Unbroken: Making of Angelina Jolie’s Inspirational Biopic–Part One

Universal will release the highly anticipated biopic Unbroken on Christmas Day, in time for Oscar Awards considerations.

Louis Zamperini, 97, the heroic subject of Angelina Jolie’s biopic “Unbroken,” her second directorial effort, died July 2, just four months before the film’s world premiere in Australia. (He died of complications from pneumonia).

Please read Part Two

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A former Olympic runner, Zamperini was on a World War II search-and-rescue mission when his plane went down in the Pacific. He was lost at sea for 47 days before being sent to a Japanese prison camp. Over his two years there, he was starved, beaten and faced an adversary known as the Bird — a Japanese officer named ­Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who singled him out for torture. Zamperini returned home a haunted man, but overcame alcoholism to become an inspirational speaker.

His life was chronicled in Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 best-seller “Unbroken,” which Jolie adapted to the big screen for a Christmas Day debut.  The film’s two stars are unknown actors: Jack O’Connell, who plays Zamperini, and singer-songwriter Miyavi, who plays Watanabe.

Real Hero: Not About Ego or being Famous

unbroken_8_jolie“It’s not about ego, he didn’t want to be famous,” Jolie says. “He wanted to make sure his message was clear. It’s why he did speaking engagements, it’s why he did his book. It’s why he tried to get a movie made for 57 years. Everybody who reads this book and knows his life feels very connected to this man.”

There is understandable pressure of directing one of the most year’s most anticipated films, not to mention the huge responsibility to do justice to Zamperini’s long and rich legacy.

“They say you should never meet your heroes, because they often disappoint you,” Jolie notes. “But Louis really was one of the greatest people ever.”

unbroken_7_jolieAs compelling as Zamperini’s story ­is, it was not an easy sell, in what may be the long­est gestating project in Hollywood history, it took 57 years to turn his tale into a film. Actors from Tony Curtis to Nicolas Cage at one time or another were attached to the role, and many directors came and went.

In the end, it was Jolie, an Oscar-winning actress with only one little-seen feature as a director who shepherded the $65 million film to the silver screen.  It is by far Jolie’s most ambitious and riskiest directorial outing — her first big studio movie.  And she did it without any marquee names in her cast.

Zamperini’s Memoirs

n 1956, Universal Pictures acquired the rights to Zamperini’s just-published biography “Devil at My Heels,” but a script was never written and the project languished. In 1998, a CBS documentary about Zamperini’s life caught the eye of Matt Baer, who was then running the film division at Brillstein-Grey. Baer met with Zamperini and the two formed a bond.

unbroken_6_jolieOver the next few years, scripts were written–an early title was “Iron Man,” one of Zamperini’s nicknames–and at one point Antonie Fuqua was attached to direct. In 2002, Zamperini told Baer he’d received a letter from Hillenbrand asking to write his life story. Lou said he was going to tell Laura: “Look, lady, I’ve already written my book, but if you want to write yours, go ahead!” But Baer was excited, knowing the book could help move the film along. What he didn’t know was that it would take Hillenbrand eight years to finish the volume. During that time, Baer was still knocking on doors. “I would take our script and the video to every financier, recalls Baer. “And everybody said no.”

unbroken_5_jolieWhen “Unbroken” was published in 2010, it occupied more than 180 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list. A new script was written by Richard Lagravanese (“The Fisher King”), but when he left to make “Beautiful Creatures,” William Monaghan (“The Departed”) came onboard. Then the book found its way to Jolie, who after reading the logline at her agency, fell hard for the story of triumph.

“There’s so much going on in the world today that could make you lose hope,” Jolie says. “To read about somebody who had something inspirational and positive–it was fulfilling. I wanted to be close to his story. I wanted to go on this journey and become a better person.”

The story seems a good match for Jolie, an actor, director, mother, and humanitarian. A special envoy of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, she has witnessed the effects of war in her worldwide travels. Fourteen years ago, when she first began working with the United Nations, she was shocked to learn the statistics concerning refugees. Since then, she says, she has always wanted to learn more and help more.

unbroken_4_jolieHer passion was apparent in her first feature, the 2011 drama “The Land of Blood and Honey,” about the conflict in Sarajevo. Though it earned less than $2 million at the box office, among its fans was Universal chairman Donna Langley. “I’ve seen almost every film about that conflict, and I thought her film was the most impactful and clearest about what people were living through during that time,” Langley says. “The movie follows the story of a woman caught in difficult circumstances, who has to persevere; that’s very synonymous with Zamperini’s story.”

Baer says that Jolie brought in boards with photographs that represented her vision for scenes and characters, and discussed what she wanted to do with the draft. “It was clear, well thought out, and filled with energy and passion,” he recalls.” Langley concurs, “After a few conversations, it became clear that she was ready to step up to the task.”

Zamperini Smitten by Jolie

unbroken_2_jolieOnce hired, Jolie met Zamperini, and a deep friendship ensued. As it turned out, the two were practically neighbors — Zamperini could see Jolie’s house from his office, and as Jolie was developing the film, she would climb on her roof and wave to him. Baer says it was a strong connection born of having many things in common. “They were both people who overcame obstacles as children. Both are highly physical. And both dealt with acclaim at a young age,” Baer notes. “Equally, they both ended up using their popularity to try to help others.”

Zamperini’s two children, Luke Zamperini and Cynthia Garris, say their father was smitten by Jolie. “It was a very close and very affectionate relationship built on so much admiration and respect,” Luke says. Jolie’s husband, Brad Pitt, was also a fan. “When Brad was shooting ‘Fury,’ he was so excited to tell Louis he could drive a tank,” Luke laughs.

Adds Garris, “The night our father passed away, she and Brad came to our home and took such beautiful care of us. They cried with us, they held us, they made a soft place for us to fall. At one point I told her, ‘My father was really in love with you.’ And she said, ‘I was in love with him!’”

Luke and Cynthia remember how their father tried hard to get his story onscreen; it wasn’t until Jolie was onboard that they believed it would happen. “With her star power and her unbelievable focus, she got this film on the fast track,” Luke says. Adds Cynthia, “She really swooped in like an angel.”

unbroken_1_jolieJolie enlisted a number of top talents who were big fans of the book, including Joel and Ethan Coen, who were tapped to write a draft of the script. “I couldn’t believe my good fortune,” Jolie says. “And being writers and directors, they write very visually, so I learned a lot from them.” The Coens’ reliable cinematographer, Roger Deakins, also signed on, as did composer Alexandre Desplat.

In October 2013, the film began shooting the following month in Australia. To celebrate, Jolie posted an American flag on her roof for Zamperini to see.  Jolie knew the film wouldn’t work if she didn’t find a credible Zamperini and Watanabe. “These roles are so difficult,” she says. “And as an actor, I knew this film was going to rise or fall on performances. They could sink the film if they weren’t brilliant.”