Angelina Jolie on the Emotional Journey of ‘Unbroken’

Angelina Jolie Unbroken Variety Magazine
Art Streiber for Variety

Angelina Jolie’s penetrating eyes are filling with tears. “I don’t want to cry, and I’m not going to cry in front of you,” she vows, quickly regaining her composure.

The actress-filmmaker is choked up over the recent death of Louis Zamperini — a man who meant a great deal to her, and is the subject of her most significant directorial effort yet, “Unbroken.”

Zamperini, a former Olympic runner, was on a World War II search-and-rescue mission when his plane went down in the Pacific. He was lost at sea for 47 days before being sent to a Japanese prison camp. Over his two years there, he was starved, beaten and faced an adversary known as the Bird — a Japanese officer named ­Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who singled him out for torture. Zamperini returned home a haunted man, but overcame alcoholism to become an inspirational speaker. His life was chronicled in Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 best-seller “Unbroken,” which Jolie adapted to the bigscreen for a Christmas Day debut.

On this August afternoon, it has been only five weeks since Zamperini died at the age of 97 due to complications from pneumonia. Jolie is seated in a room at a Beverly Hills hotel, flanked by two of the stars of her film, Jack O’Connell and singer-songwriter Miyavi, who play Zamperini and Watanabe, respectively. Along with the pressure of being involved in one of the most anticipated films of the year, everyone clearly feels a huge responsibility to Zamperini’s legacy.

“They say you should never meet your heroes, because they often disappoint you,” Jolie notes. “But Louis really was one of the greatest people ever.”

Art Streiber for Variety

As compelling as Zamperini’s story ­is, it was not an easy sell. Possibly the long­est gestating project in Hollywood history, it took 57 years to turn his tale into a cinematic reality. Actors from Tony Curtis to Nicolas Cage at one time or another were attached to the role, and many directors came and went. In the end, it was an Oscar-winning actress with only one little-seen feature film to her directing resume who shepherded the $65 million film to the silver screen. It is by far Jolie’s most ambitious and riskiest directorial outing — her first big studio movie. And she did it without any marquee names in her cast; in fact, one of the most pivotal roles was filled by a Japanese rock star who had never acted before.

In 1956, Universal Pictures acquired the rights to Zamperini’s just-published biography “Devil at My Heels,” but a script was never written and the project languished. In 1998, a CBS documentary about Zamperini’s life caught the eye of Matt Baer, who was then running the film division at Brillstein-Grey. Baer met with Zamperini and formed a fast friendship.

Over the next few years, Baer worked to get a film made. Scripts were written — an early title was “Iron Man,” one of Zamperini’s nicknames — and at one point Antoine Fuqua was attached to direct. But the project never came together. In 2002, Zamperini told Baer he’d received a letter from Hillenbrand asking to write his life story. Says Baer, “Lou said he was going to tell Laura, ‘Look, lady, I’ve already written my book, but if you want to write yours, go ahead!’ ”

But Baer was excited, knowing the book could help move the film along. What he didn’t know was that it would take the meticulous Hillenbrand eight years to finish the volume. During that time, Baer was still knocking on doors. “I would take our script and the CBS video around to every financier, saying there was about to be a big book about his life,” recalls Baer. “And everybody said no.”

When “Unbroken” was published in 2010, it was an instant sensation, spending more than 180 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list. A new script was written by Richard Lagravanese (“The Fisher King”); when he left to make “Beautiful Creatures,” William Nicholson (“Gladiator”) came onboard. Still, Baer says, “The vast majority of directors passed.” Then the book found its way to Jolie after she read the logline at her agency, and she fell hard for the story of triumph. “There’s so much going on in the world today that could make you lose hope,” she says. “To read about somebody who had something inspirational and positive — it was fulfilling. I wanted to be close to his story. I wanted to go on this journey and become a better person.”

