ShowFilmFirst talked to Matthew Baer producer of Unbroken which tells the incredible story of Louis Zamperini an American war hero, who ran at the 1936 Olympics, fought in World War ll, survived 47 days floating in a life raft on the pacific and a Japanese POW camp. The film is directed by Angelina Jolie, with a screenplay by the Coen brothers, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book and stars rising brit star Jack O’Connell as Louis Zamperini. It’s an amazing story and hard to believe it has never been told on screen before. For producer Matthew Baer Unbroken has been a labour of Love that has taken him over 16 years to bring this amazing true story to the big screen. Here he talks about that process, Angelina Jolie, The Coen Brothers, Jack O’Connell and Louis remarkable story.
SFF – Louis story is incredible, could you tell us about why it’s taken so long to get his story told and the process of bringing it to the big screen?
MB – It started in ’98 when I happened to catch a sports doc telling Louis incredible story. I had the opportunity to meet with Louis and convince him that I was the right producer to tell his story. Ironically at the time the management production company I was working for had their deal at Universal who happened to hold the rights to Louis’ book ‘Devil at my heels’, which they had held since 1956 when they had Tony Curtis set to star. He left to do Spartacus instead and the project disappeared. So we took the project to Universal and it was a go. Between 98-02 two drafts of the screenplay were developed by Richard Lagravenese (The fisher King, Behind the Candelabra) and Bill Nicholson (Gladiator, Les Miserables). It was an expensive movie and so Universal would only make it with A List directors and they all passed, so we couldn’t get a green light.
SFF – Why did they all pass?
MB – A number of reasons. It was a very ambitious movie to make and you had to be willing to take on the challenge and at the time there was a bit of stigma around WW2 movies, it was a drama and episodic. People didn’t want to do it enough to take it on. It’s still one of the great mysteries of my career in terms of how many filmmakers said no. Antoine Fuqua hot after Training Day was extremely interested but moved on to do another movie (Tears of the Sun)
SFF – How did the project get up and running again?
MB – In 2002 Laura Hillenbrand writer of Seabiscuit sent Lou (Zamperini) a letter asking if she could write his story. It then took Laura a further 8 years to write her book Unbroken (which has spent more than 180 weeks on NY Times bestseller list). In 2010 I went back to Universal with Laura’s book about to be published, they bought it and the project was reborn.
SFF – How and when did Angelina Jolie come onboard as director?
MB – Once Universal bought Laura’s book. She read the book and scripts and became obsessed with the story. Fortunately for me Angelina came on board and it was everything I could have hoped or wanted for. To finally have a director who had the same passion and commitment and also tremendous clout, force and respect within the filmmaking community and then it kicked into gear.
SFF – Did Universal need any convincing about Angelina directing the film after only having made In the Land of Blood and Honey?
MB – No. Donna Langley chairman of Universal was a fan of In the Land of Blood and Honey and everyone had seen it and recognised that this was a serious film with a new filmmaker who clearly had a creative vision. Donna had been talking to Ang about other projects so there was nothing apart from support. As a producer once you have the director who shares your vision it’s your job to support them to your maximum ability. Ang had me and the head of Universal behind her, which she clearly had a passion and vision for.
SFF – The story is remarkable and the film moving, so that passion was very important…
MB – Yes and she did a terrific job of developing the screenplay and coming up with ideas. I had tried every possible version of the screenplay. I had 5 versions of it. If you are doing Louis’ story you have to include what I call ‘the greatest hits of Louis Zamperini’, things that have to be in the script. It was the Coen brother’s idea to open the film with the amazing action sequence and they were handing that to a director with a tremendous feel for action as a performer and director about how you stage and pace action. Ang was very conscious of the faith based aspect of the story and worked with the Coens on this and brought it into the story in a very meaningful way. There was never any doubt that Ang could handle this and we put an A+ team together to support her including Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Skyfall) and Joe Reidy (Goodfellas, The Departed). It was an amazing team.
SFF – How did Joel and Ethan (The Coen brothers) come aboard? As this wouldn’t appear to be their typical project…
MB – Obviously they are superior and amazing filmmakers, it was good timing in that they are represented by the same agent who represents Angelina and they had a window to do an assignment for a studio. One of their sons had read Unbroken, so they had known about it and thought it a remarkable story. For Joel and Ethan here was an opportunity to write a script that they didn’t have to direct, so they came in saying we are going to write the ‘big version’ of the movie, not the ‘Blood Simple’ version. So we knew what we were getting and the opening sequence defines that. Each component of the story had its place and flow. It was a great combination of creative talent.
