Actress-filmmaker Angelina Jolie

Jolie chronicles her second feature film directorial venture, Unbroken, about World War II hero Lou Zamperini.

From modeling and appearing in music videos to playing a wide range of film/TV roles and doing her own stunts, Angelina Jolie is an international superstar—winning an Oscar, two SAG Awards and three Golden Globes. She’s also been honored for her humanitarian work. In addition to establishing several charities, she has made more than 40 global trips in support of refugees and children and, after 10 years as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, is now a special envoy. Jolie combined her passion for advocacy with filmmaking in her feature writing-directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, and in her film, Unbroken, chronicles the life of an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during WWII.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Oscar-winning actress, director, writer and humanitarian, Angelina Jolie. Her latest film is “Unbroken”, which chronicles the heroic struggle of Olympic champion, Louis Zamperini, to survive the horrors of a World War II POW camp. The film is already garnering outstanding reviews and certain to be among the movies honored as the award season gets underway.

We are glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Angelina Jolie coming up right now.

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Tavis: Angelina Jolie’s second foray into directing “Unbroken” tells the incredible story of a true American hero, Olympic champion Louis Zamperini, who after his plane crashed in the Pacific, survived 47 days on a raft only to face years in a Japanese prison camp during World War II.

It was a harrowing experience, to say the least, that tested every bit of his stamina and humanity, and it’s brought to life with tender loving care, I should say, and compassion by Angelina Jolie’s direction. We will start with a look at a scene from “Unbroken” starring Jack O’Connell as Louis Zamperini.

[Clip]

Tavis: I was whispering to Angelina when that clip was running how much I hated this officer ’cause he was just so evil in this film. And I was asking her how difficult is it to get an actor – that’s what actors do, of course – but to summon whatever you have to summon to play something that is so reprehensible. And you were telling me about this guy.

Angelina Jolie: Yes. Well, I just think he’s so extraordinary, Miyavi. He’s actually a rock star, never acted before. Never wanted to act. We stalked him and asked him to audition and he did, and he’s also a very spiritual person and he has two little kids and a very, very loving human being.

He hates to play violence. He hates to be violent and I actually think that’s what makes him extraordinary in the film because, for as much as you hate him, he’s a very complex – he comes across – he’s pained and conflicted and there’s something wrong with him.

It’s not as simple as somebody who gets off on hitting people. There’s a deep pain. And I think, in fact, this real man, Watanabe, was in fact quite sick. Something was wrong with him to behave that way.

Tavis: How does one give direction to an actor to be that ugly, that reprehensible on camera?

Jolie: You know, what was beautiful about him is we talked about the film and what the messages of the film were, and he understood that his part was to not represent Japan because that character doesn’t represent Japan, but to represent the opposition and the aggression and the anger and the violence that Louis would then rise up against. And he knew that the harder he threw down against him, the more it would matter for Louis, and he met Louis and cared about Louis and spent time with him.

So I think he took very seriously as a real professional this is his job. His job was to go to the ugliest, darkest place that he could find himself and he told me – you can’t tell an actor how to do that or where to find that. You just tell them what they have to accomplish.

What he told me was he thought about if someone tried to kill his family. It’s why I think it was so painful for him actually to play this. He would get in a sweat because to think about that, to meditate on somebody hurting your family in order to bring up that emotion, especially if you’re not a trained actor, is very, very difficult.

Tavis: I want to go a little deeper inside the film, Angelina, in a second. Let me back up for a second, though, because I am curious – and I’m glad you’re here so I can ask you this. I love the two choices that you made to date for directing that we’ve seen at least. I know there are some other stuff in the works. We’ll maybe talk about that later. Who knows?

But for the two things that you brought us so far, I love the choices you’ve made, but I am fascinated by what it is that fascinates you about the dehumanization of war. You’ve done this twice now. What is that?

