BEVERLY HILLS – Angelina Jolie is making movies. A lot of movies. On Sunday afternoon the Oscar winner sat down for a Q&A to discuss the first of three films she's had in the works, “Unbroken,” the long-awaited biopic of Louis Zamperini.
An Olympic athlete at the1936 Summer Games in Berlin, Zamperini's life took a dramatic turn when he enlisted in the Air Force during WWII and had a life-changing experience that found him adrift at sea for over 47 days and subsequently interned for over two years in a Japanese POW camp. Zamperini tried to get his story on the big screen for decades, but it didn't come to pass until Laura Hillenbrand wrote “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” in 2010 and, eventually, Jolie decided to direct.
What Jolie didn't realize when she was considering the project was that Zamperini was actually her neighbor. Not next door neighbor, but close enough.
“Apparently [my staff] called and they talked to Louis and said, 'Angelina is thinking about doing this,'” Jolie recalled. “And I asked, 'Where does he live?' And they said, 'He knows where you live because his wife used to look for Brad with binoculars.'”
That got a huge laugh from the audience and Jolie added that her husband soon realized that if there was one man he could not get in front of, it was Louis Zamperini.*
*Zamperini passed away on July 2, 2014 at the age of 97. He was able to watch an early cut of “Unbroken” from his hospital death bed, but Jolie was reticent to discuss it in public.
Jolie made her directorial debut with the positively reviewed “In the Land of Blood and Honey” in 2011, but at first glance “Unbroken” didn't seem like a natural follow-up. She says it was Hillenbrand's best seller that really connected her to Zamperini's story.
“You look up Louis Zamperini and you get glued to his life,” Jolie said. “You can't just imagine this man and everything he accomplished. But reading her book, it wasn't about heroics and it wasn't about this giant adventure this man lived. It's about what he came to understand in his life. And as I read the book I became inspired and I felt better about life and I was reminded about the strength of the human spirit and I was reminded that anytime I would see an obstacle, to try and smile at it and try to see it as something that could make me better. This is what Louie gave us. I thought, 'To be around this story, to understand this man, to have the honor of walking in his footsteps, what would that be?' And really, I wanted to share that story. I wanted to shout it from he rooftops.”
She added, “Funny enough, I realized that if I went on my rooftop I would actually see Louie because…we were neighbors.”
Officially on board, Jolie ended up casting mostly relative unknowns for her lead roles, including Jack O'Connell (“Starred Up”) as Zamperini and Japanese pop star Miyavi as his POW camp nemesis “The Bird.” Finn Whittrock (“American Horror Story: Freak Show”), Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney and Luke Treadaway (“Attack the Block”) round out the slightly more recognizable faces in the supporting cast. Her behind the scenes crew included legendary DP Roger Deakins, costume designer Louise Frogley (a longtime George Clooney collaborator), composer Alexandre Desplat and production designer Jon Hutman (a “Blood and Honey” connection).
According to Jolie, Hutman and his art department were lucky because not only did they have a wealth of research to pull from when designing the film, they had Zamperini himself.
“Louie saved everything in his life, so he would show us just everything,” she said. “[Even] his ticket to the Olympics. And when we weren't sure about the raft, as you could imagine, we could call Louie and send a picture and say, 'Is that right? Did it look like that?' And that way nobody can tell us it was wrong because Louie said so.”
In fact, physical historical details became secondary when it came to the actors improvising the material. Jolie said one of the funniest things about the production was getting the boys not to swear.
“I think in a lot of these films about the war, you can get the violence of it and the language, but at that time it was different – it was cleaner,” Jolie said. “They were from the Depression and they had a sort of work ethic and a feeling about the community. Even though they were very young men, and we wanted to cast young men, they didn't hold themselves as young men. They weren't casual about the way they walked, talked and certainly not about language. So we joked a lot about this because there were a lot of moments where you'd want to swear and scream out loud, and instead say, 'Oh, boy!'”
Jolie said making “Unbroken” was harder than she expected, but credits Deakins for pulling double duty as pretty much a sounding board during the shoot.
“We would talk often about how it wasn't just being epic for the sake of it, but that the story was man or man in the world,” she said. “What is man's world? What is this giant ocean and this little tiny personal experience and this giant prison camp and this little personal experience? That was the balance of the intention of this film.”
While Jolie said she and Deakins were mostly concerned about the film having a throughline and not turning into a series of specific chapters (the Olympics, adrift at sea, the camp, etc.) there were days shooting on the B-24 bomber or trying to figure out the sharks in the ocean that were admittedly tough.
“I think the German Olympics was the day we landed in the middle of nowhere in a field and I'm really new to all this and there was just nothing,” Jolie said. “And somebody just said to me, 'Where is Hitler's box?' And there is nothing, absolutely nothing around. And somebody said, 'On the 50 yard line?' And we said, 'Sure.' [Laughs.] So then there is so much to learn. But when you are surrounded by such a great team and people are willing to teach you then you just have to listen and just appreciate the people you're working with.”
Jolie wouldn't talk about which directors she's worked with in the in the past that have influenced her, but says she tried to pick up a few things along the way.
“I do love working with actors,” Jolie said of directing. “I think it's something I realized I love so much more. I love putting the spotlight on somebody else and seeing what they do. And I love that I know a little bit about what that feels like, so I can give them the protections that I believe they need. I don't know. I'm still so new to this. I come at it with, 'I love this story. I want to tell this story. I care about this man. I want an audience to receive this story. I don't want to make it too much for them, too long for them, too violent for them, too anything.' I just want to be able to communicate, and you try your best.”
As noted at the beginning of this story, Jolie isn't jumping off the directing bandwagon any time soon. Next year she expects to reunite with Deakins on “Africa,” a film about anti-poaching in the 1980s. In the meantime, she'll begin editing “By the Sea,” which she both wrote and directed. Oh, and it also reunites her on screen with Pitt for the first time since “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” While she says she didn't like directing herself (“Probably won't do that again,” she said), this was something both she and Pitt needed.
“We just wanted to play again,” she said. “We've been doing big films and been apart and we just wanted to play. So I wrote something that was actually about a bad marriage so we decided to shoot that on our honeymoon.” [Laughs.] It turned out to be a good idea, thank God.”
“Unbroken” opens nationwide on Christmas Day.