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Angelina Jolie Loved Problem-Solving ‘Unbroken,’ Can’t Wait to Play ‘Cleopatra’

Angelina Jolie Loved Problem-Solving 'Unbroken,' Can't Wait to Play 'Cleopatra'

Only when Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 biography “Unbroken” became a bestseller did the logjam start to break, partly because her “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” was turned into a improbable 2003 Universal hit. Finally, when Angelina Jolie–with one independent film behind her, 2011 Bosnian war drama “In the Land of Blood and Honey”–came on board, the movie really did move toward a green light. My Q & A with her is below. 

Why it was so hard. Louie Zamperini crammed a lot into his life. There’s young Louie the Italian-American trouble-maker turned runner and sports star who becomes a World War II bombardier who crashes into the ocean, surviving 47 days on a life raft with two crew members, rescued by the Japanese who submit him to two years at a prison camp. Then he battles alcoholism and becomes a born-again Christian who forgives his torturers.

The main issue all along with getting the Zamperini biopic made, from the days Tony Curtis wanted to star, was that “there’s too much story to tell,” says producer Matt Baer. “That was the problem long before ‘Unbroken,’ which further emphasized the challenges of structure and an embarrassment of riches of material that could be in a film. And so in all of the drafts I supervised from 1998 though 2013, many of the same problems reoccurred.”

After a decade at Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, Baer stayed attached to the project as an independent producer through several Universal regimes and stars including Nic Cage, working closely with Stacey Snider, Kevin Misher, Scott Stuber and Donna Langley. The first drafts written by Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, from the years 1998-2004, were named “Iron Man,” followed by Neil Tolkin’s “The Untitled Lou Zamperini Project,” which became a Black List script. Those scripts became irrelevant when Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson took on adapting the Hillenbrand book.
Every draft played with time, going back to the little boy and the aerial B-24 dogfights. But it was Jolie and Joel and Ethan Coen who “cracked the code of how to structure the movie,” says Baer. “Opening on the battle of the Superman thrusts you into the story right away and shows what the movie is commenting on. These were young men in very dangerous situations, and managing to survive incredible odds. It’s also focusing on Lou, and flashing back to Lou as a child, where you could then begin to plant the seeds of Lou’s own struggles with faith.”

As it happens, Jolie and the Coens are both repped by UTA’s Rich Klubeck; the writers had time for a studio assignment, and one of their sons had read the book. “It was a fun exercise for them,” says Baer. 

Jolie brought two specific ideas. From the first, she wanted to use the dramatic prison-camp confrontation between “The Bird” and Zamperini shouldering a heavy beam as the film’s climactic moment. “It’s the metaphor for Lou’s resilience and his ability to break The Bird mentally,” says Baer. “If we know that’s the highest of the highs, then we’re going to work backwards structurally to get everything out.”

Jolie’s second idea was not to narrate Zamperini’s post-war life as a Born Again Christian, as they could not make a three-hour movie. “Angie wanted to instill Lou’s faith throughout movie,” says Baer. “She and Joel and Ethan did that in a satisfying way. Angie had such a clear vision as a filmmaker for ‘Unbroken,’ from the beginning. She wanted to make an epic movie with tremendous scope.” 

First, Jolie had to convince the studio that she could pull off a movie of this scale and scope–shooting on water, in the sky, shooting starving actors in a prison camp. She put together a presentation with art materials and story boards to show Universal, using World War II classic “The Hill” as a reference. Langley went for it, partnering with Legendary, which split the $65 million budget, including hefty development costs.]

Jolie cast the film creatively, tracking down tough Brit actor Jack O’Connell (“Skins,” “Starred Up,” “’71”) and elegant Japanese rock star Miyavi. “Jolie knew instinctively that O’Connell’s personality was so similar to Lou’s that he felt like an immediate fit,” says Baer. “We had to find an actor who could safely play 17-mid-20s. It was about the perfect match.” 

For the sadistic Japanese commander, Jolie wanted to try and cast a rock star because “he might have the bravado and ability to captivate,” says Baer. She culled through a list of 15 stars and picked out Miyavi, who had to be talked into playing the sadist who singles out Zamperini for chronic abuse. “We wanted to make sure he was not the stereotypical Japanese prison guard,” Jolie said at a Q & A. 

