Among the Hollywood notables who passed in 2014 is Louis Zamperini, who only recently became relevant to movie audiences with the release of his life story Unbroken, the Angelina Jolie-directed Universal Pictures film which stars Jack O’Connell and Takamasa Ishihara. Zamperini, who first made a movie deal for his remarkable life story 57 years ago, didn’t live long enough to see Unbroken gross over $51 million domestic since its Christmas Day release. He died July 3 at age 97, but not before being shown a rough assemblage by its director, Angelina Jolie. On a day when it is worth reflecting on great lives lived, Unbroken producer Matt Baer guides us through the long struggle to bring Zamperini’s life to the screen, and how the subject’s unwavering persevering spirit extended well beyond a POW camp in WWII Japan.
DEADLINE: Louis Zamperini was a middle distance runner who competed in Hitler’s 1936 Munich Olympics, but the struggle to mount Unbroken evokes the word marathon. How long did you spend shepherding his life story?
BAER: 17 years. It started when I was the film production executive at Brillstein-Grey, and when I initially set it up at Universal, our client Nicolas Cage was attached to play Louis. When we started in ’98, there wasn’t a director. Antoine Fuqua was attached for a period, but eventually he went off to make…I have to look it up. What was that medieval movie Jerry Bruckheimer made?
DEADLINE: King Arthur, 2004.
BAER: In that first round, between 1998 and 2002, there was a narrow list of directors Universal would make the movie with, because the movie’s scope made it so that it would have cost twice what we spent…
BAER: Our budget’s $65 million, but we’re using a ton of visual effects. The price point on those kinds of visual effects 17 years ago was astronomical, and back then production rebates weren’t on the level they are now. And we didn’t have Unbroken, I mean the Laura Hillenbrand book, and all the pedigree that brought us.
DEADLINE: It’s now part of Zamperini folklore that Universal bought his memoir to make a Tony Curtis vehicle, only to see the actor do Spartacus instead. How many times did this movie come together and fall apart under your watch?
BAER: We started with the Robert Schenkkan draft, but it was the one by Neil Tolkin that got Antoine right after he directed Training Day. Had Antoine stayed, there’s a high likelihood the movie would’ve gotten made in that window. We down shifted, but then we got word in 2002 that Laura was interested in writing a book on Lou, but we just didn’t imagine it would take her eight years.
DEADLINE: You kept shopping his story while you waited?
BAER: We had the promise of that book, the Tolkin draft and that the CBS documentary from the Nagano Olympics. I brought that to every possible financier. I couldn’t say though when the book was coming, so the timing never seemed right. When the book came out, I took it to Universal and Francis Lawrence developed that first draft with Richard LaGravanese. Then he left for the sequel of The Hunger Games, ironically originated by Gary Ross, who had directed the adaptation of Laura’s book Seabiscuit at Universal.
DEADLINE: You have a most patient wife in Amy Baer, who in those 17 years made a good salary as a senior production exec at Sony Pictures who formed and ran CBS Films and then produced Last Vegas. Were you producing other films, or cashing option checks during this long period?
DEADLINE: How did you keep your own spirits up, and those of Zamperini?
BAER: My despair would have been far worse if not for the fact I knew that Laura was writing that book, and that, someday, it would be ready.
DEADLINE: Why was Hillenbrand’s work such a lifeline?
BAER: This story needed an extra powerful push to get people to take the story seriously. Seabiscuit had become A, a successful book and B, a successful film for the same studio that still had the rights to make the movie, so Laura kept my hope alive.
DEADLINE: Was Louis at least continuing to draw money from that original ’50s memoir deal from Universal?
BAER: No. In the first four years back in the 50s, Lou was being paid fresh money from Mr. Wasserman for his life rights, but then it went quiet and they still had the underlying rights to his 1956 book. There are a lot of thing special to me about this story, but one was that Lou needed one more down payment to buy his home, the one he lived in his whole life. It was Universal’s check for his memoir Devil at My Heels that enabled him to buy his house, in 1956.
DEADLINE: That same house where Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt say they were able to see him from their own place?
DEADLINE: Did he really run the flag up the flagpole each day to let them know he was OK?
BAER: Yeah, but that story got a bit exaggerated. What happened was, we’d talked about how Brad and Angie have a flagpole and Louis had a big view of it. We said that when the movie got green lit, Angie would raise a flag so that Louis would know. Though, obviously, he knew the moment it happened.
