Incredibly, the remarkable true story of Louis Zamperini is only now making its way to the big screen, in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. It’s been years in the making – and we caught up with the film’s producer, Matthew Baer, who explained why it took so long to finally get this project off the ground.
“Firstly, I could not believe nobody had made a film of this man’s life,” he said. “We took it to Universal, it had to first because of this crazy fact that in 1956 Universal had bought the film rights to his life as a project for Tony Curtis. So the project was restarted, and from 1998 to 2002 we developed two drafts of the script. It got a lot of attention and went out to top directors, Universal were serious about making it, but we never got a director who would green light the movie.
“The closest we got was with Antoine Fuquar. He was attached for a little bit ended up leaving to do another film. So we got close, but nothing that would make the studio say yes. In 2002, Louis Zamperini received a letter from Laura Hillenbrand, whose book Seabiscuit had just been bought by Universal. She asked if he’d be interesting in her telling his story. Louis called me and said “I got this letter, what do you think?” and I said there really isn’t anything to lose.”
But that was still over a decade ago – so we asked what caused further delay.
“None of us knew it would take Laura eight years to write Unbroken,” he admitted. “During that period of time I took one of the drafts, and every single financier in Hollywood and everybody passed. I was saying, there’s going to be a book about this subject, and by that time Seabiscuit had become a hugely successful movie, but despite that, over those eight years everybody said no. Then, six months before the book finally came out, I said to Universal, look, there’s going to be this book coming out and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this book will be a big hit. Please let me go again – with studio support. So they bought the book when it came out and the project began again in its second generation.
“It’s one of the most amazing and frustrating professional experiences I’ve had. Now, 25 years of doing it. I could not believe how many people could not see the value in this story as a film. When I started, Angelina was in her early 20s as a thriving young actress, so all these years later to finally have a filmmaker with this level of force and passion and commitment to the same thing I’d been championing was fantastic.”
Given the wealth of cinematic potential to this story, it’s bizarre to think how it could take so long for this project to be green lit, but Baer explained why there was a hesitance amongst financiers and directors.
“There were a variety of reasons why people said no,” he said. “It’s always easier to say no than it is to say yes. So the reasons they said no were – it’s a period movie, it’s a world war two movie, it’s too episodic, all of the things that you could imagine I heard. Also, as a filmmaker you had to be willing to take on the challenge of doing a movie of this size, and many directors weren’t interested in the challenge. There were some who were interested, but they weren’t big enough names to get the studio to agree to say yes to a movie of this size. So yes, it was hugely frustrating and therefore that much more satisfying that the film came together in such a massively, wonderful way.”
At long last this passion project for this committed producer is finally seeing the light of day, and now, years after he was first attached to the feature – he admits the timings has actually worked in his favour, believing the themes will resonate now with an audience more so than it ever would have before.
“I feel that the timing of the story, and where the world is right now, it couldn’t ask for a better time. Louis’ story of resilience, faith, optimism, pushing through obstacles – the timing is wonderful,” he finished. “It’s perfectly well timed for today’s audience, I am incredibly grateful to have the project become real at this time.”