ZERO DARK THIRTY
The quest to tell the story of ZERO DARK THIRTY would eventually lead Bigelow and Boal into their own labyrinthine encounter with secretiveness and intense production challenges. But it all started simply and quietly, six years ago.
"This thing is pretty hand made," says Boal, "and it's gone through two iterations. It began six years ago as a movie about the failure to capture bin Laden in Tora Bora. I spent a few years on that, researching and writing, and we were in pre-production of that film by 2011, with scouts in Romania. Then, more or less out of the blue, bin Laden was killed, and that film became ancient history. So I had to start again."
"This story was always personal to me because I grew up in New York City, in the shadow of The World Trade Center and, after 9/11, I really felt I needed to understand more about bin Laden and the U.S. response to him," notes Boal, who has reported on national security issues and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for magazines as diverse as PLAYBOY and Rolling Stone. "The guy attacked my hometown, and the long aftermath of that day has defined my professional life as a writer. I can't say I picked the topic. Writers, like children, don't always get to pick their influences. It picked me."
At that time, Bigelow was already drawing critical and popular attention as a director with her own uncompromising vision and affinity for meshing taut, involving action with human intrigue in features including NEAR DARK, BLUE STEEL and K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER. In the midst of Boal's initial research on Tora Bora, he and Bigelow made THE HURT LOCKER, which would win her a place in history as one of the leading chroniclers of 21st Century warfare and as the first woman ever to win the Oscar for Best Director.
Still, even with acclaim and awards on their side, the topic of bin Laden remained a non-starter in Hollywood and the filmmakers had to find independent financing to get the project off the ground. Boal and Bigelow joined forces with producer and financier Megan Ellison, who funded the picture through her label, Annapurna Pictures.
After the historic events of May 1, 2011, when news of bin Laden's death stunned the world, Boal moved to Washington for several months, diving into 80-plus hour work-weeks, literally pounding the pavement and knocking on doors. He then travelled to Pakistan and other parts of the Middle East to follow the leads of the story.
"Public affairs at some agencies were helpful, and then a lot of the reporting was done the old-fashioned way, with shoe leather, and sourcing and luck," explains Boal. "My intention was to get as many first-hand accounts from those who were involved as possible, and I was at the end of the day fortunate to be able to write a script drawn almost entirely from first-hand accounts of the people directly involved in the mission."
"Obviously, unless you are making a documentary, at a certain point, you have to take off your journalist's hat and put on your screenwriter's hat to tell a great story. This is a movie after all. When you are detailing a ten-year manhunt and compressing those facts and that research into a two-hour movie, you have to tell your story efficiently."
Boal's approach synched perfectly with Bigelow's vision for the film. "The public knows very little about what the unsung heroes in the intelligence community go through, which is as it has to be, but here you get a rare opportunity to have a first-hand look at the men and women at the heart of one of the most covert operations in our history," says the director. "Mark didn't just ascertain facts; he absorbed the subtle nuances permeating the atmosphere of this world - the personalities, the conflicts, the motivations, the uncertainties - and then brilliantly illuminated them."
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