NEW YORK — Most journalists are used to working in real time and seeing the earth shift beneath their feet even as their stories are developing.
That's what happened to Mark Boal, investigative journalist turned screenwriter, as he was working on the initial draft of a script about the hunt for 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden.
As Boal and his director Kathryn Bigelow told it during a press day for “Zero Dark Thirty” hosted by Columbia Pictures, they were well on their way to making a conventional action picture about the failed hunt for bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountain range in the days after 9/11 when they were overtaken by real-life events.
Boal, who earned an Oscar alongside Bigelow for the film, “The Hurt Locker,” was almost finished with that screenplay when news came on May 2, 2011, that bin Laden had been killed in the Navy SEAL Team Six raid on his compound in Abbottabad.
“Well, we were pretty far along in the other project, and that was the failed hunt for Osama bin Laden,” Bigelow said. “But it was the first assault into the Tora Bora mountain range on December 6th in 2001. And so Mark is 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,” she said. “So we, after some soul-searching and a lot of debate, we began to pivot.”
Instead of dropping the story altogether, they shifted to the more challenging task writing and filming the story practically in real time.
For Boal, that meant not only rewriting most of the screenplay, but also embarking on a frantic round of research and interviews to bring his story up to date. For that, he fell back on the old-school style of shoe-leather journalism that he employed in reporting for such national publications as Rolling Stone, Brill's Content, Mother Jones and Playboy.
“If you're trying to do your homework, as I was, the first thing you do is you go directly to the offices that are set up and designed to work with reporters or book authors or screenwriters,” Boal explained. “That's what their job is: Communicate the facts and the goals of whatever agency they work for. That relationship between people seeking information and government agencies sharing the information is one of the foundations of this system that we have.
“I certainly went through official channels, the public affairs offices of the relevant agencies, as any reporter would do,” he said. “I also did independent reporting, and you just kind of follow your nose and you build what you know one interview at a time.”
While working under intense deadline was a familiar thing to him, Boal said the intense public scrutiny of the film — especially from government officials who expressed concerns about guarding classified information — added extra pressure on both him and Bigelow.
“I felt like I was working with a gun to my head because I felt a lot of competitive pressure to do it quickly,” Boal said. “It was a couple or three months of writing, and another three months of research. I was researching while I was writing. We shot the first draft, more or less, but I was always tweaking scenes on set.”
If, as the old saying goes, journalism is about writing the first rough draft of history, Boal said he feels with this film he's staked out some new territory in the space between journalism and fiction. It's a hybrid form of storytelling that blends hard-nosed reporting with narrative drama. And for this relatively new genre of literary reportage, Boal has coined a new term. He refers to “Zero Dark Thirty” as “a reported film.”