Movies about the past are most potent and relevant when shedding light on crucial issues in the present time. And Unbroken, a biopic about victims of torture held in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, hits theaters just as the Torture Report has been released by the US Senate, provides shocking documentation. And in effect, that the CIA repeatedly and deliberately misled Congress about its brutal and inhumane interrogation program following the Iraq invasion and occupation.
Angelina Jolie directed and produced Unbroken, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller, whose protagonist Louis Zamperini, an Olympic star in his youth, passed away this July at the age of ninety-seven. Zamperini survived in a raft with several other crewmen for forty-seven days before being taken prisoner, after their plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean.
Jolie met to talk about her passion for bringing this story, co-written by the Coen brothers, to the screen.
Congratulations for this film.
ANGELINA JOLIE: Thank you so much!
So was doing that movie with Brad, By The Sea, an antidote for you, to recover from this grueling film?
AJ: Yes! By The Sea was emotionally difficult, you know, the acting. But it was logistically, a walk in the park. In comparison to Unbroken! It was a nice break.
How did the relatives of your young actors, being subjected to such prolonged torture in this movie, react when they saw the film?
AJ: You know, how can you as a mom, watch your children go through so much!
How important was it for you to get a PG rating for such a violent film?
AJ: It was very important. I thought often in making this film, about my children. And my sons, so they would be age appropriate to see it, the older sons.
And it’s a movie for everybody. But I think it’s one where you think about this great generation. And what values they had, and how they were as men.
And I think it’s one where we want to raise our children, and remind this generation of their sense of family and community. And honor. And um, pay respect to them.
And I want my children to know about men like Louie. So when they feel bad about themselves and they think all is lost, they’ll know they’ve got something inside of them.
Because that’s what this story speaks to, it’s in all of us. And that you don’t have to be a perfect person, or a saint. Or a hero.
You know, Louie was very flawed, very human, But made great choices. He was extraordinary. And in the end a great man.
Talk about how you’ve depicted Louie’s reliance on faith to find closure from his experiences and his subsequent PTSD.
AJ: I think it’s universal. We made it universal. Not specific to one faith.
And that was something that was agreed upon, with Louie. He said he wanted the message to reach everyone.
Did he say to make his faith universal?
AJ: He said to make faith and forgiveness universal. For, he wanted to make, he didn’t…He said, this is about reaching everyone. This should speak to everyone.
We were very clear about him praying. And I think if you’re looking for symbolism and miracles in the film, you will see them.
Do you think your film will be resented by Japanese viewers as demonizing them?
AJ: It was very important to us, to not cast a stereotype of a Japanese prison guard.
And Yoko Ono, when she met Miyavi, she didn’t tell him why I wanted to cast a rock star as the prison guard. She called me and said, he’s a very good man.
You know, a very balanced dad and husband. And in fact the truth was – because the scenes to bring him to violence were so against his nature – that it carried this complexity.
And that the character deserved. And that you could see, he was mad. He was driven. He was unbalanced.
Is it true that the when actors on diets to look emaciated for the movie, even their eyeballs lost weight?
AJ: Ha! It is true. And the contact lenses didn’t fit anymore. They wouldn’t go into the eyes. I think it was the dehydration. It was really impressive! Anyway…
What grabbed you about the original book and made you go, this is it, this is my next movie?
AJ: Um, you know what I think it was – like everybody, when we wake up, we read the news. We see the events around the world, and we live in our communities.
And we’re disheartened by so much, and we feel overwhelmed. And we don’t know what’s possible, and we don’t know where…You know, we want something to hold on to.
Something to believe in, something to give us strength. And I was halfway through the book, and I found myself inspired. And on fire. And feeling better.
And being reminded of the strength of the human spirit. And the strength of having a brother like Pete. And what that is.
And to remind us to be that for each other. And how important that is, to have that in your life. And so many things.
And I realized that, if it was having this effect on me…And I knew it had that effect on so many other people, isn’t this what we needed to put forward into the world at this time.
