The Unorthodox Relationship Between Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal
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."
Boal took the lead when Summit Entertainment acquired the film in September 2008, after it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. An executive who was involved says Boal "was very aggressive and very opinionated," especially considering this was his first film. Boal was adamant that the picture open in 2,500 theaters -- hardly the obvious choice for a small independent film with no big stars. The studio rejected that, opting for a narrow release, after explaining to Boal that previous movies set in the Middle East -- including Valley of Elah -- had performed poorly and that Hurt Locker would need to build word-of-mouth. (Even with its Oscar wins, the film grossed only $17 million domestically and $49.2 million worldwide, the lowest-grossing best picture winner of all time.)
Asked about the experience, Rob Friedman, who was co-chairman and CEO of Summit at the time, says, "Mark Boal is a very talented writer and producer, and Kathryn Bigelow is a world-class filmmaker, and I would work on another picture with both of them in a second."
The $15 million film was financed by Nicolas Chartier, who mortgaged his house to help pay for it. Sources say he and Boal clashed from the start over various issues, and Chartier at one point fired Boal, though he quickly was rehired after CAA and Bigelow interceded. "It was his first movie and my first movie, and it's fair to say we didn't get along," says Boal. Nonetheless, Boal says Chartier was interested in working with him and Bigelow on the bin Laden film, though a source close to Chartier says the two have not spoken since Oscar night in 2010. In addition, Chartier, who did not respond to a request for comment, has told friends he produced SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden in part to spite Boal. That film aired to little acclaim in November on the National Geographic Channel.
Boal was well along with a script about the supposedly fruitless hunt for bin Laden, and Bigelow was casting and looking for locations, when news came May 1, 2011, that the al-Qaida leader was dead. A reporter e-mailed to ask about the impact on their project. "And I just wrote back, 'It's great for us,' but I had no idea why I said that," says Boal. Little about the raid was known at that point. Boal thought he might need to change the third act. "It was over the course of several months that it became a wholly different project," he says.
Even as Boal was doing a dazzlingly quick job of researching and writing the new version, conservatives began raising issues about the access he and Bigelow were being given by the Obama administration. "It was a little bit nerve-racking because there were things that were being said on television that could have easily led to hearings and congressional inquiries, none of which I actually was worried about from a legal perspective but all of which slow a production down when you're trying to work quickly," says Boal.
The controversy also made suppliers of military equipment reluctant to cooperate. "I never sat down and added the cost of that all up, but it was hard," says Boal. "I can tell you those night-vision goggles would have been a hell of a lot easier to get if I didn't have [that controversy]. We had to build those ourselves. That was massively costly and time-consuming."
The flap took its toll on Bigelow, too. "I had 120 parts to cast," she notes. "I had over 110 sets to build. I had to fly to locations on three continents. And I had to move fairly swiftly to keep us on track." At Boal's prompting, she allows that she found the conservative attacks somewhat "hurtful."
Adds Boal: "They were calling us out by name and saying we were going to hurt national security. I took it personally. Maybe I shouldn't have, but it was like -- I don't know. I'll shut up. I'm not going to keep crying about this. This is the last time I'll ever cry about it."
If Boal and Bigelow's work-in-progress aroused suspicion among certain conservatives, they were heroes to many in the intelligence community, even appointees of George W. Bush. "Hurt Locker was magnificent," says retired Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA. When he learned Boal and Bigelow were tackling the hunt for bin Laden, he says, "I was happy the film was in the hands of such talent."
Nonetheless, the conservative group Judicial Watch still is seeking information about the identities of four CIA operatives and a Navy SEAL who met with the filmmakers. In a Nov. 12 brief filed in federal court, the group said that "selectively providing non-public information to some filmmakers while refusing to release it generally … crosses a line of appearance."
Soon after bin Laden's death, Sony's Pascal called Bigelow about distributing her film. "We at the studio always thought people would want to go to a movie about this subject, and there was no single person better to do it than Kathryn Bigelow," says Pascal.
Not surprisingly, given the subject matter and early controversy, Boal and Bigelow maintained great secrecy about their script, even from the actors and crew during production. By several accounts, it was not a happy set. "Mark has a lot of opinions, and he's very disrespectful," says one source. "When he was around, he was trying to direct. Kathryn was trying to direct. If there was something she felt very strongly about, she would say no." Some insiders say Bigelow's reluctance to confront Boal in front of the crew might have created the impression that she was more deferential than she was. Says another on-set source: "The guy is opinionated and he's invested in the project, but they are not a directing partnership. … She is strong. I have seen them debate, I have seen them argue, and I've seen her put her foot down. She picked her battles." Adds Pascal: "Mark is an incredibly strong personality, but they have a fantastic partnership. I've never seen her make a move she didn't want to make."
Several sources say the on-set friction extended to financier Ellison, an important backer of independent film, who was on set more than once. "They treated her like the money idiot, blowing her off," says one associate. "And she so badly wanted to support the filmmakers. She presumed there would be some mutual respect." Ellison declined comment, but executive producer Greg Shapiro says of the Boal-Ellison relationship: "These two are highly passionate and resolute individuals, neither of whom is afraid to voice an opinion. … And even where there were disagreements, there was always a mutual respect and high regard between them."
At this point, Boal and Bigelow still are very much partners in terms of selling their film. Otherwise, the status of their relationship is unclear. There has been speculation in media reports that they were romantically involved, but they have declined to discuss it, and even those on the sets of their films say they saw no outward signs. The duo is said to have split as production of Zero Dark Thirty got under way, but they have revealed nothing -- even to associates. "Even if you know them really well, you don't go there," says one.
Asked to characterize their partnership, Boal hesitates. "I don't know," he says, adding, "Look, to me, it's been the creative collaboration of a lifetime. … It's been a huge gift."
Asked whether they will continue to work together, the answer isn't clear. Boal says he's starting his own production company, Page One Productions, to find other articles that can serve as the basis for films. But the question of whether he will continue to work with Bigelow remains unanswered.
"I hope so," says Bigelow. Interjects Boal: "If she doesn't kill me. If she doesn't throw me in a pit somewhere."