Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are no strangers to tough war stories. In 2010, their collaboration on The Hurt Locker won them each an individual Oscar, in addition to the Best Picture award. So it was only natural that they would work together again, shortly after, on another tough story: the tale of the failed 2001 attempt to catch Osama bin Laden. That script was already underway when, on May 1, 2011, they heard that the decade-long hunt for bin Laden was over. Their original story idea would have to be scrapped. The movie that grew in its place was Zero Dark Thirty, in wide release on Jan. 11. Bigelow and Boal sat down with TIME to discuss the making of the award-nominated movie.
TIME: You’ve mentioned that it’s nice to write a story within the guidelines of history. How does the fact that the history is almost more like current events affect those guidelines?
Mark Boal: I think this is first and foremost a motion picture. We’re not asking to be held to a journalistic standard of truth. What we hope is that the film stands up with other films, and five or ten years from now people look back and still think it’s worth of watching and say, hey, they got it more or less right. We understand that there’s going to be a lot of people working on this, a lot of people writing about it, a lot of reporters working on it, a lot of great books will be done, a lot of book have been done—and hopefully we’re consistent with that. But what we really want to do is make a film that stands the test of time and not necessarily settle every journalistic question.
Did you have a guiding philosophy for the balance of fact and fiction?
MB: That was the guiding philosophy right there. To make a good film that captures a moment in time and hopefully stands the test of time.
Another thing you’ve both mentioned was that you were surprised to learn how many women were involved in the CIA. Why do you think that’s still so surprising?
Kathryn Bigelow: I think very simply put when you take a portrait of a terrorist hunter, you don’t necessarily think of you. You don’t think of women being at the center of that kind of hunt, for the world’s most dangerous man, so I think that was kind of a bit of a surprise and a great one at that. But it is cited in a couple of books that there are a lot of women in the intelligence community, and they hazard various reasons.
In terms of Zero Dark Thirty‘s heroine, Maya, how do you think her gender affects her actions?
KB: I think the beauty of what was written is that the character is defined exclusively by her actions. To what extent are her actions defined by gender? That’s a whole other conversation, but the beauty of the narrative is that the character is defined by her dedication, her courage, her fearlessness.
Is that something that personally identify with? How do you feel about the fact that your gender, as a director, is something that people want to talk about?
KB: You know, I suppose what was most important to me was that the research revealed all this information and that’s where my focus was. I didn’t step back and take that perspective. It’s difficult for me to answer—I can understand the question but it’s not necessarily a factor.
So how does it feel that people like me ask you questions about being a female director?
KB: I kind of want someone like you to give me a great answer! It’s sort of like something that I suppose is a given.
MB: As someone that’s sitting here and hears these questions all the time, I would really look forward to the day when people stop asking.
But do you anticipate that happening?
MB: Not my specialty.
KB: Perhaps later this afternoon… [laughs]
I was interested in the fact that so little of the characters’ backgrounds are explored. What was behind that decision?
MB: We never talked about that but I think it’s just a creative choice for the type of filmmaking that Kathryn likes to make, very immediate and visceral and in the moment. Cut-backs depreciate that a little bit, drain the immediacy.
KB: It pierces the momentum.
Why did you decide to use title cards to differentiate the sections?
KB: In a way, to further clarify passage of time. It creates a nice ellipsis.
It seems very journalistic, like section headings.
MB: It did seem like a good idea at the time.
Was it hard to come up with what to call them?
KB: There was one that was difficult.
MB: I suck at titles.
KB: Not true!
MB: The one that was called “The Meeting.”
KB: But that’s fine.
MB: That was a hard one. I don’t know. I forget exactly why it was hard but it did have a couple false starts.
What was the working title?
MB: I think one of them was “The Mole” but every time I saw it I thought, “The mole…mole…is that a weird word? Are people going to think of a mole?” I’m really bad at that. I guess “The Meeting” is where we ended up.
KB: It ended up fine.
How did your work together on The Hurt Locker affect making this movie?
KB: I think we created a collaborative process and became very much in sync with one another from a content standpoint, an aesthetic standpoint, and I suppose just a standpoint of curiosity with big stories out there. Finding that common ground is very rare, I think, and it was certainly a natural progression to then transition to another story that moved us.
MB: I couldn’t have said it better myself.
What was the most difficult scene in the movie to write and direct?
MB: You talk, I’ll think about it…
KB: Logistically, the raid was the most challenging, but I have to say…like, a girl at a desk at an office. How do I find yet another composition that I hadn’t already utilized? That’s where the great good fortune of having a phenomenal actress comes into play. She brings it to life. There’ll be something she touches and immediately Greig [Fraser], the cinematographer, will find what she touches and that gives me a transition into the scene. All of the sudden there’s a shape and a choreography, and it just naturally animates and it feels real and feels honest. In a way the logistically least challenging were in some ways the most difficult. The raid was challenging but you break it down to a series of parts.
How long did it take to shoot the raid?
KB: It took about four weeks, but we broke ground on the building of the compound in January. We had to kind of have figured that all out before we started shooting, and then we started shooting February 29, so we kind of worked it all out two or three months prior to that.
It’s a lot of moving parts.
KB: A lot of moving parts. And helicopters. And the fact that you needed a foundation, because the rotor wash of a Black Hawk [helicopter] is so strong that if it were just a set it would have collapsed in a second. It had to withstand the rotor wash of a Black Hawk, and you’re in the Middle East. It was, I would say, a wonderful challenge. And also using night-vision lenses, so we had to shoot in no-light conditions in order for those to operate effectively.
MB: The only easy part was writing “fade to black.” There’s a lot of information to juggle and ten years and a lot of characters, so it was a challenge to try to bring it to life. On the other hand, the story is naturally dramatic and it’s pretty compelling stuff in the way it lays out. I felt lucky to be able to work on a story like this.