Jolie: I think – you know, it’s hard to analyze yourself. You don’t know why you’re drawn to the stories. I imagine it’s partly because of my work with the UN for over 12 years and spending so much time with people who are affected by war and I see what conflict does to the human spirit.

I think also in telling stories, we tell stories so we can really understand more about ourselves and each other. So war brings out the worst and the best in people, these extreme situations.

What I find interesting to me is that what’s different about the films is, if you look at them in order, they kind of grow, I think, in a positive way which is that the first film was really analyzing how people during the war in Yugoslavia who could be friends and lovers could then get to a place where they could kill each other, how that could take over.

And “Unbroken” is about then taking all that pain and all that ugliness and how do you rise up against it and become a very loving person full of forgiveness and joy and not let it bring you down and not bring you to that place where the first film left off.

So maybe it’s that. Maybe it’s that journey of me trying to understand these aspects of human nature and I think, of course, you know, if you don’t study history, as they say, you’re doomed to repeat it. And we must look at these histories and understand what happened, why.

And, yes, this is a war film, but this is also a film about man and a little boy that didn’t think he was worth anything and a little immigrant kid that got beaten up many times, smoking, stealing and drinking by the time he was nine and only became a runner ’cause he ran from the cops so much, he found out he was fast [laugh].

And it’s a nice message, I think, for people. That’s why we made it PG-13 is for young teens who think that they’re not really special. You don’t have to be special. You find your own best and you face a challenge and you’re great, and that’s good…

Tavis: To your point, it is PG-13. There are tender moments in the piece and there’s some funny stuff in it. There’s moments here and there.

Jolie: Thank you. Nobody’s pointed that out yet. There is some funny stuff [laugh].

Tavis: Exactly. There’s some funny stuff in it. And yet, these two choices you’ve made to start your directorial career are tough subject matters that I can’t imagine aren’t easy to direct. I mean, I guess what I’m getting at is not that directing or producing any movie is easy, but you like really went for the tough stuff. You didn’t go for the low-hanging fruit.

Jolie: Oh, thank you.

Tavis: I can only assume that you weren’t scared by that, or doing…

Jolie: I think you got to go where you’re scared.

Tavis: This would scare me doing something this big.

Jolie: I did not anticipate doing something this big. You know, if somebody said to me – the last time I was on your show, if you said what’s the next thing you want to do, I’d say character-based, something like this. I would never say, well, I want to take on races and plane crashes and shark attacks, never, ever. And I would never have assumed I could.

I just loved this particular story and this man, so I convinced the studio I could do this before I was sure myself I could do this. But then I had a great team and we worked really hard. But there was a lot to learn technically, but what a great challenge, what a great opportunity.

Tavis: I think I talked to Steven Spielberg one time and Spielberg told me that his advice for young filmmakers when they’re getting started out is to don’t do anything with water, children or animals, and you have all three.

Jolie: That’s funny.

Tavis: So I just thought that was kind of funny. I said Angelina did everything Spielberg said don’t do when you started out your directorial career.

Jolie: That’s funny [laugh].

Tavis: So tell me the story, then, of how you actually came to do this project. I was, again, tickled by reading some of the research about the proximity of…

Jolie: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: You know what I’m getting at here.

Jolie: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Where you lived – tell the story.

Jolie: Yeah, I’m just as surprised, yeah.

Tavis: So tell me about this. This is a funny story. I love this.

Jolie: Well, of course, a lot of people – I was looking for something to do as a director. They give you these open director assignments, the films that have been around. I saw “Unbroken”. It was three sentences. I came home, I mentioned it to Brad. He said, “Honey, that one’s been around a long time.” Turns out, since 1957.

And I met on it and they asked me to – Donna Langley said, “You know, you have an interesting take. You should really read this book. It’s a great book, regardless. Read this book.” I obviously loved the book, but halfway through the book, I was so inspired and I realized this is what I was missing.

