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 Angelina 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 re-enact 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 crewmates 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, opening Christmas Day, 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 last week back in Los Angeles. About to attend a party to promote the film, 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.”
Looking to inspire
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 a 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.
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.”