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Spoiler Interview: Mark Boal On Zero Dark Thirty
'It's been a challenging topic to live with'

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Empire has had easier interviewees than Mark Boal. Approaching the fag-end of an especially arduous Zero Dark Thirty press tour and visibly weary of a spotlight he's never been entirely comfortable in, the Oscar-winning screenwriter looks like he'd just as rather be talking about bin collection as bin Laden. Sitting quietly in a Soho hotel room, he picks absently at a wicker fruit basket. At one point he cuts an answer short, reminding us - and arguably, himself - that his words may end up repeated in a Senate hearing. This, we cannot stress enough, is not the kind of thing that happens during press for Couples Retreat.

But despite the strains of fronting up to the film's many controversies and these inauspicious omens, Boal spoke fascinatingly about the story behind it, his experiences making it, screenwriting as a whole and his motivation for telling the story of the hunt for OBL. "One has to do something", he smiles, "it's really that simple."

Spoiler Interview: Mark Boal On Zero Dark Thirty

Let's start at the beginning: I'm assuming the original idea behind Zero Dark Thirty.was yours rather than Kathryn's [Bigelow] based on the work you'd done as a journalist prior to that?
It's hard to say, really. We bounced so many ideas off each other, but we were discussing the hunt for bin Laden as a story back around the time we were finishing up The Hurt Locker.

What was the thrust of those first conversations?
We were talking about 2001 and [the Battle of] Tora Bora, and the military action up there. It was interesting that, even though the entire US military action had been focused on finding him and they actually had a pretty good sense of where he was, he'd got away. That was the idea we were kicking around in those days.

That first draft obviously culminated in the battle at Tora Bora. Was there anything from that first draft that made it onto the screen, either in terms of characterisation or particular moments, or was it a whole different beast?
It was a whole different beast.

Kathryn mentioned that it's a story that may be put on the backburner to tell one day.
Yeah, I still like that story.

Have you been out to Tora Bora?
No, I've never been. We actually were scheduled to go there in May 2011 - I had some friends in the press who were over there and people had agreed to take us there, and we had flights and visas all worked out. We were going to fly over in helicopters and visit some of the bases where the Delta guys had been deployed. When bin Laden had been killed we were still thinking of going, but a bunch of violence broke out in Afghanistan around that time - there was just one too many random shootings and so we scrapped our plans. It just seemed too dangerous.

Did you have a lot of support from friends and colleagues when you first started making the bin Laden movie?
'Bin Laden is a ghost in the story, the spectre that hangs over everybody. He's our Moby Dick.'
Kathryn and I work in... we just kind of support each other. As long as she's down for it, I'm down for it.

Uniquely, the story changed on you with the death of bin Laden. I guess you had a few days of soul-searching after that. How did you react to that as a writer?
Well, it wasn't immediately clear, because I didn't know that much about the raid - I didn't even know who was on it. I didn't know what units had been involved and who I might know who might know somebody, and I didn't know much about the intelligence hunt leading up to it. So there was a bit of a process of discovery of trying to figure out what had happened and who the players were.

How long did that take?
A couple of months.

Obviously as a longstanding journalist you have a great contacts book.
[Laughs] Fair enough, it's great.

Well, it can't be poor. How many meetings did you have to research it? Are you able to put a number on that?
I could, but I don't know if I will. [Pauses] I just don't want to say something that will come back to haunt me in a Senate hearing, which is a real possibility. But I did a number of interviews and I spoke to a number of people who had direct knowledge of the events that I'd picked to cover.

Let's talk about Jessica Chastain's character, because she's obviously the heart and soul of the film. Do you work quite closely with the actors and modify what they do?
What I like is to write the script and [then let] Kathryn improve it and [apply] her vision for how to realise it, which she obviously did to great effect. Sometimes things look good on the page but they don't sound as good, so when I'm sitting on set and it doesn't seem to be working I might say to Kathryn, 'Okay, what if we change this because it doesn't sound so good right now?' She'll either say 'yes' or 'no', and then the actor will either say 'yes' or 'no'. So I do a little bit of rewriting as I go along to try to accommodate what the actors use to find their way into the character. It's just like a big conversation.