I needed Louis’s story like all the people that read it. I wanted to be around it and learn from it and get the messages. And then, of course, well, that’s what you should do. You should tell that story and you should spread that message. That’s what you love. So I said, “Is he alive? Is he around? Where does he live?”

They said, “Well, he knows where you live because we just called him and he said that his wife, before she passed away, used to try to see Brad with her binoculars.” So they were above us, you know, than the hills [laugh]. So he was – really, my bedroom when I lay in bed, there’s a window and out that window, I can see his living room where he sat every day.

And we thought about this later. He must have sat there for how many years? At least, you know, a good eight years, we were there near each other wondering who’s gonna make the film and me wondering what I’m supposed to be doing, and there it was.

So I told him when I finally met him. I said, “You know, I got the job, but that doesn’t mean we have a green light.” A green light, you know, that’s all the money and that means you really get to make the movie.

So he said, “Well, you better hurry up, girl.” I said, “Okay, when I get the green light, I’ll fly the flag. You’ll see the flag on the roof.” And then months later, I was getting worried, but months later, we got the green light and I couldn’t race home fast enough. So I called Brad and he and Pax got out and put the flag up.

Tavis: Put the flag up. Wow, that is amazing to me. I mean, he literally is in your back yard all this time.

Jolie: Yeah. His grandson lives there now, yeah.

Tavis: I assume, though, since you went there, I assume that the Zamperinis may be the only people who are forgiven for trying to look at you guys through binoculars. They’re forgiven for that?

Jolie: You know, absolutely [laugh].

Tavis: Nobody else should try it, yeah.

Jolie: By the way, by the end, he and I were both with our binoculars standing on the roof. That’s how we say goodnight.

Tavis: He passed away earlier this year.

Jolie: Yes, he did.

Tavis: How much of this did he get to see?

Jolie: Most of it.

Tavis: He saw the…

Jolie: Yeah, we didn’t have the facts and certain things in it, but, yeah.

Tavis: He thought what?

Jolie: You know, it’s the funniest thing. People asked me that because Louis was 97 and he was living on his own, never had a nurse. Was doing a speaking engagement two weeks before he went in the hospital. I say that because he took so much pride in going out on his feet.

And I was in the editing room and they told me he’d gone into the hospital and I got the film quickly on my laptop and I went to the hospital and I think, as you said, what did he think? I thought he’s going to tell me whether he thinks it’s good. And then, of course, something else happens because this isn’t a person who wants to review or is even looking at movie.

I had the privilege of sitting with this extraordinary man at the end of his days and was with him as he reflected on his whole life. And as his body was failing him, he was watching himself cross finish lines and rise up against obstacles and he was remembering his mom and his brother. So he just held my hand. We just looked at each other. There was maybe too much to say.

And then he told me a funny joke, which I’ve never told anybody and I can’t. But I told Laurie Hillenbrand. She knows. But he, true to Louie, very Italian man, sent me out of the room with something inappropriate and funny and I left the room realizing and on top it, he took care of me. He didn’t want me to cry and he said something funny.

Tavis: This had to have a greater impact on you than feeling good about the fact that you had done a film that he thought was okay. There’s a human connection here. Am I making sense?

Jolie: Oh, absolutely.

Tavis: How do you process that you got a chance to do this good work, but this…

Jolie: It’s still hard for me. It’s hard to sit here and not – you know, I see the posters around town of him holding up the plank and I don’t see my film that I directed. I see my friend and that moment where he held that plank up for 37 minutes and his will, and I love him and I’m proud of him and I see that and it does something else.

I miss him, you know. Fortunately, I’m close to his family and I love them, but I miss him. I didn’t want to finish the edit. When I came back from the hospital, I didn’t edit for a while. I actually put my jacket over my head and turned off the lights and I refused to cut a frame of his life. Suddenly, every moment of his life was so precious, so how can you cut a second of his brother or something…

Tavis: ‘Cause you can’t have a five-hour movie. That’s why [laugh].

