“Zero Dark Thirty” is the dramatic portrayal of the hunt for Osama bin Laden until he was tracked down and killed on May 11, 2011. One of the key CIA players in this manhunt was a female operative whose real name is not used in the movie but who goes by the name of Maya and is played by Jessica Chastain. Even though she is rookie, she is credited with being one of the one of the people who investigated and pursued the right leads that resulted in finding bun Laden. Other people involved in the hunt for bin Laden have also been given fictional names but their characters are based on real people, including a CIA operative named Dan (played by Jason Clarke), who acts as a mentor of sorts to Maya, and CIA station chief Joseph Bradley (played by Kyle Chandler), who is Maya’s supervisor.
“Zero Dark Thirty” was directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, who are two of the producers of the film. Bigelow and Boal both won Oscars for 2009’s “The Hurt Locker.” “Zero Dark Thirty” has also been getting numerous accolades and nominations, including a Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Chastain. “Zero Dark Thirty” earned five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Chastain has been winning almost every major movie award for her role in “Zero Dark Thirty,” and people consider her a frontrunner in the Oscar race for Best Actress at the 2013 Academy Awards. Here is what Chastain, Bigelow, Boal, Clarke and Chandler said when they gathered for a New York City press conference to talk about the controversies and human drama of “Zero Dark Thirty.”
What kinds of research did you do? At the end of each of filming “Zero Dark Thirty,” how were you able to extricate yourself at the end of the day from all of the dark material?
Chastain: There really wasn’t really at “cut” being able to go back home and be normal, because we were shooting in Jordan and India. And we were really immersed in the story we were telling. I had the props person print out all the pictures of the terrorists that Maya looks at and I actually hung them in my hotel room, so even when I would come home from set, it was always around me.
In terms of research, there was a great deal of information in the script. Every scene gave me clues, little things she would say as to who this woman was. And, of course, our screenwriter is an investigative reporter, so that was very helpful. I nicknamed Mark [Boal] “The Professor,” and I had three months of going to school before we even started shooting. I read books like “The Looming Tower.” I read Michael Scheuer’s book on Osama bin Laden. It was a full-immersion school.
Clarke: I agree with Jess. On a secondary note, we went to the Taj Mahal, we went to the Jerash in Jordan — just a couple of things just to get out and see the amazing part of the world that we’re in. First and foremost, Mark’s script. Stick to the facts. Get your ducks in a row. “The Looming Tower,” “The Black Banners” — there’s some great material out there. And, on a personal note, also some of the psychotherapy books [by] Irvin Yalom, just in terms of creating relationships to understand what it is to be a man who is out there playing a number of roles and has to have a great relationship with people he meets and understand them.
Chandler: It’s the same [for me]: reference materials that were brought forward, ideas in different books, and it’s not too far away from all this, so it’s a click away on the computer to get your stuff. One of the greatest things for me was this travel and going to India and landing there. That’s the other partner in the show, to wear just like your costume. You’re sort of there. My guy makes decisions: hard, difficult, life-and-death decisions. I’m a father of two daughters. No problem. Done.
Kathryn, can you talk about your research and how you got involved in this project?
Bigelow: Originally, we were working on another project, still about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but it was about the failed hunt in 2001. And this all took place in the Tora Bora mountain range in Afghanistan between December 6 and December 20 of 2001.
And while Mark was working on the screenplay — and was actually quite far along in the screenplay — May 1, 2011 happened, and we realized that, after some soul-searching, that it was going to be a little bit difficult to make a movie about the failed hunt for Osama bin Laden when the whole world knew that he had been killed. So after much debate, we pivoted. Mark, being an investigative journalist, set on his way to report this current story, as of 2011, as history revealed itself and created a change for us.
Can you talk about the choices to make in portraying Maya’s emotional reaction to the finding Osama bin Laden?
Bigelow: That was beautifully articulated in the screenplay. And we never deviated from that. So that was a creation of Mark’s. I think what’s so interesting and so poignant for Jessica, myself, for all of us, is this idea that this woman has spent the last 10 years exclusively in the pursuit of one man.
