Immediately following her phone conversation with actress/director Angelina Jolie, Becky Sullivan started researching B-24 bombers. Jolie had just asked Sullivan to serve as the supervising sound editor (along with Andrew DeCristofaro) on her next project, Unbroken, Jolie’s Hollywood adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name by author Lauren Hillenbrand (
Sea Biscuit). Sullivan knew that a B-24 from the film’s era, and a key piece of the story, would be hard to find.
Universal Pictures’ Unbroken tells the real-life story of Olympian turned WWII hero Louis “Louie” Zamperini who, having a bit of a troubled youth, was encouraged by his older brother Pete to channel his energy into track & field. Things started to change for Zamperini when he became a champion runner, winning a number of competitions and later becoming a US Olympian. During World War II, Zamperini enlisted and became an Army Air Corps bombardier on a B-24, flying numerous missions across the Pacific. In April 1943, his defective B-24 “Green Hornet” crashed into the sea. He survived in a raft for 47 days, only to become a prison of war in a Japanese camp where he was beaten, starved and nearly died. Zamperini, whose life was long and storied, penned his autobiography and sold the rights to Universal Studios, waiting patiently for Hollywood to tell his story for more than 50 years. He was well into his 90s by the time Jolie came around, eager and willing to bring his story to life on film and to audiences around the world.
According to Jolie, in a recent NBC television interview that aired prior to the film’s release, “We tried to then expand on this already very impressive life that Laura [Hillenbrand] so beautifully detailed in her book and tried to carry it forward and do nothing to hurt it. [It’s] such a huge responsibility to get it right, because I love [Louie] so much and because he’s helped me so much in my life.”
Sullivan, who worked with Jolie on her first go-round at directing in 2011’s In The Land of Blood and Honey, explains, “You can see how passionate she was about the story, and her passion just spread to all of us; our whole crew. I was thrilled for her to call me, and then I knew we would have our hands full with
Unbrokenbecause I read the book and knew that it’s such a vast story; it’s an epic story. It’s a guy’s life, and it’s an amazing life and I feel like my role was to bring Angie’s vision to life, and her vision became our vision, which was that this film be true to Louie, true to the time period, and be an authentic film. The sound needed to be that way and not be a flashy Hollywood film.”
“Staying true to Louie” meant keeping as much of the sights and sounds of the film as accurate and true to life as possible. Sullivan began her search for a B-24 bomber because, as she puts it, “where are you going to find a B24? In the movies that have been done in the past, Pearl Harbor or
Memphis Belle, well,
Memphis Belle is a movie about a B-17 and a B-17 sounds very different from a B-24.” Sullivan and her audio crew (including DeCristofaro, who Sullivan says she worked side-by-side with throughout the entire film) struck gold in Florida when they located a B-24 that had not been modified.
When the plane was in LA, the team had their chance to take a ride, flying from Van Nuys to Camarillo. They placed microphones — which included DPA 5100 mobile surround 5.1 mics, DPA 4062 compact mics, Sennheiser MKH-418 and MKH-416 mics, and Neumann’s 190i — in every nook and cranny, recording on Sound Devices’ 788, 744 and 702.
“It was very dramatic. Loud. Awesome. It was one of the best days of my life, because I was in a piece of history where young men flew those planes. When I climbed into the bombardier hull, where Louis Zamperini would have sat as a bombardier, it was inspiring and I kind of caught my breath over it. It’s a vulnerable spot; it’s in the nose of the plane, and it’s this claustrophobic little spot. To know that young men got in those planes and flew them around and were shot at, it was really something. We used what we recorded and it was all B-24 and it’s amazing. We were able to record the doors opening and closing, every little toggle switch, that’s what we put in the film. You get to really go from the tail gunner to the pilot to the belly gunner — those spaces are real and encompass you and puts the audience on the plane with Louie.”
While capturing the authentic, correct sounds of the B-24 proved challenging, Sullivan points to two other areas of the film that also tested her years of experience as a sound editor: one was taking audiences from the loud, thunderous sounds of a bomber in battle and crashing to the stillness of three men stranded on a raft in the ocean for 47 days.
“It was complete silence and isolation,” describes Sullivan. “We had challenges with the production dialogue due to those scenes being filmed on a live ocean, as well as a tank — all the different things that happen with production dialogue. So, we did use a large amount of ADR in the raft scenes and I definitely took a lead with that with the actors. I got them on the floor and kind of built a little raft around them with couches and miked them low. I would not allow any water on the stage because as they go along, through their 47 days on the raft, of course, they don’t have any water and their throats get dryer and dryer. I think that the performances that Angie got out of those guys is tremendous.”
The film takes audiences from the plane, to the raft, and then eventually to the brutality of the Japanese prison camp where Louie was severely beaten. According to Sullivan, “Angie was very involved in every hit.” She explains that Zamperini was beaten with a bamboo stick. Jolie was very specific “that these guys lost weight,” says Sullivan. “They’re skin and bones, so they’re hitting flesh and bone, and she would make a fist and hit her own hand and talk about what is it going to sound like. She was very specific about the beating with the bamboo stick. But then when we get to 200 men hitting Louie in the face, each one of those hits is a different hit because it’s given by a different man with a different weight, different heights of different guys hitting Louie in the face and making sure each one was real and true.”
Jon Taylor and Andrew DeCristofaro (standing) with Frank Montano and Becky Sullivan.
The sound editing and mixing was done on Pro Tools and Dolby Atmos at NBC Universal Studio Post at Universal Studios. Throughout the production and post stages, Sullivan says she worked closely with her sound team, which included DeCristofaro, John Taylor and Frank Montano, as well as with Academy Award-winning co-editors William (Billy) Goldenberg (Argo) and Tim Squyres (
Life of Pi).
