Angelina Jolie on her directorial approach in Unbroken
In a life that has been notable for its many metamorphoses – screen starlet, Goth vixen, United Nations ambassador, mother of six, breast cancer-awareness advocate – Angelina Jolie’s latest incarnation is as filmmaker.
Rarely has an actor, particularly one of Jolie’s stature, so fully given themselves over to the other side of the camera.
Her second directorial effort, the inspirational Second World War survival tale Unbroken, follows In the Land of Blood and Honey, her 2011 Bosnian War drama.
She has already directed her third movie – By the Sea, an intimate marriage drama in which she co-stars with her real-life husband, Brad Pitt – and is making plans for her fourth, Africa, about elephant poaching.
Meanwhile, she’s virtually disappeared from the screen, starring in only one live-action film, Maleficent, in the past four years.
The transformation is complete, even if the new job title gives her pause.
“I’m shy to call myself a director still,” she says. “When someone says: ‘What do you do for a living?’ I don’t know if I’ve earned that. I do love directing. I much prefer it to acting.”
It’s admittedly unlikely that Jolie is beset by queries about her occupation. But if there were any doubt, the scope of Unbroken – a classical epic and prestige picture with major below-the-line talent – certainly makes clear Jolie’s ambition.
“If you would have said to me a few years ago, ‘What kind of film are you looking for?’ I would have never said a film with shark attacks and bombing raids and the Olympics,” she says.
“I would have picked something very intimate and character driven. But I fell in love with this story.”
The real-life story is that of Louis Zamperini who, before enlisting in the Air Force to fight in the Second World War, was a track star who ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. His bomber crashed in the Pacific and he survived on a raft at sea for 47 days, only to be captured by the Japanese and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp. His incredible story was told in a 2010 best-seller by Laura Hillenbrand.
“If it was a hot property, I wouldn’t have had a chance, to be honest,” says Jolie, who had to convince Universal that she could handle a much larger project than her first film. But she was deeply moved by the script, rewritten by the Coen brothers, and Hillenbrand’s book.
“It wasn’t that I believed I was the most skilled director,” she says. “It was that I just really, really cared.”
Colleagues confirm that the film was a deeply personal one for the 39-year-old.
“Obviously, she doesn’t know as much about the technical aspects of filmmaking as some people like Joel and Ethan (Coen) do, but she learns very quickly and she’s so passionate about it all,” says the film’s cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Coens’ regular director of photography, who’s also scheduled to shoot Africa.
The British actor Jack O’Connell, who plays Zamperini, wasn’t the studio’s preferred choice, but Jolie fought for him.
“Undoubtedly, in terms of the movie industry’s perspective on it, there were certain boxes that hadn’t been ticked,” says O’Connell. “But I think that’s a credit to Angelina.
“She just wanted the best actors for the roles and wanted to make the best movie possible, as opposed to entertaining business agendas.”
Unbroken has put Jolie into the awards season mix, though the film was conspicuously absent from the Golden Globes nominations. But the most important response from Unbroken – which Jolie calls “the hardest thing I’ve ever done creatively” – was Zamperini.
Before he died in July at age 97, he and Jolie became close friends. Jolie screened the film for him on his deathbed and she vividly recalls “those beautiful blue eyes” watching his life’s story, revisiting memories and family Zamperini knew, she says, he would soon be reunited with.
“I didn’t anticipate when I signed on to do it what an impact this man would have on my life and how much this story and the messages would hit home with me and my family, and change me,” says Jolie.
“Zamperini did change me. He had a huge impact on me. I didn’t grow up with a dad in the house and my grandparents passed away when I was young. I didn’t realise how much I needed that older, wiser compassionate friend to help give me that guidance and support.”
Published: December 31, 2014 04:00 AM