Producer Matt Baer had one of the huge hits of 2014 in Unbroken, the incredible true tale of Louis Zamperini, after shepherding the project for more than 15 years. But Unbroken told only one chapter of Louis Zamperini’s amazing life story. Now, Matt Baer continues the truly inspiring story in Unbroken: Path To Redemption.
Following his incarceration and torture by the Japanese army during World War II, Louis Zamperini returned home to a hero’s welcome. But the traumas of the war followed him home, as well. As Louis battles his demons, his only earthly allies are his wife and a young preacher by the name of Billy Graham.
Dan Goforth spoke with producer Matt Baer about how Unbroken was always meant to be two separate films, how Matt chose the screenwriters, his views on the collaborative filmmaking process, and how important it was that this be a faith-based film.
On the necessity of making two separate films:
MATT: The singular issue for a ‘movie versus a book’ with Louis’ life story is it’s an embarrassment of cinematic riches. And that also leads to a fundamental structural problem—when Lou was able to survive World War II and come home—that, in movie terms, is about as high an emotional climax as you could find. So, when he returned home and then ended up having, in many ways, an equally fascinating story, it felt in the screenplay that the movie was beginning all over again with his post-war life.
There were five drafts of the [first film, Unbroken] screenplay that I worked on—two of them included his post-war life, three of them did not. And at each point, when we tried to do the post-war life, everybody had the same reaction—which was, “It feels like the movie is starting over.” The studio was not going to make a three-hour version of this story. The idea of Lou’s post-war life was fundamentally centered around his marriage to Cynthia—and there’s no such thing as the female romantic interest coming into the movie two hours into the film. So, I’ve always wanted to tell Lou’s post-war life, especially in dealing with his PTSD, the remarkable support that he received from Cynthia, and ultimately leading to his coming to Christ at the hands of Billy Graham. It was such an incredible story. It really is.
My thinking was that hopefully Unbroken was going to be a big enough success that it would justify making the second part. And fortunately, that happened! So when I could see that the movie was going to work, I went to Universal and said, “There is an audience for Lou’s second half of his life.”
On selecting the right screenwriters for the story:
Unbroken: Path To Redemption carries credits for two well-known and incredible screenwriters: Richard Friedenberg (A River Runs Through It) and Ken Hixon (City By The Sea). We talked about the importance of a producer’s job in selecting the right writers.
MATT: When you are adapting a book, you’re giving a screenwriter a fantastic starting point if the book is as good as Unbroken. So there isn’t anybody, let alone writers, who don’t recognize that Laura Hillenbrand is one of the best historical writers that exists. Her level of detail in the book is extraordinary.
I felt it was essential that we hire writers who had experience in character writing. The story was already there. We’re telling the true story of what happened. So, when it comes to plot and story, that’s given to the writers from the start. Two issues in this case were character exploration and structure and Richard [Friedenberg]’s work speaks for itself. Him having this interesting pedigree for this kind of material.
Also, we wanted to find screenwriters that were going to look at the Billy Graham sequences in a seriously cinematic regard. Because when you look at the actual footage of Billy Graham speaking in 1949 in Los Angeles, it’s some of the most captivating footage of a public speaker you can ever see. And if you’re going to be taking on character as larger-than-life as Billy Graham, you have to have a character writer who’s going to be able to write that character with the integrity it deserves.
It was pretty simple in that we went after Richard because he was available, we all liked the idea, and he was interested in the story. I had worked with Ken Hixon on City by the Sea, so I had a tremendous amount of respect for Ken’s character writing—in particular his writing of women. If you look at the films of his, all of the women are extremely strong-willed, well-crafted, and honest. And so Ken brought Cynthia into a whole new dimension, because Cynthia is a very modern character, even though the story takes place in the forties.
So, it’s fundamental that the movie has turned out well because we had great screenwriters. And that was my most important job, other than being involved in selecting the director. We started with great source material from Laura, and then I wanted to have veteran screenwriters bring the characters to life. Fortunately, it was a very effective pair.
On where he gained his respect for screenwriters:
MATT: I lived surrounded by some of the best writers that television ever had. I was always interested and fascinated with the concept that my dad [famed screenwriter Richard Baer], and others like him, went to the office every day went to their typewriter with nothing and then, by the end of the week, they had a full episode of television. On one of my dad’s television movies, he took me to the set. We got to set early and all of the crew was coming in for the morning. My dad had said to me, “Just take a look at all of the people who are coming to work today. None of them would be here if it weren’t for the fact that I sat in my office and created something out of nothing.” And that formed the foundation of my respect for screenwriting, because it gets lost so easily how challenging good screenwriting is. I am grounded with the fundamental understanding of how challenging writing is and while I am NOT gifted enough to write effectively myself, my leading strength is being able to help writers through the process that I lived with with my father… And I have developed the skills and understanding to know how to work with writers and to give them a kind of feedback, pushing and constant evaluation that makes their own writing stronger. I’m always thinking about the screenplay and admire those who do it effectively more than anybody else.
On what he hopes the audience will take away from seeing this film:
MATT: I’m most proud of Path To Redemption being among the most inspirational stories that you could imagine. Especially right now, in today’s political and culturally charged climate, that the movie should remind people of the value of what a real marriage means—how you can get through life’s most troubling problems together. I think that every young married couple can relate to that dilemma today, just as they did in the 40s. I want the audiences to feel deeply connected to how Lou Zamperini never gave up and, fortunately for him, he found a way through his demons. Everybody has demons, the question is how can you get through them. The World War II Vets suffered so badly without proper psychological diagnosis and, were it not for Lou’s relationship with Cynthia and his going to the revival of Billy Graham and remembering the promise that he made on the raft, his life would have easily ended given the tremendous depression that he was suffering from. I want the audience’s to feel inspired and to take some of Lou’s remarkable life force and put it into themselves.
Unbroken: Path To Redemption opens nationwide on September 14, 2018. Visit the film’s website at UnbrokenFilm.com.
More articles by Dan Goforth