HOLLYWOOD – “Unbroken” is Angelina Jolie's second directorial effort to date, but she bit off a whole lot more than she expected to chew. The production became a huge undertaking, particularly at the script stage when a number of various elements could have been included from the epic life of Louis Zamperini. So it was as important as ever to do a lot of heavy lifting on the page.
I sat down with Jolie last week to discuss those particulars, taking a risk on unknowns in the film's central roles and how Sidney Lumet's “The Hill” informed the look of the film. Read through the back and forth below for that and other tidbits. And check out our recent video interview at the top of this post for even more.
“Unbroken” opens Christmas Day.
HitFix: Before we jump in here, I just wanted to say I'm glad to see someone taking on Eric Roth's “Africa” script. I've been hearing about that project for a number of years so it's cool to see it finally taking off.
Angelina Jolie: It is. It's very exciting. I love him Eric much. He's such a dear friend, and he's a godfather to our son Pax. We've been working on “Cleopatra” a long time, and still working on it. And he's been so supportive of me becoming a director. But to suddenly get the opportunity to direct an Eric Roth script, to be able to sit with Eric and work on it, it's new for our relationship.
Well good luck on it. On this, though, how did it feel stretching out a bit more working on your second film as a director?
It was a really, really big movie to do. And I didn't go into it realizing it, I think. I came into it thinking, “I love Louie. He's inspirational.” But the reality of suddenly having a very specific budget and needing all these different locations, and convincing myself that I could walk on with the confidence to direct the raft scenes, the shark attacks, the plane crashes, it was all more than I anticipated. I wasn't looking to do a big movie. I was just looking to direct a film I cared about, and I would have never attempted something of this size had it not been a story I loved.
It's a lot of material to wrangle into a script. When you came to the project was it still a battle of figuring out what to get in, what to leave out? What were the hardest decisions in that process?
That's exactly what it was, and I think it's why it has taken since 1957 to do it, because his life is kind of a miniseries, you know? And everything we would leave out – I would carry the book around and it would drive me crazy because people would always stop me and say, “That is my favorite book. You know what my favorite scene was?” And whatever it was it was something that wasn't in the movie. “My favorite scene is when he stole the Nazi flag.” I'm like, “I know, me too, but…” Or “My favorite scene was when the Great White breached,” and “I know, I can't get that either. It's too expensive.” So it's frustrating. But I think Laura's book and the Coen brothers coming in and the work that had been done on the scripts, we were able to really look at it and say, “OK, let's not be overwhelmed by all the details of this life. Let's look at it and say, 'What is this film about?' It talks about the human spirit, so we need to see the rise of the human spirit. It's an athlete and understanding his own body and endurance and how it gets him through the war. We need to see that. It is about a man of faith and we need to understand that was present in his life since he was 9 years old and how does he come to that? And where does forgiveness come in?” So we had the themes and we just had to say, “Alright, that's our film. What, then, in his life, do we pull out to illustrate those themes?” Because as the Coen brothers pointed out to me, if you literally try to go page by page you will just make a terrible film. So make a good film, but make sure the essence is the same or you'll drive yourself crazy. There's just so much content.
Speaking of the Coens, what else did they feed into the script that helped the story along?
I think a few things. One, they're great directors, obviously, so there's a sense of structure they have – a tighter sense of where things need to be moved or structured or this begins or this comes after. So they can help to clarify that and make it a more interesting structure, which this film really desperately needed. And also, I think, what's great about them is they're not sentimental, and I think this film could have, with the wrong writers, become one that was very earnest and very beautiful, but didn't have the edge and the sense of humor and the way of just looking at life, and not only the beauty of life, but just the strangeness of life and the friendship and the very intimate, regular moments of life, which the Coen brothers are just so brilliant at putting forward.
You had a great ally in cinematographer Roger Deakins, to say the least. I talked to him a bit about this and he said you were interested in Sidney Lumet's “The Hill” in terms of a look. Why was that?
Well I love Sidney Lumet, so I'm a bit of a Sidney Lumet geek.
You can be forgiven for that, I think.
[Laughs.] Right? But there was something about “The Hill,” because I think there's something you very quickly go to with war films – and this film, there's a war film aspect, there's also a “Chariots of Fire” aspect, there's also this Italian immigrant, “Godfather” aspect, there's all these different things and then there's the raft. I think at one point we wrote a list of all the different kinds of movies this was and we got to, like, 10. But we talked about “The Hill” because there's something about it, maybe it was also meditation for me, that you can get so lost in an epic, you forget the center of the story. And “The Hill” is such a clean film that is so – you really are in this one place and you follow this character and you see what he's up against and you see his relationship with the other men and there's very clean, simple themes. And it's obviously shot with such precision. It's not that it's a “cool” shot where you go, “Oh, I'd put this on my wall.” There's purpose. There's a reason why that person is standing there and that person is standing there and that character is in sunlight and that person's in shadow. Every shot really moved the narrative forward in the way it was framed and lit. We wanted to make sure the film had a stunning quality to it, so the audience would absorb it, but there was something about “The Hill” that really played on the patterns and the structure of prison camp life that I think added an element that we needed. And when you see some of the scenes when the men are lined up for the 200 punch, that's very “Hill.” And there are deeper layers. If you look at Naoetsu, there's the men lined up and they're covered in black coal, and then behind them is another group and behind them is another group, and there are all these very, very well thought-out patterns and layers to the framing that we wanted to try to do.
How about the risk of taking on unknowns for these roles, Jack O'Connell and particularly Miyavi. How did you come to those decisions?
With Jack, I was so aware of what I was looking for and what I needed, and I simply couldn't find it until I saw Jack's work and all of those things were so clear. What I needed was a young man, somebody who could carry the story, but it was really important that these boys were actually boys, that we felt the youth. So I wasn't going to cast somebody that was an unknown and older but wasn't accurate to Louie at that time. Most of all he had to have a real fight and fire in him, and you had to feel that he was an everyman, really relatable and strong, felt like he could have lived in the '40s and come through a Depression, and I think Jack's life and his background gives him that extra edge and understanding of life and work. Somebody that had that wit and fire and charm that Louie had, and also an actor that was willing to be as vulnerable as he had to be, and capable of that kind of performance, that kind of emotion. So it was very clear, when it was Jack, I couldn't believe my luck when we found him. It felt like it was meant to be, and Louie really responded to him. Although when Louie saw his audition he said, “He needs to stop swearing so much.” [Laughs.]
That's very of-the-generation, I guess.
Yeah. [Laughs.] “I don't swear.” And Miyavi, I approached it with – I didn't want it to be a stereotype of a Japanese prison guard. The Bird is described as being very striking and very powerful and I thought about, “Well, what is it when you think of someone who can stand in front of a crowd and own the room without saying anything?” That's a rock star. So I had this thought – at first it was just, “Here's the crazy idea. The crazy idea is, 'Let's look into Japanese rock stars and see what we discover.'” And Miyavi was the first name put forward. As soon as I became aware of his work, he's magnetic and he's a ridiculously talented guitarist and musician. And obviously a very striking man. But I didn't know if he wanted to act, if he'd be willing to act, and if he could. So I was really blown away when I saw his audition. I think he's just extraordinary. For someone who has had no history acting, he's a very skilled, very capable performer. It's a natural talent.