Before Angelina Jolie made “Unbroken,” Louis Zamperini’s dramatic World War II survival story had been looking for a filmmaker since 1957. But it took Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book and the interest of second-time director Jolie to nudge the project back into action, leading to the film that opens on Christmas Day on the heels of four Critics’ Choice Movie Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Jolie said she was obsessed with the story of Zamperini, an Olympic runner who survived 45 days adrift on a raft in the Pacific and two years in a series of brutal Japanese prison camps. But she found a number of challenges in telling the dark, relentlessly brutal story – and so did British actor Jack O’Connell, who plays Zamperini, and Japanese musician Miyavi, who made his acting debut in the role of the Bird, a sadistic prison camp commander who became Zamperini’s nemesis.
Jolie, O’Connell and Miyavi spoke to TheWrap about the grueling experience of making the film.
On the genesis of “Unbroken”:
ANGELINA JOLIE: I was doing the rounds as a new director, meeting different studios, shaking their hands, seeing what material they had and telling them the kind of movies I was interested in. I got the open directing sheet from Universal, and it was pages and pages of different movies that didn’t have a director. And there were a few sentences: “’Unbroken’ … the story of Louis Zamperini … strength and resilience … spirit.” I stopped and said, “I’m curious about that one.” And I found out it had been around since 1957.
I did start to wonder why it had been around for that long. And, of course, as you get familiar with the story, you think, This is the greatest movie never made. But then as you’re making it, you think, Ah, this is why. This is really hard.
On the two leads’ experience coming to the film:
JACK O’CONNELL: I had Laura Hillenbrand’s book, so that was giving me a lot of resources early. But particularly when you’re depicting a hero, it’s kind of difficult to include his ugly parts. I wanted to know what was ugly about him, his not-so-likable traits. And I had to meet him for that to be possible. Just wanted to connect with him, see how he ticked. I was never going to get that from literature.
I was brought out to L.A., and then the opportunity to meet him arose. I had two separate meetings with him in his house. The first one was with a camera crew — Universal EPK people. It’ll probably make a nice DVD extra feature, but in terms of me trying to prepare, it wasn’t helpful. I was nervous enough, and I could see it on his face that he was a little bit alarmed. All these people in his f–king house all of a sudden, and the fella was 96.
Maybe I’m being too British about it, but I felt rude and intrusive. I could talk to him a little, but it was under the watchful eye of the Universal EPK people, so I insisted on a second meeting. And the second one was a lot more private than the first — I was able to connect with him, and I feel like I gained his confirmation as well.
MIYAVI: A Japanese casting director came to the office in Tokyo out of the blue. She kept asking what kind of music I do, what kind of films I like and who’s my favorite actor? And I answered Angelina Jolie, so I got cast. [laughs] But I was so hesitant. I had no experience, and it was such a responsible role, and in English. I never wanted to act, and I only started learning English eight years ago, so I never expected to be in a Hollywood film speaking English and hitting people. That was totally beyond my imagination.
Also, it’s controversial. The book is not translated in Japan. And really, I didn’t want to represent any negative side of the country where I was born and raised. But I met Angie in Tokyo, and she was so determined. And Brad was there, too. He was just singing my song “What’s My Name?” I was like, Is this Brad Pitt singing my track in a hotel suite in Tokyo? Angie was so passionate about this project, and the first thing she said was she wanted to make something meaningful that could be a bridge between America and Japan.
On the first day of shooting:
JOLIE: I spent so much time convincing the studio that I could do this that when I got the job and realized the budget and the logistics, I needed to convince myself. Our first day was in the open water, and in our first shot, Jack’s head was bobbing in and out of frame. I couldn’t even see him. And then the raft with the three actors started to float away. The seas got choppy, and they were untethered, just out there. And I thought, oh god, on top of the fact that they’re so skinny and they’re freezing, we’re in Australian waters and there are sharks and deadly jellyfish. They’re out there on their own, and I put them there.
On the nonstop brutality depicted onscreen:
JOLIE: It was a very difficult balance. How much can the audience endure? It was down to how many sores can they have on their faces when they’re in the raft? How far do we go until it’s too painful?
We were all conscious that whenever there’s beauty, let’s see the beauty. Let’s show the ocean and the sunrises and the structure of these great shots of Roger [Deakins]’s. And wherever we could, let’s try to lighten the mood.
I thought about my 13-year-old boy a lot. Where would he start shifting in his seat? How much could he take? And yet, at the same time, I’ve got to show him the reality of this.
On the climactic scene, in which the Bird forces an emaciated Zamperini to hold a heavy plank over his head:
JOLIE: It was so tricky. It was part of my pitch to get the job that I felt the plank scene was the final scene. It’s not the end of the book, but I felt that that was the moment where it would encompass his sense that he’s not alone in the world, that there was something else that helped him hold that plank up for 37 minutes, that it would be the manifestation of this man who discovered as a teenager that endurance was his strength. But of course, a story where the big, big climax is two men looking at each other is not an easy thing to pitch a studio.
O’CONNELL: They had the heavy version of the plank, and the lighter version for the close-up stuff. But I quite like the punishment in these sort of scenes. It’s nice to give yourself very little to do in terms of acting. You can genuinely feel it, and that’s always best in my view. So yeah, it was heavy. It made me faint twice as I lifted it. I blacked out.
MIYAVI: I threw up. That scene was too much pressure and responsibility. As a human being, it was really tough to play a character who is really brutal and violent. And then I had to express feelings like confusion and madness, turning into fear and depression. With no dialogue, only facial expression and eyes.
I was struggling in my dressing room, throwing up, and I couldn’t get back to the set because I couldn’t stop crying. And then Angie came up to me and said, “Be yourself. Accept yourself.” I had nothing at that moment. It was like what the Bird said to Louis, “You are nothing.” At that moment, the Bird was nothing. And thanks to Angie’s words I was able to get back to the set and just let go of everything. I didn’t have to be the Bird, I just had to be myself and let it go.
JOLIE: It all came down to those two actors. Would they open up and do something, and see something when they looked at each other? Would they connect in an extraordinary way that really showed not only Louis’ defiance but also Bird’s humanity? Could all of that come across in a look?
On the legacy of Zamperini, who died in July, not long after seeing a rough cut of the film in his hospital room:
O’CONNELL: What I was motivated by every day was the idea of him seeing this film, being able to watch it in the same cinema together and seeing his instant reaction. I reflected on that every day for the 68 days of shooting. So I feel a little bit of grief that that never happened.
JOLIE: If somebody had said to me months before I found “Unbroken,” “What kind of film do you want to do?” I would never have said, “Well, one with plane crashes and shark attacks, recreating the Olympics with full CG and 47 days in the ocean.” But this is very much like Louis, to do this to people’s lives. He has an extraordinary impact on people: You come near his story and somehow you face challenges in a different way and try things that maybe you’ve never tried before.
I didn’t think I was technically the best person to to this movie, and I didn’t have a history of doing this kind of movie. But I cared and I tried and went as hard as I could. And Louis’ story taught me that that counted for something.
This is an expanded interview from the article “Survival Instinct” that appears in the “Breakout Women of 2014” issue of TheWrap.