BY MARGY ROCHLIN
A child of Hollywood, Angelina Jolie Pitt has been on too many sets to count—she made her acting debut at age 7 in a bit part opposite her father, Jon Voight, in Hal Ashby's Lookin' to Get Out. But the thought of directing a movie didn't occur to her until 2010. That was when she wrote the screenplay for In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011), a bleak '90s-era love story set against the backdrop of the Bosnian War. Her decision to direct it, she says, was motivated by fear and propriety over the script's brutal and complicated subject matter. "The idea that somebody would take it and interpret it—and possibly interpret it the wrong way—scared me," says Jolie Pitt. "So by default, I chose to direct it myself."
Since then Jolie Pitt has directed the biographical World War II war movie, Unbroken (2014), and By the Sea, a marital drama starring herself and her husband, Brad Pitt, that will be released in the fall. If her three films vary stylistically, what they all share is a seriousness in tone and subject matter. "It's probably not an accident that the films that I care about happen to be about issues that matter to me, stories that I want to tell," says Jolie Pitt. "If you're going to spend two years of your life on something it has to matter to you, you have to be passionate about it."
But before making her directorial debut the most practical experience she'd had on the other side of the camera was helping organize documentary footage culled from her many humanitarian aid missions. So prior to her first film, she embarked on a newbie's listening tour of Hollywood, seeking out top talent in their field—music supervisors, DPs, whoever would talk to her. To each she asked the same question, "What are common mistakes made by first-time directors?" It was from French editor, Patricia Rommel, who has edited two of Jolie Pitt's films, that she learned to wait an extra beat before calling "Cut!" and to shoot as much incidental footage as possible. "She said, ‘Get extra shots of your locations, get extra shots of everything,'" says Jolie Pitt. "‘You just don't know when you get in the editing room what you will need as a link or a tool for a transition. If you're in a room and there's a kettle boiling, get a shot of it. Don't worry if people think you're nuts.'"
Rommel also instructed her to think of the movie as a whole, not scene by scene. "She said, ‘Remember that each scene is not individual. It's the way that scenes connect. Whether they will connect from a very wide shot to a very tight close-up, there should be a real thought behind it. And to try to understand when you finish a scene or begin a scene to remember where you were and where you're going in your film. From cut to cut, have that in your head. Don't shoot them as individual pieces.'"
Jolie Pitt got the assignment to direct Unbroken "like any movie," she recalls. "It took many meetings, many phone calls, hours of work on storyboards and on the budget to show it was possible to make the film—all the things a director has to do to prove that a film needs to be made and that they are the person to make it."
What attracted her to Unbroken, which was based on Laura Hillenbrand's book about Olympic runner and American war hero, Louis Zamperini, was how it explored themes of brotherhood, the triumph of the human spirit and the importance of forgiveness. While Unbroken moves chronologically as Zamperini goes from combat bombardier to Japanese POW, there are also flashbacks to his Torrance, California, boyhood. It was Jolie Pitt's idea to use one of her favorite movies—Sidney Lumet's military prison film, The Hill (1965)—to give it a bright, clean almost old-fashioned look.
Both Jolie Pitt and DP Roger Deakins felt Zamperini's story was so compelling, they favored strong compositions over flashy camera moves or handheld footage. And though originally Jolie Pitt and Deakins planned to shoot Unbroken on film, they ended up with the latest generation of Arri Alexa XT cameras after realizing the amount of effects work they'd be doing in post.
For all of the months of research that Jolie Pitt put into Unbroken, she knew that the success of the film, in large part, rose and fell on key sequences where Zamperini and his flight crew engage in terrifying air fights against enemy planes. To her this meant learning not just to understand complicated storyboards and pre-viz but educating herself in the world of the plane that Zamperini flew in, the B-24 bomber. She repeatedly did walk-throughs of their 75-foot mockup. Once she brought in stand-ins so she could see exactly where each actor would be positioned. "I wanted to understand how the plane worked, where everybody was, what's happening inside of the scene, how we were going to get the camera in, how we were going to shake the plane," says Jolie Pitt of scenes that were shot with an XTM camera mounted on a Micro Scorpio so that they could follow the frantic movements of a handful of men operating equipment in the cramped confines of a tiny cockpit.
"It always frustrates me when I'm [watching an action sequence] and I'm not exactly sure whose perspective I'm with and when I don't understand all the moving parts—then it's just a bunch of noise," says Jolie Pitt. She also had to be mindful of the fact that they were on a tight schedule and they only had the budget to build one full-sized plane. To make it look like more they'd change out the panels. "We had to be absolutely sure of what we were shooting each day and how we were going to do it because once I sank the plane or blew it up, that was going to be the end of it."
When it comes to her cast, Jolie Pitt believes in spending lots of one-on-one time, identifying the overlap between actor and character, familiarizing herself with their individual process. "Something I learned as an actor was which scenes needed to be rehearsed and which actors are good with rehearsal, which actors learn from it and which ones grow stale because they start to second-guess themselves," says Jolie Pitt who also uses her getting-to-know-you approach to strategize about performance. "I kept Jack and Miyavi separate as much as I could," she says referring to Jack O'Connell who plays Zamperini and the Japanese rock star Miyavi who portrays the sadistic commander of the POW camp. "I knew if they got to know each other that they would be friends. I knew that it was important that there was distance."
Part of her style of working has to do with remembering what kind of directors she has no patience for when she's acting in a movie (unprepared, indecisive, indifferent to the delicacy of the dramatic process). But she has also relied on her own observational memory to educate herself on directing, having worked with and watched many of the greats including John Frankenheimer and Clint Eastwood. "I don't do one take," she says referencing Eastwood's tendency to shoot very quickly. "But I don't do many takes either—unless an actor wants them. But I'm very clear that I'll be ready so they should be ready and we're going to get this done."
