Before she made “Unbroken,” Angelina Jolie had directed just one feature, a small art film that came out three years ago. Her second time behind the camera was a big step up.
“Unbroken” is a $65 million production based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography about one of the most famous veterans of World War II: Lou Zamperini. A former Olympic runner and USC alum, Zamperini was shot down in enemy territory during WWII, survived on a life raft for 47 days and through two years of torture in a Japanese POW camp.
Jolie and Zamperini discovered that they were practically neighbors, and they became very close friends over the life of this project. He died at the age of 97 in July.
Jolie visited the Frame to talk about what she learned from Zamperini, how she tackled this epic story and how she prefers directing to acting.
What was it like to show the film to Lou Zamperini?
When we were in the editing room I heard that he was in the hospital and so I brought it to him on my laptop, and we watched it together. And honestly there's no Hollywood premiere that would mean more than sitting in that room alone with him at the end of his days and having just...
What that felt like to watch that man at the end of his days, as his body's failing him, and watch him watch himself cross the finish line and go up against all odds and remember his mom and his brother...and 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.
I think he spent so much of his life spreading this message and speaking and fighting, and fighting, and fighting; fighting to get through the war, fighting to get over his PTSD and his alcoholism, fighting to get messages out. And he had such a long life, but there was something about this time that his message was strong, he knew that Laura's book was clear and the message was out to people, he knew what the film was and that it was clear and he believed in it, and I think in some way that was why he's not here.
This would have been days before he passed away, correct?
It was, he went into an induced coma two days after that, but then he actually fought back. He trained his lungs again, and he was in there poetically 40 days and 40 nights before he passed away.
What is your organizing principle in terms of how you're going to get into this movie and direct your actors?
Everything was weighed and measured so, so carefully, and I think because I did shoot an independent film first, it was a good rehearsal for having to be so responsible. When it came to the actors, when I auditioned them I asked them a lot about their lives. I did what you do. [laughs]
I did a little question and answer, because I was looking for the best actors but I was also looking for young men who were willing to discuss things that they had suffered in their lives, that were open and vulnerable in a way...there's something about this generation that just has a maturity to it. So they were all individually cast very, very carefully, and then I think that once you've done that you keep the environment safe, and you make them feel supported, and you're there if they need you, but you leave them alone as much as you can.
Meaning if you make the wrong choices when you're asking those kinds of questions that you end up with actors who are giving an inauthentic performance?
I had a pretty good sense, having studied these actors' work, or if I couldn't study their work then meeting them, talking to them, hearing them answer the questions, watching how they handle certain things, so I think it's that, that I didn't have to push these men. I knew who they were coming in, and I could say to them, "Remember the men who came before you."
They'd be on the raft, and it'd be burning hot in Australia, and they were out there, and they're so skinny, and it's part of the end of the raft section. They're hungry, they're skinny, they're burning, they need to pee, and nobody complained, because every once in a while anybody might say something, and somebody would just say, "47 days."
So that was a mantra?
Yeah. Forty-seven days they couldn't get off the raft. So in a way.
Do you think making this movie changed you in some ways as a person, not as a filmmaker?
Yes. I don't know if it's making the film or being so close to Louie Zamperini, having that great honor to walk in his footsteps...it's one thing to read it, but you sit there and look at that raft, and try to figure out the logistics of how to move and survive and re-create times in his life, and try to understand? So much of this was me trying to understand, "How is he the way he is, and is he really all the things that you imagine him to be?"
And then you sit with him and you can't help but be very much changed by a really great person. And I say that with such a smile because he was a great person, but what was amazing about him, too, was that he wasn't so great that he was this preachy, older man. I would go out of my way to spend as much time, I'd wake up in the morning and all I'd want to is go over to Louis' house. I'd rather be with Louie than anybody, I'd just want to hang out with him. He was extraordinary.
The movie starts with a big action scene. I'm interested if that, as it's written out on script, if there are certain scenes that you look at and go, "This is very different from anything I've ever directed."
