Jessica Chastain plays Maya in Zero Dark Thirty
She is the only woman director to have won an Oscar. After wowing the world with Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow digs deep into the operation that brought down Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty that releases in India on February 15. An email chat with t2…
When and why did you decide to make a film on the manhunt for Osama bin Laden?
I started with this project six years back with a very different ending, until one day President Obama announced that “the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden”. That was the time when Mark (Boal, the film’s producer and screenwriter) started talking to sources. It was all based on a first-hand account, so it felt very vivid, very vital and very immediate, which was very exciting as a filmmaker. One day, Boal discovered that at the centre of the whole real-life drama was a young female CIA officer who had the dedication and courage. I was excited to take it on. I was inspired by the character Maya to take up the project.
You had to rewrite the film midway when bin Laden was killed…
Yes, we had to change the plot and the ending. We had to start the research all over again because we could not have given that ending to the movie when the world knew that Osama had been killed. The resources of our previous research helped us a lot.
What was the most challenging aspect of making the film?
Based on the research we did, Mark and I completed the screenplay quickly and then did the casting. Filming the movie was a bit of a challenge, as we had to compress the 10-year-long odyssey into two-and-a-half hours. We tried to keep the version as accurate as the real-life incident. The research part was more difficult as there were a lot of controversies about us getting the classified material. There was an investigation to rule out if we were given classified information.
Shooting the climax — the raid that killed bin Laden — was quite a task. People know what happened, but they don’t know how it happened… the “choreography” of the whole incident. People don’t know where they landed, where did they enter from and whom did they kill first. Showing the picture though the eyes of the actual officers… what they encountered… was a challenge.
Yes, there were a lot of controversies regarding us receiving classified material and the matter was investigated. Being the election year, especially, a lot of things were being said, which has now been handled. We did not receive any kind of help from the administration; in fact, there were investigations to verify if there were any officials helping us because it was a question of the country’s security.
Since you were dealing with such controversial material, how difficult was it balancing what you wanted to put in and what you eventually put in?
When we began shooting, our effort was only to remain honest and faithful to our research and we’ve lived up to our promise. We are only telling the story to the masses; the people need to watch the movie and judge it for themselves. I knew that I wanted to remain faithful to our research and not try to make anything look fancy or better. I just wanted to be accurate and stay close to reality.
What did your ensemble cast bring to the film?
All the actors that we’ve cast have done a great job and are perfect for their roles. They have done justice to their respective roles. Each one did their bit of research and Jessica (Chastain, who plays Maya) really worked hard to portray the character as aptly as possible. For three months, she rigorously read books and reports and learned from Mark.
How was it shooting in India?
It was a great experience shooting in Chandigarh. The film unit in India was very helpful. We did a lot of research for it; we did our homework.
In the run-up to the Oscars, Zero Dark Thirty has done well on the awards circuit…
Awards are... for me... an appreciation of my work and they inspire me to do better. But my previous awards have never built any pressure on me because that would affect what I want to do.
Finally, for every American post 9/11, the war against bin Laden has been a personal one. What has it meant to you as an American and a filmmaker, since Zero Dark Thirty must be your most personal work?
The 9/11 attack is and will remain a dark day for me, like all Americans. It was a tragic day in the history of America and so was it for me. There was no agenda behind making this movie; I just thought that the story should reach the people. There was no personal intention involved.
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