A 16-Year Wait Finally Pays Off for ‘Unbroken’s’ Matthew Baer

Matthew Baer Producer Unbroken

The socko box office for “Unbroken” (the third-highest Christmas opening ever) is a testament to Louis Zamperini — and to the persistence of Universal and producer Matthew Baer.

Baer first optioned rights to Zamperini’s life story in 1998, long before Laura Hillenbrand’s book became a bestseller. Baer brought the project to Universal 16 years ago, and they stayed with it through multiple owners and studio administrations.

“Universal’s support was always there; that was never an issue,” says Baer. “The main problem was finding the right director. Plus, it’s not a traditional studio-tentpole movie.”

The pricetag was lower than the traditional tentpole: $65 million, with a chunk of that going to above-the-line work, including a half-dozen high-profile screenwriters. (Final credits go to Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson.)

That budget is modest for a film that spans several decades and continents, features big-scale air battles and a lot of lensing on water. As the wry Coens noted when they signed on, “‘Unbroken’ should be a big movie, and we’re going to write it as a big movie. It’s up to you to solve that on your budget.”

“There were many production challenges,” says Baer, including the fact that three lead actors — Jack O’Connell, Domnhall Gleeson and Finn Witrock — needed to appear onscreen at both their normal weight and very skinny.

After experiences with “Jaws” and “Waterworld,” Universal wanted to ensure that the extensive ocean filming would stay on schedule. There are only two tanks that can accommodate those needs, the “Titanic” one in Mexico, and another in Australia. It turns out that Oz was the answer to many of the budget problems, since the country offers “great labor rebate, stage space and great crews,” says Baer.

The entire 65-day shoot was done Down Under, with Australia doubling for Torrance, Calif., Berlin and Japan, among other locations.

Baer became aware of Zamperini’s story in 1998 when he saw a 35-minute CBS documentary by Draggan Mihailovich about the Olympic runner-turned-POW. (“That film is like a Cliff’s Notes version of ‘Unbroken,’” Baer smiles.) So he pursued the rights and brought it to Universal. The story was so inspiring, Baer says, “I couldn’t believe no one had made a movie of this.”

Actually, they had tried. According to a 1955 Daily Variety, indie producer Harry Tatelman was circling rights to “Devil at My Heels,” Zamperini’s book written with Helen Itria. By 1957, rights had landed at Universal, with a script by Syd Boehm and Howard Pine to produce as a Tony Curtis vehicle. So Universal’s 1998 interest was bringing the project full circle.

The 1998 script, then called “Iron Man,” was written by Robert Schenkkan. At various times over the years, other writers weighed it, but the studio couldn’t find the right director. Between 1998 and 2010, Universal was owned by Seagram, Vivendi, GE and NBCUniversal, with a number of changes in studio administrations. With each new team, Baer would say, “Please let me try again,” working to assemble a package and/or gather funding.

Meanwhile, Hillenbrand had become interested in Zamperini’s story when researching her book “Seabiscuit.” Someone told her that the only person faster than Seabiscuit was Louis Zamperini, and she made a note to look into him.

After “Seabiscuit” came out in 2001, it was translated to film in 2003 at (of course) Universal. Hillenbrand  spent two years creating an outline for a Zamperini book and submitted it to U. Since the studio already had underlying rights to his story, there was nothing for them to option, but the execs told Hillenbrand, “Come back when you’re ready with the book.”

It took her another six years, but in 2010, her “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” came out and became an immediate bestseller, adding energy to a film project. “Every producer has a passion project, but the odds of a passion project becoming a bestselling book are a billion to one,” says Baer.

Francis Lawrence was to direct, but then got the offer to direct the second “Hunger Games” film when Gary Ross exited. (Another coincidence: Ross directed “Seabiscuit.”)

With Lawrence’s exit, Baer thought, “You have to be kidding me. Here we go again.” The script became an open directing assigment, and Angelina Jolie immediately got interested. “She was so passionate, and her vision of the film was very clear,” he says.

They began to assemble a team including d.p. Roger Deakins, production designer John Hutman, costume designer Louise Frogley, casting director Francine Maisler and composer Alexandre Desplat. All responded to the enthusiasm of Jolie and Baer (along with their fellow producers Erwin Stoff and Clayton Townsend).  Baer says, “Everybody came together for the same reasons: They loved the material, it was a unique opportunity to work on a studio film that was powerful and emotional — and because of Louis Zamperini.”

The film earned $47 million in its opening weekend, and audiences gave it a Cinemascore of A-minus, with thumbs-up from across all age demos. Baer says the vast majority of audiences weren’t even aware of Hillenbrand’s book, but word of mouth is fueling its continued success.

Asked why the film is such a hit, Baer pauses, then says, “In 1998, when I saw the documentary, I was pulled along by the narrative: ‘Can you believe this, what comes next?’ That’s what readers of the book felt, and that’s what audiences are responding to, as they come to Louis’ tale for the first time. His story is so unique and personal, and the message is clear: Everybody has struggles, and his are magnified. But it ends on a life-affirming note. When you see that 80-year-old carrying the Olympic torch and smiling, you think, ‘If he can do that, I can handle anything.’ ”