And yes, at the end of the day, she triumphed, but it’s not a victory, because finally, at the end of the day, you’re left with much larger questions like, “Where does she go from here? Where do we go from here? Now what?” I think that was one of the human elements of it and the sense of that kind of question and the weight of that question on your shoulders is.
Can you talk about the congressional investigation into your research for “Zero Dark Thirty”? How much cooperation did you get from the CIA in making “Zero Dark Thirty”?
Boal: As you read, there was a bit of election-year controversy about that. I’m probably not going to get into it in great detail except to say that the movie was made independently. It was independently financed, but we’re very lucky to have Sony’s support in distributing it. I emphasize the independence of the film because there was no arrangement or deal of any kind with either of those two agencies.
As far as far as the research, we approached it as any reporter probably since the dawn of time has approached the story, which is to say you work through every channel you can, including public affairs departments at those agencies. It was a distraction in terms of the filming of the movie but ultimately I think movie speaks for itself.
Mark, can you talk a little bit more about how you structured the character of Maya?
Boal: A couple of months into the reporting, I don’t exactly remember when, but I heard about … Well, first of all, there was a discovery that I made relatively early on that women had played a prominent role in this hunt. And that was surprising to me. And so that became the focal point of the reporting. And then we ended up deciding to tell the story through the eyes of this character.
And it’s a character in the film, but it’s based on a real person. And, of course, there were many women in the CIA whom we didn’t represent. But it just seemed like the right way to tell the story. We always knew we wanted to tell the story through the eyes of the work force, through the eyes of the people on the ground, as opposed to the command-in-control political story that people thought that the film was sometimes characterized as being about. And so we just kind of went with it.
How did you film the crowd scenes?
Bigelow: We needed that sense of a kind of teeming environment in which you’re looking for a sharp needle in a very large haystack. So getting the sense of getting lost in this human deluge and these marketplaces in India were just exquisite, beautiful to shoot in. But what happens when you pull a camera out — I like to work with a lot of cameras, which is good in this case — you get about 2,000 faces looking at the camera. And so that would have broken the illusion that this is movie and that this story is unfolding in front of you. It pierces that illusion.
So what we had to do was we began to set up these diversionary film sets, where we would have an actor, who wasn’t in the key scene that I was shooting, and a camera. And we would set up, they would be doing something like walking through the marketplace 200 feet away, while the shoot that I needed to do, let’s say, with Edgar in the van would be happening 200 feet away in the other direction. And so we would just create [it].
But eventually you’re found out, and we would swap it. You don’t get all day. You get maybe another half an hour or something. So you’re constantly leap-frogging from one set to another. But it’s worth it. The life and vitality and immediacy of those environments, you can’t recreate it. If we could have gone to Pakistan, we probably would have. But we were about two hours from the border. Between pre-partition and post-partition Pakistan, visually, the architecture is identical and probably a lot of the wardrobe and all of that.
Has President Barack Obama seen “Zero Dark Thirty”? And if so, did he have any comments?
Bigelow: I don’t believe he has. And I’m sure at some point he will.
Clarke: We hope he will.
Bigelow. We hope he will. Yeah.
Boal: It brings up a larger question. We’ve shown the movie to some small movie audiences in Los Angeles … We’ll be bringing it to Washington for the national premiere in January.
Can you talk about any of the de-briefing that any of the people had after this mission to find Osama bin Laden ended? And can you talk about the tug of war between journalists and the government in terms of classified information and the people’s right to know?
Boal: One of the things just as a general life principle we’re not going to do is talk about the real-life people that the film is based on, because many of them are still working, and we take protecting their identities very seriously. So although that’s an interesting question, we probably won’t answer it here.
The issue of government transparency is obviously going to become more and more important as the war on terror continues and expands. We got sucked into that debate a little bit, but we’re trying to make a movie here. With all due respect to that debate, we just hope that a lot people view this as a film.
Jessica, did you get a chance to meet the real person who inspired the Maya character? And how did meeting any CIA operatives inform your performance?
