Welcome back to our long-dormant Oscar Bait column, in which we muse on the awards potential of a yet-to-be-produced project.
I’m afraid to say I’ve still not seen Angelina Jolie’s 2011 directorial debut “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” which never landed a UK distributor. The Bosnian War romance, shot in both Bosnian/Serbo-Croat and English-language versions, wasn’t exactly a success, but it was no embarrassment either: it received some sympathetic reviews, played the Berlin Film Festival and nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. (Okay, I think we all know why, but still.)
Either way, the Oscar-winning actress seems to have been sufficiently encouraged by her debut’s performance to take a second turn behind the camera, and this one — though still in pre-production — looks to be a significantly bigger deal. Where “Blood and Honey” was distributed by then-newbie indie outfit FilmDistrict, her follow-up, World War II survival story “Unbroken,” has the might of Universal Pictures behind it.
What is more, Universal today announced plans to release the film on Christmas Day 2014, positioning it as one of their prime prestige properties for next year. Well, maybe. The holiday date did the trick for the studio’s “Les Miserables” last year, but Christmas Day brought little joy for such past Universal award hopefuls as “Angela’s Ashes” and “The Producers.” Meanwhile, with the festive season no longer lending contenders the advantage it did when the season stretched into late March — as we often like to remind you, no December release has won the Best Picture Oscar since 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby.” (Jolie’s little-campaigned debut, as it happens, was a casualty of the December crush in 2011.) So “Unbroken” will need more than prize credentials to woo potential voters.
Those credentials are pretty intriguing, though. If Jolie is still a largely unknown quantity as a filmmaker, her screenwriters certainly aren’t. For only the second time, Joel and Ethan Coen are performing scripting duties on a project not their own. That their first such for-hire job was last year’s limp screwball comedy “Gambit” may give some readers pause, as might the fact that they’ve rewritten a script initially penned, at different stages, by two Oscar-nominated screenwriters in their own right: William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese. This kind of pass-the-parcel process is common Hollywood practice at the scripting stage, of course, though one hopes the screenplay doesn’t emerge with too many transitional scars.
Don’t expect much of a Coens stamp, however, on inspirational material far removed from their own work. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s non-fiction bestseller “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption,” the film tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a war hero and Olympic athlete who survived 47 days on a raft after a plane crash, before being captured and incarcerated in a Japanese POW camp.
With production set to begin in September, Jolie has yet to cast the film completely — though it has just been confirmed that young British actor Jack O’Connell will be playing the meaty, physically demanding role of Zamperini. This is a huge get for the talented 22-year-old, who is best known in the UK for a charismatic turn in the teen TV series “Skins,” and will be introduced to mainstream US audiences in the upcoming “300: Rise of an Empire.” (He was originally slated for the lead in flop YA adaptation “Beautiful Creatures,” which would up going to Alden Ehrenreich after visa issues got in the way.)
Zamperini’s is a story to which Universal first acquired the rights way back in 1957, and revived by optioning Hillenbrand’s book four years ago. (If you’re really into collecting Oscar omens, consider that Hillenbrand wrote the source material for 2003 Best Picture nominee “Seabiscuit.”) Meanwhile, it’s one to which Jolie claims a strong personal connection, stating: “I”ve had the privilege of spending a great deal of time with Louie Zamperini, who is a hero of mine, and now-I am proud to say-a dear friend. I am deeply honored to be telling his extraordinary story, and I will do my absolute best to give him the film he deserves. I am grateful to Universal for making this film a priority.”
A formidable below-the-line crew is already taking shape: perhaps lured with the Coen connection, master cinematographer and perennial Oscar bridesmaid Roger Deakins is on board, as is Emmy- and Guild-winning production designer Jon Hutman, who worked with Jolie on her debut.
High-end stuff, then. With Jolie having put her acting career on the back burner in recent years — voice work aside, her last screen appearance was in 2010’s regrettable “The Tourist” — this could be an opportunity for the conscientious humanitarian to redefine her career as an artist. With her wild-child past now a pretty distant memory, she’s both well-connected and well-regarded in the industry, so her peers will be inclined to reward her if the film’s up to scratch. Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson are among the Hollywood leading men to charm their way to a Best Director Oscar. No actress-turned-filmmaker, however, has ever secured so much as a nomination. (Just ask Barbra Streisand. And no, “The Godfather Part III” does not qualify Sofia Coppola as an actress.) Could Jolie be the first?