Zero Dark Thirty: Making of Epic Osama bin Laden Thriller

The hunt for Osama bin Laden preoccupied the world and two American presidential administrations for more than a decade. But in the end, it took a small, dedicated team of CIA operatives to track him down. Every aspect of their mission was shrouded in secrecy. Though some of the details have since been made public, many of the most significant parts of the intelligence operation––including the central role played by that team––are brought to the screen for the first time in a nuanced and gripping new film by the Oscar®-winning creative duo of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal.

Their account of bin Laden’s pursuit and capture, vivid yet faithful to the facts, takes the viewer inside the hubs of power and to the front lines of this historic mission, culminating in the special operations assault on a mysterious, suburban Pakistani compound.

But it is the lead-up to the raid that truly distinguishes Zero Dark Thirty from other accounts. The quest to find bin Laden was fraught with danger from the start, and not every U.S. operative survived. Some intelligence experts came to believe that the assignment was impossible to carry out, but on the ground a determined team of analysts and interrogators defied the odds and proved them wrong. For the first time, their struggle to find Osama bin Laden is told on the screen in electrifying detail.

The initial, self-imposed creative challenge Bigelow and Boal faced in developing Zero Dark Thirty was how to tell this multifaceted story in the compressed time frame of a motion picture. The film encompasses sweeping events spanning nearly a decade, journeying across multiple countries and involving a precisely chosen cast of hundreds along with a devoted crew whose objective was to capture the on-the-ground reality of this mission as truthfully and viscerally as possible. To that end, it pulls no punches in documenting the moral lines––including torture––that were crossed. The intention was to create a cinematic work with the sweep and human emotion of a historical novel.

Zero Dark Thirty (the title is military jargon for the dark of night, as well as the moment—12:30 a.m.—when the Navy SEALs first stepped foot on the compound) marks Kathryn Bigelow’s most ambitious production to date. Deploying the full arsenal of filmic art, from the naturalistic performances of an ensemble that includes Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, and Edgar Ramirez, to innovative cinematography in extreme low-light conditions, to the painstakingly layered art direction, every facet of the production became a proving ground for Bigelow to make living history come alive on screen.

For screenwriter and producer Mark Boal, a trained journalist and award-winning dramatist, sourcing and reporting the story so that it could be told accurately and fully presented countless unique challenges. He made a commitment to his sources that he would chronicle not only their personal struggles, but also the details and the ramifications of this historic operation, while simultaneously protecting the identities of those he interviewed. Through dialogue and scenes inspired by extensive interviews, Boal crafted characters that captured the essence of the real life people involved in the operation as well as other members of the military and intelligence communities.

At the end of the day, the filmmakers chose to tell the story through the eyes of a little-known participant in the intel hunt: Maya, a young CIA officer and targeter whose job is finding terrorists. In a multifaceted performance by Chastain, the character of Maya, which is based on a real person, became Boal’s vehicle for dramatizing the individual’s role in the larger scheme. In some ways, the portrait of her development, from innocence to horror and grim determination, echoes the evolution of a nation struggling to cope with the ruthless calculus of terrorism.

Unlike Bigelow and Boal’s previous collaboration, The Hurt Locker, in which fictional characters were set against the terrifying real world of Iraq, Zero Dark Thirty is distinctive and singular in its approach. It is an amalgam of action-film and investigative reporting and drama, neither a work of fiction nor a documentary but an exciting hybrid that tracks closely what is known of the intelligence hunt, while shedding new light on the secretive, dark corridors of the war on terror. It deftly depicts the mysteries of human courage and the ambiguities of a situation in which the usual moral rules no longer apply.

Cinematic story telling became the perfect means to relay the narrative. In staking out this novel territory, Boal’s inspiration was the New Journalism of the 1960s, when major American writers learned to apply the techniques of literature to the description of real events. In this sense, Zero Dark Thirty attempts to move the genre of literary reportage forward, offering the audience a unique kind of movie: the reported film.

At its core, Zero Dark Thirty offers a cinematic rendition into one of the most discussed but least known events of modern times from creative artists challenging themselves to push the limits of their craft. Events are recreated with a fidelity to the facts, including filming in Pakistan itself, embedding the viewer into the center of the action. The result is a film as profound and provocative as it is stunning and real.

Columbia Pictures presents a Mark Boal production, a First Light production, an Annapurna Pictures production, a Kathryn Bigelow film, Zero Dark Thirty. Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, and Edgar Ramirez. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Mark Boal. Produced by Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow, and Megan Ellison. Executive Producers are Colin Wilson, Ted Schipper, and Greg Shapiro. Director of Photography is Greig Fraser ACS. Production Designer is Jeremy Hindle. Edited by Dylan Tichenor, A.C.E. and William Goldenberg, A.C.E. Costumes Designed by George L. Little. Music by Alexandre Desplat. Sound Design by Paul N. J. Ottosson. Casting by Mark Bennett, CSA, Richard Hicks, CSA, and Gail Stevens.