WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll be listening in on my conversations with the people associated with the new movie, Unbroken: Path to Redemption, about the life of Louis Zamperini.
Millions of people know the story of Louis Zamperini. A track star, he competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. During World War II, Zamperini went missing following a plane crash. Because of his athletic success, all of America knew that he was missing in action. But he survived the plane crash and floated for weeks on a raft in the Pacific. The Japanese captured him, and he endured torture at the hands of one of the most notorious prison guards of the war: Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed by prisoners, “The bird.” Laura Hillenbrand masterfully told Zamperini’s story in the book, Unbroken. It was a book that became a publishing phenomenon, selling millions of copies and spending four years on The New York Times bestseller list. Fourteen weeks in the No. 1 spot. The book became a blockbuster movie as well with true Hollywood bonafides. The movie was actor Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut. The Cohen brothers wrote the script. Oscar winning cinematographer Roger Deakins was behind the camera. With talent like this, it’s no wonder the movie did nearly $200 million at the box office. But many people were disappointed that the first movie did not tell the story of how Louis Zamperini became a Christian at a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles and subsequently beat alcohol and post-traumatic stress disorder through the power of the gospel.
So with Laura Hillenbrand’s blessing, a second movie based on the last half of Louis Zamperini’s life was made. Unbroken: Path to Redemption had its premiere in Dallas last week. I was there, and I interviewed a number of people associated with the new film. Later in the program you’ll hear from Bill Reeves, one of the movie’s executive producers, and Will Graham, Billy Graham’s grandson, who has a role in the film playing his famous grandfather. But up first is Luke Zamperini, Louis Zamperini’s son. Luke Zamperini is also an executive producer of the movie and he’s carrying on his father’s tradition by running Victory Boys Camp, a camp for at-risk youth that Louis Zamperini founded.
The first question I ask people, they usually get right. Can you tell us your name and your role in this movie?
LUKE ZAMPERINI, GUEST: I don’t know if I can get that right, Warren. My name is Luke Zamperini, and I’m an executive producer on the film Unbroken: Path to Redemption, the story of my father, Louis Zamperini.
SMITH: Well you said your father. Of course you’re the son of Louis Zamperini. And tell me what you think of the movie, or were you happy with the way it came out?
ZAMPERINI: Overjoyed, as a matter of fact. It was everything I’d hoped it would, it would be. Ah, you know, I mean, they only make a movie about your dad’s life twice apparently. And uh, the first one, it was great. I loved the first movie, but it didn’t tell the whole story. And so I’m just elated to be able to tell the rest of the story in this production with, with the cast and crew that we have for this, this part of the segment of his story. It’s just phenomenal.
SMITH: Now you say you were happy with the first movie. A lot of people weren’t happy with the first movie and I, it’s hard for me to fully process why they weren’t happy. They weren’t happy because the faith element was downplayed, or was that it was only half of a story. Did you guys, did you personally as the son, and your family, just kind of take that in stride and know that it was not going to be the whole story going in?
ZAMPERINI: Uh, yes, we did know that. I’m actually grateful that we can get the story in two movies because my dad’s life was so, it was such an adventure. I mean any one segment of his life is a story in and of itself. So strung together, it’s just, you know, it’s an impossible odyssey that he, that he went through. So we knew from the beginning that there was not enough time to be able to tell the whole story and that it was only going to go so far, but that there was a, there was the treatment of tiles at the end of the, of the film that talked about what happened next. And I’m just so grateful we got a chance to then to actually bring that to the big screen now with, uh, with Unbroken: Path to Redemption.
SMITH: I’m wondering about the, the stuff at the very end where it was actually live footage of your dad and Billy Graham and, and, uh, a great deal of, you know, what happened after that. Um, was, was that, I’m assuming that that was an intentional choice on, on the part of you, as one of the producers, and the creative team there. Um, uh, how did, how did that all come about that part of it come about?
ZAMPERINI: Well, it was actually the idea of the, the main producer on the film, Matt Baer. He and uh, and the director Harold Cronk, thought they wanted to have some real footage at the end of the film. So I went through all of the family films and, uh, and they contacted the Graham Organization to get the piece from the 1958 crusade. And, uh, I, I think it really works. It is something, of course is for me. I, I’m, I’m very, you know, I’m very glad to see my father speaking on the screen because I, although he’s passed on, I can hear his voice and the wisdom of his words. So for me, it’s just wonderful to have that in the end.