Jolie: Then it’s just bad and nobody likes it [laugh]. So it’s hard. I closed it really late. It took me a really long time until somebody finally sat me down and said you have to let him go. But, yes, it doesn’t feel like putting a movie out. It feels like making sure the world knows the legacy of this extraordinary person who is finally, after a very long life, at rest and at peace and it’s our job to make sure that his message is strong.

Tavis: I loved the film, adored it, have told a thousand people you gotta go see it. I’m telling you now you gotta go see it. I was curious as to your choice, though, about the way you chose to close it.

And my question really has to do with so much of the story for me has to do with the forgiveness part and his going back. And we see that at the end, but you closed it in a way where we got that, but it wasn’t like a part of the – I’m trying to phrase this – the story. You’re not getting…

Jolie: Well, I think what you’re saying is, I mean, it’s something we all worked at. It’s one of the reasons it’s taken 60 years to make the film. You can’t in 10 minutes wrap up PTSD and finding faith. It’s actually almost more disrespectful.

So what we did was, we made sure that that’s what’s part of his life, and we did this with Louie. This wasn’t without Louie. This was with him. We talked about faith and it being universal and it being something that reaches all people and what is it that we can say that is true to his faith and also, you know, his family’s faith and Phil’s faith?

And we realize we kept putting it on like trying to tie it in at this final hour and then we realized, well, what it is is this is a part of his life since he’s a little boy and this needs to be present in the film in every moment of the film. So from the time he’s a little boy looking at Christ on the cross to the time he sees Phil praying, we also represented it with light and darkness.

There were shadows or there was sun or there was the sunrise, and I think that was our way of discussing God in that it’s always there. It’s always there. It was when he chose to feel it, when he became aware of it. He makes his prayer on the raft as he did and he hears the priest talk about forgive your enemy, but he doesn’t know what all of that means until the end.

So in the end, we used the plank not only as a show of his will and his strength, but also the light inside of him and that there was something between these two men that was so profound and spiritual in a way. They saw each other. It wasn’t just about winning. It was about being present and seeing your fellow man. So that was the best way to get it across.

Tavis: Yeah. I empathize with that ’cause I was trying to figure out – I mean, I had read the book and knew the story. Like how is she going to close this? ‘Cause there’s so many different ways, there’s so many…

Jolie: Well, as you said, you could do a whole movie on the raft; you could do a whole movie on his life at home and the bird in hiding. You could do a whole movie on…

Tavis: Did the close cause you a particular kind of grief or frustration that the rest of the film didn’t? Since you could go so many different directions at the end?

Jolie: Sure. I mean, it was even hard to find – you know, the plank itself doesn’t happen in the final days. Like it’s all – the best thing that happened, when the Coen Brothers came on, they said to me ’cause I was struggling. At some point, I think I just decided I was going to do a miniseries, you know [laugh]. I can’t do it.

But what they taught me is, you know, when you put a book down, you have a certain feeling and you’ve received a certain message and that’s the same thing. You have to make a great film and make sure that, when the audience walks away, they have that feeling and understanding, and his message is quite clear.

It’s strength of will, it’s faith, it’s brotherhood, fellow man, family, all of these things, endurance, and that comes however it’s constructed best for a film because, fortunately, there’s Laura’s book.

Tavis: You mentioned the plank scene a couple of times which is just arresting in so many ways. I was just exhausted when that scene finally ended. Exhausted in a loving way. I mean, I was just so – I mean, it did to me what you wanted it to do to me. I mean, it worked.

But I wondered when I walked out of the screening whether or not in that scene or any other, but certainly in that scene, are there moments when you the director when you look around and see other people who were just fighting to hold it together while they’re seeing this?

Jolie: And not break down? They did break down. We did actually a few times. I think it’s because they were all such young men too. Such young men often thinking about having every day not only to physically endure what they had to endure to get through the film, but really be conscious of the men that came before them. They thought a lot of their grandparents. Most of the boys had their grandparents’ picture hanging in their pocket or in their cell bunk.

