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The Unorthodox Relationship Between Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal

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The Dynamic Duo
Joe Pugliese

Among THR's 2012 Rule Breakers, the elusive Bigelow says she's "actually very shy," while details from the "Zero Dark Thirty" set reveal a surprising seat at the table for her relatively new screenwriter-producer partner, who confesses to a "sharp-elbowed personality."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Shooting in a Jordanian prison, Jessica Chastain burst into tears.

The set of Zero Dark Thirty, a gritty tale of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, was proving unusually challenging. As the production hopscotched from Jordan to India to England to Pakistan, the cast and crew were frustrated not only by the difficult subject matter and a challenging, secretive environment but also by sometimes-conflicting instructions from director Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal.

The 39-year-old Boal, working as screenwriter and producer on only his second movie, was so abrasive that sources say Chastain, who plays CIA operative Maya, once considered leaving the project. (Chastain disputes that, saying her tears resulted from the stress of the prison setting and "the responsibility of playing this woman that I couldn't talk about.")

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What struck some observers, however, was the degree to which the 61-year-old Bigelow, the only woman to win an Academy Award for best director, listened to her far younger and less experienced partner. Chastain denies that a request to meet with Bigelow privately was rebuffed, but at least once, according to an on-set source, filming for the day was halted while Boal, Bigelow, Chastain and the film's financier, Oracle heiress Megan Ellison, worked to smooth matters over. Ellison, too, was upset at Boal's treatment of her -- surprising, considering she put up $45 million to back the project.

Today, Boal insists his relationships with Chastain and Ellison are good, though he acknowledges some "spirited discussions" on the set. "I'm fully aware of the fact that I can have sharp elbows," he says. But he notes Ellison and Chastain both enjoyed working with him, adding, "That isn't to say I'm always warm and fuzzy."

Despite their unorthodox partnership, Boal and Bigelow are among Hollywood's most daring and artistically respected filmmakers -- rule breakers in every sense of the phrase. Collaborators since 2003, their 2009 film The Hurt Locker swept up six Oscars, including best picture. Few believed lightning could strike twice, yet with Zero Dark Thirty, they again are in the hunt for major awards recognition, scoring top honors from the New York Film Critics Circle and four Golden Globe nominations and driving a national dialogue about the effectiveness of torture and the veracity of its depiction.

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Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal notes that Bigelow and Boal have "a unique partnership, very unusual" and calls Zero Dark Thirty "a staggering achievement."

The duo simultaneously seem to seek and repel Hollywood's embrace. They are widely admired for their talent and have created one of the most exciting film partnerships in recent memory. But, with Boal more comfortable out front, they also have a reputation for antagonizing cast and crew and alienating important allies. None of which necessarily matters in Hollywood if they continue delivering these types of results. Right now, they are in full campaign mode, appearing at screenings and on television, granting one interview after another. But in most press about the intensely private duo, you will find about as much backstory as they gave their Zero Dark Thirty protagonist, Chastain's Maya -- which is to say, almost none.

Tall and beautiful, Bigelow, a native of San Carlos, Calif., is one of only a few female directors in the action-picture game. Until she teamed with Boal on Hurt Locker -- a project based on an article that Boal had written for Playboy -- she had not directed a feature film since K-19: The Widowmaker bombed a decade ago. That long cold streak might help explain why Bigelow, even before Hurt Locker marched to Oscar victory, often listened so attentively to Boal. A witness on the set of Hurt Locker who viewed Boal as a first-time screenwriter who had improbably wrangled a producing credit remembers: "I'd never seen anything like it, the way he would speak to her -- about a shot that was being set up or anything."

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For an intensely private pair, Boal and Bigelow attract a great deal of attention. Even before they started filming their bin Laden movie in early 2012, there were calls from Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, for an investigation into access the Obama administration had granted them. The underlying fear was that the project, originally set to open before the election, would glorify the president.

That became moot when Sony pushed the release date past November, but now, with the film opening in a few theaters Dec. 19, Boal and Bigelow face blowback from those who argue the movie is a misleading endorsement of torture. While Boal and Bigelow steadily have maintained that the film is impartial and fact-based, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, in an article headlined "Zero Conscience in Zero Dark Thirty," argues that the film "endorses torture" despite evidence that the brutally depicted techniques failed to advance the hunt for bin Laden.

Consistently during press for the movie, Bigelow and Boal have only sat down for interviews as a pair. Bigelow admits she'd rather be elsewhere. "I'm very private, actually very shy," she says softly on a late-November afternoon on the Sony lot in Culver City.

