Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” follows the struggle between light and dark inside Olympic athlete-turned-bombardier Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell). We watch him learn to fight through to find spiritual transcendence. His extraordinary true-life survival story is a study in contrast — harrowing yet beautiful — which sophomore director Jolie wanted to emphasize visually, sonically, and musically.
After speaking with cinematographer Roger Deakins, I grabbed more of the behind-the-scenes crafts story from production designer Jon Hutman, costume designer Louise Frogley, supervising sound editor Becky Sullivan, editors Tim Squyres and Billy Goldenberg, and composer Alexandre Desplat.
So is verisimilitude. “The Omori camp [which is dusty and wooden] is the land without life. There is this monochromatic palette. [‘Unbroken’ author] Laura Hillenbrand describes it as being like the moon. It’s this man-made island in the middle of Tokyo Bay. Angie had these clear, strong visual ideas, particularly about the palette from the beginning. On Omori, the dirt matches the wood matches the uniform matches the men. And then you get to Naoetsu and it’s all about contrast: black men covered with coal against stone and metal and snow — black and white in this location that feels like it’s at the end of the world.”
“They also allowed us to sputter out the engines because we needed some real engine drop-out where they mixed oxygen into the fuel lines.” says Sullivan. “I recorded the flak because the Japanese did anti-aircraft firing at them and the flak has such a gritty, dirt sound because they’re shelling them with material that just splatters on the plane. And it was really the flak that put so many holes in Louis’ plane (which was called Superman).”
Two editors are often assigned to big Hollywood movies. Squyres (Oscar-nominated for “Life of Pi”) was on “Unbroken” for the duration while “Argo” Oscar-winner Goldenberg (who similarly tag-teamed “Zero Dark Thirty”) was brought in later to help fine-tune the first half, particularly the grueling raft sequence.
“It was important to be faithful to the spirit of what Louis experienced and also to Laura’s book,” Squyres remarks. ” And it’s a film that contains a great deal of brutality but we don’t want the experience of watching it to be brutal. That was something we had to screen a few times and listen to what the audience was saying. The studio wanted a PG-13 rating. We didn’t want it to be the subject. We wanted the subject to be his ability to overcome it.”
After “Life of Pi,” Squyres found himself back editing footage shot in a wave tank (again, ILM handled the CG water). “We began and ended the shoot in the wave tank,” he says. “Footage was cut from this and the prison camp sequences involving the supporting characters, including the ritual of farting every morning after bowing to the Japanese flag to show disrespect.”
Apparently this will be among the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray/DVD. The filmmakers also shot but did not use Zamperini’s awkward hand-shake with Adolf Hitler during the Olympics in Berlin. “It wasn’t necessary and it wasn’t necessarily a great scene,” Squyres adds. “Jack gave a good amount of variety and made a lot of strong choices, some of which surprised me when I saw the dailies. In the plank scene, that yell that he did as he lifted it over his head wasn’t planned — that was something that he did. He played Louis as very volatile.” You might even call him “Cool Hand Louis,” since they discussed Paul Newman’s iconic ’60s non-conformist on a Florida prison chain gang in “Cool Hand Luke.”
Something new that the composer tried was mixing the female choir with one solo boy. “I’m not sure everyone hears it, which is great. When this canon of three or four lines of sopranos sing, the last counterpoint to come on top is sung by a choirboy. He’s so pure that it’s like hitting a little crystal sound on top of the ladies.”
Desplat got to meet Zamperini and gain inspiration for his score. “When he finished running at the track, while the other runners showered, he stayed behind and ran up and down the stairs of the stadium until he couldn’t take it anymore. That’s why he had a great finish when everyone else was tired. And we spoke about the choir that he heard coming from the skies when he was on the raft. That’s why the movie starts with the choir. We’re in the clouds with the planes.”