Directors of 'Argo,' 'Zero Dark Thirty' Take Different Approaches Turning History Into Film

Melissa Block hears from the directors of two films up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards on Sunday — Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty and Ben Affleck for Argo. They have the opposite approaches to putting history in a fiction film.

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MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. The Academy Awards are coming up on Sunday and over the past year we've featured many of the nominated films on NPR. So as the Oscars approach, we're listening to excerpts from our archives. Today, two directors with films about recent history. First, "Zero Dark Thirty."

In an interview with MORNING EDITION host Renee Montagne, Katheryn Bigelow spoke about her portrayal of the killing of Osama bin Laden. She said her movie is based on firsthand reports and advice from experts.

KATHRYN BIGELOW: I had a retired Navy SEAL who I worked with on the choreography of that assault and he said, in his opinion, the way they've been trained is to move like water and to move with a kind of - obviously a tremendous confidence, a tremendous assurance, but very methodically. And I think that really contributed to how the whole last act unfolds.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

You built the compound.

BIGELOW: We built it ground-up, three stories. Replicated even the tile on the floor, the bed frame, the rugs, the furniture in the rooms. All the passages were narrow and cluttered, but they were as they should be.

BLOCK: Despite Bigelow's insistence that the film is as realistic as possible, "Zero Dark Thirty" has been caught up in controversy over its depiction of torture. For another best picture nominee, "Argo," the stakes haven't been quite so high. "Argo" tells a little known story about the Iran hostage crisis and director Ben Affleck told WHYY's FRESH AIR that he embellished the facts to make the movie more exciting, including this tense scene at the airport as the Americans are escaping.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "ARGO")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Swiss Air 363, you are cleared for takeoff.

BEN AFFLECK: What I did with the end, in order to have a third act that I felt sort of worked, was to add elements to that and to crosscut it in ways to try to make it more exciting and to make it more tense. You can't slash up subtitles that say, okay, hold on, this part right here where the guard looked over at them, that didn't happen or those cars were not on the runway, but they did, in fact, take off.

And it's that struggle between the bookkeeper's reality and the public's reality and you make judgments as a director. And my judgment falls really cleanly on the line of it's okay to embellish. It's okay to compress as long as you don't fundamentally change the nature of the story and of what happened.

BLOCK: That's Ben Affleck, director of "Argo," which is up against "Zero Dark Thirty" and seven other films for the Best Picture Oscar. You can find more about all nine nominees at NPR.org/Oscars.

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