Chastain: I never met Maya because she’s an undercover CIA agent. It would not have been a good thing to do. However, I [got] a lot of research from Mark. It really helps when your screenwriter is an investigative journalist. I had to approach it like any other character I was playing, so any questions I could answer through the research, I did. But then questions I couldn’t answer through the research, I then had to use my imagination and Kathryn’s imagination and Mark’s to create a character that went along the lines that respected the real woman.
I’m playing a character who’s trained to be unemotional and analytically precise. As an actor, you spend your whole life being emotional and keeping yourself emotionally open. So to find the humanity within that arc was a great feat that would’ve been impossible without Kathryn and Mark’s leadership?
Jessica, did you have a favorite scene in “Zero Dark Thirty”?
Chastain: My favorite moment is the last scene in the film. There are a lot of scenes that are fun to do as an actor. It’s so fun to do the big scenes, like when you’re yelling. It feels very good to emote as an actor. It’s very hard to play something that is subtle and specific and really tiny in the arc. So it’s really fun to play the scene where I’m chewing out Kyle in the hallway. That’s great.
But for me, my favorite moment in the film is the very end of the film, because it says more than just what this woman did. It’s not a propaganda movie “Go America.” It’s through the eyes of this woman, who sacrificed, became a servant to her work.
And she lost herself along the way. And she realizes that it’s bigger than that. Like Kathryn said, “Where doe she go?” But then where do we go as a country? Where do we go as a society? What do we do now? And I find that to end the film on that question is far more interesting than providing an answer.
Kathryn or Mark, can you talk about balancing the facts and entertainment value of the film’s story?
Boal: The material is inherently dramatic, is what I would say. If you grew up like I did reading James Bond novels and that sort of thing, to get a chance to work behind the scenes of the real thing is pretty exciting. You’ve got a story of people running around Pakistan chasing dangerous terrorists. So that’s pretty fertile ground. And not that it wrote itself; there was a little bit of work involved. But I think it’s one of the great stories.
Bigelow: Like Mark was saying, it’s inherently dramatic, but at the same time, I think as a filmmaker, it was very interesting to stay within the longitudinal and latitudinal guidelines of history and reality. So there was never a moment where you could say, “Oh God, wouldn’t it be great if we could …?”
You can’t do that. You can’t think like that. That’s the beauty of this piece for me — and I love working like that— is within a sense of naturalism and realism and specificity. There was nothing that was done that didn’t come from the research. So that, as a filmmaker, is a thrill.
Kathryn, your two most recent movies (“Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker”) are based on historical events or investigative journalism. Are you going down a route to do more movies like these?
Bigelow: Both Mark and I talk about this as a kind of a reported film, in a way. In other words, the story of the film is contemporaneous. In fact, when we were shooting the raid, we actually shooting it in late April into May [of 2012]. And on May 1, 2012, I’m looking at my crew and my cast and realized that the event had just happened a year prior. It hadn’t even been a year old [when we started filming “Zero Dark Thirty”].
So there was a kind of an urgency in the timeliness of it. And yes, I’m excited for that space. I think it’s very interesting, having gone through different permutations. I’ve been fascinated by different schools of filmmaking, let’s say. And then prior to that, the art world. I think there’s something very freeing about constantly moving forward, but t the same time, I’m very excited by this reportorial filmmaking. It sort of fills a space that is kind of like imagistic living history. It’s how I think of it.
How would you describe a good soldier? And what are the basic elements that turn a war film into a classic?
Boal: If you want to make a classic war film, just hire Kathryn Bigelow. I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t know how to answer any of those [questions]. The soldier question is an interesting one. In a way, the characters in the film are soldiers, but a different type. They’re not in uniform, and they’re not on the front lines, but they’re warriors, I guess, is the word I’d use.
To the actors, at any point when the story was unfolding in real life, did you think it would affect the storytelling?
