Angelina Jolie relied on archived coverage of the 1936 Olympics as well as Laura Hillenbrand‘s book and the “perfect recollection” of Louis Zamperini in producing scenes of Zamperini at the Berlin Olympics in “Unbroken.”
The film hits theaters on Christmas.
Zamperini placed eighth in the 5000m at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In 1943, as an Army bombardier, he survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific Ocean with two other men (one died after 33 days) after their military plane crashed, and then two years at a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
Zamperini died in July at age 97.
“To the very end of his life, Louie had perfect recollection of events that had occurred 40, 50 or 60 years previously, and his way of sharing those stories made you lean in and want to hear more,” Jolie said in an email. “Hearing him talk about the sights and sounds of the [Olympic] stadium, the exquisite silence of waiting for the starter gun, the intensity of racing against the fastest runners in the world all helped draw imaginary storyboards of how this could play out on the screen.”
Jolie’s researchers also located archived coverage of the 1936 Olympics, including Leni Riefenstahl’s two-part documentary, “Olympia,” which lasted 226 minutes.
In Jolie’s film, Zamperini is shown with the U.S. delegation at the Opening Ceremony and later running his Olympic final. He blistered the final lap of the 12 1/2-lap race in 56 seconds, moving up four spots.
“While I wanted to get the historical setting right and place the audience inside the Olympic Stadium, what I really wanted to convey was how that race epitomized Louie’s entire approach to life,” Jolie said. “When he found himself in the back of the pack going into the final sprint, he didn’t give up. He never reconciled himself to the thought of surrender. He found reserves of energy and fight and rocketed forward with a last lap so impressive that Hitler himself requested to meet ‘the boy with the fast finish.'”
Jack O’Connell, the British actor who played Zamperini, said in a phone interview that they shot a scene with Hitler “beckoning him over.” That scene didn’t make the film’s final 137-minute cut. They originally had 3 1/2 hours of scenes.
Jolie was asked about the decision to cut the Hitler scene.
“We shot this kid from Torrance [Calif.] meeting the most formidable figure in the world because it seems like such a delicious anecdote,” Jolie said. “But when I reviewed early cuts of the film, I had to make some very hard choices of what to leave in and what to take out. Believe me, every edit came with some pain for me because I wanted to honor Louie’s story in all of its remarkable expansiveness, but it was just impossible to include it all in one film. While meeting Hitler might be colorful, it wasn’t really the defining element of the Games for Louie. That ‘fast finish’ was.”
The most famous 1936 Olympian also makes a brief appearance in the film. That’s Zamperini’s U.S. Olympic track and field teammate — Jesse Owens.
“It made sense to acknowledge that Louie would have encountered him,” Jolie said. “Jesse Owens’ story certainly deserves its own film.”
Jolie and Zamperini lived in the same California neighborhood and became close friends in development of the film. Zamperini gave Jolie a gift, a golden running shoe pendant from one of his races, that she reportedly wore during filming in Australia.
Jolie said she will remember all of the details Zamperini shared with her about the Berlin Olympics.
“He would talk to me about how the shoes fit, how the uniform was cut, how the food tasted and how the girls looked — there was always a lot of talk about the food and the ladies!” Jolie said. “What struck me most is realizing how very few people get to experience the Olympic Games from the perspective of a competitor.
“It was almost 80 years ago for Louie, and his memories of it remained vivid and lasting. It demonstrated what an honor, what a defining moment, it is for anyone to look up and realize they are participating in the grandest, most historic athletic competition our world has to offer. How could that not etch itself into your memory forever?”
O’Connell, a 24-year-old actor, said he met Zamperini three times. He emphasized Zamperini’s abnormal stride, that his hips dislocated while running. O’Connell, with little running experience and mostly sprints, worked with a personal trainer on a treadmill and outdoors with resistance work to prepare for the role.
Of course, O’Connell also had to prepare to look like Zamperini as a gaunt prisoner of war. Those scenes were filmed before the Olympic race, so he was on a reported diet of 800 calories per day while training.
Breakfast? A boiled egg and salad. Lunch? A box of blueberries. Dinner? Two ounces of white meat and some vegetables. He said he dropped from nearly 150 pounds to below 120.
“If it wasn’t made from God’s green Earth, then I didn’t bother with it,” he said with an accent.