SMITH: You know, one of the things that, um, I, I kind of roll my eyes at Hollywood productions of famous people or, or folks, you know, a bio pics as they say. The actors are always very beautiful and you know, the actors are handsome and, and I was amazed whenever I saw your mom and your dad in that footage. They were every bit as dashing and striking and beautiful as the actor, as the very beautiful and handsome actor and actress that played them.
ZAMPERINI: Yes, indeed. My parents, well, they were, they were always like movie stars to me, but they were like movie stars to a lot of people. My mom was just a real beauty, and so great care was taken in selecting the actress to portray them. Um, uh, Matt had, had come up with Merica to play my mom before I got involved in, in the other selections, but I got to look at over 30 or so, audition tapes of various men that wanted to play Louis Zamperini. And I looked at Sam and said, that’s my dad. My sister on her own looked at all those, those same audition tapes and said Sam Hunt is Louis Zamperini. And even my wife who came into my room and got on my computer because she was curious, she goes, oh, this guy Sam Hunt, that’s your dad. So he was like the perfect match.
SMITH: Tell me about what’s going on now. Um, the, the, the life of Louis Zamperini is on the screen and in two, you know, big movies. But his legacy goes on, and you’re one of the, one of the guys that are trying to perpetuate that legacy. Tell me what’s going on with, with your camps and with your work.
ZAMPERINI: Okay. My father, after he came back from forgiving his guards in Japan, he started a nonprofit called victory boys camps to help at-risk youth. Back in the day, they were called juvenile delinquents. Today we call them at-risk youth. Uh, but he went into the youth correctional facilities in California and was able to bring some kids out and take them up into the High Sierras and get their attention. And, uh, you know, through teaching them outdoor skills and getting them to open up to him. And then he would present the gospel to them. So, you know, he did, he spent his whole life doing this in one form or another, and when he passed on, it was too big of a responsibility and a, and a legacy to ignore. So the family decided we need to keep this going. And so we rebranded it, the Louis Zamperini Foundation, uh, simply because it’s got his name in it and Victory Boys Camp sounds a little bit because girls get help from this as well.
And so we continue, uh, you know, I, you’re unable to take kids out of the correctional facilities now, but I go into them and speak to them and share my father’s story with them and which includes his entire story, which culminates of course in him coming to faith and being able to forgive his captors. And, uh, we are also, we’re building an educational component that this phenomenon happening in this country. And that’s the book Unbroken is being taught in schools all across the country, public and private. And we found in Granbury, Texas a teacher that has unique style of teaching that, that completely immerses the kids in the story. And she’s been teaching Unbroken for five years and it’s made a huge difference in not only their school but the community at large, as you know, five years of students going through this program then come out on the other end of it with a better outlook on life.
And what the school administrators were telling us is that not only do they come out of this program with, with more respect and admiration and tolerance for each other, but the level of school place violence, it’s just about diminished altogether in Granbury, Texas. And so we thought we’d just, we need to, we need to contract with, uh, with this teacher, Heather Fuller, and put the Louis Zamperini Foundation name to this curriculum and get it out to as many school districts as we can in this country. Because we think it will make a difference for not only the generation that’s in school now, but for generations to come.
SMITH: This movie, um, smaller budget than the first movie, not ah, it does have Universal that’s involved with it now in Pureflix. But, but I think, you know, it’d be fair to say that more, uh, more of an independent film than the first one was. What are your expectations for it?
ZAMPERINI: Well, I think it’s the little movie that can. It’s about one-tenth the budget of the first film, but the cast and crew that worked on this film, we’re doing it out of a labor of love. The, this is more than just entertainment. This is a story that helps people. And the, the message that comes across in Unbroken: Path to Redemption is that of faith, forgiveness, hope, and second chances. And so, uh, it looks much better than the budget would, would, uh, would indicate. And, uh, so I, I’m, I’m hoping that this film will catch on, that people will tell their friends about, they’ll bring their friends to see the film and we hope we have a decent run in movie theaters and we hope for a good showing in the home entertainment market as well. And hopefully this film will be something that people will be watching for years to come.