Clarke: I was in Pakistan when all of this started. I was up in the Karakoram range. And then I went back in China and read it on the Internet. It kind of filled and consumed everyone. So when word went ‘round, and they came to knock on my door, I was over the moon. These things come around once in a lifetime. Touch wood yes or no that it happens or doesn’t happen again.
So I think everyone has a reaction or ownership to this story in some kind of way. It’s very rare, particularly in New York City that somebody doesn’t have one or two, let alone six degrees of separation. And to know that you’re going to be part of something that is so interconnected in the galaxy, it’s like picking up “Hamlet” for the first time, like being in the original production. So I’m very grateful.
Chastain: I never, ever imagined that I’d be telling the story during those events. I was in New York during 9/11. And when I found out that Osama was killed, when I was reading the script, every page that I turned was a shock to me, especially Maya and the role she took in it. And then I got upset that it was such a shock to me. Like, why would I assume a woman wouldn’t be involved in this kind of research?
The wonderful thing about working on this film is that historically, in movies, lead characters are played by women defined by men, whether it’s a love interest or they’re a victim of a man. And Maya’s not like that.
And I don’t know if Kathryn Bigelow would make a movie like that, because she stands on her own. She’s capable and intelligent. And I think she represents this generation of women. And that was really exciting for me to discover on the page in the script and discover about our history.
Chandler: I think I had lost touch until I saw the movie. I had lost touch with what had happened in the last 10 years. And that’s why it really surprised me, watching the movie, because it’s two hours and 40 minutes; it goes by so fast. In the first 90 seconds and in the last 90 seconds, if you will, everything in between there it was evident, as I sat there watching it.
And I was able to watch it with … my [wife] Kathryn, the two of us were in the theater by ourselves. I was just right there with the film. And what was so wonderful was that everything in between was so earned. As the chapters went through that decade or more, there were little parts in the script, little tiny lines, little pictures that showed me, “Oh yeah, I remember, that’s that political change right there” or “There’s that moral dilemma that was brought up that is still going on.” Everything was marked so subtly.
And so everything throughout the movie was morally and emotionally earned. There was as a truthfulness that kept it what it was. And the facts, I’m sure, helped keep that. It was really seamless, and I’m just really proud to be part of this.
I have a lot of military friends, so when I found out I was doing this, I was like, “Guys, guess what I’m going to do.” [Chastain laughs.] And they laughed like you did. I’m really proud to be part of this. Kathryn is such a filmmaker, and [so is] Mark. It’s just been a great ride.
And I think that this is one of those movies that 10 years from now, you’ll be able to look at it again and say, “Yep, that was my time. That was our time.” Over 90 countries were represented in that initial strife. This is like a like a global [movie]. Everyone owns it. It’s galactic, if you will. It’s just an incredible piece to be part of. It’s pretty amazing.
In the “Zero Dark Thirty” production notes, it says that the movie could easily have been more than three hours long. To the filmmakers, can you talk about any deleted scenes that might be on the DVD/Blu-ray?
Bigelow: We shot almost 2 million feet of film. It was a lot of film. We only wrapped photography [on] June 1 [in 2012]. And so gratefully, I have two of the most talented editors working in the business today: Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg. And through their tremendous talent, we were able to winnow it down to 240 [minutes]. And it was interesting.
I went back and looked at a couple of the scene that we had taken out for time and also for a narrative kind of urgency. And spending some time away from then and looking at them again, we realized that we had made the right decisions … that there was a narrative coherency that we were very, very happy with. Whether there will be perhaps a little more raid footage down the road, if we decide to put some back in for a DVD bonus piece, I don’t know. Right now, the film stands as it is, and I’m very proud of it.
Kathryn, given your background in painting, do you do illustrations or storyboards on how you want to stylize a film?
Bigelow: I always storyboard — not sometimes personally, but I always have a storyboard artist, because I think what’s great is to, as quickly as you can, once you have the script, is to begin to see it and open it up and to visualize it. And begin set construction and all of that, of course, the designs for that. But yeah, I love storyboarding. I think it’s a necessary tool.