The story seems a perfect match for Jolie, an actor, director, mother, newlywed and humanitarian. A special envoy of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, she has witnessed the effects of war in her worldwide travels. Fourteen years ago, when she first began working with the United Nations, she was shocked to learn the statistics concerning refugees. Since then, she says, she has always wanted to learn more and help more.

Art Streiber for Variety

Her passion was apparent in her first narrative feature, the 2011 drama “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” about the conflict in Sarajevo. Though it earned less than $2 million at the box office, among its fans was Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley. “I’ve seen almost every film about that conflict, and I thought her film was the most impactful and clearest about what people were living through during that time,” Langley says. “The movie follows the story of a woman caught in difficult circumstances, who has to persevere; that’s very synonymous with Louis Zamperini’s story.”

But Langley didn’t just hand Jolie the job. “She had to work for it,” Langley notes. “I put her through her paces.” Baer says Jolie brought in boards using photographs that were representative of her vision for scenes and characters, and discussed what she wanted to do with the draft. “It was clear, well thought out, and filled with energy and passion,” he recalls.” Concurs Langley, “After a few conversations, it became very clear that she was ready to step up to the task.”

Once hired, Jolie met Zamperini, and a deep friendship ensued. As it turned out, the two were practically neighbors — Zamperini could see Jolie’s house from his office, and as Jolie was developing the film, she would climb on her roof and wave to him. Baer says it was a strong connection born of having many things in common. “They were both people who overcame obstacles as children. Both are highly physical. And both dealt with a lot of acclaim at a young age,” Baer notes. “Equally, they both ended up using their popularity to try to help others.”

Zamperini’s two children, Luke Zamperini and Cynthia Garris, say their father was smitten by Jolie.

“It was a very close and very affectionate relationship built on so much admiration and respect,” Luke says. He adds that Jolie’s husband, Brad Pitt, was also a fan. “When Brad was shooting ‘Fury,’ he was so excited to tell Louis he could drive a tank,” Luke laughs.

Adds Garris, “The night our father passed away, she and Brad came to our home and took such beautiful care of us. They cried with us, they held us, they made a soft place for us to fall. At one point I told her, ‘My father was really in love with you.’ And she said, ‘I was in love with him!’”

For as long as they could remember, Luke and Cynthia had watched their father try to get his story onscreen; it wasn’t until Jolie was onboard that they truly believed it would happen. “With her star power and her unbelievable focus, she got this film on the fast track,” Luke says. Adds Cynthia, “She really swooped in like an angel.”

Jolie enlisted a number of top talents who were big fans of the book, including Joel and Ethan Coen, who were tapped to write a draft of the script. “I couldn’t believe my good fortune,” Jolie says. “And being writers and directors, they write very visually, so I learned a lot from them.” The Coens’ frequent cinematographer, Roger Deakins, also signed on, as did composer Alexandre Desplat. “You can’t meet Angie and not say, ‘I want to work with her,’ ” Baer says.

In September 2013, the film officially got the greenlight to begin shooting the following month in Australia. To celebrate, Jolie posted an American flag on her roof for Zamperini to see.

Jolie knew the film wouldn’t work if she didn’t find a credible Zamperini and Watanabe. “These roles are so difficult,” she says. “And as an actor, I knew this film was going to rise or fall on these performances. They could sink the film if they weren’t brilliant.”

Art Streiber for Variety

Though name actors were discussed for Zamperini, the book was so beloved that it afforded Jolie the opportunity to cast whomever she wanted. But it was a tall order. “He had to be the appropriate age, because he was a young man at the time,” she notes. “It had to be somebody who had the strength and masculinity of that era — a real man’s man, a physical man. And at the same time, it had to be a skilled actor who can be deeply emotional and make people root for him.”

O’Connell, 24, is a British thesp best known in the U.S. for his work on the popular series “Skins” and in the thriller “Eden Lake.” When asked to submit an audition tape, O’Connell enlisted the help of his former drama teacher, Ian Smith. “We have a creative, rocky relationship, and he grilled me,” says the actor. “He told me what was sh-t about it, what was good. And by the time it was ready to send, I felt polished.”