SMITH: Up next, Will Graham. William Franklin Graham IV is the third generation of Grahams to proclaim the Gospel under the banner of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Will Graham is a vice president of the Billy Graham Association, and he’s preached the Gospel on six continents. He plays the role of Billy Graham, his famous grandfather, in this movie.
Will Graham, welcome to the program. And of course I’ve got to ask you first, how was it to portray your grandfather? Was that like strange, weird, eerie? Did it make you nervous?
WILL GRAHAM, GUEST: No, it didn’t. It didn’t make me nervous. I’ve been — I’m an evangelist, so I’ve kind of been compared to my granddad, been in my granddaddy’s role for a long time in that standpoint. What was nervous was being on a movie set. I’d never seen a movie set, never been on a movie set. So all that was a new experience and because I didn’t have anything to base it off of, I was nervous the whole time. Now, listen, they went out of their way to make me feel welcome. They were all nice to me. It wasn’t that, it was something new, never had an experience and so I didn’t know what to expect and it was a long, long night, you might say. An early morning, but it was a great experience and I’m grateful for the opportunity.
SMITH: As you said, you’ve been a preacher for years, you’ve been preaching the gospel all over the world. You didn’t need a script. You could have stood up and done a sermon, shared the gospel, and yet you were portraying an actual historic event. There was a script. Your granddad’s words are known. How much did you ad lib? How much did you follow the script? What was, what was your thinking and what was the producer and director’s thinking about that?
GRAHAM: I did zero ad libbing. I stuck straight with the script because the script was the actual sermon my granddaddy preached. So, this was his sermon. His words, I only preached it. So there’s no ad libbing, no adding. They gave me full — To their credit, they gave me full power to change anything and we may just change out because he had to have some “He’s” in there. Well, we said this is referring to Jesus, so I put Jesus in it because it is taken out of context sometimes. But these are his words, so I used straight my grandaddy’s 1949 Crusades sermons.
SMITH: Well, since you did stick straight to the script and that script was known, I am curious as a guy that communicates to lost people and Christian people, but lost people in the 21st century, did you notice stylistic differences other than the He versus Jesus thing that maybe you would say differently today than your granddad said 60 years ago?
GRAHAM: Yeah. Well, in this case, my granddad’s sermon was entitled, “Why does God allow Communism?” Now, that’s something I probably won’t be preaching on in my lifetime. Communism’s just about gone now, just got a few countries left with it. But back in 1949, the Soviets had just detonated in August, their very first atomic bomb. So you’re talking about this crusade started the next month. And so that was what’s on every American’s mind was the atomic bomb, the atomic war, the Cold War had officially started. And so why — And it wasn’t necessarily in communism, says why does God allow evil in this world? Like communism was an atheistic mindset. Why does God allow that? Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Well, that’s where it started hitting Louis. You know, why has God allowed these bad things to happen to me? Being tortured, my plane going down, being captured, my leg busted on me again, I can’t run anymore. All these bad things, my marriage falling apart, God’s my enemy, he thought. And so it was a very practical sermon. And so a lot of the same truths, even in these 1949 are still hitting people today. Same issues going on today.
SMITH: You know, as I was interviewing Louis Zamperini’s son and now I’m interviewing Billy Graham’s grandson, and of course this movie, Unbroken: Path to Redemption is the second movie done about Louis Zamperini’s life. In some ways it occurs to me that this kind of a meta-message of the movie, an overarching message that the movie is continuing the legacy, continuing to tell the story.
GRAHAM: It is. And this is a wonderful opportunity between two great Americans, Billy Graham and Louis Zamperini and how they had an impact not just by God in their own life, but how they reached other people. Now, my grandfather would obviously be a big name and reached a lot of people, and was on television a lot, but Louis was faithfully ministering to other delinquents there in, near Los Angeles, and mentoring these boys and speaking to their life because he was a delinquent at one time. So here’s a man that spent the last 60 years of his life mentoring other people and telling people about Jesus Christ. And so both of them did exactly what God wanted them to do.