Shooting at Village Roadshow Studios near Brisbane, Australia saved money, partly because there was a huge water tank; Jolie worked with the Coens’ go-to cinematographer Roger Deakins (11 Oscar nominations) as well as production designer John Hutman, who had designed her first film. Practically, shooting on the open water proved the most difficult, as Deakins tried to keep the bobbing actors in the raft from drifting out of frame. “The most difficult part was controlling the continuity over a long period,” Deakins said at a Q & A, ” so it flows when you put it together.” Added Jolie, “it was harder than I expected…there was so much to learn.” She and Deakins focused on keeping the intimate human scale–small humans, big sky. 
The shooting schedule was twisted around the actors’ diets. They started out emaciated on the ocean raft and got skinnier as the shoot progressed, moving on to the Japanese prison camp. O’Connell had to retain some muscle, as he had nine days over the holidays to get in shape for his running scenes and the aerial sequence at the beginning. The actors also had to go back to places they had already shot to shoot scenes at a different weight.  

Shooting the climactic plank sequence was an intense few days for everyone, especially O’Connell and Miyavi. Jolie saw it as two gunslingers trying to figure out who was going to draw first and who’s going to survive, but ultimately it’s a moment of performance, and emotion. “This was to be the ultimate moment between Watanabe and Lou,” says Baer. “So Jack took the moment so seriously, talked to Lou about it. We all knew going into it, this was the battle. Physically holding the beam, what I think Angie did so powerfully and made so clear was that emotionality on these men’s faces. Wannabe is realizing no matter what he does he will not break Lou: the emotional satisfaction shows in his eyes; he will not go down, will not be defeated.”

The studio and Jolie agreed that the movie would neither be too long nor too violent. Jolie wanted it to be accessible to young people like her children and studiously cut away from gore for a two-hour PG-13 move that could play at Christmas. The movie is still tough to sit through. Critics are mixed. The AFI film jury and National Board of Review accorded the film Top Ten status, while Universal screenings and screeners arrived late for SAG and the Golden Globes, who both snubbed the film. But the Broadcast Film Critics came through with four nominations including Picture and director for Jolie, and the Academy may well recognize –more than the HFPA–how gracefully Jolie handled a challenging movie with a high degree of difficulty, which was never an easy sell. 

Sadly, Jolie was able to show Zamperini the film on her laptop in his hospital room before he died in July at age 98. “He reminded us of the strength of the human spirit,” Jolie said at one Q & A. “I had the honor of walking in this man’s footsteps. Watching someone at a certain time in their life at the end, sitting and watching as your life goes before your eyes. I was honored to be witnessing it.”

Issues of the final cut behind her, the writer-director took off to shoot a lighter indie film about a bad marriage, “By the Sea,” with new husband Brad Pitt on their honeymoon before returning to Hollywood for the “Unbroken” opening–which she missed due to a case of chicken pox– and a series of Hollywood meet-and-greets and Q & As. She also had to read emails between Sony chief Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin about hiring David Fincher for “Cleopatra,” during which Rudin called her “a minimally talented spoiled brat.” That’s something Jolie preferred not to talk about when we met at a Hollywood Hotel last week. But that widely seen Alex Berliner photo of Pascal and Jolie that was shot on neutral ground at The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment breakfast? It was taken the moment they greeted each other. The two women went on to talk for several minutes, perfectly calmly. 

Next up for Jolie: an anti-poaching drama to be shot in Africa by Deakins. 

Anne Thompson: I wanted to know why you thought directing Brad Pitt in your next film would be a way to relieve pressure and have fun.

Anytime you do something based on history and you have respect for the subject matter and you have a responsibility to the past, it’s quite a pressure and with something as logistically complicated as “Unbroken,” to go to a very small piece that I wrote about relationships that’s very experimental and logistically easy was a very nice change.

You’re directing yourself as well.

It wasn’t fun or easy.

And your husband.

Yes, that was actually more fun. Working with him was a real pleasure. He’s a joy to work with.