According to Garris, O’Connell’s audition stood out for many reasons, but one that turned the tide. “It’s a scene in which he’s in confinement and being attacked by a guard,” Garris notes. “Jack was the only actor who fought back. I think that was a deciding factor for Angelina.”

Jolie went to London to meet O’Connell in person. That night, Baer says, “She emailed me, simply saying, ‘I found Lou.’ ”

He still had to screen test for Universal, and in a gesture for which he says he’s profoundly grateful, Jolie brought in O’Connell’s cousin to read with him. “He had done my taped audition with me, and I mentioned this to Angie,” O’Connell says.

Even after O’Connell got the part, he wanted the blessing of Zamperini. Their initial meeting was in a group, surrounded by cameras, but the second time they were alone. “We sat in his dining room, and he showed me his memorabilia and I got really emotional,” O’Connell admits. “He and his family welcomed me in, so I could go to Australia feeling I was championed by his people.”

Baer recalls that the first time O’Connell and Zamperini met, the latter showed off his original bomber jacket from the war. “Jack said, ‘Hey, can I try that on?’ And it fit perfectly,” Baer says. Garris adds, “Whenever I see Jack now, I call him Dad. He’s about as close as you can get to Louis onscreen, and we all adore him. We made him an honorary Zamperini for the rest of his life.”

While finding her Louis was difficult, casting the Bird seemed, in Jolie’s words, “impossible.” Watanabe was described in the book as “a beautifully crafted monster,” and Jolie was determined to find someone who was “striking, educated and intense,” and not a Hollywood stereotype of a Japanese person. Early on, she thought of casting a rock star. “There’s a confidence that comes from someone who’s a frontman,” she maintains. “It’s a very unusual thing to be able to be in front of thousands of people and have your presence affect a room.”

Jolie enlisted Japanese casting director and acting coach Yoko Narahashi in her search. Narahashi reached out to Miyavi (born Takamasa Ishihara), a guitarist and singer — but didn’t tell him what their meeting was about. “She came to my office in Tokyo and kept asking me questions like, ‘What kind of movies do you like? Who are your favorite actors and actresses?’ ” Miyavi recalls. “I said, ‘I really like Angelina Jolie.’ She just smiled.”

Jolie wanted Narahashi to meet with Miyavi before auditioning him, to find out what kind of person he was. “It’s important the soul of this person be a great man to play someone this complicated. He has to be somebody who’s in a healthy place in his life to be able to go to these places,” Jolie says.

Though he had never considered an acting career, Miyavi was thrilled at the prospect. Still, he hesitated playing such a sadistic character, worried it would reflect badly on the Japanese people. “But after meeting Angie in Tokyo, I was confident to be a part of this story,” he says. “We can all learn many things from this film, from the theme of forgiveness.”

By all accounts, it was a tough role for the 33-year-old father of two. “Once or twice when Angie called cut, he had to run off and vomit,” Garris says. “It made him violently ill to have to inflict so much anger and damage.”

Art Streiber for Variety

O’Connell also was struggling; to play the life raft and prison camp scenes, he estimates he lost around 30 pounds. He then had to quickly bulk back up for scenes of Zamperini as an Olympic runner. “We wrapped the prison camp scenes, and five days later, I was shooting a running sequence,” O’Connell notes. “Thinking about the example of endurance Louis set was invaluable. Because I was never going to suffer as much as Louis did.”

Though they play adversaries onscreen, O’Connell and Miyavi developed a friendly rapport when the cameras were off. “I actually thought I would keep my distance at first and try to stay separate,” O’Connell admits. “But the more we’d engage, the deeper our respect developed. In the end, his support of me and my support of him was important.”

