“It started in 1998,” says producer Matt Baer of the process of turning the true story of World War II veteran Louis Zamperini into the feature film “Unbroken” (watch our interview below). That’s when he saw a 30-minute CBS Sports documentary on Zamperini, who ran a leg of the torch relay at the Winter Olympics that year in Nagano, Japan, the country where he had been held as a prisoner of war. Baer adds, “It’s extraordinary in terms of the length of time [it took to make the film]. It’s probably one of the longest in history.”
The story of the film’s development actually started long before Baer was involved: “In 1956, Lou wrote his book, called ‘Devil at My Heels,’ and Universal bought the book for Tony Curtis to play Lou.” Then, when Baer picked up the torch in 1998 (at which point the film’s eventual star, Jack O’Connell, was only seven-years-old), it was conceived as a starring vehicle for Nicolas Cage.
From that point, the film languished in an effort to find the right director, but Baer “never remotely thought about giving up for one second … because Lou had chosen me, I was never going to stop because it was an honor, the greatest honor of my career professionally to be the champion of his story.”
Baer adds, “Every producer has their passion project that they’re made fun of for continuing to keep going, and why are you still working on that. Every producer has that.” But a major turning point came in 2002 when author Laura Hillenbrand (“Seabiscuit: An American Legend”) decided to write a biography of Zamperini; after another eight years, her book, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” was finally published in 2010.
“The odds of a producer’s passion project becoming the subject of a bestselling book written by Laura Hillenbrand – they are a billion-to-one,” says Baer of the fortunate turn of events. “She wrote the book so cinematically that it made it undeniable as a film.”
When Angelina Jolie came aboard to direct, Baer had no doubts about her abilities despite her relative inexperience behind the camera; she had only directed one previous feature film: “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” But despite “Unbroken’s” epic scope, Baer believes it’s ultimately a “performance movie … 80-percent of a director’s job is casting, and so Angelina has always had a great eye for casting.”
And Zamperini was involved every step of the way. “From the time I started until the time Lou died [in July 2014], Lou was always a part of what was going on,” says Baer. “I had shown him every script; he always gave me notes on the script like he was a 93-year-old development executive … and then when the film was greenlit, Lou met all of the actors.” That was pivotal for the cast, who learned from Zamperini about the real men they were portraying.
But “Unbroken” was nevertheless an ambitious project, and Baer admits that it’s an “unusual” film in the current studio system “because it’s not a comic-book movie, it’s not a teen comedy, it’s not an inexpensive horror movie. It’s a movie that needed the resources of a studio to make it in terms of being an old-fashioned-in-the-best-sense-of-the-word story that has a lot of scope and tries to take on an important story.”
Do you think the story – both on-screen and off – will be rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Picture? Watch our complete interview with Baer below, then use our drag-and-drop menu to make your predictions, or click here to enter your picks in all Oscar categories, as well as Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, Independent Spirit Awards, and more.