You had to convince the studio that you could do this. You’re a major star. You directed a movie before, and it was authentic and everything was controlled. It was clearly the work of someone who knew what they were doing. But you still had to convince them. 

Ah, yes. Fortunately Donna Langley had seen my first movie and was one of the people in this town who was so supportive and kind to me. We talked about working together one day. But no, I think they’d be crazy not to put me through the paces and just hand me this job because they had to know that I could handle it: “how do you shoot plane crashes? Do you have a handle on all the visual effects needed? How do you shoot action sequences? How are you going to storyboard?” 

Did you bring storyboards? 

I brought in some storyboards. I brought in some key images and moments. The plank was my big pitch because that was the thing that I brought in, that that would be the end. 

It worked, and it was beautifully cut, the way that you go back and forth. It was choreographed very precisely. 

We used to joke, pitching the studio, “I’ve got this great idea and we’re going to end this giant epic adventure with two men looking at each other. It’s going to be great, and that’s going to be enough.” And of course it is enough if the actors are that strong and if we’ve earned it up to that point, and if all the actors watching connect. But if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Alexandre’s [Desplat] music, the editors, Roger, it all had to come together and it was such a great team of people. 

The logistics of “Unbroken” are extraordinary. What was your approach to handling them and why was Roger Deakins the right person to be at your side as the DP?

This is a big film, it’s an epic journey, and it’s a very intimate film about this man’s life. To have somebody like Roger whose images are so stunning could really pull you through. The challenge of this film, in order to help people get through this particular journey, which is not an easy one, was to make something as stunning as we can. At every opportunity we also want to show the inspiration and the faith and the beauty of the world around him also in these very harsh circumstances, but we want to make it feel real and connected. And that’s not an easy balance. And we also want to make it PG-13 so we had to find clever ways to hide the blood, the shadows, the use of what’s on camera, what’s off camera, and we want to make something that feels classic and something that’s deserving of this generation. Roger is a very classic man. He’s a very strong man, and so his participation as an artist and as a man was invaluable.

He has worked with the Coens before. You must have admired some of that work. How did the Coens come into the picture, and why?

We just got so lucky. They don’t often do this. The truth is, so many people came into this film because of Louis, because they knew his story and they knew the book and they were fans of the story and the man himself. We got very, very lucky that they were willing to come in and help us, and what we really needed, because beautiful work done before with LaGravenese and Nicholson was help with the structure, and it was very important for it not to be too sentimental. The Coens add something very beautiful. They make their films very human and so they have this emotional aspect to them but they’re also very relatable and human and never become self-aware. We thought that was also very important because this film has so many beautiful messages, it could almost slip into something that’s so earnest and meaningful but without the humor and the edge that it needs for audiences.

I was struck by the difference between the book and the movie in terms of the opening sequence. In the book, they’re bobbing on the starvation diet on the ocean. But why the bomber? Why be inside this glass case in the middle of the sky?

For a few reasons: where the raft would show up was important because once you’re in the raft and really see the men starving, if you notice we stopped doing flashbacks when we got to the raft. Once we got to the raft–and this was also in the edit, we tried some things—visually and we see men starving, the silence and seriousness of it, you don’t tend to want to leave. And if you do leave it, you’re still mentally worried about these men on the raft, and it breaks the tension and the silence and the 47 days. You lose the journey.

I thought it said something about Louis to understand when you see him in this bomber. You learn things about him. You will later see very consistently that he focuses, he steadies, he steadies and in the final moment he tends to hold it tight and do the best job he can, and he does that as a Bombardier. Most of all, you see him care for other men, and you see his relationship to his fellow man and his work ethic, his compassion, his masculinity.

That introduction also shows the extraordinary fragility and danger that they’re in.

They were such babies up there. I think there was a 50-percent chance of those planes crashing. Can you imagine?

Whose idea was it to go to the Coens?  

They’re always those guys you would, any time you had an opportunity, to get advice in general about making a film or turning a book into a film. They did it so beautifully. I don’t think any of us, when the idea came that they would come on to write it, actually thought it was going to happen.

