From within the sea of cast and crew she emerged, looking far less like one of the world’s most recognizable movie stars than a random, plainly dressed member of the “Unbroken” production team. Wearing a simple black blouse and slacks and walking with no train of assistants or handlers, the director didn’t magically part the waters the way filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese or Baz Luhrmann do on a film set.
She put out her hand to shake, said, “I’m Angie,” and started to show a visitor around.
There was tremendous bustle in and around Jolie’s world as the actress-turned-director was filming the true story of World War II bombardier Louis Zamperini early this year. As a special-effects team prepared to reenact the Pacific Ocean crash of Zamperini’s B-24 on one massive stage, another crew inside another huge stage was setting up the yellow rafts in which Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) and crew mates Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) and Francis “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock) would begin their epic voyage of survival.
Inside all of the comings and goings encircling her, Jolie found a quiet corner in Village Roadshow Studios where she pulled out a stack of photographs. They were taken just a few days earlier, when Jolie and her cinematographer, Roger Deakins, had filmed Zamperini and his fellow prisoners of war loading coal toward the end of their detention. The images were strongly evocative of (and indeed inspired by) Sebastião Salgado’s black-and-white work from the Brazilian gold mines in Serra Pelada, with the American soldiers covered head to toe in soot, their darkened bodies almost part of the Japanese landscape.
“For us, the movie is all about the theme of light and darkness — it’s both a metaphor and it’s practical,” the 39-year-old Jolie said of directing just her second film, after her 2011 debut, the independent Bosnian war drama “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” “When Lou is in the camps it’s dark, and when he comes up, it’s light. And that’s what we are trying to depict.” (Early reviews of the film have been solid if not spectacular, but all have praised the film’s production and visual style.)
It’s not only an interesting visual allusion but also a telling use of language: “Unbroken” was not a movie Jolie was making as an “I,” it was a movie she was making by “Us” and “We.” And that group categorically was governed by one person, who was then miles from her Australian set and in the last months of his life: Zamperini himself.
Louis Zamperini, who died in July at age 97, was an Olympic long-distance runner who survived 47 days in a life raft only to be tortured for more than two years after he and Phillips (McNamara died at sea) were captured by the Japanese in 1943 and interned as prisoners of war.
Zamperini’s extraordinary ordeal — and his postwar struggles with alcoholism before he was able to absolve his principal tormentor, the sadistic prison commandant Mutsuhiro Watanabe — were the focus of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 biography, “Unbroken,” which has been on the bestseller list more than 180 weeks.
Many filmmakers — including Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard — had been asked to shoehorn the sprawling story into a two-hour movie, but none before Jolie and her screenwriters, Joel and Ethan Coen, had figured out a possible path. The insurmountable challenge had been how to jettison the last third of Hillenbrand’s biography — everything that Zamperini experienced after being liberated from his third and final camp — without excising the book’s potent message of reconciliation.
Working with the Oscar-winning filmmakers behind “No Country for Old Men,” Jolie seized on a singular moment in Zamperini’s captivity and decided that it had to become the spiritual hinge of the adaptation, the film’s emotional conclusion.
About three-quarters of the way through her book, Hillenbrand recounted how Watanabe forced Zamperini to hold a heavy wooden beam over his head. Healthy men might have labored to keep it aloft for more than a few minutes; Zamperini, racked by dysentery and malnourished, defied his oppressor and lifted it above him for more than half an hour. “Something went on inside of me,” Zamperini recalled later. When O’Connell tried to replicate the feat during filming, he twice passed out.
“I’m not one to look for or preach about miracles or anything like that; I’m still searching myself for what to be sure of and what to believe in,” Jolie said earlier this week back in Los Angeles. About to attend a party to promote the film, which opens Christmas Day, she now was outfitted in an elegant dress and looked very much like one of the most striking women in the world. “You hear stories of women who, when a car falls on their children, they suddenly have the strength to lift it up. Is that simply in us? It’s a very interesting thing to wonder, what is our human potential?”
