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Kathryn Bigelow Talks “Torture” Controversy, Her First “Failed” ‘Hunt For Osama Bin Laden’ Film & More About ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Kathryn Bigelow Talks "Torture" Controversy, Her First "Failed" 'Hunt For Osama Bin Laden' Film & More About 'Zero Dark Thirty'

One of our favorite tweets of the week comes from Playlist contributor James Rocchi. It should speak for itself.

In case it doesn't, here's the rundown: Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," her follow-up to the Oscar-winning Best Picture "The Hurt Locker" depicts the eight-year hunt for Osama Bin Laden (our review calls it "one of the best of the year," and "an intense and dense" national security procedural). Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal, also an investigative journalist, received flak earlier this year and were the target of controversy when accusations flew that the CIA gave them special access to classified documents regarding the Bin Laden hunt. Boal said earlier this year that the picture was not vetted by the CIA, and that seems to be the case as Acting CIA Director Michael Morell recently criticized the film in a letter to his employees, stating the film takes too many liberties with the truth while still claiming to be historically accurate. Making matters worse are those pundits that have jumped on the bandwagon and dubbed the film "pro-torture" because those tactics were among those used to assist in the capture and killing of Bin Laden (that kind of logic is pretty hilarious, frankly). During the press day for "Zero Dark Thirty" earlier this month, Bigelow herself addressed the "pro-torture" claims, and discussed other aspects of getting the movie made. Here are five highlights:

Bigelow said the torture/interrogation sequences had to be included because they're "part of the history."
"There's no question that methodology is controversial but there was no debate about whether or not to include it in the movie because it's part of the history," she said. "That's an element we were working with. It was a question of working with the material and finding the right tone and balance. And also exploring other methodologies. Over the course of the decade many different approaches were utilized. Throughout that decade you see all the permutations and surveillance that were utilized. And the rest is history. It was all about finding the right balance."

Bigelow and Mark Boal were originally working on another Bin Laden movie that got scrapped in 2011 when the al Qaeda leader was captured and killed.
"Originally, we were working on a different project, still about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden but about the failed hunt in 2001. This took place in December of 2001. And while Mark was working on the screenplay, quite far along, [Bin Laden was killed] and we realized, after some soul searching, it would be a little bit difficult to make a movie about the failed hunt for Osama bin Laden after the whole world knew that he had been killed," she explained. "After much debate, we pivoted. And Mark, being an investigative journalist, set about to report the current story of 2011 as history revealed itself."

Jessica Chastain's Maya character was written as a woman because women played key roles in the real story.
"I think what I found very surprising in Mark's research was that women were very central to this operation. That's what I found exciting," Bigelow stressed. "It's extraordinary that women were pivotal but it was also that those were the facts. That was the hand we were dealt. That was the lens we chose to tell this story. I thought that the honesty of the piece was the most important element. That's what drove me and motivated me. It's also a testament to the power of Jessica that she found the finely nuanced emotions in a character that has to be so precise. It's a testament to her but also to Jason Clarke and to Kyle Chandler. These are characters who have to work with a tremendous amount of precision, as beautifully written in the screenplay, and the emotion they're able to generate within that precision, is amazing.

The production was shot in the thick of things to get a chaotic kind of feeling, but with subterfuge to avoid spectactors.
"We needed that sense of [a] teeming environment where you're looking for a sharp needle in a very large haystack. This kind of human deluge," Bigelow explained. "These marketplaces in India were exquisite. What happens when you pull a camera out is you get 2000 faces looking at the camera and that would have broken the illusion. So what we had to do was set up these diversionary film sets, where we would have an actor who wasn't in a key scene, and they would be doing something like walking through the marketplace 200 feet away, while the shot I needed was 200 feet in the opposite direction. You don't get all day, it only buys you another 30 minutes. But that kind of life and vitality of those environments, you can't recreate. If we could have gone to Pakistan we would have. We were about 2 hours off the border. Between pre-partition and post-partition Pakistan, the architecture is identical."

Bigelow believes in the reality of her film, but should we?
"As a filmmaker it was very interesting to stay inside the longitudinal and latitudinal guidelines of history," she said. "And the beauty of this piece for me is working within a sense of naturalism and realism and specificity. There was nothing that was done that didn't come from the research. As a filmmaker, that's thrilling."

Personally this writer doesn't really care so much if the film is 100% accurate or not. At the end of the day, it's a movie. And even a documentary is still the distillation of facts told to a filmmaker who's going to present them in the way he or see sees fit. Marketing it as 100% fact is one thing, but a) I'm not sure that's the case exactly and b), it's marketing. The fact of the matter is that "Zero Dark Thirty" is a terrifically tense procedural and a thriller about the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Whether everything happened the way it's presented isn't something I personally hang on to so much, because there's a massive gulf between the facts of movies vs. the facts of reality (which themselves are still burdened by perception, POV experience, etc. — you and I may have been at the same event, but is our perception and experience the same?). I personally don't even mind if the filmmakers are convinced they have the story 100% right and don't. At the end of the day, it's still taking thousands and thousands of ideas and putting them into the framework of a 2.5 hour movie and it's executed extremely well. Your take on it? "Zero Dark Thirty" is in theaters now and doing extremely well in limited release. It opens wide on January 11, 2013.

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Comments

Jaimee

As one critic put it, which is funny, "the only torture is watching the movie itself." The film makers should just accept the public's response and not have all Bigelow's well placed friends write stunning reviews everywhere for her. She's practically nominated herself for an Oscar.

DeuceBigelow0

Oh my God, the spin!! "Accusations" didn't "fly" about Bigelow And Boal "having special access" to CIA information, they BRAGGED about basing their script "on classified information" in Variety Magazine in 2011. Go read the article. Wake up!! The public is intelligent!

RNL

I don't see an anti-torture statement in all her apologetics about "different methodologies".

shane

All hunt-for-osama films will always be failures.

DrDang

Also, what Tim said.

DrDang

I'm anticipating this movie like crazy and I'm hoping to walk away with the same experience and opinion as the writer. However, I would like to add something to the debate. It's a movie, movies are subjective, history is perceived differently etc are good arguments but they are also smart arguments. I think the concern that some of the journalists (and I) have is what the casual moviegoer will walk away with. The fact that this films aspires (and apparently succeeds) to be hyper-realistic only confounds this. Compare this with, say the accuracy debate over The Social Network, which *felt* highly dramatised from the get go; and I think that in this case the pundits may have more of a point.

Tim

"Making matters worse are those pundits that have jumped on the bandwagon and dubbed the film 'pro-torture' because those tactics were among those used to assist in the capture and killing of Bin Laden (that kind of logic is pretty hilarious, frankly)."

It's amazing that after all of the protracted debate about this, this simple fact is still unclear to so many people: those tactics were NOT used to assist in the capture and killing of Bin Laden. THAT'S the reason for the controversy. If you read the letter written by the Senators who objected to the film, and who have actually read the classified reports, this distortion is precisely the reason they are publicly objecting. I've yet to see the film, and so I can't comment on its depiction of torture (from what I've read, calling it "pro-torture" seems overblown), but the only part of this debate I see as being "pretty hilarious" is the part where those defending that depiction as an accurate representation of the historical record don't even understand what that record is.

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