Angelina Jolie swept into Manhattan last week for a whirlwind of parties, receptions, Q&A’s, and special screenings to promote her forthcoming film “Unbroken,” based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book about Louis Zamperini.
The epic, which Jolie directed and produced, chronicles the larger-than-life man, an Olympian runner, World War II bombardier, ocean castaway on a raft circled by sharks, and prisoner who endured beatings at the hands of a sadistic prison guard. He was rescued only to struggle with alcohol addiction and PTSD, but eventually overcame his ordeals when he found redemption and healing through faith and forgiveness. This uplifting message is one Jolie hopes audiences take away with them when they see the film, which will be released Christmas Day.
Jolie has a shot at a best directing Oscar, which would put her in the select company of only four other women who have been nominated. Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win the honor, in 2009 for “The Hurt Locker.” This year, history could be made if Ava DuVernay, a strong contender, is nominated for her brilliant film “Selma,” an epic about another great man, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Unbroken” received an awards boost earlier in the week when the American Film Institute picked it as one of the outstanding 11 films of the year. (“Selma” was also on the list.) But two days later the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press left “Unbroken” off their list. Still it’s a wide-open race, and “Unbroken” is the kind of patriotic, all-American film the Academy likes to honor. And Jolie has worked tirelessly to promote the film, which she knows needs her celebrity sizzle to enhance the film’s chances for awards glory.
Both director and cast members, Jack O’Connell (Zamperini), Takamasa Ishihara (sadistic prison guard, Watanabe), Garrett Hedlund and Finn Wittrock participated in a press conference last Friday at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Jolie choked up several times when she spoke about the subject of her film, with whom she became very close.
Slender and fine boned, with her high cheekbones and wide eyes, she is as spectacular in person as you would expect. She was passionate and articulate when she discussed “Unbroken,” a film she hopes most of all will honor the subject. Zamperini died only this year, in July at age 97, and Jolie showed him a cut of the film in the hospital a few weeks before his death.
Below are some highlights from Jolie’s responses during the press conference at the Mandarin Oriental last week, which took place before the hoopla of leaked Sony e-mails and before the actress/director came down with chicken pox.
Why it was so important to make the film:
I thought often in making this film about my children, my sons, who are of the age appropriate to see it – the older sons – and it’s a movie for everybody, but I think it’s one you think about this great generation and the values they had and how they were as men. I think it’s one that we want to raise our children and remind this generation of their sense of family and community and honor and pay respect to them.
I want my children to know about men like Louis so when they feel bad about themselves and they think all is lost, they know they’ve got something inside of them, because that’s what this story speaks to. It’s what’s inside all of us. You don’t have to be a perfect person or a saint or a hero. Louis was very flawed, very human, but made great choices.
On why the references to religion in the movie are not as specific as in the book:
We didn’t want to be as specific to one faith, and that was something that was agreed about with Louis. He said he wanted the message to reach everyone.
He said to make faith and forgiveness universal … this is about reaching everyone. It should speak to everyone, and we were very clear on his parents’ faith, Catholic … If you are looking for symbolism and miracles in the film, you will see them.
On why she made the unconventional choice of casting Miyavi (Ishihari), a Japanese guitarist and singer, in the role of Zamperini’s vicious prison guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe:
It was very important to us to not cast a stereotype of a Japanese prison guard, and it would also be inaccurate to what Watanabe was. He was very well educated. He was described as very striking, very strong physically, and so I had this thought of somebody who would have real presence. I thought rock star, somebody who’s been a front man because that is a very unique talent to be able to stand in front of thousands of people and hold that.
I looked him up, and I was blown away by his talent and his ability, but I wanted to know what he was like as a person, because before his talent as an actor, I believe strongly if you’re playing somebody dark, you have to cast somebody who’s in fact a very balanced, very good person, somebody who doesn’t enjoy violence, who doesn’t indulge it.
So I met him … they didn’t tell him why … (the casting agent) called me and she said he’s a very good man, very good dad and husband… But the scenes that bring him to violence were so against his nature that it carried this complexity that the character deserved.
On what the Coen brothers, the screenwriters, brought to the project:
One of the great things about the Coen brothers, and I think it was important for this film, is this film could easily have gone sentimental. It could be too earnest, and it’s all so beautiful and meaningful and the epic adventure of it all, but would we understand that we had to keep it sharp and keep it open and keep it entertaining for an audience? [The Coens] are so smart, they’re so witty, they have such an extraordinary way of communicating with an audience in such a clean way, with just a few lines, 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 the big part of it was how do we structure this? Where do we go back and forth? How do we keep the audience? When do we stop using flashbacks? So being directors and being the Coen brothers, they were just so brilliant and they had those, especially the last hour, one thing here or there that would just help it all come together.
On what compelled her to make “Unbroken”:
I came into this because I felt it was an important story. I was drawn to the message of the story. If you’d asked me a few years ago what kind of a film do you want to make, I never would have assumed to make a film that included shark attacks and plane crashes. I would never have thought of myself handling that kind of cinematic filmmaking. I wouldn’t think I could do that or should do that (laughs).
But this I cared about the story so I had to suddenly learn how to do all those things and, and to be honest, it was such an exciting challenge. We had such a great cinematographer in Roger Deakens, and our visual effects people were just amazing. And the thing is, everybody came to this film because they read the book or knew about Louis, so we were all there with a higher purpose. Everybody worked really hard, so it was hard work, but somehow we got through it.
On her next movie “By the Sea,” with her husband Brad Pitt, and is it an antidote to “Unbroken”?
“By the Sea” was emotionally difficult acting in it, but it was logistically a walk in the park in comparison to “Unbroken.” It was a nice break.