Exclusive: Bigelow has ‘no regrets’ for Zero Dark Thirty torture scene

Director ‘surprised’ by row, also reacts to James Cameron Golden Globes gag

Director Kathryn Bigelow remains defiant about the torture row that has engulfed ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and told Yahoo! Movies she has no regrets about the infamous waterboarding sequence.

‘Zero’ is a semi-fictionalised Hollywood account of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and features a scene where a CIA agent tortures a terror suspect. The victim lets slip information about Bin Laden’s courier, which eventually leads to the assassination of the man himself.

[Related story: CIA boss slams 'Zero Dark Thirty']
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The scene, to put it mildly, has proved controversial. Bigelow has faced criticism from across the political spectrum for implying that without torture, Bin Laden would still be alive. The most extreme criticism came from writer Naomi Wolf, who compared her to Nazi documentarian Leni Riefenstahl in an opinion piece for the Guardian, dubbing her “torture’s handmaiden”.

The film is up for ‘Best Picture’ at the Oscars and has earned rave reviews, but Bigelow herself was snubbed for Best Director. It’s possible the row cost her a nomination. She won for ‘The Hurt Locker’ in 2010.

Not only that, the project is being investigated by a US Senate Intelligence Committee over allegations the filmmakers had access to confidential material relating to the raid in Abbottabad.

Woman on a mission... Bigelow on 'Zero' set (Credit: Universal)

If she’s under pressure however, Bigelow wasn’t showing it when we spoke to her in London. The feisty 61-year-old was more than happy to discuss the controversy and defend her project.

“I wouldn’t change a frame. I’m very proud of the movie, and stand by it completely. I think that yes the controversy is surprising… I was surprised by the volume. All of these facets are part of the particular story, the ten year-long man hunt for Osama bin Laden. There’s nobody debating that the detainee programme did not exist. Many tactics went in to trying to find that compound in Abbottabad.” 

It’s certainly true that waterboarding is shown as a small part of decade-long struggle by hundreds of people to nail the terrorist leader, rather than the silver bullet suggested by critics. The film simplifies this process for the sake of narrative clarity, but it surely would’ve been worse NOT to show that torture went on?

“Yes,” she said. “It would’ve been a reprehensible sin of omission”.

“It’s a very emotional and in many respects regrettable part of our history. But the thing that’s confusing, or surprising as well, is using the film as an opportunity to attack a programme, rather than the people that authorised the programme.” The idea, that because she showed torture, she must be endorsing it.

“That is confusing”, she said. “That depiction is being conflated with endorsement. It’s shocking to me that one could conflate the two.”

What must be frustrating for Bigelow and writer Mark Boal is that they went to such great lengths to show the truth of what actually happened. They couldn’t go into the specifics because, as Boal said: “how we wrote it is the matter of a criminal investigation by the justice department!” But apparently they used “many firsthand accounts” of people trying to capture Bin Laden.

This attention to detail is most keenly felt in the stunning final 20 minutes, which recreates the assassination itself documentary style, with no music and night vision footage.

The sky at night... ultra-realistic assassination scene (Credit: Universal)

Not only did Bigelow enlist real ex-SEALs to instruct the actors on how to carry their weapons, but she even built a close replica of the compound based on footage shot by an ABC News reporter. “[We] replicated the tiles on the floor and the furniture in the house… Even the blood on the floor was replicated to the best of our ability.” 

As if poring over news footage of bloody tiles and comparisons with Nazis wasn’t bad enough, Bigelow also had her private life dragged up (hilariously, we should add) at the Golden Globes this year.

Co-host Amy Poehler said: “I haven’t been following the controversy over ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, but when it comes to torture, I trust the lady who spent three years married to James Cameron”. Bigelow wouldn’t tell us if the gag was rooted in fact, but obviously found it embarrassing.

“It was a surreal out of body experience. I guess I don’t associate myself as being in a situation where you’d be the text and not the subtext,” she said.

“I live behind cameras and in the dark recesses of corners of rooms where I can watch something unfold in front of me, so to be, I suppose centre stage, is sort of unnerving.”

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is in cinemas now.