With Oscar season upon us, all sorts of special moderated screenings are underway in Los Angeles, never mind that it was still a holiday weekend for many these past several days. On Saturday, director Tom Hooper and his “Les Miserables” cast criss-crossed the city for a half dozen guild and press showings, introducing their movie and doing Q&As. Sunday night, it was the turn of director Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriting partner Mark Boal, the team behind the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker,” who were joined on stage after a “Zero Dark Thirty” screening at the Pacific Design Center by stars Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle and Edgar Ramirez.
A sprawling drama of black-ops gamesmanship and at times moral murkiness, “Zero Dark Thirty” tells the story of the pursuit of Osama bin Laden by the CIA and other American government forces following the events of September 11, 2001, and culminating in the raid that resulted in his death last year, on May 1. Following the movie, the chummy cast and crew discussed the production — which was independently financed by 26-year-old Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures — and their level of commitment to Bigelow.
“We were acutely aware that because of the story being told, there was a very high bar of authenticity,” said Boal, a journalist by trade whose first produced script was for “The Hurt Locker.” He and Bigelow were in fact neck-deep on another project tied to bin Laden, about the 2001 dragnet/siege in the Kush mountain ranges of Tora Bora through which the Al Qaeda leader slipped, after a failure to secure the Pakistani border. When news of bin Laden’s death broke, they immediately shelved that project and re-focused and contextualized their efforts on a story that is basically two-thirds groundwork-laying procedural and one-third the fateful raid by Navy SEAL Team Six.
The production itself was just as grueling, with significant portions shot on location in Amman, Jordan and Chandigarh, India. After a four-and-a-half-month research and scripting process that extended deep into the fall, filming commenced in February of this year (and Bigelow locked picture only four or five days ago, in advance of the movie’s December 19 limited opening and January 11, 2013 wide release). But ground was broken on the building that would serve as bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound four weeks before that, since it would have to be built completely to scale, and from the foundation up. Bigelow was determined to remain true to the largely moonless night sky of the real-life raid. “We had to shoot the raid in objective vision, but then also go back and shoot it in night-vision — which meant all of the crew also wearing those goggles, so we wouldn’t bump into one another — since that’s the way the soldiers saw and experienced it. So that took about three-and-a-half weeks,” she related.
Bigelow cobbled together her international cast with an eye very much on avoiding faces that had too many characters already well associated with them in the minds of audiences. A nominal exception — just given the sheer volume of films in which she appeared last year — might be Chastain, who first caught Bigelow’s eye on a cut of “Coriolanus” that friend Ralph Fiennes shared with her, pre-release. She was heartbroken to learn Chastain’s schedule was booked up, but doggedly pursued her anyway, and some creative scheduling on the part of Universal (for whom Chastain was committed to for another film) allowed her shuttle back and forth and shoot the two movies concurrently.
With “Backstage West” a presenting sponsor for the evening’s screening, a good number of would-be actors were in the crowd, which prompted questions about the auditioning process as a discussion of the movie proper wrapped up. Clarke refused to share the specifics of his most traumatic audition experience (“I still don’t think I’ve gotten over it,” he said, begging off, “it’s too raw, too raw”), but Chastain related a call-back in which the director marveled, “It’s amazing how much better you look on the monitor versus in person!” Ramirez, however, had a story with a happier ending. For his first film, he endured a casting process that spanned a half dozen call-backs over almost two months. While he was an untrained neophyte, his final competition consisted all of known, working actors. In the final call-back, he was asked to perform with a live snake — of which he is deathly petrified. Ramirez said he’s still not sure how, but he summoned up the courage to finish reading his scene’s lines, and won the part. The insult about which he can now laugh, however? There was no snake in the actual movie. “They actually ended up using a much smaller, little iguana, so I don’t know what happened!”
Written by: Brent Simon