious CIA agent (portrayed by Jessica Chastain) who tracked the elusive mastermind for years, finally discovering his hiding place, through a variety of intelligence sources. Though based on a real person, her name, as well as that of others depicted in the film, was changed to protect her identity.

The 61-year-old filmmaker recently spoke about making "Zero Dark Thirty" and the unique challenges the drama posed for her and her cast and crew.

Q: It must be very gratifying to become an Academy Award winner and have everyone anticipating your next movie and assuming it's going to be good.

Bigelow: I am just so gratified that "The Hurt Locker" received a certain amount of attention. I am so honored about that. It was a very surprising experience, but also just so gratifying.

Q: We heard the news about how one of the Navy SEALs. who was part of this operation, was killed in another rescue mission today in Afghanistan. Obviously, this film is about him and his squad, and what they did last year. Do you have any thoughts about him and the fact that the SEALs are still putting their lives on the line?

Bigelow: It's a tragedy. It's a real tragedy.

Q: Doing a film of this sensitive nature, was there any concern for your own personal security in revealing certain things?

Bigelow: No.

Q: It's been reported that you checked with the Pentagon to get the details right. For example, you sent them pictures of the helicopters you used to make sure they were close to reality. How else did the military assist you?

Bigelow: DOD didn't vet the screenplay. Had we gone down that road, we might have had a lot more assets available to us, but I think it was a very smart decision on Mark (Boal's) part to work off his material and to not have that extra layer imposed on him.

Q: Can you talk about the difficulty of doing a film that so many people know so many aspects about, especially the outcome?

Bigelow: Yeah, well, certainly it doesn't lend itself to spoilers. (She smiles.) What was so strong and what struck me so much about the screenplay was how inherently dramatic that 10-year journey was. It was a riveting, galvanizing story that gave us a real glimpse at the intelligence hunt on the ground, through the eyes of the characters that Jessica and Jason (Clarke, who plays an interrogator) play. (It's about) what it would be like to hunt the world's most dangerous man: the dedication, the courage, the sacrifice and the price they pay, and some of their colleagues, who didn't survive. It was inherently a very dramatic piece, and the fact that you know the ending only amplified the drama.

Q: What was the discussion beforehand about showing the interrogation scenes, which are pretty disturbing? Was there a thought of not including them because the subject is such a political hot button?

Bigelow: It was difficult to shoot those sequences. I wish it was not a part of our history, but it was.

Q: Can you talk about how you worked with your creative team to create the look and the tone of the film?

Bigelow: I had an extraordinarily talented crew, including our cinematographer Greg Frazier, an Australian, Jeremy Hindle our production designer, Paul Ottoson, our sound designer, Alexandre Desplat, our composer and both William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor were the editors. It was very important to us to really give the audience a sort of "you are there" feel with this piece. In other words, to kind of 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 sort of feels like it's unfolding in real time in front of you, around you and you are inside it, especially with the raid itself.

Q: What was the toughest scene to shoot?

Bigelow: The raid was the most challenging, logistically, because we had to shoot in low light conditions to replicate a moonless sky and then no-light conditions to use the night vision goggles, which were real night vision lenses that we adapted to our camera lenses. So we had about 100 crewmembers and 22 (actor) SEALs traipsing around a pitch black, rubble-strewn set, and it was kind of interesting. But again, the desire was to make it feel kind of "you are there." It wasn't a subjective camera (viewpoint), but we wanted to make it feel real and that it's unfolding around you in real time.

Q: How did Jessica handle this from beginning to end?

Bigelow: It's such a testament to an extraordinary talent that Jessica is that she had to find the highly beautiful and nuanced and subtly calibrated emotion of her character. For instance, in a scene where she is delivering lines like 20 detainees confirmed, it's just so highly nuanced and carefully calibrated in a very narrow bandwidth of opportunity. There is not an opportunity to go out to a bar and hang out with her friends. All that has to come out of this very sort of story-rich format, and it's just a real testament to her talent that she could do it.

Q: How did you decide how much to show of bin Laden in the film?

Bigelow: Our thinking was this is about the people, the men on the ground, the workforce who found this house and this man, and ultimately not really about him. They humanized that hunt and humanized that journey, and it's their story.

Q: How did you decide which post-9/11 terrorist attacks to depict in the film?

Bigelow: This is something that Mark made very clear in the screenplay. Like, what's at stake? 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 (Islamabad) Marriott. (The film is) only two and a half hours, so there were events we didn't have time (to depict), but what was important was to remind us of the ticking bomb.

Q: How did you film the Marriott bombing scene?

Bigelow: We just rigged a room like this. It took probably about two weeks. I found a location, and then we would rig the whole place so it was ready to go, and we had pulleys and knew where people would be thrown across the floor on harnesses. Every single window was rigged to go, and all the glass was replaced with tempered glass, so there was nothing dangerous on the set. There was a lot of planning and then you set it up and bring in the actors. That was one take and they were just perfect, perfect, perfect. It was intense, very intense, and it worked well.

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Comments » 2

Jungle_George writes:

<Though based on a real person>

Didn't see the move, so maybe unfair, but based on what I've heard:

I thought there were a lot of people over many years involved in the hunt. Later developments built on lessons learned and information. It's just amazing if it's portrayed as mainly one woman's efforts ignoring the work and sacrifice of many others.

NoChildLeftaDime writes:

in response to Jungle_George:

<Though based on a real person>

Didn't see the move, so maybe unfair, but based on what I've heard:

I thought there were a lot of people over many years involved in the hunt. Later developments built on lessons learned and information. It's just amazing if it's portrayed as mainly one woman's efforts ignoring the work and sacrifice of many others.

Of course there were. Mark Bowden of Black Hawk Down fame has a new book that gives a great behind the scenes account of the operation from start to finish. It's titled The Finish, and it is excellent. Peter Bergen has a new book on it as we'll, which I have not read yet, but am looking forward to based on his past exemplary journalism.

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