Zero Dark Thirty: The Climax–Bin Laden Compound

Replicating the bin Laden Compound in Jordan

The climax of Zero Dark Thirty plays out on the film’s most challenging and intriguing set: Osama bin Laden’s final hiding place inside a 38,000 square foot compound, tucked into a well-to-do, suburban area of Abbottabad, Pakistan, just 100 miles from the Afghanistan border and less than a mile from the Pakistani military academy.

Based on blueprints, open-source intelligence and independent reporting, the production built its own replica of the walled compound, brick by brick, inch by inch, right down to the tiles, using local builders in a Dead Sea village not dissimilar to those found in Pakistan. Bigelow wanted to show precisely the state in which bin Laden was found, and that absolutely meant she did not want a partial set.

“The house we built was entirely real – the lights went on, the doors locked and every room was arranged exactly according to the research,” says Bigelow.

The work of the re-creation fell to production designer Jeremy Hindle, who says he shares with Bigelow a passion for genuine detail. “We both felt the art direction on this film shouldn’t look art directed,” he explains. “You are just there in the moment.”

“Her perspective is to bring an emotional context to action and violence, rather than just the physical,” he observes. “You walk away from her films feeling that the action has gone as much to your heart as to your head.”

For the compound, Hindle worked with the London-based company Frame Store to 3-D model the entire structure. He and his team then spent three months building the compound out of cinder block that was aged for a lived-in look that made it nearly indistinguishable from the photographs they had seen.

“It was just eerie,” he muses. “After six solid weeks of painting, texturing, layering, cracking, breaking and smashing, it turned into the real thing. You felt like you were standing right there in Abbottabad.”

The authenticity extended to the structure’s very stability. “We had to build the compound so that it could withstand real Black Hawk helicopters flying right down on it, so we built the structure on six-to-nine-foot caissons underground,” Hindle explains.

While the bin Laden compound was a massive undertaking for Hindle, the scope of his work extended to recreating a number of largely unseen locations from headlines of the last few years. These include the Khobar Towers, a Saudi Arabian housing development that was bombed in 1996, a terrorist act later attributed to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda; and Camp Chapman, the CIA base near Khost, Afghanistan that was attacked by a suicide bomber in December of 2009.

Lighting the Raid

Once the compound was created, an intensive effort began to capture, as precisely as possible, what happened there on that fateful night. The trick was to carefully choreograph a lighting scheme and a shooting style that would simulate what the SEALs would have experienced in real time.

“The SEALs arrived on a moonless night – the darkest night of the month – and we had to find ways to recreate that while also giving the audience enough visual information to know what is going on,” says cinematographer Fraser. “We knew that we didn’t want conventional night lighting, so we invented our own look. It’s actually very, very complicated to create a ‘no light’ look.”

“We looked at dozens of different ways to make a nighttime look, we did a lot of testing and we did a lot of talking about just how dark it should be.” Fraser continues: Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that to really let the audience in on how dark the night was and what the mood was like, we had to do something fairly unconventional.”

While a midnight inkiness abounds in the sequence, flashes of luminosity punctuate it, whether from explosions or other sources around them. “This is also part of the reality for SEALs,” notes Fraser. “They crave light and hunt it out whenever it naturally occurs.”

“We did that by wiring up a series of infrared lights, and then making them film-friendly. This turned out to be pretty accurate to what SEALs see because they also have mounted infra-red lights.”

Bigelow shot most of the raid sequences twice – once shooting night-for- night and again shooting with the Night Vision lighting scheme – all while dealing with local sandstorms that blew walls of dust across the set.

“We were shooting the night of the first-year anniversary of the raid, it was a haunting feeling,” says Bigelow.

The Stealth Black Hawks

One of the most daring aspects of the U.S. mission in Abbottabad was the use of a top secret, experimental flightcraft that had never been deployed in this kind of situation: Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters modified with stealth technology to allow them to approach undetected by the compound’s security or the Pakistani military. Although conventional Black Hawks have had a long history of military use in treacherous, closed-in areas in Grenada, Iraq, Somalia, the Balkans and most recently Afghanistan, the untested stealth equipment made the Abbottabad mission even more unpredictable once it was in motion.

The precise design parameters of the stealth Black Hawks remain undisclosed, although various sketches and photographs emerged after the raid. To design the film’s four replicas, production designer Hindle worked with several sources familiar with the better-known stealth fighter jets. Like the jets, the stealth Black Hawks are known to utilize high-tech materials for their skins; employ flat structural angles that defy radar; and use sophisticated noise baffling.

“No one really knows for certain what they look like up close,” says Hindle, “but in addition to the photographs and drawings you can find on-line, we spoke to a number of avionics and helicopter experts, and we came to our own conclusions as to what they would have to look like. In the end, there are not that many options. You still have the basic Black Hawk fuselage, and on top of that are the modifications to make it quiet and avoid being seen by radar.”

The replicas were manufactured in London out of steel and fiberglass, then shipped to Jordan to be assembled for the shoot, which made for interesting logistics. “We shipped them in three-piece containers,” Hindle explicates, “and they took forever to arrive. A bunch of stealth helicopters that no one’s seen before were not a fun thing to get through Customs in Jordan!”

To give audiences a sense of the Black Hawk crash that nearly upended the mission, Bigelow and Hindle decided to hang one of their freshly-built replicas from a 200-foot crane, mounted from the top, so the whole thing could rotate and spin, as a helicopter really does when it is going down. “It could articulate and spin both the actors and the cameraman,” says Hindle. “Then we had wind machines everywhere to kick up debris and we shot the crash as much as we could live.”

In addition to the replicas, the film used two working Jordanian Black Hawks that flew live into the compound for the shoot – then had a “stealth look” added with CGI in post-production. The filmmakers wanted to penetrate not only the helicopter but also the experience of the SEALs flying into this erratic, dodgy situation. “We give the audience a true sense of what it was like to be one of those soldiers trapped essentially in a low, slow flying bus without any of the normal agility and speed that a usual Black Hawk has,” sums up Boal. “Your lights are off, and all you’ve got is the inky darkness of Pakistan. You see what a feat it was that they made it.”

With photography completed, Bigelow next headed for the editing room, where she worked with Oscar®-nominated editors Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg, poring through the footage to construct the final story. By then she had shot nearly two million feet of digital footage. “It was a mountain of material,” Bigelow notes, “We could have had a cut more than three hours long. But Billy and Dylan were great at helping me cut it down to size.”

Another layer of that tapestry emerged from the work of two-time Oscar-winning sound editor and sound designer Paul N. J. Ottosson, who also worked with Bigelow on The Hurt Locker. “The visual is only 180 degrees of the canvas for me and the sound rounds out the other 180 degrees.”

The final aural component of the film is a subtly evocative score from four-time Academy Award® nominated composer Alexandre Desplat (The King’s Speech). Bigelow worked closely with Desplat, over numerous meetings, to find a sound that would complement yet never supersede the film’s realistic tone. “Alexandre has a rare ability to juxtapose rich atmosphere with very complex and finely-tuned melodic structures,” says Bigelow. “He came up with amazing motifs that are capable of carrying you through a story that evolves over an entire decade.

She concludes, “The ultimate goal for all of us was to bring people into this shadowy, yet vitally important, world that is seen only in the rarest moments, and illuminate its human face.”