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Interjects Boal: "Believe me, there's another side. So not shy. It's not all shy and retiring. I will go on the record with that." He's being humorous but not entirely.

Bigelow has been making Hollywood movies for about 25 years, but even those who have worked closely with her appear to know little about her. Yes, she was married to James Cameron from 1989 to 1991. And after they split, he wrote and produced her dark 1995 thriller Strange Days. Other than that? Good luck.

Boal is just as private. He graduated from Oberlin College as a philosophy major in 1995, became a journalist and wrote some articles for Playboy that served as the basis for films. Beyond that? Good luck.

Bigelow's reluctance to play by conventional rules isn't confined to press relations. Some years ago, she attended a dinner at the home of director William Friedkin and wife Sherry Lansing, who was then running Paramount. Among the guests was billionaire Teddy Forstmann, who during his lifetime was involved with women from Princess Diana to Padma Lakshmi. Bigelow looked stunning, and Forstmann, who died in 2011, was said to be smitten. But while many women would and did at least accept a dinner invitation from Forstmann, Bigelow didn't return his repeated calls. The bachelor was baffled, even calling Lansing to seek explanation.

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Bigelow and Boal also break the rules in their approach to the business. As they were pursuing their bin Laden film, they were developing an action-adventure project called Triple Frontier at Paramount. They were interested in Tom Hanks to star. When Will Smith asked to meet with Bigelow about the project, she was so resistant that her own agents at CAA (which represents Bigelow and Boal, as well as Smith) asked the studio to press her at least to sit down with arguably the world's biggest star. She finally yielded, though she remained uninterested in casting Smith. (Whether the film will get made is unclear; Paramount balked at the price, in the $80 million range.)

Bigelow long has harbored a fascination with dark subjects -- Strange Days, for example, involves rape and snuff tapes, while K-19 tells the tale of a nuclear submarine commander who must order his men to do work that will irradiate them. But she looks surprised and reveals nothing when asked about this attraction. "I mean, I love Goya," she says, alluding to the Spanish painter whose work depicted increasingly bleak and nightmarish scenes.

A student of conceptual art, Bigelow made her first film in 1978 as part of her work toward a master's degree in fine arts at Columbia University. The Set-Up was a 20-minute display of two men fighting as two semioticians deconstructed their moves. During an all-night shoot, Bigelow asked the actors to beat and bludgeon each other.

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Bigelow dabbled in modeling and acting, appearing in a Gap ad during the early '80s and playing the leader of a cowgirl gang in a 1988 music video for actor Bill Paxton's band Martini Ranch, directed by her then-boyfriend Cameron. Her early directing efforts, the 1987 vampire saga Near Dark and the 1990 thriller Blue Steel, performed modestly at the box office but were well-received critically. Bigelow's biggest hit came in 1991 with Point Break, starring Keanu Reeves as an FBI agent who poses as a surfer to catch a gang of bank robbers/surfers led by Patrick Swayze.

Cameron subsequently wrote and produced Strange Days, but the film marked the start of a rough patch for Bigelow that reached its nadir when K-19 tanked in 2002. "She executed it brilliantly," says Lansing, who acquired the latter film for Paramount. "If it didn't make a lot of money, blame it on us. Kathryn is a giant talent and always has been. She's always been uncompromising and always had a vision."

Bigelow first encountered Boal the following year by way of an article he wrote for Playboy about a female cop who went undercover at a high school. Through Imagine Entertainment, Bigelow shot a pilot for a show called The Inside for Fox. (The script was written by Todd and Glenn Kessler, who went on to co-create Damages.) But Fox reconceived the show and had the pilot reshot. The new version aired but didn't survive long.

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Meanwhile, Boal had gone to report in Iraq. In a 2009 interview with the website A.V. Club, Bigelow dispatched the backstory quickly: "I kind of suspected that … he might come back with some really rich material that would be worthy of a cinematic translation, and that's what happened. So … we started working on the script in 2005, raised the money in 2006, shot in 2007, cut it, and here we are." In the interim, another Boal article served as the basis for the 2007 Paul Haggis film In the Valley of Elah. This time, Boal worked with Haggis and got a story credit, though the film fizzled at the box office. (Haggis did not respond to requests for comment.)

Boal took his biggest leap with Hurt Locker, writing the script and -- to the surprise of many used to seeing writers marginalized during the filmmaking process -- getting a producer credit. By all accounts, he was more than sufficiently hands-on to have earned the title.