While Miyavi says he wants to continue acting, his director is less certain about her future in front of the camera. There have been reports that Jolie, currently the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, is thinking of retiring from thesping. “I’ll do a few more,” she says slyly. “I’m about to direct something with Brad and myself, in fact.” That film, “By the Sea,” is currently being shot in Malta, and little is known about the plot other than it features Jolie and Pitt as a married couple.

She readily admits that directing is her first love. “I’m happier when I get to put a camera on another actor and watch them do great work.”

Though critics and audiences will soon pass judgement on “Unbroken,” Jolie has already received a rave review from the one person who matters. The day before Zamperini went into ICU for the last time, Jolie brought her computer to the hospital, climbed onto his bed and screened a rough cut of the film. “We were able to show him his life just in time to let him see all that he had accomplished and reflect on all the people he’s loved and was about to reunite with in heaven.”

Jolie begins to tear up again. “It’s not about ego, he didn’t want to be famous. He wanted to make sure his message was clear. It’s why he did speaking engagements, it’s why he did his book. It’s why he tried to get a movie made for 57 years. Everybody who reads this book and knows his life feels very connected to this man.”

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  1. Critic: I hated this movie! I left this movie very angry that the producers, directors would ever let the torture, the cruelty, the mindlessness, the suffering, the violence of WAR EVER be connected to some God who saves the soldier in the end through the soldier’s forgiveness? PTSD and alcoholism is more like the actual outcome, plus the rest of his life filled with tortured dreams. Ask his children how his participation in this torture effected them.
    I hated this movie not only because I hate WAR, but because we put millions of dollars into a movie when the money could help the sufferers of this world more.
    I hated this movie because we as the United States of America do not realize that we send the poorest (financially) part of our society to WAR. Young men sent to a war they don’t totally understand the “why” of. Look at the true results of our years of WAR with the middle east. Men who have been devastated by an expansionist WAR.
    I cannot even think of what Angelina Jolie experienced. It’s a far reach from the wealthy of Hollywood to the sufferers of REAL WAR.

  2. I think it sounds like a great heroic story. I look forward to seeing it. Angelina is a saint that has helped bring a heroes story to life! How beautiful! I respect the hero,the saint and the writer of the story.
    I rate everything, by hearts. Seven hearts(♥) is the highest. If the film is as great as this article is, then I would give it a 7 hearts (♥) based on what I have read. I have also seen a few trailers and it looks great. I send her all my Lady Luck and wish her all the best!

  3. No Thanks says:

    Well intended film… but looks like a mellow dramatic snoozer. A love letter to her own kids maybe (all the races of the world and such; and probably lots of tossing of the word ‘love’ around; but I wonder what is actually said with regard to it (other than H/wood self-love). Jolie seems to know where to put the camera, but I have a feeling the depiction of violence in this movie is too much, too much of a contrast to what looks like a Disney pic really. Jolie seems to have a weakness for gore, but gore will bore as it’s not really part of the story.

    I actually hate movies like this. They were OK 60 years ago; but nothing new to be said here other than some aforementioned (otherwise private) musings to her kids.

    • DorothyParkerlite says:

      Wha???? The guy was a POW. Violence and gore come with the territory. War is not a video game. Its ugly, gritty, depressing and a really evil way to solve a conflict. It brings out the best and worst in people and I think that’s the point of the film: duh. You’re rooting for this guy because despite everything, he made the choice not to give up on people or himself. I’m so fucking tired of seeing glossy versions of experiencing something so extreme that turn war into some kind of glorious thing. Give me as close to the real thing any day. If you can’t take it, then, yeah, stick to watching the CW channel.

      And what the hell does anything in this movie have to do with her kids???

  4. Big Italy says:

    Hey Bob, I saw an interview with Mr. Zamperini’s son and he said God is not mention, but you can feel it throughout the movie. Its up on youtube if you want to watch it.