Spoiler Interview: Mark Boal On Zero Dark Thirty

There was one line that was particularly interesting, where Jessica Chastain's character is talking in almost religious terms about surviving the bomb and she says something like, 'I've been spared so I can complete this hunt'. Did you see a fanaticism within her character that was analogous to her adversaries?
Yeah, I think I was sort of toying with this idea of it taking a fanatic to catch a fanatic. There's certainly something in that character that goes from obsession to something even deeper. She's almost on a quest and there are quasi-religious overtones to it - that's why she says that. I think that was one of the character's motivations.

Is it true that the working title was 'For God And Country'?
Well, we had a lot of titles. I kept changing the title because I couldn't decide, but that was one of them.

We don't really see bin Laden in the film, but he's a constant presence. What was it like just typing the words 'bin Laden' into a script?
He's sort of a ghost in the story, the spectre that hangs over everybody. Of course, they're pursuing him - like Moby Dick - but they don't see him and he lives by his deeds and by the effect of his deeds, so I tried to create this presence that was felt but not seen.

The ending is beautifully ambiguous in terms of what those tears represent. Was that always had in your and Kathryn's minds as the place you wanted to finish the film? What do those tears represent for you, because to me they didn't feel like tears of catharsis at all and that seemed like an important point.
I don't want to put my interpretation on it because... [pauses] I will say this: if there's complexity in the scene, it's intentional and if there's more than one emotional effect or intellectual response, that's also intentional, but I think that would be unwise for me to fully unpack all the intentions, because what's the point? I wrote the scene and now it doesn't belong to me, it belongs to whoever wants to watch it.

How many drafts did you write?
One.

For the Tora Bora story?
No, I wrote a number of drafts for that, but just one for Zero Dark Thirty.

How long did it take you to write it?
Five months or so.

With Maya, I found I liked her less and less as the movie went on. That's an unusual arc to have where the audience is not necessarily able to empathise with the protagonist. Was the Maya character the trickiest aspect to get right?
Well, it was all pretty tricky. I guess the biggest challenge was trying to... well, certainly I hoped to make a memorable movie character. That was very important to me, but there was also a lot of information to sift through and try to represent in a way that was as accurate as I could be in the context of it being a film.

There's moments of authenticity throughout - like in the scene where the Navy Seals are playing horseshoes before the raid. Were they all based on facts you'd gleaned from your research? How much license was there?
There's all sorts of license - I mean, it's a movie, but it's just a mix. When Maya is writing numbers on her CIA supervisor's wall, that seemed like a great dramatic way to show the passage of time, but it also happened to be true. She did that so I put it in, but then there are other details I put in for dramatic purposes. I don't specifically know that her desk was dusty and that she cleaned it off the first day that she got there, but I know that she had a crappy desk.

Woodward and Bernstein meeting Deep Throat in a dark car park is just more cinematic.
Who knows where they met Deep Throat. It could have been in a coffee shop, it could've been in their apartment.

It's interesting you mention that film, because Zero Dark Thirty germinates in your mind in the same way. I kept thinking of those '70s thrillers of Alan Pakula and Sidney Lumet. The 'thriller-ness' isn't being forced at you in the way that some filmmakers might do. Were those films an influence for you?
That whole generation of movies is an influence on me.

Spoiler Interview: Mark Boal On Zero Dark Thirty
Boal with Kathryn Bigelow at the 2010 Oscars where Hurt Locker picked up six Oscars including Best Original Screenplay

Any particulars?
There's nothing unique about my list of those movies, it's the same ones that everybody likes and they definitely gave me a sense of what was possible to do in a movie.

Such as?
The Deer Hunter is one of them, Taxi Driver is another. There's just so many, you know.

It was such like a rich era for thrillers and that seemed to come out of the atmosphere post-Nixon, post-Watergate.
I hadn't thought of that, that's a good point.

All of a sudden there's a lack of trust. Do you feel like there's a bit of that with your story - in the sense that it's asking people to question how they feel about the government, how they feel about our leadership - and that's what's getting people so impassioned.
It's clearly touched a nerve.

You talked about Zero Dark Thirty as being 'a chew toy' from the beginning...
I wasn't quite anticipating the volume of the discussion, but the political divide over some of the issues the film touches on predate the film. The film didn't create that divide, it just reflects it. These things are deeply unresolved in American politics and there's still arguments at very high levels of government about what even underlying facts are, let alone what the policies should be. But there's sharp differences on the simple facts of the case.

Which your film has clarified, to an extent.
I don't know if we've clarified it but we certainly gave it our shot to call it the way we saw it.

No, I meant it's clarified the divide.
Oh yeah, it certainly has.

