Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor.
As a journalist and a screenwriter, Mark Boal is no stranger to writing about modern soldiers and the wars they fight. Zero Dark Thirty reunites Boal with director Kathryn Bigelow — both won Oscars for The Hurt Locker — to chronicle the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It’s a subject that made the movie infamous long before its release as pols and pundits accused the White House of trying to bolster its image by granting Boal and Bigelow improper access to classified information about the May 2011 raid that killed the Al Qaeda leader. While Boal denies the charges — the released documents fail to prove improper access — the movie itself has at last emerged to defy political pigeonholing and throw a shock into awards season. Eschewing policymakers and presidents, Zero Dark Thirty relies on first-hand accounts of events and focuses on CIA analyst Maya, who spends a decade obsessively hunting Bin Laden. Like all the characters in the movie, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, is based on a real person — although not so much so that anyone can identify the real agent. Speaking with AwardsLine less than a day after Zero Dark Thirty first screened, Boal reflected on the intense process of putting together a complex film under such unusual pressures.
AwardsLine: You’ve been telling stories about today’s soldiers and modern wars. What do you find so attractive about these subjects?
Mark Boal: Ever since 9/11, I found myself interested in chronicling the war and the war on terror and the way that this giant machinery was affecting individuals. As a screenwriter, I’m fascinated by people that put themselves at such great risk. And there’s so many inherently dramatic components — for example, the intelligence community — that make fertile ground for a dramatist.
AwardsLine: You were working on a movie about Bin Laden’s 2001 escape into the caves of Afghanistan. How far had you gotten on that project when Bin Laden was reported killed?
Boal: We were planning to shoot late that summer.
AwardsLine: What was your first thought about the movie when you heard he had been killed?
Boal: I was thinking about friends I had lost on 9/11, to be honest with you. But eventually I came around and started thinking about it narratively, as a screenwriter, and it occurred to me that I had a lot of work to do and that I’d probably have to throw out years of work.
AwardsLine: How did you gather your first-hand accounts? Were you going through official channels or were you tracking down people on your own and using your own contacts?
Boal: It was a combination of all three of those methods. I certainly went through official channels, the public-affairs offices of the relevant agencies, as any reporter would do. I also did independent reporting, and you just kind of follow your nose and you build what you know one interview at a time.
AwardsLine: How quickly did the script come together?
Boal: There was a fire in the belly because I felt a lot of competitive pressure to do it quickly. It was a couple or three months of writing, and another three months of research. I was researching while I was writing.
AwardsLine: How much did the script change through production?
Boal: We shot the first draft, more or less, but I was always tweaking scenes on set. There were no conceptual revisions, really, but once I get a sense for an actor and how the dialogue sounds coming out of his or her mouth, I like to craft the character to what I perceive to be their strengths. Probably not a day went by when I didn’t churn out revisions of existing pages.
AwardsLine: A lot has been made in the media of the production getting assistance from the government in researching the movie. How did you approach the government and what kind of assistance did they provide?
Boal: If you’re trying to do your homework, as I was, the first thing you do is you go directly to the offices that are set up and designed to work with reporters or book authors or screenwriters. That’s what their job is: Communicate the facts and the goals of whatever agency they work for. That relationship between people seeking information and government agencies sharing the information is one of the foundations of this system that we have. What was unusual in this case was we got caught up in an election year and our movie became a chew toy, a talking point in a presidential election campaign. There were all sorts of things that were said about the film that were just not true.
AwardsLine: How fictionalized is the Maya character and what are some of the challenges of writing this kind of character?
Boal: It’s what screenwriters do all the time when they work from life. Part of what astonished me in my research is there were a lot of women involved in this hunt that played a big role, and I just wasn’t aware of that side of the CIA. I chose to tell the story through her eyes because that seemed to be to me the most dynamic and interesting way to do it. You’re also trying to dramatize events to tell a story most effectively. That doesn’t mean the events aren’t true, it just means you’re making them as dramatic as you possibly can. Then there were also things that I did to the character that I’m not going to discuss for obvious reasons to make sure that nobody would be able to watch the movie and draw a dotted line between a character in the film and somebody in real life.
AwardsLine: Was it a conscious choice to steer clear of putting politicians in the film except for brief glimpses of TV news reports?
Boal: That was a creative choice. For better or worse, most of my writing life has been about people that work behind the scenes. I’m interested in finding extraordinary moments in otherwise normal people. Not to say there couldn’t be a great movie about the White House — I’m sure there will be some day, and somebody should write that movie. It just won’t be me.