SFF – What was surprising of the screenplay was the lack of the Coen’s dark, offbeat sense of humour…
MB – In the Green Hornet sequence when Jai Courtney’s character says, so a duck walks into a bar…that’s Joel and Ethan. What they did was the moments of character humour on a big canvas. If you really look at it you will recognise that the nuance of character that they bring to the story, is what imbues Unbroken, it’s just the canvas is bigger. All of the moments of character that feel authentic, that’s them
SFF – The tone of the film was very important and those moments couldn’t be overdone or too frequent…
MB – That’s right and that was especially the case in the prison camp. That was a heavy situation but because Joel and Ethan set about to view the characters with real humanity and depth, that it makes that time even better. There was a challenge for them in the prison camp; and I had this conversation with Lou, in that Lou wasn’t a talkative guy so there was no amazing Lou monologue that he gave in real life. We were telling a true story and that didn’t exist. This is something that Angelina handled beautifully and the back end of the movie in many ways has the poetry of a silent movie. One of my favourite moments in the movie is when Wattanabe (Miyavi) asks Lou to congratulate him and it’s just the two faces and you see that Jack/Lou (O’Connell) is the same defiant kid we saw at the beginning who won’t give in to the bullies and there is no dialogue through all of that. That’s a lovely combination of Joel and Ethan and Angelina’s ability to tell the story through the emotion of it.
SFF – That quiet intensity in telling the story without speaking is something Jack does very well, in that he doesn’t say a lot, but conveys everything as he does in ’71. How difficult was it to find your Louis?
MB – It’s a very specific thing casting him in that we had to find an actor that could look 17-25. We had a fantastic casting director who specialised in casting young men so her and Angelina were very diligent in looking at every young actor around. Also Ang wanted to have someone from the beginning who was lesser known because she felt it would engage the audience in Louis’ character especially because the vast majority of people in the world have no idea who Louis Zamperini is and so it was better not to have star baggage in this part.
SFF – How did you arrive at Jack?
MB – Within the casting community Jack was starting to get attention, people started to talk about him and gossip spreads. So Angie met with Jack and could see the fire within him, the same fire and spirit that Lou had and so once they met she knew and emailed me and said I’ve found Lou. It’s very easy to see the connection. When I introduced Jack and Lou there was a lovely kindred spirit between them. In knowing Lou like I did, his rebellious nature, his smart nature, his crafty nature, you could see that Jack naturally embodies all of these aspects of Lou. Jack has such strength of physicality and character, if you’re going to be stuck in a life raft for 47 days you need to believe that you want a guy like Lou/Jack with you
SFF – Did Universal need any convincing?
MB – No not really. When it came to casting, I mean the evidence speaks for itself. Angie has impeccable taste when it comes to actors; everybody in the movie is great. We screen-tested a number of people but it was pretty clear that Jack was the one. Everybody supported it and it was pretty clear to all of us that Jack was right and certainly Angie’s passion for him was a significant contributing factor, but everyone who saw the footage felt the same thing.
SFF – Lou sadly passed away this summer (aged 97) Did he get a chance to see any of his story brought to life onscreen?
MB – In the 17 years of me working on this movie, I made sure Lou was an active member of the process. He read every script and Angelina and Lou developed a lovely friendship. So Lou saw all the screen test’s, met all the actors, saw the dailies and then when Ang was in the cutting room she showed him the footage. Lou was famous for his ‘closing kick’ as an athlete and the closing kick of his life was as remarkable as the rest. He lived to 97 and in the last 4 years of his life he saw the success of the book, toured the US and then could eventually see that his story would be around forever in the form of the book and the film. He was very satisfied with everything that was happening. It was the most satisfying phone call I ever had or will have to make in my life when I called Lou to say the movie is actually happening. I’m sad and I miss him, but I know how fulfilled he was by this validation of the power of his story in such a big way.
Unbroken, produced by Matthew Baer, directed by Angelina Jolie, screenplay by the Coen brothers and starring Jack O’Connell will be released nationwide on 26th December.