If you win a second Oscar, do you have any idea what you're going to say?
There's nothing left to say about this movie. I can't imagine anyone having anything to say that hasn't already been said. There's just been so much commentary and discussion.

What are you going to do when the promotion is finished?
I'd like to take a little time off, because I haven't done that in a while and it's been a really long year and a half. [It took] really long hours to get this done and right after we finished the movie we started screening, and we started talking about the movie within days of finishing it. To be honest with you, that's a very challenging thing to do because you're so deeply inside the work and people ask you questions that are largely driven by an external vantage point.

Going back to the nuts and bolts - what's your writing process? Where do you write?
I write on a computer, on a laptop or whatever. Different places - I was sort of writing as I was researching and travelling around, so this one was written in a whole different bunch of places. Airplanes, coffee shops, in my office, in different countries, actually. There's portions of the script scattered all over the place.

I'm presuming most of the information you were provided with was classified or, at the very least, sensitive. Did you have to do the transcribing yourself? Were you able to record those conversations?
'Award dinners? Well, the food sucks but the drinks are free and the company is phenomenal.'
You're actually not allowed to bring electronic devices like that into the CIA, for example. You can bring cellphones into the Pentagon, but in a lot of offices will have you check them at the door.

How did writing this compare with The Hurt Locker? Obviously that was based closely on your own journalistic experiences. Did that make it easier to hone into the story? For one thing, it must give you a clearer idea of locations when you've been out there with your feet on the ground.
Well, yeah in that sense, I definitely prefer to have seen something myself. It makes the writing a little more grounded to me but one can't always do that. I guess Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote all those Tarzan books without once going to Africa.

One of the biggest challenges must have been in condensing the ten-year timeframe into two-and-a-bit hours without using cheats to show the passage of time.
Passage of time can be mind-numbing to figure out in a screenplay. It's the easiest thing to do in prose, not just by writing 'four years later', but you can shift time in a sentence or two. But the burden for that falls on other people in terms of makeup and wardrobe and performance. In Jessica's character, she ages eight years or so in the movie. Well, she aged four months in the course of making it so she's got to represent that change - that maturity, that growth, the rising levels of fanaticism and commitment - all in the tone of her voice and her expression. I don't know how she did it because it was an amazing thing. I knew she was aware of it; she worked on that a lot.

You can feel the burden Maya is carrying with her towards the end of the film. You must be able to relate to that?
I can't imagine what it would be like to actually have done that, but it's certainly been a challenging topic to live with. There's a lot of courage and sacrifice and a lot of things to hold onto that are praiseworthy, but it's also a dark subject and very intense. It's life and death.

Spoiler Interview: Mark Boal On Zero Dark Thirty

Did you feel a bit trapped by that darkness when you were working on it?
I don't know that I'm immersed in it. It just feels like a worthwhile way to spend my time. One has to do something, it's really that simple.

Are you looking forward to the Oscars?
Yeah, I've been twice now and it's a fun night either way. You see a lot of interesting people and watch a good show.

Have you met any of your filmmaking idols along the way?
I could go on and on about the people that I've met through these chicken dinners. I sat next to (Cool Hand Luke writer) Frank Pierson at an awards luncheon, and he was incredibly generous and kind, and I also met Steven Spielberg on the awards circuit - I'm going back to Hurt Locker now. Warren Beatty, too. The food sucks, but the drinks are free and the company is phenomenal.

You were up against Tarantino for The Hurt Locker and you're up together again this time.
I don't really think of it as being 'up against'. I have a lot of respect for him and I saw him at the Golden Globes - it's funny, I don't get to see him except for these events. It's just a nice part of it, if you can get past the... it's like, 'Wow, this is actually not a bad way to spend the evening.'

Lastly, I wondered if you had any advice for aspiring screenwriters. John Logan says that you need to go back to Sophocles and Shakespeare and just read all their work.
John has actually been a mentor of mine - he's a gem, one of our great, great writers. It's funny that he says that, because I just give the script to John and say, 'John, can you read this...'. He's one of the few people I show my work to early on.

How specific is his feedback?
Well, that's sort of between us, but he's been a great teacher of mine and so has Kathryn and so have some other people. I don't know that I'm in a position to give advice but I would just say that you're better off pursuing stories that you really believe in, rather than trying to game the market place and figure out what's commercial. As Goldman says, "No-one knows anything." Write screenplays you believe in.

Interview by Phil de Semlyen

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