Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: After tapping his own background in journalism to write and produce the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker and now Zero Dark Thirty with Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal‘s next project will be to try to empower other journalists to see their reporting form the basis for screen projects. He’s forming Page One Productions, a development and production company to acquire and shepherd topical TV and features based on other reporters’ stories. Boal will use his association with CAA and Management 360 to get things up and running.

At a panel moderated by Billy Ray at the WGA Theater last night in Beverly Hills, Boal explained: “I want to marry up screenwriters with reporters, and try to encourage movies that plug into the culture. And if more screenwriters became producers, I think that would be a good thing. That’s assuming of course that this film does okay. If it bombs, forget I said any of this.”

It certainly doesn’t look like Zero Dark Thirty will be fading out of sight anytime soon with the accolades the film has so far won from the New York Film Critics Circle, National Board of Review and other regional critics bodies in anticipation of its January 13 release. I moderated an Oscar screening panel last week for the film with Bigelow, Boal and their stars Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler. It was amusing to see Boal squirm on his stool as he was peppered about specifics he said he could not divulge, as secretive as the CIA agents he wrote about. But I told him that I thought this film broke some intriguing ground for journalism-based film fare. Most great fact-based films like All The President’s Men come out way after the fact and are based on well-plowed dirt, but Boal actually turned over hard ground to find this story. He came in with the journalism background and his articles formed the basis for In The Valley Of Elah and The Hurt Locker. And he and Bigelow moved very quickly after they threw out the project they were ready to sell — the unsuccessful post-9/11 hunt for Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora — the night Bin Laden’s death was reported, and quickly turned out another script that has a far more satisfying third act. Both Boal and Bigelow told me they worked quickly, but with the full understanding of the burden of making a film about an untold part of the story with fresh facts that had better hold up years in the future when reams of books get written and inevitable new findings are disclosed. He also seemed disappointed by the early reports that inferred he was simply handed the story on a silver platter by the Obama White House.

I’ve read some criticism about whether the water-boarding depicted in the opening scene was real, and just like the brickbats thrown at Ben Affleck’s terrific Argo on whether this or that specific thing happened exactly as depicted, some of this just comes with the territory during Oscar campaigning. Routinely, fact-based films like A Beautiful Mind are always put on the defensive. To me, these films are obligated to entertain as well as inform, and Zero Dark Thirty‘s opening scene frames a highly controversial interrogation process of a prisoner with terror ties that leads to invaluable information about bin Laden’s whereabouts. It is presented objectively and invites viewers to make up their own minds on whether it was worth it or inhumane and barbaric. It also lends insight into the conflicted characters played by Chastain and Clarke, who pulled the strings. Including the challenge Chastain and Clarke encountered in not being able to chat up or even know the real identity of the CIA characters they were playing, Zero Dark Thirty is one of the most interesting melds of journalism and filmmaking in a major studio feature that I can recall.