Mark and Kathryn, how has “Zero Dark Thirty” been shaped or influenced by your feelings about 9/11 and Osama bin Laden?
Boal: You know, 9/11 was a personal day for me. I was born and raised in this town [New York City], so bin Laden basically attacked my hometown. But with this piece in particular, I didn’t approach it with any agenda. I didn’t know what the story was going to be when I sat down.
The characters that these guys portray, as I said, are based in real people. And that’s what emerged from reporting in something else, whatever I tried to piece together. I think for all of us, as Kyle was saying, it’s been a decade that, in a lot of ways, was shaped by 9/11. So it’s hard to draw the really precise lines of influence, but as Jessica was saying, hopefully, the piece captures some of the ending of a particular chapter. At least I’m hopeful that it’s the ending of a particular chapter.
Bigelow: Obviously, I suppose from a certain standpoint, it’s been a very long and dark decade. And my hope is that some of those more difficult images can be replaced and/or that narrative can be amplified by another narrative: one of courage and dedication and a kind of nod to those men and women who work in the intelligence community to try to make our lives safer.
Kathryn, how did you decide how far to go in the torture scenes in “Zero Dark Thirty”?
Bigelow: There’s no question that that methodology is controversial, but there is no debate on whether or not to include it in the movie, because it’s part of the history. So that an element that we were working with. And then it was a question of working with the material and finding the right tone and balance — and also exploring other methodologies, like electronic surveillance. Over the course of a decade, many, many tactics were utilized.
And I think that’s what’s interesting and magnificent about the screenplay and what Kyle was saying as well was that over that decade, you see all the different permutations and all the different applications of surveillance that were utilized in order to track the courier and the courier to the compound. And, of course, the rest is history. So it was really a question finding the right balance.
Jessica and Jason, can you talk about doing those torture scenes?
Chastain: Those scenes, they were tough, to be honest, to film. We filmed that section in a Jordanian prison, so we weren’t on a soundstage in Los Angeles. And I think throughout the film you can see how important the location is, shooting in Chandigarh, India, and in Jordan was to the film, because it creates an atmosphere that is absolutely in those scenes. That was a tough week, but as Kathryn said, it’s a part of the history of the characters.
And instead of looking at it and making my own judgments on what I personally believe is right and wrong, I try to look at it in terms of the character. This is the introduction to this woman [Maya], who’s recruited right out of school.
She shows up in her suit to go to what she believes is going to be a normal interrogation. It becomes much more intense than she imagines. And an introduction to a world like that and to see where she starts to where she ends at the end of the film, I found that very useful in playing the character.
Clarke: I think it would’ve been remiss of Mark and Kathryn to, as Mark said, follow the facts. He did the work. He followed the story, found the story, and Kathryn sculpted it with surgeon’s scalpel in following it wherever it went.
There are big choices in two-and-a-half hours, but without honesty the integrity of that sequence, you’re not going to feel the weight at the end. I know for myself and Reda [Kateb], who shot the scene, we were grateful. Reda is a French Moroccan actor. He was grateful to explore that part and show this story as we know the facts demonstrated. It’s out there in the public arena already without Mark having to make it up or whatever.
The integrity of their work, it’s there. And you get the whole story. You get the whole 360 degrees as much as you can in two-and-a-half hours. It all accumulates and adds up to this piece of work, which speaks for itself, I think.
Kathryn and Jessica, can you compare and contrast the main characters in “The Hurt Locker” and in “Zero Dark Thirty”?
Bigelow: I think what I found very surprising about Mark’s research is that women were central to this operation. So that’s what excited me about it. It’s extraordinary that women were pivotal, but those were the facts.
That was the story, that was the hand that we were dealt. And so that’s the lens through which we tell the story. And keeping, as Jason was saying, the honesty of the piece, the most important element of it, that’s what drove me, that’s what motivated me more than anything else.
Chastain: I didn’t think of Maya in terms of … I didn’t connect her to the [Jeremy Renner] in “The Hurt Locker.” When I was doing my research and thinking about her, I was thinking about her as a computer almost — a woman who’s really good with facts and details and putting a puzzle together.