In that brief scene, Jolie believed she had found a way to show that Zamperini, in a staging that recalls a crucifixion, would forgive. “Angie said to me, ‘We can make that beam the defining moment of the third act,’” said producer Matthew Baer. “She felt it was when the battle of these two men comes to an end. That Lou had won. And I think she was right.”
Filmmakers can and often have personal relationships with their subjects, and it’s fair to say that Jolie truly loved Zamperini. For Christmas last year, her husband, Brad Pitt, commissioned and presented to his wife a painting of Zamperini in his favorite bomber’s outfit.
Jolie said she was inspired by his resilience and flaws.
“I think to see somebody rise up, to see somebody confronted with so many obstacles in life who refuses to go down, and not only stand back up but somehow find a way to love and live again and be full of usefulness and joy…,” Jolie said, pausing as she considered her subject’s life. After Zamperini experienced a religious conversion following the war, he dedicated himself to helping at-risk youth and became a popular motivational and devotional speaker.
“I’ve spent time with Lou and have been influenced by his story. I think it’s something we need today more than ever: You look around you and there’s so much to be overwhelmed by, and you study this life, this imperfect life, which is what’s so beautiful about him. He was a little immigrant kid who was smoking, stealing and drinking by the time he was 9, and thought he was worth nothing.
“A lot of us have had that feeling. I’ve certainly had it myself. And he turned his life around and became somebody who would later inspire so many people.”
Inspiration was something Jolie looked for in casting her lead roles.
“Because she knew Lou personally, it was for her a personal investment,” said the British actor O’Connell, who lost 26 pounds so that at his thinnest he weighed just 119 pounds; Gleeson became so withered that his contact lenses no longer fit.
When Jolie first auditioned her cast she didn’t just have them act out the scenes. “I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this before: I asked them a lot about their lives,” Jolie said. “I was looking for the best actors, but I was also looking for young men who were kind people, who had a decency, who had an interest in history, who were willing to discuss things that they had suffered in their lives, that were open and vulnerable in a way. Not somebody who was looking for stardom or excited about the adventure of the role, but men who would approach this with an understanding of the responsibility.”
That meant that Jolie and her filmmaking team consistently tried to remind themselves of the example Zamperini had set, particularly the extreme physical price — both on the raft and as prisoner of war — that he paid. If the cast and crew lost focus or started complaining about some minor worry, the refrain was “47 days!” The actors on a few occasions even used the phrase to refocus Jolie.
Said the director: “These actors kind of felt, men to men, there was something that they were doing and communicating that was beyond me. They had such a deep level of respect that instead of giving them a direction in the scene I would just come over and kind of talk to them about their grandparents and leave. That sometimes would just ground them. That’s all it needed.”
Zamperini didn’t live to see the completed film, but when Jolie heard that he had been hospitalized this year, she rushed to his bedside with a rough cut of the film on her laptop computer.
“There’s no Hollywood premiere that would mean more than sitting in that room alone with him at the end of his days,” Jolie said, her million-dollar smile spreading across her face. “As a man of faith, he very much believed he would see everyone soon in heaven and he was preparing for that, so he was revisiting his memories to prepare himself to pass away. And I was fortunate enough as a human being to witness that moment, so there’s nothing that could mean more than that.”
While she was awaiting the film’s release this fall, she made another movie, directing herself and Pitt in the domestic drama “By the Sea,” which Jolie also wrote. It is set to be released next year.
“I think I became an actor for a few reasons: My mother [Marcheline Bertrand] wanted to be an actress, my grandmother wanted to be an actress, and I was very fortunate to have success as an actress. I love communicating with an audience. I do love being able to emote and share and express my pain, and then somebody can communicate with me that they feel the same pain, or we share the same humor. That part of acting I love, the communication. But I really am actually much more comfortable having a camera on somebody else. And when my mother passed away, I lost a big part of what made me love acting.” Bertrand died of cancer in 2007.
“I’m just happy when I’m directing,” Jolie continued. “Everybody that works with me says, ‘Could you please direct again, because you’re so happy.’ I love being a part of the crew. I love being with everybody and understanding every single department and being able to also help find solutions for everybody and work in tandem with every single person on set. I’ve never loved having a camera on me.”