Behind the scenes of Unbroken with Angelina Jolie
Star actress, devoted mother of six, tireless humanitarian and more recently, filmmaker; for Angelina Jolie the term ‘Wonder Woman’ barely even scratches the surface.
Having made her directorial debut in 2011 with In The Land of Blood and Honey – a love story set against the painful backdrop of the Bosnian war – Jolie’s second celluloid venture deals again in the hard-boiled currency of conflict, but this time it’s been refracted through the lens of WWII.
Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 best-selling non-fiction title Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, the film adaptation stars Jack O’Connell (300: Rise of an Empire, Skins) as Louis Zamperini, the unyielding U.S. Olympian and WWII hero who survived two years of torture and near-starvation as a Japanese POW.
Jolie relocated to Sydney for two months to film on location at Cockatoo Island and was reported to have sampled both kangaroo and witchetty grubs. Husband Brad Pitt was unable to join her, busy working on his film Fury in England, but she brought with her brood of children for a “huge adventure.”
So what attracted Jolie to the narrative of Unbroken? “I had spent some time trying to find a moving and emotionally powerful story, but I wasn’t thinking of making a movie of this scope,” says the 39-year-old. “The idea of making a movie about his life had been making the rounds in Hollywood for over fifty years and for many different reasons it just couldn’t get made. But as soon as I read Laura’s book I knew I wanted to do the film because it was such a compelling story even though I knew it would be a big challenge. I just had to figure out a way to bring all the important elements together and make sure that we had a screenplay that worked.”
It’s a harrowing tale of survival against all odds and one Jolie felt moved to immortalise on film. “Louis’s life is the very definition of everything you hope to discover about the human spirit,” she says. “His story shows you that the human will is a remarkable thing and how incredibly brave and resilient he was. Louis was a remarkable and heroic man in so many respects.”
Born 26 January, 1917, in Olean, New York to Italian immigrants Anthony Zamperini and Louise Dossi, Louis Silvie ‘Louie’ Zamperini took up running in high school as an antidote to bad behaviour. He trained as a cross-country runner, winning races and setting records, eventually earning a scholarship to the University of Southern California. This led him to try out for the Berlin Olympics in 1936, where he came joint-first in the 5,000 metre trials.
But Zamperini’s athletic career was cruelly cut short by the onset of war. After enlisting in the US Army Air Forces in 1941, tragedy struck just two years later when his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He was forced to spend 47 days adrift, fending off shark attacks and eating albatross to survive. But things took an even more horrifying turn when he was captured by an enemy ship and became a Japanese prisoner of war for two years. He was tortured, but lived to tell the tale.
On his return home, Zamperini suffered heavily at the claws of post-traumatic stress disorder and sought solace in alcohol. He was lost, mentally and physically disturbed by his experience of war, but when his wife Cynthia found Christ one night in 1949, so too did Zamperini. And he never looked back. He converted to Christianity after hearing Billy Graham preach in Los Angeles and later became a missionary to Japan. Zamperini remained a devout Christian until his death on the 2nd of July this year. He passed away aged 97, after a six-week battle with pneumonia.
Jolie says she treasures the time they spent together. “When I had a chance to get to know him, he taught me so much about hope and being grateful for so much in life and simply being able to take time to enjoy every day of your life,” she gushes. “I’m drawn to people who are able to surmount a lot of obstacles and go on to achieve many things.”
At the recent world premiere in Sydney on 20 November, Jolie reiterated the effect Zamperini had on her life.
“I needed desperately to know a man like Louis Zamperini in my life, to know that there is hope, and with all that we’re challenged with today internationally, and with all the pain and death in the world, that the strength of the human spirit, the strength of a strong heart is valuable,” Jolie said.
“He had an emotional reaction to seeing the film, to seeing his mother again, to seeing his brother, to remembering the races… and as a man of faith he was preparing himself to die and see them again. So it was this very gentle, beautiful, quiet moment with somebody I felt very privileged to be reflecting on his life.”
Georgina Langford (with additional reporting by Adrian Drayton)