The Zero Dark Thirty writer talks interrogation, torture and collaborating with the CIA.
American journalist, screenwriter and producer Mark Boal knows a thing or two about courting controversy. His 2004 Playboy article 'Death And Dishonour', about the murder of a US veteran at the hands of fellow soldiers, was adapted by Paul Haggis for In The Valley Of Elah. Since then Boal has written two screenplays for director Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, the latter and most recent of which has stimulated fierce debate concerning its depiction of waterboarding and other interrogation and torture techniques. Boal sat down with LWLies recently to clear the air and reveal how he went about putting the CIA's most exhaustive manhunt on paper.
LWLies: When you were making this movie, did you anticipate any of the hoopla regarding its depiction of torture and of real events?
Boal: Some of it, but the volume of it surprised me. Of course I knew these issues were controversial, but these controversies predate the movie. They were already politicised. I didn't expect the senate to get involved. And I didn't expect so many commentators to write about specific elements of the film, some of whom even before they had seen it. That was surprising.
Do you perhaps see that as an affirmation that you've made a movie which is worth engaging with on that level?
Yeah. The intention wasn't to provoke. I didn't design the screenplay trying to poke Goliath in the eye. In a way the reaction is a measure of the film as a fact. And that's okay with me. I think that Kathryn made a brilliant piece of work and I love the fact that many people see different things in it. You could see it as a Rorschach in some ways? And that is to her credit, as people seem to see different things on second and third viewing. When I was writing the script, I tried my best to write something that I was proud of.
Were you conscious of these levels when you were writing it? Or is that something Kathryn adds as an interpreter of your screenplay?
When I write, I'm trying to make a scene work on as many different levels as I can. I try to make it work on a dramatic level, a character level, an action level, I try to remain aware of the political undercurrents… I just try and make it as rich as I possibly can. I like to stuff the turkey with as many different vegetables as I can find. And then Kathryn comes in and has a vision for it which elevates it and improves it and brings it to life. She took the script and made it her own.
What was it like when you first heard about Bin Laden's death?
Well this is a personal story too as I'm from New York. 9/11 was a personal day for so many people and it was for me as well. So when Bin Laden was killed I was thinking mostly about that. But it also did mean we had to change the story we were working on. It involved a page one rewrite, as they say. It wasn't that long ago, but the process of making the film was so intense that it seems like a hundred years ago.
How has your attitude towards Bin Laden changed over the years?
I don't know. I've spent more time actually thinking about the people involved in the nation's response to him. I've spent a lot of time with soldiers, for example, who gave big chunks of their youth to fighting wars in foreign countries. Or agents who spent a decade trying to track him down. My understanding of them, and those types of warriors has changed. Those are the people that interest me, much more than a guy who thinks that murder is a valid path to social change.
What part of the process did Jessica Chastain become involved? Were you writing for her?
When I was writing that, I wasn't thinking about an actor at all. It was just all internal and then Kathryn came along and cast Jessica. I know a lot of screenwriters do that, but for me I just start daydreaming about the actor or actress and I don't get anything done.
Is it dangerous to be writing with actors in mind?
No, it's not dangerous, but if I started writing a character who was going to be played by Matt Damon I'd spend all day thinking about Damon and not get any writing done. I try to shut that world out when I get down to it.
Maya swears a lot in the script, and it's noticeable because most of the other characters don't. Why did you give her so many swear words?
Yes, she does curse a lot. Y'know, I don't know. It was just one of those choices you make. I think the real life counterpoint to her had a bit of a mouth, so… I write the dialogue, though. It's not an audio recording of somebody. It's something I create. I like the idea of this woman who is very strong and self-confident and pushy and aggressive and at times obnoxious and foul-mouthed. I thought that was a fun character, especially in that world. To hear it come from Jessica Chastain is even better because she has such a look to her. She has the beautiful hair and perfect bone structure, and it worked out pretty good I think.
It also suggested that she had transcended her role at the CIA and this hunt had perhaps become a personal mission.
Yeah, that's a good point. It's a way to show her passion and what in my mind is even an element of fanaticism. I had this idea when I was writing that it takes a fanatic to catch a fanatic. Certainly the Maya character goes totally Ahab. Way off the deep end. But it works.
A lot of critics have compared this film to David Fincher's Zodiac. Do you see that as a fair comparison?
Well I saw it in movie theatres when it came out and I remember liking it. I'd have to go back and look at it, though. They're both procedurals, I suppose. People ask me what movies were in the back of my mind when I was writing this, but that wasn't one of them.
During the writing process you were, to an extent, collaborating with the CIA where they were assisting you with fact checking. Can you explain how that process worked?
It's not that complex. Most government agencies have public affairs offices that are starred by these people who are basically publicists. They try to put the Agency's spin on what's being written. It's true of the CIA, it's true of the Bureau of Land Management, it's true of the Department of Veteran Affairs, they all have it. So those offices can be useful to the extent that they can provide some information, but you have to also filter out the spin as best you can. As far as the fact checking goes, whether they do it or not, they have an obligation to tell you the truth. Or at least try to. Since I was writing a screenplay about the CIA, it would've been very difficult to do it without talking to the CIA.
You were only able to talk to publicists?
No, I was able to talk to a lot of the officers and agents who were involved in the story.
Would you record these conversations?
No, I took notes. Shorthand. They don't let you take electronic devices into the CIA. You can't even take a cellphone inside.
We assume they're allowed cell phones?
No. You have to leave them in your car.