ZERO DARK THIRTY
The Inspiration of Extreme Locations
Creating that lush image meant traveling far and wide to locate the picture in places that closely matched their real life counter parts. To keep their commitment to organic realism, Bigelow and Boal determined early on that they could not and would not shoot ZERO DARK THIRTY on soundstages. Instead, they were ready to go to the most far-flung places to find locations that closely mirrored the distinctive tribal regions and cities of Pakistan where much of the hunt for bin Laden unfolded.
Says Bigelow, "You take a real environment and manipulate it, through blocking, dressing, all the tricks of the trade, and try to make it visually resonant."
After a worldwide search for a building that could double as the American embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, the filmmakers settled on a science university in a small town of Chandigarh, in northern India, close to the border of Pakistan. The school, fully functioning with young students, was repainted, and re-dressed, and a lot of attention was paid to the way the surfaces and spaces would work on camera. Extensive testing was done to manipulate the color palate, and texture of the walls. Then came finishing touches of a secured State Department post, from cameras to cypher locks.
"The way we shot the movie, where and how we shot -- each of these choices was informed by a vision of respecting how the real story happened," says Boal. "We knew it would be a difficult process to drag a whole film company half way around the world, but it gave us something essential. Once you start compromising on a film like this, it becomes a slippery slope."
However, ZERO DARK THIRTY was the first Western film to be made there, so the production attracted considerable attention. "There are a lot of different colors to shooting in India," notes Boal. "They require permits and approvals for many aspects of filming that we take for granted in the US: for cigarette smoking on the set, for shooting on a national holiday, approval by the Home Office... you might think that with all of these permits, nothing would be left to chance, but at the same time there is a lot of unpredictability."
In Chandigarh, shooting took place in the chaotic thrum of the streets, which meant dealing with the constant uncertainty of crowd management. "Large crowds came out to watch us film, and It could easily have gotten out of control," recalls Boal. "We found that one way to solve this was to distract a crowd with 'fake shoots' -- including one where we had one of our grips dancing, while we got the actual shot we needed elsewhere."
At one point, the production drew a different kind of crowd: a group of angry protesters. After some investigation, it turned out they were upset over a 2-inch American flag decal inadvertently left on a faux Pakistani street sign. Diplomacy was necessary. "The group sent their head guy and we all sat in a circle and I told them we did not want to insult India in any way," recalls Boal. "They said, you're our guest and you're welcome to shoot here."
Replicating the bin Laden Compound in Jordan
The climax of ZERO DARK THIRTY plays out on the film's most challenging and intriguing set: Osama bin Laden's final hiding place inside a 38,000 square foot compound, tucked into a well-to-do, suburban area of Abbottabad, Pakistan, just 100 miles from the Afghanistan border and less than a mile from the Pakistani military academy.
Based on blueprints, open-source intelligence and independent reporting, the production built its own replica of the walled compound, brick by brick, inch by inch, right down to the tiles, using local builders in a Dead Sea village not dissimilar to those found in Pakistan. Bigelow wanted to show precisely the state in which bin Laden was found, and that absolutely meant she did not want a partial set.
"The house we built was entirely real -- the lights went on, the doors locked and every room was arranged exactly according to the research," says Bigelow.
The work of the re-creation fell to production designer Jeremy Hindle, who says he shares with Bigelow a passion for genuine detail. "We both felt the art direction on this film shouldn't look art directed," he explains. "You are just there in the moment."
"Her perspective is to bring an emotional context to action and violence, rather than just the physical," he observes. "You walk away from her films feeling that the action has gone as much to your heart as to your head."
For the compound, Hindle worked with the London-based company Frame Store to 3-D model the entire structure. He and his team then spent three months building the compound out of cinder block that was aged for a lived-in look that made it nearly indistinguishable from the photographs they had seen.
"It was just eerie," he muses. "After six solid weeks of painting, texturing, layering, cracking, breaking and smashing, it turned into the real thing. You felt like you were standing right there in Abbottabad."
The authenticity extended to the structure's very stability. "We had to build the compound so that it could withstand real Black Hawk helicopters flying right down on it, so we built the structure on six-to-nine-foot caissons underground," Hindle explains.
While the bin Laden compound was a massive undertaking for Hindle, the scope of his work extended to recreating a number of largely unseen locations from headlines of the last few years. These include the Khobar Towers, a Saudi Arabian housing development that was bombed in 1996, a terrorist act later attributed to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda; and Camp Chapman, the CIA base near Khost, Afghanistan that was attacked by a suicide bomber in December of 2009.
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