And what happens when that woman is put in a situation that is much bigger than she ever imagined she’d be involved in, the stress of the interrogations and being in that part of the world, and dealing with not only the interrogations of the terrorists, but also coming up against superiors who don’t believe in your lead, how she starts to unravel within that.
Just because she’s trained to be unemotional and analytically precise doesn’t mean she’s unemotional. And what I loved so much about the script is we do see moments where she falters. In the hallway with [Joseph] Bradley, with Kyle [Chandler], she’s basically blackmailing him: “If you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to put you in front of the Congressional committee.”
That’s a very emotional reaction. I found it to be a very compelling piece with a lot of complexities, a lot of depth. I really saw her as her own woman. I never really connected her to another performance.
Bigelow: And I think it’s a testament to the talent of Jessica’s to find the sort of beautifully, finely calibrated nuances of the emotions in a character who had to be so precise. And that’s something I don’t know if I’ve ever seen.
I think it’s certainly a testament to her, but also to Jason and to Kyle. These are characters that have to work within a tremendous kind of precision. It’s beautifully written in the screenplay. And I think the emotion that they’re able to generate within the calibration of that decision is pretty extraordinary.
Clarke: That scene is also confirmed in the SEAL’s book, as you’ve said: “No Easy Day” [written under the pseudonym Mark Owen]. Mark [Boal] got it right. The first first-hand account to come out, it’s right there in his book when he saw it … It’s not invented.
Jessica, what did you think about the real Maya’s back story and what kind of woman she has to be to want to do this right out of high school?
Chastain: Any kind of answer in research, I had to answer in my imagination, but do it in a way because she’s so opposite of me and the life that I have and the life that I still have. I knew why she was recruited out of high school, in my mind. I knew what her favorite American candy was when she was homesick. I knew her favorite music.
Whenever I approach a role, even Celia Foote [from “The Help”], what I couldn’t find from the novel, I had to answer questions in my imagination, but stay along the line of honesty that writer has put out. It’s like they create the spine of a character. And then, as an actor, you have to fill out the rest of it.
After doing “Zero Dark Thirty,” what did it take for you to do the Broadway play “The Heiress”?
Chastain: [She laughs.] I’m a crazy person. My first films came out a year-and-a-half ago. [She sighs.] I’m really lucky to do what I do. But I tell you right now, it’s a very strange thing to be talking about this film and to be talking about Maya, and then to think, “OK, at 6:30, I’m going to start putting my nose on and my curls and go on stage as Catherine Sloper in ‘The Heiress.’” But it’s a great gift.
And even though the character of Maya is very different from me, because I am a very emotional girl and pretty sensitive, I like to have a good time, I’m very smiley, even though she’s very different, there is something that is similar: being in love with the work. And I can understand that passion and servitude, some might say — not quite to the extreme as [Maya] does. I’m nowhere near the amazing woman that Maya is, but I do understand that, and that’s what gets me on stage every night.
Can you talk about finding moments of levity and the appeal of dark themes?
Boal: I actually don’t think this movie is dark. It’s probably more of a comment on me than the film. I actually find it encouraging to tell a story that in the end that, even in the very ruthless war on terrorism, to find and discover that there are real human beings there, not just killing machines. Maybe that’s dark.
Levity — a lot of that comes down to performance. There are a few little political jokes in the film, but obviously, it’s not at the level of slapstick. The line about “We don’t know. We don’t know.” And Kyle’s response, “What the f*ck does that mean?”
There are some people who get that as a joke. A lot of people don’t. It just comes down to the performances, really, and to find a little bit of humor in what is otherwise a fairly button-down, professional environment.
Bigelow: I just think that it’s not just somebody is funny; it’s somebody has a tremendous facility to convey humanity. And that humanity takes on a lot of different permutations. And the beauty of this whole cast is that everybody was just very giving, very human and very spontaneous. And I think that they trusted the material enormously and the environment, and felt they could give all different colors to the character.
For more info: “Zero Dark Thirty” website