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'Bin Laden': Inside a Top-Secret Shoot

On the Set:
Rajnish Katyal/Hindustan Times/Newscom

Protests, secrecy, a move from Jordan as Bigelow begins her hot Osama pic.

As if taking cues from a military campaign, Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow's new film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden has begun production under a shroud of secrecy -- and has immediately hit unforeseen complications. Several actors who expected to report for duty in Jordan were surprised to be ordered instead to India. And as filming began in the northern city of Chandigarh, the production was ambushed March 2 by local protesters.

Embarking on her follow-up to 2009 best picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, Bigelow, 60, and screenwriter Mark Boal, 39, had hoped their account of the Navy SEALs' pursuit and elimination of bin Laden would fly under the radar for both cinematic and security reasons. The $35 million production, funded by Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures and slated for release by Sony on Dec. 19, is filming under the working title Zero Dark Thirty, military slang for early-morning duty. As the filmmakers assembled a huge cast that includes Joel Edgerton, Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong and Chris Pratt, they employed virtually unprecedented security measures on the film, which is sure to inflame al-Qaida loyalists. The script, said to be a commercially oriented action thriller with more than 100 speaking roles, has been kept on lockdown. Actors quietly recruited by casting directors Gail Stevens and Mark Bennett were asked to audition using pages from Hurt Locker and All the President's Men. Once actors committed to the movie -- most are being paid guild minimums -- they were e-mailed links to pages of the script describing only the scenes in which they appear. The links were then disabled as soon as pages were read.

Several actors expected that the shoot would begin in Jordan, where Bigelow filmed Hurt Locker. Locations were scouted there, but shortly before filming was to begin, says one source, the production was "forced to leave Jordan abruptly." It's unclear what precipitated the sudden move, which led producers to scramble to secure the necessary visas and permits to work in India. One insider says it had nothing to do with security fears. Jordan is a strong U.S. ally and extremism foe (a 2005 bombing aimed at foreigners killed 60 people at three hotels there). Instead, says this source, "it was a creative and business decision. There were simply better locations in India." A spokesman for the filmmakers declined comment, though a rep for the Royal Film Commission of Jordan says, "Part of the cast and crew remain here in Jordan to prep, and the rest will be back."

Three days after shooting began Feb. 28 in Chandigarh, which was dressed to look like Pakistan with Urdu signs and extras in traditional Pakistani garb, a group of protesters from the right-wing Hindu group Vishwa Hindu Parishad -- opposed to Pakistani-like sets being built on Indian soil given the tension between the countries -- temporarily disrupted filming. They demanded that Pakistani flags be removed, and unconfirmed reports suggest the film unit agreed. The next day, Shakeel Ahmed Kasmi, an Indian Muslim leader, complained, "This picture will create more differences between Muslim and other communities" and demanded that filming stop.

The protest made international headlines, but one source insists, "It was a small group of about 20 people chanting, and no one felt threatened." Bigelow is continuing the shoot amid some speculation that the film could still move to Jordan. Reps for U.S.-based actors are not being told when their clients will return home, with round-trip airfare dates being used "as a placeholder only," says one rep.

The protests were an embarrassment to an Indian film industry that has been encouraging Western production. "By disrupting a shoot, these people don't realize that they are only harming their own local economy," says Indian producer Anurag Kashyap.

American politics could come into play as well. Sony is developing its U.S. release plans during an election year in which President Obama's handling of the May 2011 raid that killed bin Laden will likely become a political issue. In August, Republicans in Congress questioned whether the filmmakers had received classified information from the White House, putting Bigelow and Boal on the defensive. "This was an American triumph, both heroic and nonpartisan," the filmmakers responded in a statement, "and there is no basis to suggest that our film will represent this enormous victory otherwise."

Nyay Bhushan in Mumbai contributed to this report.

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