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In the storied history of manhunts for international criminals, the quest for Osama bin Laden has no real precedent.

"It is the story of finding a very sharp needle in a very large haystack," notes director Kathryn Bigelow. "Once bin Laden escaped from Afghanistan, he fenced himself in with a byzantine network that took years and years to unravel. And what I think is so intriguing about Mark's script is the way it tracks all the minute steps, in a way that's dramatic yet totally unsentimental, unsparing, and unsettling. This is a very raw account."

Where would the breakthroughs come? What clues might give bin Laden's location away? Could Al Qaeda operatives be turned?

While these were all essential questions, for Bigelow and Boal a more fundamental question loomed: who were the CIA operatives who refused to give up and stayed on bin Laden's trail even when it went cold and the world was distracted by other crises? For the first time, a film focuses on the human dimension of that story, illustrating the internal struggle of the operatives and the overwhelming toll of the mission.

"The question for me as a filmmaker was, how do you tie all the pieces of this epic story together in a way that will be tonally united and all in the same register?" says Bigelow. "Mark's research and script brought the breadth of it, from Afghanistan to Washington to Pakistan, to life. And then it became a kind of instinctual process, moment-by-moment, scene-by-scene, of telling the story with restraint at every level. It was both a massive undertaking and a very careful, subtle undertaking and there is no way I could have made ZERO DARK THIRTY without all the experiences I've had as a filmmaker so far."

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