Director Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken recounts the true story of Olympian Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), whose will to survive is tested by life-threatening circumstances during WWII. From the beginning the filmmakers were aware of structural issues with the story that made its narrative different from most films.
“It’s a tricky story,” said editor Tim Squyres (Life of Pi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). “One aspect of what makes it difficult is something Angie and I talked about before she started shooting. I had just come off of Life of Pi, which is about someone who is at the mercy of the elements and all he can do is react and survive. In Unbroken – in the life raft and in prison camp – our main character is not able to drive events. We can’t build a narrative around what he is trying to accomplish the way you do in most movies, because all he is trying to do is survive.”
Squyres did not deal with those big-picture issues when he first assembled the film. At that stage, the film was cut scene by scene – “to bring out the best in every scene and every moment” – until he had a whole movie. Squyres knew it was a big story and the first cut was long. “Just getting it down to normal movie length was a big challenge,” he explained. “A lot of good stuff had to go. It’s kind of mundane, but it is something editors face. How to get this down to where it needs to be while retaining the strength of the story.”
During production Squyres edited in New York, sending scenes and notes to Jolie, who was shooting in Australia. Occasionally there would be feedback, but mainly the exercise was to make sure each scene was covered. During the collaboration in the edit room, the pair honed the film.
“She knows how to go about crafting a bunch of footage into a movie,” said Squyres. “This is the first time I have worked with a director who is also an actor. Her approach to performances and her sensitivity to performances – and I think that is what I’m good at – that was what made this different.”
Squyres felt Jolie was especially sensitive to the intense emotions and difficult situations that the actors went through during production while portraying the horrific events of the story. The director created a supportive environment conducive to bringing out the actors’ performances. “I think she was torn sometimes by wanting to just mother them, and then realizing what she had to do to get the movie made was something very different.”
Editor William Goldenberg (Imitation Game, Argo) came on in the middle of the director’s cut. Squyres had never co-edited a feature film so it was a new workflow, and a successful one. Goldenberg, who had worked with other editors, confirmed that working with Squyres and Jolie, “was a constant collaboration between the three of us. It was actually quite fun.”
“It’s a great thing when there are two or more editors and everybody trusts each other and you are all focused on making the same movie because you’re able to collaborate with someone who is doing the same thing as you,” said Goldenberg. “When you show another editor something you’ve done and they haven’t cut it, it’s like having another fresh pair of eyes. It’s almost like having the director watch it.”
As it happened, Jolie was away in Malta shooting another film towards the end of the editing process so the editors supplied that second set of eyes for each other’s work.
“There was no ‘my’ scene and ‘his’ scene,” said Squyres. “We bounced things off of each other. Editing always works better when there are two people in the room to push each other. When Angie wasn’t there, then Billy and I could push each other and keep tweaking things. At some point you need to be done, but until then, it is actually helpful to keep nudging each other.”
Many of the events in the film are extremely brutal. Gauging the amount of violence shown on and off screen was carefully balanced to avoid pushing the audience away. According to Squyres, they could have made the film much tougher, but it was important to give the audience, “a sense of the brutality that the main character went through without feeling brutalized themselves. You can make the point more strongly by cutting away to the reaction before the hit instead of after the hit and you just hear it off camera.”
According to Goldenberg, “One of the most difficult sections of the film was the sequence in which they are lost at sea because unfortunately when you are lost at sea, you lay around and do nothing. The idea was to make it feel they were there for 47 days.”
No matter how fast you cut it, it is still going to be slow, because it is slow. “How do you portray boring without being boring,” said Squyres.
The filmmaker’s goal was to make the sequence exciting. At the same time it needed to be emotionally stressful to put the audience into the minds of the plane-crash survivors. The idea was to give the audience a sense of what it’s like to be all alone in the vast ocean while still keeping forward momentum to the story.
The flashbacks in the film were scripted to be in certain places in the film with the transitions working in a particular way. Nevertheless, the filmmakers tried different placements and different lengths for the flashbacks, including not having flashbacks and telling the story chronologically. Eventually they decided to keep the flashbacks where they had been originally scripted.
“All those changes didn’t make a lot of difference,” explained Squyres. “Flashbacks are always going to be a little bit jarring. The flashbacks were designed, but to smooth the edits, transitions were employed that included speed changes and re-framing.”
Being based on a true story, the filmmakers strove to re-create the events authentically while creating a tribute to Zamperini, who died while they were editing the film. “As a team, we all felt this overwhelming responsibility to do right by Louie,” revealed Goldenberg. “It was so fresh in our lives.”
Despite the complexity of the epic narrative, the film’s overall tone and overriding themes of faith and believing in oneself were woven throughout the story. From a brutal account of human cruelty, the filmmakers ultimately revealed a story celebrating the uplifting triumph of the human spirit.