“She really understands the power of what a soundtrack can do for her film emotionally,” said Unbroken supervising sound editor Becky Sullivan of director Angelina Jolie. Having worked with Jolie on In the Land of Blood and Honey, Sullivan knew the director to be collaborative and involved in post audio.
Unbroken recounts the true story of former Olympian Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), whose will to survive is tested by the sadistic commander of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp after the American airman’s plane is downed. Jolie wanted an organic soundtrack that sonically supported every aspect of Zamperini’s life from his youth, through his Olympic experience and into his war years.
“Angie was specific, giving us an emotional roadmap for sound,” explained supervising sound editor Andrew DeCristofaro. “She wanted to avoid making it feel like chapters.” Zamperini’s early experiences required a different feel than the war, with its planes and machinery, or while he was drifting in a raft on the ocean, where they needed to project a sense of isolation. According to DeCristofaro, “Those were the big picture emotional cues that she went for. That’s how she directed us.”
It wasn’t a case of the director asking for a sound to be put in a certain place, but rather Jolie would ask the sound team to convey a specific emotion tied to Zamperini’s state of mind. Her goal was to move the audience to experience that same emotion. Jolie also wanted an emotional response to the different environments, and used the sound design to define the diverse settings — the chaos of leaving the silence and isolation of the ocean; the animals, birds and crickets of the jungle; and the coldness of the coal area towards the end of the film. For the sound crew, it was like doing a number of different films, with layer upon layer of sound.
“There is probably more foley in this film than in any film I’ve ever worked on,” noted DeCristofaro. “She was specific to the fact that sound is just as important as music. There are a lot of scenes where she didn’t put music in on purpose because she felt the sound effects, backgrounds and everything were conveying the emotion she needed.”
The directive for the sound was about being true and authentic. There is extreme brutality in the film, with much of that violence expressed by sound. Sullivan explained, “There are parts in the film where you don’t see the brutality. Phil is being beaten off camera. That brutality, you don’t have to see it, but you can hear it.”
Jolie was specific about the shinai stick that was used to beat Louie and gave it to the sound team to record. “We had that with us for weeks. We experimented with the different ways to use that stick on a human body and how it would sound,” revealed Sullivan. “She wanted it to be brutal. The character of Harris, he’s beaten off camera with the shinai stick. You can hear it hitting his bones, hitting his flesh.” Every hit was unique whether it came from a guard or another prisoner. When the prisoners were forced to beat Louie, every hit to his face was thought over with Jolie. The sound team blended the layers together for every hit to make it specific to each character.
According to DeCristofaro, building unique sounds took a variety of approaches, starting with library effects to “see if there was anything great,” although ultimately almost everything on the film was recorded for the soundtrack. DeCristofaro admitted the one-off nature of the hits “was probably the most challenging issue on the film. Angie was so specific about feeling the wood, feeling the flesh over bone. She was very articulate in wanting to be realistic.”
“She kept saying to us, ‘This is not Hollywood. This is not a Hollywood film, we need this to feel real,’” added Sullivan. Jolie wanted authenticity on every element of the soundtrack from the sound of a fly to the sound of the raft as it deflates over time on the ocean.
Because of filmmaking noises on the production track during the lost-at-sea sequence, the dialog had to be recorded. To recreate the feel of the sequence, Sullivan constructed a raft on the ADR stage so the actors could be on the ground and leaning. “We put the mikes low. The actors weren’t allowed to drink water while we were doing any looping because when they were in that raft, and their voices were dry. Their throats were dry,” Sullivan explained. “We had the lights low because they really had to get back to that place.”
It took months for Sullivan to track down one of the two B-24s still flying, the one that had not had its engines modified. The sound team flew in the plane for a day to record all the sounds that Zamperini would have experienced. “The switches on the plane were recorded. You name it. We went the whole nine yards,” revealed DeCristofaro.
All mechanical aspects, in every compartment of the plane, were miked because every section of the plane sounded different and Zamperini traverses the whole plane. The pilots were accommodating to the sound crew, even turning the engines on and off to let them sputter out, an action that was a bit nerve-racking to the passengers flying in the vintage plane.
“It was actually an inspirational experience to be on that plane and climb in where Louie sat as a bombardier and see where those young men were,” said Sullivan. “That was a piece of tin flying in the air and those boys were up there being shot at. It was terrifying, actually.”
Everything that happened in the film is true, as recounted in the book, though Zamperini’s days were even more brutal than those in the film. Jolie was able to show the movie on her laptop to the 97-year old Zamperini while he was in the hospital shortly before he passed away.
“Our goal is to tell story with sound,” commented DeCristofaro. “Angie was bound and determined, as we all were, to be true to this great man, to tell Louie’s story as faithfully as possible.”