Academy Award actress Angelina Jolie talks about a mesmerizing experience directing "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption", and meeting the hero who inspired this book which turned into a blockbuster movie.
The actress Angelina Jolie who confessed to us that she doesn’t speak much Spanish, few words here and there, is fluent in French and collects first editions books. Last Christmas the actress presented her second feature as director, Unbroken, the gripping survival tale depicting the life of World War II hero and former Olympic distance runner Louis Zamperini. It turned out that while she was pondering her next project, Zamperini, now 97, was living right in Jolie's Los Angeles neighborhood. From his patio, he could actually see Jolie's home. Jolie and Zamperini became good friends as she explained in the interview. Zamperini's life is as full of gripping drama as any film. A member of the 1936 Olympic track team competing in Berlin, he ran his final lap so fast that Adolf Hitler insisted on a personal meeting. During World War II, his bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and he survived 47 days in shark-infested waters before reaching land. He was then held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese and brutally treated. He survived the war and went on to become an inspirational Christian speaker, even forgiving and meeting with many of the guards who tortured him. When "Seabiscuit" author Laura Hillenbrand wrote his biography in 2010, "Unbroken" became a New York Times bestseller.
Q: Do you speak Spanish?
No, I do understand some words but I do speak French
Q: Is it true that you have a collection of first editions?
I love reading, I used to collect books yes. I do have some good books from Spanish authors.
Q: So tell us how you found the story of Unbroken?
When you want to direct you go to all the studios and they give you lists of movies that have never been made. And on the list of movies that have never been made at Universal, there was these four little sentences and they said “the true life story of Louis Zamperini, the story of strength of spirit, resilience, forgiveness, faith, WWII, and I thought, cause I love history and the word resilience and strength and spirit and forgiveness stood out, so I said, what’s that one? And then I came home and I said to Brad, I am really curious about this movie Unbroken, and he said, oh honey, that one has been around forever. (laughter) And I still want to know what it is, and it apparently had been around for 57 years.
Q: Tony Curtis was first attached?
Yeah, Tony Curtis was supposed to do it. So it was kind of like the movie that everybody knows and it was like just waiting there for me. When I got some of the things that they’d worked on and I didn’t quite connect yet, but I was halfway through Laura’s book, and I just felt that I had to go on this journey as a human being and I wanted to learn from this man and I wanted to walk in his footsteps and so it really wasn’t about, it stopped becoming about what I wanted to direct and it was what I am going to spend the next two years of my life doing and learning and being with and want to be here on a movie with him. (laughs)
Q: What did you find creatively for you directing, that acting doesn’t give to you? I mean for some people, maybe it’s a control thing, they have a full vision…
There’s a part of the control thing, certainly. I mean to be able to take the responsibility and take it to the end, and I can protect the sound, I can protect the performances, I can be absolutely sure of which effect, and so you sculpt the whole piece.
Q: Do you have confidence in decision making?
You have to, you do have to. But I am at least smart enough to surround myself with really intelligent people, who I listen to and I rely on. And I think it is collaborative and I think great directors are only as good as all the people around them and you work as a team. But at the end of the day, yes, if it fails, I will take the hits. It’s my fault.
Q: So what’s the most challenging thing creatively, because you have a plane crash, you have an internment camp.
We have two plane crashes, three prison camps, 47 days at sea, the 1936 Olympics and the 1920s California.
Q: So what was the one that was like holding the breath, that’s like if we get through this…
For me it was, well everyday was, and we went through it so fast, that we were kind of, even up to the budget, when you finally budget a film, you kind of want to make sure that the two plane crashes stay, because you know somebody could say, well you could do just one, and you think, no I can’t. (laughter) So the idea of the Olympics, they say well of course, you could shoot this close on his face and then you don’t have to do all the green screen, or you shoot from up here and then you just get a track. But you are like, I really want to shoot it, it’s the Olympics. (laughter) So then you get the good fortune of having Roger Deakins with you who says of course you can’t shoot it that way and he knows, he said it. So you listen to the brilliant Roger Deakins. But I was nervous, there was so much, there was never one chapter that was easy, the 1920s was easier, but it was Italian and it was young kids. And for me that hardest I think was the end and pulling off, towards the end, there’s a moment with the plank which is in the book, but not at the end of the book, but it’s used in a way differently in the film. And you kind of have to see the movie to understand why, but I was a little nervous that we could pull this off, because it was something that, everything just had to fall in line for these few days and the actors had to be so right there emotionally and connected and everything, from the weather, had to just match and be just right.
Q: From what I heard, the interview you gave to NBC where you were with Louis and you tell him how you love him and all that, it’s almost like you adopted him as a grandfather, did you know anything about this time from your own grandparents?
I wasn’t close to them, two of my grandparents passed away before I was born, and the others passed away when I was nine, and then my father’s mother, I don’t remember, I was in my teens, but I wasn’t very close to her. So I didn’t know very much about this but I feel that it was, it’s an interesting question because part of that I felt was leaning towards him because I didn’t have that in my life and so also, as a young woman to have this influence, this fatherly grandfatherly influence, was very important to me in ways beyond that I can describe it, and in ways beyond the film. He was my great friend and family in a way.
Q: What did you learn from him?
I learned, he was so, he had this great thing where he really believed, that because you can learn from everything, everything can be seen in a positive light, that everything can be seen as a blessing. Even your darkest hour can be seen something that you can absorb and try to come forward and learn from it.
Q: Which can be helpful to you because when you go on trips and you see camps, you see the worst times.
Yeah. You see the worst but knowing that there are people like Louis out there and there are people, it’s that thing for me I think that you see all these things that we see on the news and you could almost lose faith in the human spirit these days and you can get angry at faith itself for what is happening these days in the world and what is going on with how we relate to each other. But Louis’ message wasn’t that he was exceptional, Louis’ message was, I want other people to see that through me, a very regular, average person, he wasn’t born special, that we could all be exceptional. He made choices and he went down and he went dark in his life and he rose up again, he just kept getting back up and he kept trying to be a better person and he would fail and he’d try and you hear the way his children talk about him, he was the greatest father, and he was the greatest grandfather, and he was the greatest friend. You meet people at the funeral and they say, oh my dad left me and Louis took me camping and made me know that I didn’t need a lot of money to have fun and that he was like a dad to me. He was just a great person. And so with all the darkness in the world, when you see that we can all help each other and we can all step forward and it’s going to have to be that, because there is so much hatred and so much violence.
Q: You said the movie, one of the things that attracted you was about forgiveness, in that little diagram and what kind of relationship do you have to forgiveness?
Mine is tough. (laughter) Well, I thought about this a lot, because I think one, for me it would be like, could I forgive someone that had abused me? Yes, I probably could, in some way, I could come to that. If somebody had abused my children, I don’t think that that’s possible. I do also believe that there’s a level of forgiveness, but there has to be justice and there has to be change, and I mean if the war ended a different way, it’s such a difficult thing, because I don’t think you should, and when I meet victims of rape or abuse, to say you should forgive, I don’t think that, I think that you should have justice, and then you should do what you can so that the pain and the hatred doesn’t eat you up inside, because you hating them doesn’t hurt them, it only hurts you, so all these boys that come back with PTSD or full of anger and violence for more, it’s killing them and we need to help them. And it’s not about telling them that they have to be above it all and forgiving, it’s telling them that they have to just recognize what can help heal them, just to be able to move forward, but understand that that can only happen if they see a sense of justice when they are abused or when people are abused. So I think it comes hand in hand.