DEADLINE: So it was symbolic.
BAER: It’s also part of another thing that was touching. Louis had a hard time saying the word Jolie. It always came out of his mouth as ‘Jolly.’ So I bought them flags that said Jolly Louis on it. So Louis hung that flag in his home. And when we got the green light, Angie raised the American flag on hers.
DEADLINE: He flew Jolly Louis and she flew Old Glory?
DEADLINE: What is that conversation like, having Louis trusting you and being forced to tell him again and again, not yet, Louis?
BAER: The truth is, nobody understood patience like the man who hung around for 47 days floating in the Pacific on a lifeboat and then spending two years in a prison camp. I’d tell him, sometimes, these things just take time. He was very familiar with that experience.
DEADLINE: Didn’t it define his life?
BAER: Yeah, but he was far more than some passive participant. Louis read every draft that we did and so he was very aware of what the challenges were in getting his story told on film. Lou knew that it wasn’t easy and he knew that there was a window where the right director would mesh with the right actor. He also spent the time between 2004-2010 very immersed in working with Laura. So that helped keep him going. When we spoke every week, it was always about, we’re going to have a good shot again when the book comes out. But there was another important component that fueled us both.
DEADLINE: Which was?
BAER: Lou had a personal mission. All through his post-war life, the vast majority of people would raise questions about validity of his story.
DEADLINE: It’s understandable. They’re still doing it.
BAER: His line was that people say I have a tendency to exaggerate. The knowledge and then the resulting success of Unbroken when he was 93 years old, it gave to his life what he wanted so much: for people to finally believe him and that what he had been saying so long about his life was true. Because Laura was such a definitive historian, that fueled his mental state when the book was being written, and then, it came true for him.
DEADLINE: Louis seemed on a fast track for a Gold Medal in the 1940 Tokyo Olympics before those games were canceled after Pearl Harbor; he was sent on a rescue mission on a plane unfit to fly, and it crashed in the Pacific; he nearly died from starvation, thirst, exposure and sharks floating in that raft and was then brutalized by The Bird for two years in the POW camp. After all that, he forgave his brutal captors. It seems too much for one man to forgive that much. What was he most bitter about?
BAER: I never heard him express bitterness about anything. I think that there were elements that made him sad, certainly. When he came back from the war and was unable to run, for instance. His body had been so battered…his legs. First off, he was injured in the prison camp, really messed up his ankle. When he came home and tried to run, his muscle strength was gone because of all he had been through. He was never able to fully recover his enormous physical strength and speed. It’s so sad. His intention when he came back was that he would resume his athletic career. Once that didn’t happen…he became part of the Hollywood lifestyle and partying and hanging out with movie stars and things like that. He became an alcoholic. It wasn’t until he became a born-again Christian that he then had a particular mission in his life. You asked me what was he bitter about and I think it came down to two things that were related to Watanabe, The Bird. Number one was that Watanabe tortured him and Louis had unrelenting nightmares about what had happened to him. Number two was the physical dismantling of his athletic ability that came as a result of Watanabe’s cruelty.
DEADLINE: He really expected to be able to pick up where he left off, on the track?
BAER: Lou’s ability to run was everything to him because it turned his life around as a teenager. What he knew was how to run fast and so when that ability was taken from him, that was a massive blow. I would think during the pre-Born Again Christian days, he was certainly most bitter about those two things and then he became an alcoholic and he had a new family and two kids that he was trying to support. It was a very difficult time for him, post war; he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder long before it was ever diagnosed.
DEADLINE: After the book became a massive bestseller, plenty of directors chased the job. Angelina Jolie had directed one relatively modest budget film. What about her inspired you and Louis to be confident?
BAER: From the very first time we spoke, Angelina had a very clear vision of how she wanted to tell Lou’s story. It never changed. It felt like that first conversation lasted three years. Her vision was exactly how I saw it, and we never hesitated because she’s such a powerful, creative force. We finally had a filmmaker who, number one, didn’t leave, and, number two, the chairman of the studio was vested in.
DEADLINE: She bonded quickly with Louis. Explain the kinship.
