Interview: Kathryn Bigelow of 'Zero Dark Thirty'
'I think what was fascinating and surprising to me were the women at the heart of this hunt ...'
When she presented her film "Zero Dark Thirty" at L.A.'s Pacific Design Center Thanksgiving Sunday, Kathryn Bigelow, even at a distance, looked both elated and exhausted. At one point during the Q&A she laugh-wheezed and noted "We finished the sound mix four days ago." Then again, considering the lightning-shock effect her film is having even before release controversy from the Hollywood sign to the halls of power, elation and exhaustion might be the only way to describe where she is. We spoke with Bigelow in New York about abandoning her original project about the hunt for Bin Laden, the nature of secrets and the things she herself learned making her impressive realist epic.
MSN Movies: You're making a film about the search for bin Laden and you got overtaken by events, as they say in the journalism world. The story changed. What was that evening like as the news broke? Did you look at your writer Mark Boal and just go, "Tear everything up"? Were there thoughts of abandoning the project? I'm curious.
Kathryn Bigelow: Well we were pretty far along in the other project, and that was the failed hunt for Osama bin Laden. But it was the first assault into the Tora Bora mountain range on December 6th in 2001. And so we're writing away, or he's writing away, and May 1st happens, and there's a barrage of phone calls -- what does that mean for your project? And I think we were sort of reluctant to abandon that one at first but then realized very quickly that you could no longer make a movie about the failed hunt for Osama bin Laden when the entire world knew he was dead. So we, after some soul-searching and a lot of debate, we began to pivot, and the one aspect that remains are the 9/11 calls at the beginning.
The movie is not per se a whodunnit; it's more of a howdunnit in terms of revealing all this private information about a public happening.
What was the one thing you learned in all of the research that surprised even you?
I think what was fascinating to me and surprising to me were the women at the heart of this hunt. And I just didn't anticipate that, and I was thrilled to find this out and then through the reporting and the dramatization in the screenplay to discover these really tenacious, dedicated, courageous both women and men that are working on our behalf as we speak. As we're having this conversation they're still working. And so I think that the movie, certainly for me, it reminds me of their dedication. It reminds me of their sacrifice.
It's very interesting because you always hear in congressional inquiries whenever intelligence services make errors, but a lot of the time we cannot hear about the successes because they're still part of an ongoing process.
Have you heard from people in the intelligence community for saying thank you for putting our one clear victory up on the board in such a visible fashion?
Well, I can't really answer that one. (Laughs)
How many things do you know right now where if you told someone they would then have to be killed? I mean I'm being facetious, but you must have insight to a lot of inside information. What's public and what isn't? Do you have to think about that carefully?
Well, we certainly take protecting our sources very, very, very seriously, and you would as a journalist, as well. So it's really a matter of protecting the sources and telling a very good story, putting the audience at the center of that story, and giving them ... an opportunity to go in that journey and discover that compound in Abbottabad.
Making the film, what was the biggest challenge in that when you're doing a true story there are things that might not be plausible in the frame of fiction? I'm curious if there was stuff you had to remove because while it was true, it just seemed too ludicrous to get an audience to buy.
I don't think we ever encountered that. I mean, it's a ten-year hunt that had both small triumphs and a lot of disappointment, a lot of frustration, and then an additional triumph, you know. So in other words I think ironically the story was reported, laid out, and then of course compressed, but laid out dramatically the narrative was very imagistic and very character-friendly ...
For more on "Zero Dark Thirty," watch our video interview with the cast and crew.