Heart Of “Zero Dark Thirty”: How An Oscar-Nominated Screenwriter Wove The Year’s Most Fraught Story

Mark Boal uncovered and assembled information from the intelligence community, found a hero, and created an Oscar-nominated story from American history–and he didn’t waste any time; the action starts on page one.

Heart Of “Zero Dark Thirty”: How An Oscar-Nominated Screenwriter Wove The Year’s Most Fraught Story

This year’s Oscar-nominated screenplay writers waste no time in establishing their themes. For Lincoln, Tony Kushner opens with a battlefield description steeped in the gloom that will hover over the President for the remaining months of his life.


“Cannons and carts, half-submerged and tilted, their wheels trapped in the mud below the surface, are still yoked to dead and dying horses and oxen.”

Quentin Tarantino’s script sets up Django Unchained‘s slavery era degradation with 24 paragraphs of dialogue-free description: “We see SEVEN shirtless and shoeless BLACK MALE SLAVES connected together with LEG IRONS being run by TWO WHITE MALE HILLBILLIES on HORSEBACK.”

As for Zero Dark Thirty, author Mark Boal jumps straight into the heart of darkness that beats at the center of his fact-based drama detailing the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

The script, which won the Writers Guild of America’s best original screenplay award, opens with emergency calls from people trapped in the Twin Towers on 9/11, then cuts to a “black site” two years later, where Daniel, “a punk rocker with a Glock,” interrogates a suspected terrorist: “If you don’t look at me when I talk to you, I hurt you. If you step off this mat, I hurt you. If you lie to me, I’m gonna hurt you. Now, look at me.”

Waterboarding follows and by the end of the first page, protagonist Maya (played in director Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture Academy Award contender by Oscar-nominated Jessica Chastain) removes her ski mask for a dramatic reveal: “She has a pale, milky innocence and bright blue eyes, thin and somewhat frail looking, yet possessing a steely core that we will come to realize is off the charts. This is MAYA.”

Zero Dark Thirty‘s fat-free introduction establishes motivation, theme, tone and hero for a thriller that starts fast en route to the most satisfying fact-based third act in recent memory.



Breaking down his screenplay, Boal explains why he picked audio over imagery to speak to 9/11. “There’s an over-saturation of images from that day but that’s where the movie had to start,” he says. “The voices seemed like the appropriate way to go.”

Boal then fast-forwards to the first of several controversial interrogation scenes. “We tried to get to the brutality and the tension and the stakes as quickly as possible, because we have a lot of ground to cover–10 years in two and a half hours–and a lot of information to convey.”

Boal believes it was important to give viewers an inside look at the government’s rendition, interrogation, and detention program. “Most people have not seen or talked to people who have had firsthand experience with those (interrogation) rooms, and I have talked to people who were in those rooms,” he says.


Though Zero Dark Thirty‘s depiction of events leading to the killing of Osama bin Laden has come under attack from politicians, the story has yet to be discredited. To make sure his version of history withstood scrutiny at the highest levels, former journalist Boal, fueled with “lots of coffee,” logged in 100-hour weeks doing research after bin Laden was killed in May 2011.

“I used open source methods,” he says. “I interviewed people. I double sourced to compare what was said to me by one person with another person’s account. Through the process of collating and comparing and contrasting and talking to a number of people with different perspectives, you arrive at something that you hope gets at the essence of the underlying reality.”

Mark Boal on the set of Zero Dark Thirty

Most people in the Intelligence community do not like their conversations to be recorded, Boal says, so he took notes using the shorthand he’d learned as a kid. “I have stacks of notepads, and scribbles of interviews on the back of bar napkins and hotel stationary and envelopes, and legal pads–several moving boxes full of paper basically,” Boal notes.



Boal’s own story-building process in some ways mirrored the challenged faced by the intelligence community itself. CIA operatives had to sift through thousands of data points to target bin Laden’s whereabouts; Boal waded through reams of raw material to identify the handful of events and characters that would best dramatize the saga.

Most importantly, Boal needed a hero. She revealed herself about a month into research, he recalls. “Somebody mentioned to me that there had been a woman in the CIA who had been forward deployed to Afghanistan to identify bin Laden’s body. She played an important role in following the lead and agitating for it and she was one of the targeters who was on the team, and was given credit for a lot of the work. I thought, ‘Okay, that’s potentially a way in.'”

Boal had other options. “At the time I was looking at probably a half a dozen different ways of doing the story. There were men involved in it that I could have chosen, and there were other women involved that I could have chosen. But this particular woman did play an important role, it was historically correct, or historically defensible, and dramatically it was… I think I glommed onto the idea of who she could be and who she was.”


The accuracy of detail peppering Boal’s script speaks to his talent for accessing information that rarely finds its way into public view. As Boal observes, “Between Special Forces Command and the CIA, you’re dealing with two of the most secretive organizations in the United States government if not the world.”

So how did he get sources to open up? Boal brought an invaluable asset to the table: trustworthiness. “People are mostly concerned that you’re going to not pull punches and not reveal sources and not put national security at risk,” Boal explains. “I have a little bit of a track record with The Hurt Locker.

Describing his script for director Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 Oscar-winning picture, Boal says “The underlying reality for that movie was very sensitive. There was almost a Manhattan Project level of effort that went into figuring out the best way to disarm IEDs. But we made a movie about it and nobody said The Hurt Locker put any of those sophisticated techniques out there in a way that was irresponsible.”


For Zero Dark Thirty, Boal says, “The easiest thing to do would have been would have been to just fictionalize it, but Kathryn and I had done that already with The Hurt Locker. We felt that the truth of how this manhunt unfolded was more interesting and had so much depth.”

Boal adds, “It’s harder in some ways. You’re dealing with a story that’s contemporary where there are so many stake holders who are still alive.”


By the time Boal sat down to write Zero Dark Thirty, he’d amassed a closet full of research and needed to transmute all that documentation into a compelling adventure. The time had come to heed the advice of John Logan, whose screenwriting credits include Gladiator, Hugo, and Skyfall. “John once told me told me I had to stab the journalist in me in the heart with a big knife if I ever wanted to make it as a screenwriter,” Boal says. “I have tried to stab the journalist to death, but it’s probably still alive and kicking.”

Mark Boal on the set of Zero Dark Thirty

Boal spent a week organizing his hand-written notes on the computer, then hammered out an outline and set to work bringing the characters and incidents to life. “By definition, you’re going to be leaving out a lot,” he says. “There were thousands of people who worked on this bin Laden lead. We concentrate on a handful. There were thousands of incidents that are relevant in the war on terror. We depict a few dozen. Figuring this out–that’s the judgment call.”

Zero Dark Thirty excerpts courtesy Newmarket Press / It Books / HarperCollins

[Images Courtesy of Sony PIctures]

About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.