And in the plank, it was very, very difficult for both men. It was really hard. They were – Jack blacked out a few times trying to hold it up and Miyavi threw up because he felt so physically ill doing it. So it sounds so crazy. It sounds like the worst directing in the world, right? Everybody’s getting sick.

But it brought up so much and also, you know, just the exercise. Many of you try it at home, but the exercise of just staring unflinching at another person and letting them see you and being open to them and receiving who they are and letting them see you is one of the most difficult things to do, and it does bring up something. It changed them both on that day. They both responded in a very unusual way.

Tavis: See, I – this doesn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it anyway. I think respectfully that it’s not about bad directing. If these human beings who are depicting this scene that’s happened in real life don’t feel something visceral in that moment, then you haven’t done good directing. That’s the way I see it.

Jolie: Well, that’s true, that’s true. You have to try to make sure…

Tavis: Somebody ought to feel something.

Jolie: The moment’s right and it’s safe and, you know, we’d led up to it. Because it’s not easy to end – you know, the big climax of the movie is not a boxing match, it’s not a fight scene, there’s no guns, there’s no nothing. It’s really very still. It’s extremely still and it’s just in how every single man on that island feels about what’s happening.

Tavis: Let me ask this before my time runs out. I am always curious as to the juxtaposition that women sometimes face when they get all the accolade that you’re getting now for having directed a great film. Everybody wants to see it. Everybody’s talking about it. There’s Oscar buzz on it. That’s all now. Juxtapose that with how hard you had to fight to get it made in the first place, or did it come easily?

Jolie: No, it didn’t come easily. I think sometimes it’s funny because I’ve been in this business a long time and successful, but it’s successful in a totally different field. So to come in and say, you know, my first film, you were supportive and I was able to – but not many people saw it. You know, you wouldn’t call it certainly not a financial success [laugh] or anything.

So you look at these things when they say, okay, here’s now a film of a certain size and certain responsibility, and can you do a shark attack and do you understand how to, you know, stay on budget and do these plane crashes, and can you? So I fought for months. I fought really hard. And it’s interesting, as you say. I wasn’t fighting ’cause I just really wanted the job.

I really, really was so convinced that, if I could spend two years of my life walking in this man’s footsteps and getting to know him and being near him, that it would change me, that I would be better for it, the same feeling people have when they finish the book. I wanted to know that and I wanted my children to know him and, fortunately, they did. So I felt like I was fighting for much more than a film.

Tavis: So you walked me up to the exit question with a minute or so that I have left, which is how meeting Louis and bringing Louie’s story to the big screen has fundamentally changed your life. What’s the takeaway for Angelina?

Jolie: I think I will forever embrace every day of my life differently because he taught me that. Every time I’m faced with an obstacle, I will remember him and I will smile at it and I will know that this is an opportunity to grow and that it’s how I face it that will determine who I am.

And I think I’ll be that much more adventurous and loving with my children because he was that and always be reminded of when I’m feeling very frustrated with the state of the world, all the darkness that I see, to know that his message is you simply cannot dwell on that or focus on it. If you’re going to rise up, you focus on what you can change and fight.

Tavis: This story, as her husband told her when she started thinking about doing this, has been around a long time, but it took Angelina Jolie to actually bring it to life after all these years, and she has done it in a masterful way.

Not that you need my recommendation to see anything that Angelina’s done, I highly recommend you see this. And I think Angelina’s right about the fact that it will fundamentally change you. It certainly has me wrestling with my own respect for the humanity and dignity of all people.

So it’s called “Unbroken” and, as if you didn’t know that, billboards are everywhere. So go check it out. Angelina, I’m honored to have you come back. Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you.

Jolie: Always so wonderful to talk to you.

Tavis: Delighted to have you.

Jolie: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: December 19, 2014 at 11:28 am