SMITH: I want to pivot just a little bit, if I might, Will, just ask you about your grandfather and your relationship with your grandfather. He heard you preach. He lived a long, long life, long enough to hear you and know that — see your career. Did he have any advice for you both as a Christian leader and as a pastor and as a ministry leader?
GRAHAM: Well, there’s sometimes I went to my grandfather because he was a pastor at one time, not just an evangelist but a pastor. And so I remember having a problem with a deacon one time and he’s — “Oh, I had problems with deacons, too.” So he’d give me some advice and stuff like that. But one of the great advice is when I came to work for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 2006, I talked to my granddaddy about it. He said, “Will, I’ll give you two words of advice: You need to pray, pray, pray. Pray more, spend more time on your knees. We could accomplish so much more as a ministry if I had spent more time on my knees instead of talking.” He said, “Do less talking and more praying.” The second thing is he said, “Study God’s word and preach God’s word. Because that’s the most important thing.” So praying and sticking to God’s word and to know God’s word. Those are the two things he gave me advice on.
SMITH: Will Graham, thank you so much. Appreciate you being on the program today.
GRAHAM: Well, thank you so much. It’s been a wonderful opportunity. Thank you.
SMITH: You’re listening in on conversations I had recently in Dallas at the premiere of the film Unbroken: Path to Redemption. To close the program today, I talked with Bill Reeves. Bill Reeves has had a long and successful career in Christian media. He worked for the Christian music powerhouse Word Entertainment early in his career. He then helped lead Big Idea Productions, home of Veggie Tales. At Thomas Nelson Publishers, he was the executive producer for a number of children’s products, including the successful Hermie and Friends animated series. The agency he founded Working Title Associates has worked on such movies is I Can Only Imagine and Soul Surfer.
Bill, the first question people usually get right. Would you tell us your full name and what it is you’re doing with this movie?
BILL REEVES, GUEST: Absolutely, I’m Bill Reeves. I’m the founder and president of the Working Title Agency in Nashville, Tennessee, and my role is executive producer on the film.
SMITH: Well, you know, there’s an old joke in Hollywood about — the question is what does an executive producer do? So tell me what you did in this particular film.
REEVES: Our business is really built around serving creatives. A lot of creatives hate the business side of the business and so we formed our business to serve them. And so our role in this particular film was working with Universal to build the business development side, actually putting the movie together, the financing, all the legal contracts, bringing together and empowering the producer Matt Baer to be able to go make the film.
SMITH: Well, and one of the reasons that you wanted to make this film, I understand, Unbroken: Path to Redemption was because the first movie was really so successful. Is that fair?
REEVES: Yeah, absolutely. But more so than just the financial success of the first film, the success of Laura Hillenbrand’s book that told all of Louis’ story fell a little short on the first film and not because they were trying to leave the faith out, but because it would have been Gone With the Wind 2, it would have been so long. So we were really fortunate to be able to work with Matt and get the rest of the story in Laura’s book told. And that was, for us, telling the faith part was the most important part.
SMITH: I understand that Laura Hillenbrand, in fact, was involved in the development of this movie as well. Can you talk about her involvement and her reaction to the movie as it finally came out?
REEVES: Laura was involved every step of the way from even just approvals in the beginning to even make this story. She approved things like the story beats. She approved the script. She watched the movie and gave glowing reviews. In fact, wanted to be with us here tonight in Dallas but due to — she has some medical issues of chronic fatigue. And so traveling and flying is very difficult for her, but she badly wanted to be here with us because she loved the story and the film so much.
SMITH: The movie, as we’ve already alluded and suggested, kind of picks up where the first movie leaves off. And I know you are a committed Christian. You personally are a committed Christian. That’s not always the case of people who make faith-based movies. And I’m wondering if you’d let us sort of peek under the hood of the car a little bit or let us back into the kitchen, it might be a better metaphor about — what some of those conversations looked like where you had folks that really wanted to tell the faith piece of this story and I’m assuming you would be among that group and you’ve got Universal and others who might not necessarily be actively opposed to it, but have other agendas. What do those conversations sound like?