BAER: It is two things. Louis was a tremendous flirt, a flirt of the highest order. So if you’re 93 years old and you’ve got Angelina Jolie paying attention to you, that’s a good day. Second, despite their age difference, I always felt that they had a foundation of shared experience, that childhood with varied twists and turns. Both of them became very adept physically, she in doing her own action in movies and he on the track. They ended up using their success to help other people and both are so captivating when you’re with them because they have great personal stories of unique lives.
DEADLINE: How much of that commonality led her to campaign so hard to direct Unbroken?
BAER: Angelina felt passionate about telling Lou’s story because it speaks to a message that she wanted to give to her kids and to others in the world. Which is, don’t give up, try your best. Also, she loves a challenge and she loves to learn. So things that would have potentially caused worry in other directors, she didn’t flinch. She took on the challenges, surrounded herself with her very seasoned team and learned very quickly. She’s so smart, and has had so much experience in making big budget films as an actress that it wasn’t like we were talking about…
DEADLINE: Some recent film school grad coming off a Sundance film?
BAER: Exactly. One other thing that intrigued me about how the timing worked out was this: Lou was very old fashioned in his point of view about women, and here were three powerful women, Laura Hillenbrand, Angelina and Donna Langley, came together from different parts of the business and championed his story. I love that fact and how, in Lou’s later years, it showed him that he needed to get with the times about how influential women had become and how crucial they were in selling what would once have been perceived as a very male story.
DEADLINE: Funny how it took all these pieces to fall into place, when basically the story was the story, even back when Zamperini first sold it to Universal?
BAER: Yes. The film is one of the most, what’s the right word, faithful adaptations of any book. The story never changed, the underlying story of what happened to Lou hasn’t changed. What changed was what Laura did with the story. She made it so clearly cinematic in Universal’s eyes and then when Angie became interested in it, the book was the ultimate catalyst for her own vision. There’s no Unbroken, the movie, without Unbroken, the book, period.
DEADLINE: Was that the biggest reward for the patience it took to hang in there so long, when neither you nor Louis were making money from a movie most would have given up on? There must be futile script drafts going back to the ‘50s.
BAER: Well, not that far back. They never got as far as script for the Tony Curtis version. Back in 1956, there was no such thing as development hell. Then, it was, okay is Tony doing it? He’s not? Spartacus instead? Oh, well. The origin of that deal was, one of the execs at Universal read Lou’s book and bought it and targeted it for Tony Curtis, who then decided to put his focus onto Spartacus. If Curtis had said yes, they would have gotten the script and we probably wouldn’t be talking here. From my point of view, that was a break. I would argue that Unbroken the book has so much more readership and brought awareness. Had the movie gotten made in 1956, it probably would have felt like another variation on a World War II movie, like Sergeant York, and that they wouldn’t have been able to match the physical, epic nature, the size and scope of the movie that we’ve made. It would have been a much simpler version; there is no way they’d have spent that kind of money without having a Gone with the Wind level successful book to back it up. But you asked about the journey?
DEADLINE: I wanted to know the biggest benefits borne from the patience shown by you and Louis?
BAER: Well, for me the first image I always go back to is that 1998 documentary, where Louis at 81 years old is running the torch back into Nagano. That footage ends our movie, and when I saw that in 1998, that’s what also drove me for 17 years to make sure that that image was the ending of this movie because it can’t get any better as in film making and in demonstrating Lou’s remarkable endurance and hope.
DEADLINE: When you consider all the time invested, including Laura writing that massive book over eight years because she battles her own hardships with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, it feels like this story would be too hard to invent if it wasn’t true. How do you feel about the notion that good movies happen on their own time clock, even if it wears out the people pushing the rock up the hill?
BAER: All I know is a producer has to remain true to their own passion and if you can’t do that, don’t be a producer. I never lost sight of the first time I watched the CBS documentary and the way that I felt after watching it. The overwhelming sense of, I can’t believe that Lou’s story is not well known and I have to get that story told because it’s so remarkable. I was mystified as to why so many filmmakers didn’t see what I’d seen, for a variety of reasons. That was incredibly frustrating, but I became a member of Lou’s family and he trusted me. There are many producers, but he picked me. So I couldn’t give up. And the rewards? I got to work closely and interact with amazing talent, including Laura Hillenbrand and Angelina and Roger Deakins and Donna Langley, who rallied this together and told the story in such a proper way. And Jack O’Connell, who by the way was seven years old when I started. So was this worth the wait? Absolutely.