No amount of preparation or recollecting how legendary directors conducted business, though, could save her from jitters the night before her first day on the set as a director for In the Land of Blood and Honey. "I was so nervous for so many reasons," says Jolie Pitt who prior to filming asked the cast, many of whom were Bosnian and had fresh memories of the war, often from different sides, to contribute as many real-life details as possible. Set in war-torn Sarajevo, Blood and Honey chronicles the affair between Danijel (Goran Kosti´c), a soldier fighting for the Bosnian Serbs, and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a Bosnian Slav being held in a woman's prisoner camp where he's stationed, and where the inmates are routinely beaten and sexually assaulted by their captors. For Day One of her directing career, Jolie Pitt planned to shoot a scene in one long take: Serbian officers pull Bosnian women from a bus, strip them of all of their belongings, and while the rest of the prisoners watch in terror, one woman is brutally raped. When Jolie Pitt first came up with the idea, she thought of it as a tone-setter. "I thought, ‘This is going to shock everybody into the reality of the film—and it will bring us together.' And then I thought, ‘These are people who were emotionally affected by this war. This is [either] a good idea or the worst one.'"
It wasn't until she saw the cast collectively relaxing during a break—chatting, kicking a soccer ball around—that she realized that her bold approach had worked. From her years of experience as an actor she knew that the best set is one where everyone from the lead actor to the dolly grip feels united in a single goal. "I'm not somebody who wants to be on a set where there's screaming and everyone feels under duress; you want to build a happy family," says Jolie Pitt. "It was a day that wasn't about the shot or how many we got or how long it took or the camera angles. It was about ‘What are we doing here? Are we here to feel something together and do something together?' or ‘Is it just the technical thing that I want?' I'm not that person. I think something great can happen when you bring the right people together and it's a very special feeling. So I felt that on the first day and I was very excited."
Calibrating a vibe on a set is difficult for any director, not to mention a high-profile movie star who arrives on location, greeted by a cast and crew who might first regard her not as their fearless leader but as the wife of Brad Pitt, mother of six, and a ubiquitous media presence. If Jolie Pitt seems unfazed when asked about how she deals with the baggage of celebrity, perhaps it's because in her role as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador she has traveled to refugee camps in remote parts of the world—Jordan, Kenya, Iraq—places where blending in is a necessity. "I think people watch how you present yourself," says Jolie Pitt. "If you come in and you're there to roll up your sleeves and work hard, you've got a lot of ideas and you're there to help solve problems, then you become that person to them."
For her latest movie, By the Sea, which she also wrote, Jolie Pitt could skip the meet-and-greets with at least two of her actors. She stars in the film with Pitt. It's about a deeply unhappy couple on vacation in France who becomes involved with a pair of newlyweds staying at their seaside inn. "I'd be directing myself and him in a scene where we're having a fight, and I'd be pulling out the parts [of him] that have an aggression toward me or when you're frustrated with each other—it was very heavy," says Jolie Pitt. "We kept joking that all of the crew felt like they were living in a house where the parents were fighting and you don't know where to stand or where to look."
Filmed in Malta with a primarily European crew and cast, By the Sea was shot by Austrian cinematographer Christian Berger (The White Ribbon) who brought his Cine Reflect Lighting System to the mix. "There's actually very little technical light in the room," says Jolie Pitt of a system that involves using "paniflectors" to illuminate the actors. "It's all based on using an outside source of light and using reflectors, a white plate, in front of the actors. And it felt like doing a play. You're not conscious of the light and so you're also not conscious of staying in the light or how you look. It made me act differently and made me direct differently too."
Described by Jolie Pitt as "an art film, the kind of movie that I like to see but not something I'm usually cast in," she isn't eager to direct a movie like By the Sea again soon. "We're proud of ourselves for being brave enough to try it," she says, adding that she and Pitt made it on their honeymoon. "I think By the Sea was the hardest film for me because it wasn't [issue-driven]. It's something I probably won't do very much of."
Her next film, Africa, fits more snugly into her mini-oeuvre of topical, searing portrayals of humankind and the havoc-wreaked, real stories she immerses herself in before directing. It's about legendary paleoanthropologist and conservationist Dr. Richard Leakey's battle with ivory poachers in Kenya. She calls it her "next big challenge." "I've never worked with elephants and lions before and so I've been [doing research on] how to technically film the animals," she says, and she's been poring over the script with Leakey and his wife to make sure she tells the story right.
Though Jolie Pitt says that she "doesn't go to work thinking of gender," the stats in her own 33-year career as an actress speak volumes: Playing a rebellious teenager named Legs Sadovsky in 1996's Foxfire, directed by Annette Haywood-Carter, was the only time Jolie Pitt appeared in a movie that wasn't directed by a man. "There are many female directors I'd love to work with. I don't focus on the negative. I think about the other women [directors] and trying to find ways to work together, and focus on everything that is happening and imagine that it will continue and will grow."
Early on in the directing of Blood and Honey, a thought occurred to Jolie Pitt: "What surprised me about directing is how much I loved it and how happy I am to be on the set. I love coming to work in the morning. What I realized is that I never loved acting. I don't love being in the hair and makeup chair. I don't [love] being in costume. To me the strangest thing is that I've just spent the majority of my life in one aspect of this business, and because I was fortunate enough to become successful I never questioned whether I felt at home and found out later in life that I'm much happier directing."