On Location: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’s’ compound challenges


First-time feature production designer Jeremy Hindle admits to some dicey feelings while taking director Kathryn Bigelow on an initial walk-through of “Zero Dark Thirty’s” key set. But they weren’t rookie jitters.

“I remember telling her, ‘You’re going to feel insanely creepy. You’re going to feel like he lived here,’” Hindle says.

The verisimilitude Bigelow demanded for all aspects of the film was particularly important to the re-creation of the compound in which Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs last year. “We walked through, and the detail … it felt like someone had lived there; six years of never leaving,” Hindle says. “We knew what his bed looked like from photographs. We knew he had an AK-47 hanging over it. We knew he was a pack rat. The hallway was just jammed full of every newspaper he could get his hands on.”


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Using primarily open-source intelligence from news reports and the like, and enhanced by Oscar-winning writer-producer and military journalist Mark Boal’s research, the production constructed a full-scale, fully operational replica of Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.

“You can scale quite a lot off photographs,” Hindle says. “We had a company called Frame Store in London model it in 3-D for us. Once you have the photographs and video, it’s all a big math equation. It was a couple weeks of math, really.

“We built it for real out of stone and steel. We flew real Black Hawks in; there was a Black Hawk 50 feet over that set with Kathryn and every actor inside it. So the compound was 21/2 times over-engineered,” he says, noting the set had to withstand the crash of one of the helicopters [hanging by a crane]. “There were 9-foot caissons underground, steel, cinder blocks; it was a bunker. It would be hard to blow that place up.”

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Hindle made the jump to feature film work from commercials — on which he had worked with such directors as Spike Jonze, Nicolas Winding Refn and Alejandro González Iñárritu — in part due to the recommendation of “Zero Dark’s” cinematographer, Greig Fraser.


“Kathryn hates wild walls [which can be removed for ease of filming]. Because [our] walls don’t move, some cinematographers would have had a heart attack. Greig’s not like that. We’ve worked together before; I’ve boxed him into places before. He loves that kind of style. He knows it creates a certain energy. It’s difficult to shoot in when it’s 120 degrees, but I said, ‘I’m not going to make it easy for you to shoot; I’m going to make it great so you can shoot it.’

“You’re cramming everyone in the room; it makes it so real. It’s not a way that anyone else [but Bigelow] would make this film. [Normally,] you’d just say, ‘Let’s go to a stage … break it down, each floor.’ But it’s real. It was engineered, architecturally drawn up, and we built the thing in 10 weeks.”

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Scouting and construction of meticulously authentic locations on several continents and the design and assembly of approximations of stealth Black Hawk helicopters happened very quickly.

“I got hired the 25th of November, and we started shooting Feb. 28. It was mind-blowingly fast,” Hindle says. “Every one of those military bases [seen in the film] didn’t exist. We built all those. The Islamabad embassy, that’s an engineering school in India. That was after scouting in Jordan for months.”

But Hindle had concerns beyond making his timeline. Safety became an issue as the replica of Bin Laden’s compound was built and shot in Jordan.


“It was haunting, for sure,” Hindle says. “There were bomb-sniffing dogs checking the set before you walked on. There was a lot of security. We were 30 miles from Syria and three miles from Israel. For the first half of [building] the structure, nobody knew what it was. And then the helicopters came in, hanging from cranes … it was like, ‘Huh. We’re about a mile from the Dead Sea.’”


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