And, I believe it is. And I’m very happy that it’s coming out also during the holidays. I think it’s an important time. It’s the right time.
How did you decide what would be the most compelling parts of the book to include?
AJ: I think that was the hardest thing. That was why I think it took since 1957, to do it. And what we did in the end was. we looked at the themes of his life.
And the Coen brothers said something to me that helped me with it completely. They said, when you put the book down, you have a certain feeling, and a certain understanding.
And that’s what they need to feel, when they walk out of the theater. That’s your job. And to literally put this book on film, you won’t make a good movie. And you’ll do no service to anyone.
For example, faith is so important to him. And instead of it being a specific chapter and how to put it all in, and all the experiences of his life, faith was represented from the beginning.
You know, from the little boy. And represented all through the film, in other characters. But also in the sunrise, in the darkness, in the light. And in the struggle between them.
And him coming into the light. But it wasn’t literally, technically, as it was in the book. But the themes are the same. So that’s what we tried to do. Yeah.
So we tried. And it was tough too, because I’d be carrying the book before we did the film, I’d be carrying the book around.
And read it on the plane. And everybody would see it and say, oh that’s my favorite book – you know what my favorite scene is? And I’d say, don’t tell me!
I imagine it’s when he stole the Nazi flag. Or something that I just can’t…recreate the streets of Berlin! So…I don’t want to know!
How about the technical challenges of Unbroken, like the editing?
AJ: What was dangerous about it, is that I liked it the way it was! But I was very worried at first, I was scared for a long time.
And so to trim it down, without losing anything, without losing anything that you love. And there are a few little things you have to sacrifice, that I’m sad aren’t there.
But you have to listen to the audience as well, what they’re feeling. And even if they say, I like that scene, but it still feels long – You gotta listen to it.
Because we made this for an audience. Sometimes you make a film, and it’s very much your artistic creation. And you’re putting something unusual out there.
But this one was for the audience. And so we adjusted it, so they could absorb it the best that we thought they could.
What do you feel the Coen brothers brought to this film?
AJ: One of the great things about the Coen brothers – and I think it was important for the film – is that this film could have easily gone sentimental. You know?
It could be too earnest about this. And would we understand that we had to keep it sharp. And keep it open, and keep it entertaining for an audience.
And the Coen brothers are so smart, they are so witty. They have such an extraordinary way of communicating with an audience. And in such a clean way.
You know, with just a few lines. Or with just a gesture from a character, they say so much. So they were really helpful, to help with the personalities.
And of course, with the structure. Because a big part of it, is how do we structure this. Where do we go back and forth. How do we keep the audience.
You know, so it’s not just this very, very long thing. And where do we stop. So being directors obviously – and being the Coen brothers!
You know, they were just so brilliant. And especially the last hour, you know, there was one thing here or there that just helped it all come together.
What were your influences, making this movie?
AJ: I watched Papillon. And Chariots Of Fire. And a little bit of The Godfather. So it was a little bit of, it was many references.
Unbroken seems a very unusual film for you. Please explain.
AJ: I came into this, because I felt it was an important story. And I was drawn to the message of the story.
If you had asked me a few years ago, what kind of a film do you want to make, I would never have assumed to make a film that included shark attacks! And plane crashes!
And I would never have thought of myself as that kind of cinematic filmmaker. I would think, could I do that. Or uh…should do that!
But I cared about the story. And so I suddenly had to learn how to do all those things.
And to be honest, it was such an exciting challenge. And our team was so amazing. So we were kinda all there with a higher purpose.
And it was hard work. But somehow we got through it. But we did. And it did confuse us.
Publicist: That’s all we have time for.
AJ: Wow. Not even a last question! That’s tough! Because I’m ready. This has been fun!
Okay, here’s another one. Is anything in this story made up?
AJ: Oh no, it all really happened. And more! Yes…
Watch the ‘Unborken’ trailer: