The Unorthodox Relationship Between Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal
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.")
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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