OXENFORD, Australia — Angelina Jolie was ready to step behind the cameras again. Her directing debut, "In the Land of Blood and Honey," hadn't been a box-office or critical hit, but making the 2011 Bosnian war drama had fueled her desire to become a filmmaker. So Jolie started looking for a follow-up movie, knowing she had to choose carefully.
"I was very nervous," Jolie said about transitioning from acting into directing. "It was like starting over. All of the things that were in your favor before are no longer there."
Finally, in late 2012, she stumbled on a talent agency's log line for "Unbroken," a feature adaptation of the Laura Hillenbrand blockbuster bestseller about the Olympic runner turned World War II bombardier Louis Zamperini, who survived 47 days in a life raft only to be tortured for more than two years as a Japanese prisoner of war.
Jolie hurriedly took the idea to Brad Pitt.
"Oh, honey," her longtime partner told her, "that's been around forever."
And then some.
Hollywood history is filled with tales of movies that have taken decades to coalesce. Screenwriter Craig Borten started working on last year's "Dallas Buyers Club" in 1992, and a sequel to 1988's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" is still little more than a thwarted idea.
Yet those delays are just a blink of an eye compared to Zamperini's story — an epic tale of survival, despair, heroism and redemption — that has been kicking around Universal Pictures for more than half a century. The studio bought the rights to his memoir, "Devil at My Heels," in 1956, and penciled in Tony Curtis to star. But the actor signed on to "Spartacus" instead, and like Zamperini himself the movie was cast adrift.
It was not until one especially determined producer decided in 1998 that bringing Zamperini's true-life drama to the screen would be his crusade that the movie was revived. And yet for all of the producer's resolve, the movie still died countless deaths, its fate likely doomed until a writer battling chronic fatigue syndrome made the transformative choice to select Zamperini as the subject of her next book.
Re-create B-24 crash
Inside a cavernous soundstage at Village Roadshow Studios near Australia's Gold Coast in January, scores of people looked on — costume designers, prop assistants, extras — as Jolie's production team prepared to re-create the crash of Zamperini's ungainly B-24, known to all the people who dreaded flying in it as the Green Hornet.
With Zamperini (newcomer Jack O'Connell) and crewmates Russell Allen "Phil" Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) and Francis "Mac" McNamara (Finn Wittrock) braced for impact inside the mocked-up bomber, the "Unbroken" effects team rocked the plane violently, filling its fuselage with an explosion of seawater. After checking to make sure all of the cast members were uninjured, the cast and crew applauded loudly, Jolie accepted congratulations and an assistant director called for a lunch break. As everyone filed out, one straggler hung back, beaming. It was producer Matthew Baer, finally witnessing his dream materializing.
Baer knew for years that he had been the butt of Hollywood jokes.
Matthew Baer's on the line again. I wonder if it's about "Unbroken"?
When are you finally going to give up and do something else?
Is he still talking about Zamperini?
"It was embarrassing," Baer said. For 11 years, he didn't make a film, his last producer credit coming with Gwyneth Paltrow's quickly forgotten 2003 comedy "View From the Top." His wife, studio executive and producer Amy Baer, was the one cranking out movies. "Every producer has his or her passion project," said Baer, a quiet and thoughtful 49-year-old father of two. "And they may be laughed at for having it so long."