Movie scripts aren’t always set in stone and constantly evolve during the film process. Just ask scriptwriter and producer Mark Boal who was initially writing a movie script about the failure to capture Osama bin Laden when the inevitable occurred.
“It is the story of finding a very sharp needle in a very large haystack,” notes 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.”
“I had spent a few years 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.”
For Boal, re-writing the script wasn’t his biggest challenge, but sourcing and reporting a story about a hunt, which has preoccupied two American presidential administrations for more than a decade, presented countless challenges.
“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,” shares Boal, a former journalist who has reported on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Boal’s approach to tell the story of bin Laden’s capture through the eyes of a little-known female CIA Agent synched perfectly with director Kathryn Bigelow’s vision for the film. The two had previously worked together for Bigelow’s multi-Oscar-winning Iraq War “The Hurt Locker” and jointly understood the need for accuracy.
“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. His research and script brought the breadth of it, from Afghanistan to Washington to Pakistan, to life,” shares Bigelow.
A story which opens with a black screen accompanied by audio of the real-life 911 calls received after the September 11, 2001 attack, it’s a stark reminder and smart introduction to an edge of your seat drama. As the story continues, it shifts to Pakistan where we meet the ambitious young CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) who has been assigned to participate in the interrogation of an Al Qaeda detainee who may have information relating to bin Laden’s location. Maya is parachuted into the hunt with the unsettling experience of an “enhanced interrogation” session by a CIA operative played by Jason Clarke. No punishment is out of bounds and the methods of information extraction range from water boarding to whipping. From there, the film delves into the realm of office politics, jetting from Washington, Pakistan to Afghanistan. After a few years of interrogations, a name comes to the forefront that intrigues Maya, who now works in an office with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), Jack (Harold Perrineau). As she pieces together the information, their focus eventually leads to bin Laden’s compound. Along the way, we are reminded of the terrorist attacks that have occurred in the last eight years, including the July 7, 2005 suicide bombing in Britain.
Most of the movie is spent telling the story of the quest to find bin Laden with the final fifteen minutes detailing the actual capture. The title ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a military jargon for the dark of night, as well as the moment—12:30 a.m.—when the Navy SEALs first stepped foot on bin Laden’s compound.