It’s sad, but true: Women directors rarely get any Oscar® love, but that all changed in 2009 thanks to The Hurt Locker, the Iraq War bomb-squad drama directed by Kathryn Bigelow, when the nail-biting, suspenseful underdog shut out the biggest gorilla in the room, James Cameron’s Avatar, the top-grossing movie in history.
Now Bigelow is back (and at press time getting more Oscar® buzz) with another war drama, Zero Dark Thirty. Taking its title from the military term for 30 minutes past midnight and starring Joel Edgerton as a Navy SEAL, and Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke as CIA agents, the film, which was—appropriately enough given the subject matter—shrouded in secrecy throughout production, tells the still-largely classified story of the decade-long hunt to find the world’s most wanted man: 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Bigelow, who has referred to the film as "a thriller," "a drama" and "a mystery," once again teamed up with screenwriter (and co-producer) Mark Boal, a former war correspondent who penned The Hurt Locker script and whose exhaustive research and investigative skills have led some politicians to question whether the Zero Dark Thirty filmmakers were given access to classified material. She also assembled an impressive behind-the-camera team that included Aussie DP Greig Fraser (Snow White and the Huntsman, Killing Them Softly) and film editors William Goldenberg (who also cut the recent Iran hostage thriller Argo and won Oscars® for The Insider and Seabiscuit) and Dylan Tichenor (whose credits include The Town, There Will Be Blood and Brokeback Mountain).
For Fraser, the biggest challenge going in was the combination of shooting in far-flung locations, including India (which doubled for Pakistan), Jordan (which doubled for Afghanistan) and London, "and not shooting in any controlled environments," he reports. "And everything was very harsh and extreme from a technical standpoint—the brightest days to the darkest nights—and we had to go from one extreme to the other, and very quickly."
Over the demanding four-month shoot, there also was little continuity, "because of the nature of the script," adds Fraser. "We didn’t spend big blocks of time in any one place, so we had to be very nimble and adaptable, as situations and locations changed all the time. And that’s not easy with a film unit, as it’s like a big ship that you can’t turn or stop very easily once it’s underway."
To deal with this, the DP and his crew "had to balance out how much gear we had," he reports, "including cameras, lights, video-assist gear and so on versus being ready at anytime for any situation."
With the film logistics mimicking the military operation they were re-creating, Fraser and Bigelow opted to go digital and shoot with the ARRI ALEXA. "We went through the process of assessing and deciding on the best format, and we tested the ALEXA, as Kathryn had never gone digital before and wanted to see it," he notes. Although the DP had previously tested the ALEXA "many times," Zero also marked the first time he would be shooting a feature film digitally. "So we were both initially a little nervous about going that route, and then you have all the added stresses that go with digital—the DITs, the tents, exposure issues and so on. And film is so robust, and in theory, a simpler format to use."
But the pair opted to go digital for a variety of reasons. "First, it meant we didn’t need to deal with rolls and rolls of film stock in remote locations, and that also meant not having to deal with customs issues and any potential problems trying to ship it in," Fraser explains. "Conversely, we didn’t have to worry about getting stock out of the country to process dailies and archive. That’s stressful, too, as you’re leaving everything in the hands of a film courier. And the high ASAs of the ALEXA really helped a lot when it came down to problems with ambient light at a location."