December 23, 2012

Movies: Dramatizing the ultimate 'Dark' op

By STEVEN ZEITCHIK, McClatchy Newspapers

(Continued from page 1)

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Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal on the set of “Zero Dark Thirty.”

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Jessica Chastain stars in “Zero Dark Thirty” as a mid-level CIA operative in Islamabad, Pakistan.

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"Zero Dark" faced extra obstacles. Bigelow and Boal -- who with 2009's "The Hurt Locker" won a best picture Oscar for depicting an obsessive bomb specialist in Iraq -- were keen to make a real-life movie about our inability to capture Bin Laden, a kind of companion piece of existential futility.

Watching coverage of the Bin Laden killing in May 2011, Bigelow described feeling "an obligation to go forward" with a project they had been working on intermittently for nearly three years. But there was a problem. The script she and Boal had been developing had nothing to do with the successful mission. And Boal didn't want to invent: As a reporter who had written military-themed stories for Playboy and others, he prides himself on incorporating journalism into his films.

So he ripped up his script and hit the pavement to meet with old sources. "I wanted to approach the story as a screenwriter, but do the homework as a reporter," he said.

Boal had a narrative problem too, since it's not as if the ending would surprise anyone. His solution was to concentrate on the mechanics -- what circuitous path led to Bin Laden and who was brave or contrarian enough to follow it. "We know how 'Lincoln' ends and it's still pretty interesting to watch," Boal said.

Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. In the works were books and films about the hunt "SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden," a hastily produced affair from Nicholas Chartier, Bigelow and Boal's estranged producer on "The Hurt Locker."

The filmmakers picked up the pace. "Zero Dark" began shooting nine months after Boal started his script and is reaching theaters just 10 months after that. It's a peculiar combination: a film with the heft of a slow-cooker but the timing of a cable-television headline-chaser.

"ZERO DARK" WAS ALSO facing a political tempest. In the summer of 2011, Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called for an investigation into whether the Obama administration had given filmmakers access to classified information. Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, has added its own questions. (Boal and Bigelow have maintained that the administration did not give them any special access and that they followed the proper procedures with government agencies.)

But perhaps the biggest challenge "Zero Dark" faced was internal. Bigelow wanted the film, budgeted at a bit more than $40 million and financed by emerging film magnate Megan Ellison, to feel as authentic as possible, giving filmgoers the sense they were witnessing the raid as it happened. She began to discard film conventions.

To re-create a view through night-vision goggles, most directors would shoot normally, then doctor the images in postproduction. Bigelow decided to rig the cameras themselves with night-vision technology so we would see the raid much as the SEALs did. "There's a reason you don't hear about it done this way -- it's a lot more risky," the film's cinematographer, Greig Fraser, said.

Rather than build Bin Laden's compound in pieces on a sound stage, Bigelow decided to re-create it in its entirety in the Jordanian desert. That allowed her a big advantage: Instead of cutting and pasting the scene together in the edit room, she could have the actors move through the space in just a few continuous takes, enhancing the realism. Crew members began analyzing photos and diagrams, from the labyrinthine layout to the Pakistani art on the walls.

"There were some white-knuckle moments," Bigelow said of the decision to build a replica of the stone compound from scratch in just 10 weeks. "We wanted the movie to feel as naturalistic as possible. But naturalism takes work."

But there's a fundamental question many viewers will ask: Is Maya, who has a decidedly Hollywood-friendly arc, real?

"No Easy Day" by the pseudonymous SEAL Mark Owen refers to Jen, a character Chastain says she believes is Maya. Chastain said she didn't meet with Maya but, perhaps leery of questions about the film's access to intelligence sources, paused awkwardly then declined to answer when asked if she had ever corresponded with her. (Both Chastain and Boal cite a strong desire not to expose the agent, who is still an active member of the CIA.)

Asked how true to life the Maya details are, Boal said: "I don't know if I can put a percent on it. She's a character in a film. But she's also based on reporting and firsthand accounts." Overall, he said, he tightened and tweaked to tell a decade-long story in less than three hours but hewed as closely as possible to what happened.

 

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