REEVES: You know, what was really interesting in this particular case was the executive at Universal that we work so closely with. We have had a relationship for almost 20 years. He was very involved with us back in the Veggie Tale days, which is a place I worked early in my career. The very first Veggie Tale movie called Jonah, Glenn, the exec — Glenn Ross, the executive, was involved with us and what we never had to discuss was, is there faith in the film. What we discussed, because Glenn understood that the audience was out there for it, what we did have to discuss with what’s the right balance of faith. As Will already talked to you about, he wasn’t afraid at all to talk about Jesus, nor was Universal afraid to let us put that in the movie. They were wonderful partners in this, but the under the hood is just simply always trying to find the balance between the fact that we will have a core faith audience that’ll go see the movie that like to see that. But sometimes we have people who are just fans of the book who were just moved by Lou and there’s an element of softening it, not because we want to back down from it, but because we want to talk to people that we may not be able to talk to if we’re too overt at times.
SMITH: Well, if I could maybe pivot a little bit from the movie, but just take advantage of the fact that I’m talking to a guy that’s been in the Christian music business and the Christian film business and you’ve crossed over into the secular side of things and you know, on and on and on for many, many years, what’s the state of Christian media right now? And you can answer that as broadly or as narrowly as you want. I mean, you know, because there’s always been a little bit of schizophrenia within the Christian music and the Christian movie market. It’s either too Christian for the secular audience or to secular for the Christian audience or too overt and not really great at the storytelling piece of it. And then there’s a lot of tension even among Christians about what’s the right approach. What’s your opinion?
REEVES: You know, as we’ve noted, I worked at Big Idea for a long time and Phil Vischer’s been a longtime friend. One time Phil was asked, “Is Veggie Tales a Christian company?” And he said, “What does that mean? When it dies it goes to heaven?” Entertainment is amoral, if you will. It’s a movie. What isn’t is the message of the movie. There’s always a worldview, and for us at our company, it’s about being a Christian worldview. Not even faith, overtly Christian in our stance. But as we look at the state of the union, if you will, what we see are incredible filmmakers who have certain segments of the faith audience covered very well. Some of our clients are the Kendrick brothers, the Erwin brothers. We love those guys. We love the way they tell stories. But they also reach a certain demographic.
Our company’s starting to look for things like movies for young people, animation for kids. And we feel like the Bible talks about not just salvation, which so many of these movies address, but it talks about life. How do you deal with your marriage? How do you raise your kids? How do you deal with your coworkers? How do you serve the needy? We think movies can continue to be “faith films,” but deal with way more of the aspects of our everyday life.
SMITH: So given all of that, what are your expectations for this movie?
REEVES: Well, our expectations are pretty simple. We want this movie to live for many years on people’s DVD libraries or in their digital libraries alongside the first film. We think if people will sit for about four hours and watched the entire journey of Lou’s life, that they’re going to come out the other side realizing that Lou was in a physical battle in war, but that it’s such a parallel to our spiritual wars that we face in our lives every day. We all have a battle like Lou did and Lou’s salvation in his escape from that came through Christ. And that’s the message we’re trying to convey. That’s the legacy we want this film to leave way more than what we worry about on the box office side.
SMITH: You’ve been listening in today on conversations I had recently in Dallas at the premiere of the film Unbroken: Path to Redemption.
On today’s program, we heard from Luke Zamperini, Will Graham, and Bill Reeves. Earlier this year, I interviewed Matt Baer, another of the producers for the film and also one of the producers on the original Unbroken movie. You can hear that interview by going to the WORLD News Group website and typing his name into the search engine. That’s WNG.org and type Matt Baer. That’s B-a-e-r into the search engine.
Before I go, just a quick thank you to those who have rated the program on the iTunes app. We now have more than 250 ratings there and that growing number helps the program to perform better in search engines. It’s a quick, easy and free way to help the program, and I’m grateful. Thank you.
Listening In is brought to you by WORLD News Group and this podcast is just one of the many benefits of WORLD membership. To find out more about becoming a member of WORLD, go to getworldnow.com.
The technical producer for today’s program is Rich Roszel. He gets strong assistance from Alan Brooks. The executive producer is Nick Eicher. I’m your host, Warren Smith, and you’ve been listening in.