NEW YORK — Kathryn Bigelow is accustomed to moving with ease, grace and confidence through what is essentially a man's world. In Hollywood, and especially in the realm of tough, action-oriented movies, she's carved out a unique directing career that features hard-edged works such as “Near Dark,” “Blue Steel,” “Point Break,” “Strange Days” and “The Hurt Locker” (for which she became the first woman to earn an Academy Award as best director).
Now, she has reteamed with her no-nonsense “Hurt Locker” screenwriter Mark Boal (who shared that movie's best picture Oscar and earned his own statuette for best original screenplay) on the controversial thriller “Zero Dark Thirty,” a fact-based procedural about the CIA's hunt for and eventual killing of 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden.
And given her own penchant for boldly breaching the barriers of male-dominated domains, Bigelow says she is especially gratified to be able to tell that story with a strong female character leading the way.
“Zero Dark Thirty” relates the dogged, painstaking pursuit of bin Laden over a grueling decade through the eyes of Maya (played with steely resolve by Jessica Chastain). She's a young American intelligence operative recruited straight out of high school and trained to be cool, analytical and totally committed to the hunt. And while Maya is a fictional composite, Bigelow said, she's closely modeled after a real-life CIA agent whose true identity is a closely guarded secret.
“I think what was fascinating and surprising to me were the women at the heart of this hunt,” Bigelow said during a press day hosted by Columbia Pictures at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. “I just didn't anticipate that, and I was thrilled to find this out and then through (Boal's) reporting and dramatization in the screenplay to discover these really tenacious, dedicated, courageous women that are working on our behalf as we speak.”
Chastain, who noted that she was in New York City on 9/11 and also when news came that bin Laden was killed, likewise admitted to being surprised that women played such key roles in the story.
“When I was reading the script, every page that I turned was a shock to me, especially Maya and the role she took in it,” the actress said. “And then I got upset with myself that it was such a shock to me. Like, why would I assume a woman wouldn't be involved in this kind of research? Historically, in movies, lead characters are played by women defined by men, whether it's a love interest or they're a victim of a man, and Maya's not like that.”
Being dogged inquisitors themselves, media members fired off a series of questions probing for clues to Maya's real identity. Boal, a longtime investigative reporter whose work has appeared in numerous national publications, quickly stepped in to define the boundaries.
“One of the things just as a general life principle we're not going to do is talk about the real-life people that the film is based on,” he said, “because many of them are still working, and we take protecting their identities very seriously.
Even Chastain in preparing to play Maya wasn't privy to the agent's real identity.
“I got a lot of research from Mark,” she said. “It really helps when your screenwriter's an investigative journalist. Questions that I couldn't answer through the research I then had to use my imagination and Kathryn's imagination and Mark's to create a character that went along the lines that respected the real woman.”
Lest she be characterized as pushing some feminist agenda with the film, Bigelow said the gender of the key CIA operatives that finally nabbed bin Laden is merely an interesting footnote.
“I have to say that if the character at the center of that hunt had been a man, I would have been very happy and eager to engage in that story as well,” she said. “What was important to me was that this was a very strong character at the center of this hunt and that the movie doesn't engage necessarily in gender politics about that character.”