Was there ever any discussion of doing more dramatization of the end of Louis’ life? Because it’s so dramatic, going back to The Bird, the forgiveness theme.

It is when you do it in ten minutes. You don’t rush through things like that and so, yes, there were many different discussions and at the end of the day, and this was the Coen brothers, who said you have to walk away with the same feeling as the book, and the feeling is that at some point in Louis’ life he wanted to kill The Bird. He went very, very dark. He was losing himself, and he remembered that prayer on the raft and he looked at The Bird a different way, and he did look for him at some point and he saw him differently. That is actually in the movie. It’s pulled up and transferred but the essence is important, and the essence is the same. Of course, I would’ve liked to have spent two hours on the raft, myself.

Or more racing.

One of the last things I cut out of the script, because we were holding onto it for so long but then logistically we couldn’t, was him stealing a Nazi flag. He ran through the streets of Berlin, shimmied up a flagpole and ripped off a Nazi flag, and was caught and convinced them that he was taking it home as a souvenir. He still had it in his house, and it was one of the greatest things. We shot him meeting Hitler. We actually shot that. It’ll be on the DVD but oddly it didn’t work in the film because there are certain aspects of his life that if you hadn’t read the book and saw it in an early screening, you would say, “What does it mean?” Because if you don’t know that he actually did it, there are certain things we put in because they were amazing. They didn’t actually move the story forward, they were just amazing. Those things started to quickly go.

$65 million is not a lot of money for this project. And you’re used to doing things on a certain scale.

As an actor I’ve done it both ways, but as a director I was on a very small scale, which is great because it taught me a real discipline. And I went back to a smaller scale movie with Brad, which is an independent movie with Universal, small budget and all that. It gives you a sense of real triage. You’re not so shy to cut things and move things. The poor wardrobe people. Most of the 200 extras in the camps only had one outfit so we had to make that one outfit seem as if it was destroyed in two years, we’d go back and forth, and you have to cover them and put rips and things in them. We wouldn’t actually destroy them. When we got to Naoetsu, once they were black, they were black, and we couldn’t bring them back to Omori. And the plane, once you shoot holes in it, you sink it into the water, the plane’s gone.

Have you seen “The Salt of the Earth,” the Wim Wenders film? It’s a documentary about Sebastiao Salgado. You have to see this movie.

Obviously many Salgado images you see, when we got to Naoetsu, a lot of that kind of photography.

Your own work, going around the world, seeing the horror you’ve witnessed, does it make directing a mere movie seem less daunting?

That’s true. When I have to make a speech on behalf of refugees or women victims of violence at the UN, I’ll get nervous. I’ve never been nervous, really, on a set. At the end of the day, you either get the shot or don’t get the shot, and I have been in positions in my life where if I can deliver this speech, or if I can convince them to raise their hand at a General Assembly and change a law, they weigh heavier in the balance. You are reminded on a set that it’s a film and all of these actors were very conscious that nothing that they were going to was remotely close to what the real men went through. How could we complain any day on this movie when the real situation was something so beyond what we were attempting?

As serious as you are about the message of the movie, I’m picking up on the fact that this was fun for you.

That’s true. Nobody has really said that to me. It was. What could be more fun than retracing the footsteps of somebody you really love and admire, and every day you learn from them? How do we shoot 47 days in a raft and move everybody in the raft? And then you’re smiling to yourself thinking, “How did they do this? Where did they sleep?” What a great challenge.

Speaking of control, are you going to be the one who’s in control on “Cleopatra” going forward?

I don’t know. I’m not directing it. I’m just waiting on that one. I’m focusing on Africa right now, but no, I’m waiting to see what’s going to happen. We’ve been slowly developing the script with Eric Roth, who’s a great writer, and I’ve loved working on that and it’s great. But it’s big and it’s complicated.

I want you to do it. I love that Stacy Schiff book.

It’s great, isn’t it? And it really says something about women and leadership that’s important, and obviously it’s a great adventure, but it helps us to understand why we had viewed her a certain way and who she really was.

If “Selma” gets a Best Picture nomination and so does “Unbroken,” you’re competing with your husband.

What a beautiful thing. We both care about these films. I care about “Selma” just as much.

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