  5. Bob DeWitt says:

    I loved the book very much as did everyone I know who read it. I teared up just reading this article. I know the movie should be great but, yes, the fact that the essential message of Louis’ life, the very reason he became the great man he did, is left out, is tragic, imo. Sure, a secular world, one in which people can do the very things to each other depicted in this movie, it is practically a death sentence to mention the “C” word, Christianity. It’s like shouting, “I’ve got Ebola” in an airport. But faith in God, over and over again, is shown to be at the core of human stories of triumph over evil and hardship. To leave this out is to deprive readers and viewers of what I’m sure Louis considered the single most important feature of his life.

    • Religion doesn’t make a person do good, its the choices that person makes at any given time. And Christianity, btw, is a major religion that has a strong foothold in the Western world. I seriously doubt you can equate Ebola with it. The movie is about the triumph of the human spirit, not the holy ghost. Many people turn to religion in times of crisis but it’s not what makes a person choose to do good things. History tells us that much. There are many “religious” people who aren’t the best people, who choose the path of negativity when they’ve experienced something negative. Maybe they feel justified because they believe they’ve been persecuted. To me this movie seems to be about something bigger than religion. It’s about faith. Not in any particular God, but in the belief that there is still good to be found in the world despite all the ugliness of human nature. It’s really about maintaining hope.

      Obviously Mr. Z agreed, since he clearly was very involved in the film itself, and since he saw it before he died. It’s pretty cool that Jolie was able to give that to him.

  6. Big Italy says:

    Also, if this movie is half as good as the trailer, this could be the ROCKY for this generation. And the music is awesome also, should win an Oscar.

  7. Big Italy says:

    I read the book, fantastic, the movie trailer with Tom Brokaw speaking should be used to PROMOTE this movie, I tear up every time I watch it. The movie poster DOESNT do the film any justice, it totally SUCKS. I wanna know if Mr. Zamperini was able to WATCH the MOVIE before he died?

    • C.ara says:

      The article does say at the very end that Jolie brought him a rough cut of the film when he was in the hospital and they watched it together on her laptop right before he went into the ICU for the last time. :) So yes, he did get to see it, and she was very proud and happy that he did.

  8. Cathy Marino says:

    I was President for 10 years of our alumni group of Olympians from Southern California…Louis was my friend and fellow Olympian. When we last spoke before his hospital admit, he told me he understands why the movie did not fully explain the reason for his hope and ability to forgive. He hopes that people will read UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand, because she captured exactly the reason for his triumph over tragedy and sorrows. I hope everyone reads Louis’ book… and Angie, Louis said he loved it when you called him ‘your boyfriend’. Blessings to you and yours… Cathy Marino, 1988 & 1992 Kayak USA Olympian

  9. 4tune8man says:

    Wonderful book should make for an equally wonderful movie. Louis Zamperini deserves to be remembered. He was an American hero who came out of the hell of war and its traumatic psychological aftermath wounded, but not defeated. Hollywood got this one right.

  10. Pam says:

    The story is simply awesome and resonates with folks today. I am so looking forward to seeing the movie, and given the care and concern with the production, I think we are all about to witness the birth of those classic for all time events when the movie airs.

  11. Liza says:

    Looking forward to watch the film. I believe in Angelina Jolie.

  12. imani says:

    She is such a delight snd so mesmerizing in her looks and actions. I would support anything she does. And Brad is a grest man. Lucky for him.

  13. Ann says:

    Beautiful cover.How can I buy this. Do you release it in new stands in Europe like many American mags or should I just order.

  14. Ken from Toronto says:

    Angelina – a great actress, a citizen of the World, courage personified, and the most beautiful woman. Yep, call me a fan. And I am so looking forward to UNBROKEN…I hope this is a personal and professional triumph for her.

  15. She is a brilliant actress. She is a Saint and an Angel in my book. The world is blessed to have her.

  16. megan says:

    Saw Angelina’s ITLOBAH and love it, thought it was a brillant film, especially for a directorial debut. Can’t wait to see Unbroken.

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