‘Unbroken’: Producing with patience
by Matthew Baer
The most common question I’m asked about Unbroken, which I produced — and took 17 years to get into theaters on Christmas Day — other than “What’s it like to work with Angelina Jolie?” is “Did you ever think of giving up?” My response: “Never.”
The leading mental challenge for a creative producer is when a buyer says “no” to the idea you are presenting. While the “Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance” model applies to death, it also applies to the emotions of getting passed on. Sometimes, the studio/financier is “wrong” and you are “right” – and sometimes “they” are right and your idea is… no good. Part of the struggle of selling a story is coming up with ideas that feel contemporary for modern audiences and for modern day marketing, which uses technology in limitless ways.
What’s unusual about Unbroken is its story of the amazing journey of Olympic athlete and WW2 POW Lou Zamperini is exactly the same as it was in 1956, when Universal bought Lou’s autobiography, Devil At My Heels. Tony Curtis wanted to portray Lou. Back then, there was no such thing as “development hell,” so when Mr. Curtis decided to do Spartacus amongst other projects, Lou’s story lost momentum before a script was commissioned. My involvement started in 1998, upon seeing a 35-minute documentary on Lou, made by Draggan Mihailovich, now a lead producer for 60 Minutes. I met Lou and his son-in-law, filmmaker Mick Garris, convinced them I’d be the right producer and we sold his rights back to Universal. (In this case, Universal agreed I was “right.”)
Two good drafts were written, but we never got a director the studio would make the film with. Fortunately for Lou and me, along came Laura Hillenbrand in 2002. When Laura was researching her book Seabiscuit, she discovered Lou’s story. Eight years later, Unbroken was published. I brought Universal Laura’s book, they bought it and my stalled Untitled Lou Zamperini Project had a fresh start. Richard LaGravenese did the first screenplay, followed by William Nicholson. That draft became an open directing assignment, which Angelina Jolie saw and we finally had our director.
In the time I’ve been pushing this “If you can take it, you can make it” boulder up the hill, Universal has had four corporate owners. Fortunately Comcast has been fantastic, using all of their massive platforms to promote the film.
In the original documentary, there was footage of 80-year-old Lou, running the Olympic Torch through Nagano, Japan, where he was once held captive.
That image, of inspiration and forgiveness, was what motivated me to stay the course.
This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a movie that was a) an epic adventure which seldom gets made without the hero wearing a Superhero costume; b) that could demonstrate how important a family bond can be, in that Lou’s brother Pete believed in his little brother so much he turned Lou’s life around; and c) remind people of all ages that on the days when their own lives prove problematic, to remember what Lou was so often subjected to. I’ve joked if we made the comedy version of Unbroken, the poster’s wording would state: “You think YOU had a bad day?”
Every producer has his or her passion project. I had the good fortune of mine becoming a best selling book. Good material brings out the best people: Angelina, Joel and Ethan Coen, Roger Deakins, Jon Hutman, Alexandre Desplat, Jack O’Connell, Miyavi, to name a few of the artists I had the pleasure to work with on Unbroken. All of them felt connected to Lou’s story, in their own ways.
The list of lessons learned would be far too long for this format. From development, through post-production, everyone gained fresh insight into the process of making films. There were challenges every day, but all were overcome. The sound of every audience applauding at the end of Unbroken is what matters most.
One of my favorite movies is Jerry Maguire. Jerry, like Lou Zamperini, faced sudden challenges head on and stuck to his guns. Jerry believed his one client could turn into someone special. Lou Zamperini was my “one client.” Like Jerry, I made my own “mission statement”, to get Lou’s life up on the big screen. Thankfully, the stars finally aligned. A gift I hope all of you who read this piece obtain.