Oh, absolutely. One of many. Oddly, one of the things I was most scared of was the races. Because there are about four races...five races in the movie, and it suddenly dawned on me in the preparation for the film that: one, I'd never shot a race, and there's a definite way to shoot a race, but you have to shoot these races where they build, so how do you find five different ways to shoot the race? What do you cover? That scared me. But I do love a plane, truth be known, so what an exciting thing that part of my job is that I get to study B-24 bombers, and flak.
Are the challenges and problem-solving that you're describing as a director satisfying in a different way than doing that as an actor?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I think because as an actor, you're aware of the whole piece, but you're very focused on your participation, from your character's aspect of the piece, and that's what you are. You're not conscious of every character's aspect, and you're not conscious of where the shots are, the time of the day, all of the different things that you need to understand when you're directing.
And you need to be much more aware of the audience; I think as an actor you try your best to not think of the audience. You try your best to just be free and open and honest as if it's real to you, and not ever imagine somebody sitting in a theater watching it. You try to forget, where as a director you try to think about the audience in every second. "Is this going to be clear to them, is this going to make sense to them, will this communicate what I'm trying to say?" So it's very, very different.
Does making this film and your first feature make you more inclined to direct going forward and less inclined to act going forward? Or have you really thought about it that strategically?
I have, not as much strategically, I'm just happy when I'm directing. I do, I love being a part of the crew. I love being with everybody and understanding every single department and being able to also help find solutions for everybody and work in tandem with every single person on set. I've never loved having a camera on me, I've never loved being the center of... it's something I've done.
Seems like an odd profession for somebody who doesn't like that.
You know, it really is. My grandmother wanted to be an actress, my mother wanted to be an actress, my mom wanted me to be an actress. And I was very fortunate to have success as an actress, and I love communicating with an audience. I do love being able to emote and share and express my pain, and then somebody can communicate with me that they feel the same pain, or we share the same humor, or whatever.
That part of acting I love. But I'm so much more comfortable having a camera on somebody else. And I didn't actually know this, my connection with my mother, until my mother passed away. When my mother passed away I lost a big part of what made me love acting.
That you were in some ways fulfilling her wish for you?
Yeah, she loved it. She was so happy, and I certainly never grew up thinking that I could be something else. I didn't think to try writing or directing, and it made her so happy, so I never really thought twice about it until she passed, and then I realized something was lost, some part of the joy of it was lost.
Where do you think you need to grow or evolve as a director? Are you self-critical or self-reflective enough to look at your work and see what the next steps are?
Oh, yeah. Funny enough, as an actor I've never read reviews, but I will, and have, as a director. I want to understand what's being communicated. I want to understand how, if something that I intended to be a certain way, is in fact being received that way. It's important for me to understand that.
I think what's been interesting for me is not that I have that confidence as a director, but I do have a confidence in believing in the stories that I've told, and so I think, like with Louie's story, I didn't believe I was technically the best person to do it, but I believed that I cared and I would work day and night. My sweat equity had to mean something.
And I was going to try, and I knew why I was doing it, and I think when you know that inside yourself you know that your intentions are clear and clean. And my intention was I really respected and loved this man, and I really think it's a great message, and I believe it helps people to see this story. Then you have a very direct purpose to pull you through all those other things when you aren't so sure.
Is it possible to replicate that passion for things that may not be as meaningful personally as Louis Zamperini was to you?
It's hard. I've directed something since, and it's very different. It's very different, the last thing I did was something I wrote, it's about marriage and grief, that would sound so, so, so, serious, and it is a bit serious, but it also takes place in the seventies, and it's something that Brad [Pitt] and I did, and we wanted to play and create as artists and push each other, and so because it was with him it certainly brought out something different in me and something honest, and pushed us both. So I cared about it in a different way, but it's not "Unbroken."
Even though it's a period film, what do you hope contemporary audiences see that has modern relevance in Louis Zamperini's story?
Oh, I think so much. I mean, I...the beautiful thing about Lou, as we spoke of, is that he wasn't perfect. And I think for anybody that's ever questioned who they are and what they're worth and what they can contribute, every individual human being, he really is a strong reminder to us all of the potential that we have within ourselves. It's just being the best you can be and having faith in your fellow man and that there is something to be open to that maybe there is something beyond us in the world, that man is not alone, and that's something for a lot of people to sit with and feel, and hopefully gives some peace.