“We all worked very closely together,” says Sullivan. “[Billy and Tim] were very hands on in the mix stage, as was Angie, who was going through everything with us. Tim and Billy were very involved in making decisions as well as Angie — she’s the director and she was right there. It was a great team.”
Sullivan says, “I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve worked on a lot of films, but I’m extremely proud of this one. Because of where it goes and where it takes you and being true to Louis — he was a real man and these are the things that he went through. And keeping true to that. And his story of reliance and redemption is quite a moving story to work on every day. I felt a big responsibility to Louie, and the rest of our crew did. Drew and I were involved in every aspect of everything that was done, because when Angie is telling us this is the emotion I want in the scene, we sit there and cut it and cut and listen and play it back and go through all the things as sound editors that we do and we had to get it right.”
As one of the co-editors on the film, Goldenberg agrees, “I think [Angie] wanted to tell this powerful story, but she wanted it to be really emotional. We talked a lot about Louie’s spirituality and inner strength and anything we could do to cement that — and the strength he got from his parents and the inner strength he found from the things his brother did for him and have that permeate throughout the entire film. That was done by editing in terms of how emotional we made scenes and also done by strengthening the groundwork in the beginning of the film to make that stuff land — and cast a shadow throughout the rest of the film.”
Shot predominantly in Australia, Unbroken was captured on Arri Alexa cameras and edited on Avid Media Composer 7. Squyres, who was involved with the production right from the beginning (Goldenberg joined after the film was in its rough cut to, as he explains, “come in with a fresh pair of eyes and see what I could bring to the film”), explains that both he and Goldenberg worked side-by-side on the same scenes.
“We didn’t have different roles; both of us were doing exactly the same thing,” says Squyres. “We were kind of bouncing things off of each other. Sometimes when you have two editors, one is doing the dramatic scenes while the other does the action scenes, but we didn’t do that here; we didn’t split things up that way. One of the big challenges of this film was just getting the length and the pacing right. And so, there was no ‘my scene or his scene.’ The process of working with another editor — it was interesting. Having the two of us bounce things off of each other, working on the same scenes, the kind of thing that could go very badly but in actuality, it went really well. It was an interesting, stimulating experience. We pushed each other. As long as everyone approaches it properly, it makes you re-examine things that maybe you were satisfied with and should be re-examined or makes you more confident that yes, you had it right and we don’t want to touch this.”
According to Squyres, there were a lot of interesting challenges editing Unbroken, but one of the standout scenes for him is after Zamperini is picked up by the Japanese and is sent to a series of prison camps where he is very isolated.
“Then, all of a sudden, for the last 40 minutes of the film, he’s lined up in this prison camp with a couple of hundred other guys, and this is where we meet ‘The Bird,’ the main antagonist of the film. It’s a great scene. It starts really wide, away from them, and as the scene goes on we kind of get closer and closer. The Bird gives a speech, and, as the scene progresses, we get closer and closer, and the two of them get closer and closer to each other, and eventually The Bird is right in Louie’s face. And, challenges him to look at him and then tells him not to look at him and then he hits him. It’s a terrific scene; there’s a great build of tension. And the tension between the two of them is really strong and this is our first introduction to our villain.
“[Takamasa Ishihara], who is a musician, is very good at this role and at measuring what he says. He’s so in control and takes his time [at] finding the pacing in a scene like that. It’s not about the pace of the dialogue, because there really is no dialogue. There’s no back and forth. Louis just stands there and takes it, so pacing a scene like that is really interesting and I think it’s an effective introduction to the guy who is going to be our main antagonist in the film.”
Squyres also explains that the film has several sections that are very different from one another, based on where the main character, Zamperini, is in his life. At the very beginning, there’s a flashback to his childhood and before the war, and then where he’s on the plane with his crewmates, and after the plane crashes and where Louie is lost at sea in a life raft.
“That has to have a very different feel,” Squyres explains. “It looks entirely different, there’s only three guys and what you’re trying to accomplish with that scene is very different. And then they’re rescued, but by the Japanese. So, [Louie] goes into these prison camps and that’s a whole new set of characters and locations and feel — just managing those changes, and making those changes which are necessary from the structure of the story, but making those changes into assets rather than, ‘Oh, this is something new and having it be jarring trying to make that good.’ That was interesting.”
Goldenberg agrees that with Unbroken, “It’s almost three films in one. The idea that we made it into one I think I’m most proud of. We were able to find the right formula in terms of making you feel like one epic journey, rather than three separate episodes of a film. That was rewarding.”
“It’s a very brutal story,” stresses Squyres. “Part of what [Louie] experienced was a great deal of brutality, but you don’t want to send an audience away going, ‘Boy, that was brutal.’ You want to send an audience away saying, ‘Boy, that was uplifting.’ So, finding the right level of brutality, showing the violence in a way that conveys it without it becoming the subject was something we spent a lot of time on. It was very tricky to find that balance, especially because finding where the balance is, where the line is between not enough and too much is different for every viewer — so that was something that required screenings and a lot of discussion to hopefully find the right amount to show, imply and remove.”
Goldenberg adds, “I worked on lots of films that were based on true stories and this one we were able to actually say it’s a true story, because they stuck so closely to the truth. Often you have to bend the details to make a story entertaining but we were able to stay very close to the source material of Louie’s actual life but you get this incredible sense of responsibility when working on a film like this, and I always do when I work on a true story, but Louis died when we were making it and his family was very present and Angie had such a close relationship with him – I think they felt like family with each other and it took on this extra sense of responsibility to do right by Louie and do something that he would have been proud of.”