Kathryn Bigelow, Jessica Chastain and Mark Boal on Zero Dark Thirty

The director, star and screenwriter of the award-winning film talk about their movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

The stars and filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty are in pretty high demand as the year wraps up and they sit at or near the top of the holiday movie season. We got to attend the press conference director Kathryn Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal and stars Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke gave in Los Angeles. Since we got to speak with Clarke one-on-one, we highlighted the comments of Chastain, Bigelow and Boal here. Chastain plays Maya, the CIA agent whose 10-year investigation leads to the SEAL Team Six operation against Osama bin Laden.

CraveOnline: 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.

Mark Boal confirms the dialogue in the film was invented by him, including the “motherf***er” line.

Mark Boal: All the characters in the movie are based on real people, but 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.

Kathryn Bigelow on military cooperation.

Kathryn Bigelow: The DOD [Department of Defense] 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 Bigelow on crafting a drama from a well-known story.

Kathryn 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 [Clarke] 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 Chastain on her preparations for the role of Maya.

Jessica Chastain: I had three months before we started shooting that I went to school for it, I guess. I nicknamed Mark “the professor,” and 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[by Lawrence Wright] and Michael Scheuer’s book on Osama bin Laden [Osama bin Laden]. But, 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.

Kathryn Bigelow on the male dominated cultures of Hollywood and the CIA.

Kathryn Bigelow: 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. I think 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. So 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.

Mark Boal on the nature of enhanced interrogation techniques in Zero Dark Thirty.

Mark Boal: First of all, I think that it’s a gross misrepresentation of the film to suggest that it shows that 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. 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.

Jessica Chastain on keeping Zero Dark Thirty a secret.

Jessica Chastain: 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. So 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 and 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 just really hold my tongue for a year. So 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.

Jessica Chastain pays respect to the real CIA agents who risked their lives for us.

Jessica Chastain: In regards to the difficult scenes that these people found themselves in, in playing the character I just had 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 just loved her from the moment I read her, what Mark 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 really put the light on the people who worked so hard that never get the acknowledgement for that. So I have an enormous amount of compassion for everything they dealt with.

Jessica Chastain on the children’s drawings Maya keeps.

Jessica 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.

Jessica Chastain on being underestimated like Maya.

Jessica Chastain: I have no idea how to answer that question. I think in the film and what was great in this screenplay is, at first glance of Maya, people would dismiss her because she appears to be younger than she is and everything about her that’s in the movie. 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 [were] not listening to me.”  You know, I’m not 17 years old. 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.

A follow-up on Jessica Chastain’s schooling.

Jessica Chastain: In regards to school, I spent four years studying Shakespeare, iambic pentameter and all that. 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. So 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 Bigelow on how she and D.P. Greig Fraser shot Zero Dark Thirty.

Kathryn Bigelow: I had an extraordinarily talented crew and a cinematographer named Greig Fraser, also 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, around you. You’re inside it, especially with the raid itself.

Kathryn Bigelow on the SEAL Team Six raid.

Kathryn Bigelow: The raid was the most challenging logistically, I think, 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.

Jessica Chastain on the finished film.

Jessica 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 4-month blackout 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 it was really kind of shocking that feeling, and I haven’t seen it with an audience yet. I going to see it tonight for the first time with an audience. I’m really excited about that.

Jessica Chastain on the evolution of Maya over 10 years

Jessica Chastain: Yes, there is a very definite arc for Maya. But, 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. 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, and 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.

Kathryn Bigelow on how much to show of bin Laden in the end.

Kathryn 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 Bigelow and Jessica Chastain on the Marriot Hotel explosion scene.

Kathryn 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. And 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.

Jessica Chastain: I want to say something about filming that scene, because I’ve never done anything like that before.  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. You can see now why, especially the raid, I watch the stuff that Kathryn puts together, and you can see why it’s so exciting, because being on that set, the organization and the focus was really intense.

Jessica Chastain on spending time in Jordan.

Jessica Chastain: [There was] a time that 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. For me, it’s difficult being in that kind of a situation. I felt invisible as a woman. I don’t like that. And 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.

Jessica Chastain on some good times on location.

Jessica 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.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.