Kathryn Bigelow Says She Was Motivated by 'Honesty' When Making 'Zero Dark Thirty'

"Keeping the honesty of the piece, that's what motivated me"
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Kathryn Bigelow is the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar, taking home the statuette in 2009 for her Iraqi bomb squad thriller The Hurt Locker. And this season she could do it again with Zero Dark Thirty, the gritty new procedural about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

“I found it very surprising that women were central to this operation,” Bigelow told reporters about her new film starring Jessica Chastain as a CIA operative -- recruited out of high school -- who spent 10 years tracking the man behind 9/11. “Keeping the honesty of the piece, that’s what motivated me more than anything else.”

When Bigelow reunited with investigative reporter and The Hurt Locker scribe, Mark Boal for Zero Dark, their original idea was to do a movie following a special forces team in the Tora Bora mountain range in southern Afghanistan during the months after 9/11.

But then, May 2nd, 2011 happened, and the writer-director team found themselves with an irrelevant story to tell as Seal Team 6 captured and killed bin Laden. So Bigelow and Boal began again from scratch, basing their story on a CIA agent who ultimately tracked bin Laden through a courier leading to the Al Qaeda leader’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The film and Chastain are being touted for Oscars on the heels of winning the National Board of Review award for Best Film as well as well as the New York Film Critics Award. Nominated for Best Supporting Actress for The Help, Chastain delivers a finely-tuned, internalized performance as a newbie thrown into a torture interrogation moments after arriving in Afghanistan.

“I was thinking about her like a computer, a woman who’s really good with facts and details and putting a puzzle together, and what happens when that woman is put in a situation that is much bigger than she ever imaged she’d be involved in,” Chastain said. “Just because she’s trained to be unemotional and analytical, precise, doesn’t mean she’s unemotional.”

“It’s a character defined by action,” added Bigelow. “That necessitates a very, very strong actor, an actor who can give you a very strong landscape just defined by action. I think there’s something very brave and exciting and extremely brilliant about those choices. It’s also a testament to the talent of Jessica to find the finely-calibrated nuances of emotion within a character that had to be so precise.”

Trying to excel in a man’s world, Chastain’s character, Maya, bears some resemblance to Bigelow herself who has accelerated as a filmmaker in a field dominated by men. And her work is not confined to frothy rom-coms or weepy chick-flicks. Bigelow excels makes the kind of movies most audiences associate with men, the 1991 surfer bank robber movie Point Break, sci-fi thriller Strange Days, and the submarine suspense saga K-9: The Widowmaker.

Such titles stand out for their testosterone-fueled, white-knuckled thrills as well as their moments of humanity and humor.

“It’s that somebody has tremendous facility to convey humanity, and humanity takes on a lot of different permutations,” said Bigelow about Jason Clarke’s character, Dan, a torturer who grows weary of the beatings, preferring the company of his pet monkeys. “Those moments of levity allow you a minute to decompress before you engage again.”

The movie’s final moments show Chastain’s character boarding a military cargo plane alone, after the killing of bin Laden. Strapping in for the flight home, she breaks down in tears.

“It’s not a victory because finally at the end of the day you’re left with much larger questions such as where does she go from here? Where do we go from here? Now what?” asked Bigelow. “It leaves you with a very interesting question.”

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