Interview: Angelina Jolie, Director Of 'Unbroken' Louis Zamperini was an Olympian before he enlisted in World War II and became a prisoner of war. Jolie says he told her to "make a film that reminds people that they have greatness inside themselves."
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Angelina Jolie On Her Film's 'Unbroken' Hero: 'He Was Truly A Great Man'

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Angelina Jolie On Her Film's 'Unbroken' Hero: 'He Was Truly A Great Man'

Angelina Jolie On Her Film's 'Unbroken' Hero: 'He Was Truly A Great Man'

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

"Unbroken" was first a best-selling biography by Laura Hillenbrand. Now it's a movie. It tells the triumphant life story of Louis Zamperini.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNBROKEN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The final lap folks. The record for that was 69.2 seconds. Zamperini just did it in 56 seconds. That record's going to hold for a while let me tell you.

BLOCK: Zamperini grabbed attention when he raced in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Then he enlisted as a bombardier in World War II. In 1943, his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He survived for 47 days on a raft in shark infested waters before he was captured by Japanese soldiers. Zamperini would spend more than two years as a prisoner of war brutalized, tortured beyond comprehension.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNBROKEN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You are enemies of Japan. You will be treated accordingly.

BLOCK: And I'm joined now by the director of "Unbroken," Angelina Jolie. Ms. Jolie, welcome to the program.

ANGELINA JOLIE: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: You got to know Louis Zamperini in the last years of his life.He died just this past July at age 97. What did you come to know about him from spending time with him that you didn't get from reading the book - his biography?

JOLIE: He was truly a great man. And he had this wonderful ability to - whenever he spent time with people he saw greatness in others and he wanted them to realize their potential. So he would sit with you for hours and you felt focused and directed and wanting to yourself be better from being around him. And he was like that with everybody. I watched him with my children.

I watched him - we went to a restaurant. I watched the way he was with the waitress and, you know, everybody that walked by. He just - he saw other people and he lit up. And when we made this film he said don't make a film about how great I am or how exceptional I am. Make a film that reminds people that they have greatness inside themselves.

BLOCK: When you were talking with him about his experiences as a POW in the war, were there things that you could tell he still couldn't talk about - those places he couldn't go?

JOLIE: No, not Louis.

BLOCK: No, never.

JOLIE: No. No, you could ask him in detail about anything and he would talk. It's very unusual, of course, because for that generation part of what's very different about that generation and this generation is now we have a much more understanding of posttraumatic stress disorder and the need to discuss and come to terms with.

And back then I think there was an understanding you should have a stiff upper lip and carry on a bit. And I'm sure he's faced a lot of trauma he didn't discuss, but his answer was to take it head on and make use of it.

BLOCK: You've been working with the U.N. Refugee Agency for a long time now and spending a lot of time with victims of war, seeing the effects of, really, the worst things that people can do to one another. And I wonder if movies like "Unbroken," or your earlier movie "In The Land Of Blood And Honey," which is about the Bosnian war of the 1990s, if they give you a way of trying to resolve some of what you've seen.

JOLIE: Yes, absolutely. I don't know if it's too - if you could ever resolve, but I certainly - it does help me to try to understand. When I did "Blood And Honey" it was to try to understand how people who are friends and lovers could months later be murdering each other. How does that happen? I couldn't understand the war in Bosnia. I was a teenager at the time and it was a study for me so I could better do my work.

I - you know "Unbroken" for me was in a way the opposite. It was inspiring for me. It was a reminder to me of something to hold onto, our faith and the strength of the human spirit, our family and our brotherhood and this can actually pull us through. It has in the past and it's something to remember in our dark hours - that this exists. And I wanted to put that out into the world because I think we all need that right now.

BLOCK: It's also a very different kind of movie than "In The Land Of Blood And Honey," which was an indie movie, lower budget, a conflict that would be unfamiliar to many viewers in a way that World War II clearly is not. How do you think that affected the way you made this movie?

JOLIE: Well, I'm very happy that my first film was an independent film - that as a director I had to - you have to work so much harder. You really have to do so much triage to know where you're spending every penny. You have to be so responsible. This film, for what it is, is a fair budget, but it's not a huge budget.

BLOCK: About $65 million is what I've read.

JOLIE: But when you break that down into two plane crashes sinking into the ocean, indoor tanks, outdoor tanks, wide open ocean, jungle, recreating Hitler's Olympics, two giant prison camps - it suddenly goes quite fast (laughter).

So you have to have that discipline of how to shoot things, how to save money, how to put it all onto the screen. So I was happy I had that discipline, but, of course, "Unbroken" was something that technically I'd never done anything like this and really had to learn so much to pull off the film.

BLOCK: You got to show a cut of "Unbroken" to Louis Zamperini before he died this year. Can you talk a bit about what that experience was like for you?

JOLIE: I got a call when I was in the editing room that Louis had gone into the hospital. And for the record, Louis was 97 and he was still living on his own. He'd just given up skate boarding in his 80s and he was as sharp as they come and full of joy and wit. And so he went out on his feet and very proud to do so.

And so when I got a call he was in the hospital I was a bit taken aback and we put the cut that we had at that time, which is the same film, it's just with a lot less music and beautiful visual effects. So it was the rough version. And I brought it to the hospital and I held it over his bed and we watched it. And I think, you know, the silly thing is you go in thinking is he, you know, is he going to like it? Is he going to give me a review of it? Is he going to - what does he think of the acting? What does he think of the shots?

And what happened was I had the extraordinary honor of watching this beautiful man, watching his bright blue eyes as he watched his life and remembered his family and remembered his friends who had passed and was preparing emotionally to pass away and be with them again. And so it was a beautiful, beautiful experience.

BLOCK: It must be quite a responsibility to be in that position of showing someone your version of his life and watching him react to that.

JOLIE: Oh, yes. And when he passed, you know, we all had - I was in the editing room and I was with him two days before he passed and I couldn't work. I couldn't - not that work meant a thing, but the point is I couldn't work because I couldn't cut a frame of his life because it became so sacred. And then you feel the responsibility that this is this final chapter in his life. This is a part of his legacy and to fail is to fail him. So it's hard.

BLOCK: Yeah.

JOLIE: But we love him and we're happy that people - to share his story and his message. We're happy to put it out into the world, but it is bittersweet 'cause he's not here.

BLOCK: Well, Angelina Jolie, thank you so much for talking with us.

JOLIE: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Director Angelina Jolie - her new film is "Unbroken." You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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