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How Angelina Jolie’s A-List Crafts Team Enhanced Louis Zamperini Biopic ‘Unbroken’

How Angelina Jolie's A-List Crafts Team Enhanced Louis Zamperini Biopic 'Unbroken'

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.

Point-of-view is key. “My goal is to make the place look the way it feels to Louis,” says Hutman. “For example, when he lands at Kwajalein after 47 days in a raft, there are two things that are emotionally important: One is strangeness, foreignness, the most scary, unfamiliar place he’s ever been in his life, and the other is claustrophobia. After infinite space, he’s in a room like a coffin. 

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.”

The Australia locations were crucial. Omori was built on the site of what had been a fort on the river outside of Brisbane. They constructed a prison camp with a 10-foot wall, bamboo stakes, and barracks. It was the perfect embodiment of isolation. 

The real Naoetsu was cobbled together in what was an abandoned salt factory overlooking the docks on the west coast of Japan where the prisoners unloaded coal to help fuel the war effort. “In Laura’s description of the place, she talks about this factory on these cliffs overlooking the river,” Hutman continues. “We filmed on Cockatoo Island, which was a naval shipyard in the middle of Sydney harbor. It was all about the cliffs.

“When we got to Australia, we were able to find almost everything within the scope of the movie. The one thing we didn’t find were the stadiums. For the Olympics we found a modern, rubber surface track, covered it with the material that was meant to resemble period cinder, and built an eight-foot stone wall around the whole thing so that it was the proportions that matched the Berlin Olympic Stadium. Everything above that wall is digital [courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic and VFX supervisor Bill George].”
Jolie uses colors intuitively. Speaking of the Olympics, Frogley knew how to cheat in making the uniforms, having learned various tricks as an assistant costume designer on the Oscar-winning “Chariots of Fire.” She bought cheap sneakers and trousers and fitted a nice blazer on top. A lot of the Japanese uniforms were made in Poland while other costumes were made in California and Mexico.

“Angelina wanted to see 18 different uniforms so she could choose nine ones that she liked,” Frogley explains. “She chose the colors she liked which were brown and blue. We manufactured 20 to fit 15 people. She’s got a very good color memory and for her red was mostly a hostile, aggressive color reserved for the Japanese and Nazis.

“The uniforms were comprised of bits and pieces and are intended to look random. But you have to go from A to Z to get to B. We dyed Japanese uniforms for Omori khaki because Angelina wanted them darker than they actually were. I really like things that aren’t really quite right. Louis’ school uniforms were hand-made by his mother and we over-dyed and aged those costumes as well.”

The B-24 played a major role. But it’s not a plane that’s been recorded widely. It drops bombs and leaves: it’s not a fighter and was no match for the Japanese Zeros. Sullivan scoured the country and found one B-24 in Texas and one in Florida, which was an authentic restoration named Witchcraft. In Van Nuys, the sound team took an entire day to fully record every aspect of Witchcraft’s interior.

“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.”

Goldenberg came in after the rough assemblage. “What struck me was that it was an extraordinary-looking movie and very, very well acted,” Goldenberg reflects. “The strongest section of the movie was the last half when you got to the prison camp Omori. The movie was too long but it felt that it was all there. The raft was a difficult section that we spent the most time on because you want to make people feel like these guys are at sea for 47 days — but not feel like it takes 47 days. You want to understand the isolation and desperation, but you also want to keep it engaging for an audience and heighten all the emotions that you can heighten.
“And also trying to tell the story of when he meets The Bird (rock star Miyavi in his brilliant acting debut) and it becomes mano a mano. Who’s going to win? Beating the heck out of Louis made The Bird feel superior. At the same time, he really thinks of Louis as his friend. That really unusual dynamic made the film unique. It’s a really bold and wonderful choice Angie made with someone who’s never acted in a film. But at the same time, he’s very good looking and his angelic face makes you question how someone who looks like that could be so cruel. It makes him even scarier.”

Read: Angelina Jolie Makes Two Stars in ‘Unbroken’: We Talk to Jack O’Connell and Miyavi

Finally, in scoring “Unbroken,” French composer Alexandre Desplat slowed the tempo of the music in a way that’s reminiscent of how Asian movies are paced. “The tricky element to put on screen was how faith invaded Louis and gave him a reason to live,” says Desplat. “The music conveys the spirituality that surrounds him like a vapor. And the orchestra is big but restrained so we can feel the power of the orchestra without it blasting out. ”

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.”

Different for Desplat was creating a main theme that builds slowly and is used only sparingly. “It’s important not only what type of instrumentation you use but the orchestration and the way the music comes in and out. That makes the score relevant or irrelevant.”

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.”

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