Angelina Jolie on directing, and life with Brad Pitt and their kids
LOS ANGELES—“We joked that this is what happens after 10 years of marriage,” Angelina Jolie quipped with a smile about the married characters she and Brad Pitt played in 2005’s “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and this year’s “By the Sea.” “You go from being those two people to these two people who hit us.”
In a long-sleeved taupe dress by Luisa Beccaria, her hair longer than usual, Angelina was eager to talk at the Four Seasons Hotel in LA about her third feature directing job, “By the Sea,” which marks several firsts: her first time to direct Brad and herself and to direct a non-war film; the couple’s first film since starring in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” which ignited their romance; and her first time to do all three—direct, write and act—in a film.
Set in the 1970s, “By the Sea” is Angelina’s homage to those European films in that era so it’s a deliberately languid, sometimes erotic, treatise on a couple going through some rough times. Roland (Brad), a writer, and Vanessa (Angelina), a depressed ex-dancer, hie off to a seaside town in France.
In this picturesque village, the couple experiencing a not-so-pretty marriage meet a bar/café-keeper (a memorable turn by Niels Arestrup) and a newlywed pair (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud). Let’s just say that a peephole impacts the lives of the key characters.
While Angelina (and Brad, in other interviews) stressed that her “By the Sea” script does not at all reflect their real-life marriage, she conceded that there are small details that she incorporated from their actual home life.
For example, Angelina admitted that she carelessly throws her sunglasses face down on a table like Vanessa does in the film. When Brad sees that, he sets the shades upright with temples outstretched to reduce lens wear. Roland does the same onscreen.
In keeping with the 1970s setting, Angelina, wearing those large sunglasses and smoky makeup, evokes Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale and all those sultry sirens from that decade.
The film is the director-writer-actress’ best cinematic gift to her leading man and husband. She elicits a fine performance from Brad, who is underrated as an actor but is actually one of the best actors of his generation. His good looks sometimes make people overlook his performances.
Malta, specifically Gozo, subs in for France. Jolie and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Christian Berger (“The Piano Teacher” and “The White Rabbit”) gorgeously shot the idyllic small island. We predict swarms of tourists flocking to Gozo when the film is shown.
The film’s dissection of a marriage inspired Angelina to freely talk about her own, albeit happy, marriage; Brad; their kids; and the next film she’s writing and directing, “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers,” her return to history-themed films (“Unbroken” and “In the Land of Blood and Honey”). This new movie reflects the emerging auteur’s humanitarian interests.
You made this film right after your wedding. You mixed honeymoon with work.
Yeah, this was our honeymoon. We went three days later (after the wedding).
So can you talk about that—you just had your wedding and you had to direct Brad.
There were certainly a few days when we thought this wasn’t the best idea (laughs). But in a way, we’ve been together so long. So maybe, if we had just been married and just starting a relationship, it would have been a disaster. But because we have been together for so long, it was a decision that, all right, we are in it for life—let’s get to the bottom of all of it, let’s take all that we have learned, all that we feel and let’s see how far we can push this relationship and this love.
And let’s see if we can even go as far as to make (a film), to work together under very intense circumstances, with very complex issues and see if it will make us better. There were days when we were really worried. It was hard but in the end, we came out of it.
We thought, this is the best honeymoon because we felt, as the film says in the end—whatever you go through, weather the storm and stay together. It was a message to each other of we are going to weather whatever comes and we are going to stick together so that was nice.
Since you started directing, how has your attitude toward acting changed? What do you find satisfying about them?
I didn’t know if I could ever direct myself. That was the most challenging part. As a director, you tend to take care of everybody and you don’t tend to give yourself the right attention. You always take care of yourself last. You don’t have somebody telling you it’s good enough or checking on you.
As the writer, you become this person who nobody has really anybody to turn to. So I felt a little unhinged quite often. You have to learn a lot of trust, to trust the other people around you and to help you through it.
I love directing. I would love to be allowed to do more films. As a director, I hope I am good enough to keep getting jobs. This was a different one, of course, because most of my films, as you know, and the one I am doing now (“First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers”), are based on history that is very important to me.
I don’t have that same connection to this film. But it’s also important because humanity is important. I am more comfortable when I am making war films, to be honest. Not that marriage can’t be a little bit of that.
What do you want this film to inspire in the audience when they come out of the theater?
I hope they are talking. Some movies, you walk away and you find that you don’t talk about it and other movies you do—you are putting the pieces together and it sits with you. There are a few messages and one is, what we all go through—grief in our lives and we all have to find a way to come through it.
And like the fisherman, we learn about the tides of life. It’s something that people can relate to and maybe reflect on their own moments in life where they succumbed to grief or maybe had to overcome it. It also says something about partnership, marriage and pulling through.
There’s a lot of reasons why in the past, in this kind of relationship, he (Brad’s Roland) could leave her (Angelina’s Vanessa) and just walk away. It’s too difficult, there’s too much baggage and pain. I think coming from a divorced family in which an affair is reason enough—and that’s different—we have to try to hold tight together, work things out and work things through no matter how bad they get.
Can you talk about why you dedicated this film to your mom?
I turned 40 this year. I am so happy. Most women in my family start to get sick and start dying in their 40s. I am going to be very happy to become 50 and 60. I love getting older.
For me, yes, my mother—different problems, particularly now that you have seen the film. Toward the end, her problems aren’t exactly my problems but my mother did not have the creative and artistic release that she wanted. And she had cancer and this sense of her body failing her. Of course, that is something that I have tried to address. I get ahead of my body but you do have these markers so it’s not age as much in my life as it’s more illness.
I was in the middle of editing this film and actually working on the final scenes when I got a call from my doctor that I have a cancer scare. I had to go deal with that in the middle of the edit. It was such a strange catharsis because it started so much with her, the thought of what it is to be a woman and these parts of your body and then having that common goal, do that and then look at those scenes in the same way with that in mind.
So it was very cathartic. I hope for other women that they will see this and feel a connection with the human element of my character. Maybe she is not so likeable at first but maybe there is something to relate to in that. She and I are very human.
You went the traditional way and changed your name. Now that you have done it, what are your thoughts on marriage?
My children have had the Jolie-Pitt name for a long time. I finally have the name of my children. We were feeling like there was mommy’s side and daddy’s side, and the kids were Jolie-Pitt so it was nice to join them.
I don’t think people need to get married. It’s something to say to those who aren’t married—it’s nice to do it when you don’t need it. When you feel that it’s not something that you need to complete you or it’s going to take you to a next level, when you feel like it’s something you already earned and it’s something that becomes official, it just feels very nice.
Marriage didn’t change anything for us. I have been married before (to Jonny Lee Miller and Billy Bob Thornton), but I didn’t have children. Marriage is a certain commitment but when you have children with somebody, that is such a huge commitment that you could never walk away from and that is your life.
So the biggest change for me was when I signed over the papers and Brad officially adopted Zahara and Maddox. That was the day when I realized that suddenly, I was tying myself to this man for the rest of my life. That was many years ago.
Was your decision to show your breasts in this film inspired by your campaign to increase awareness of breast cancer treatment, including mastectomy, and reconstructive surgery?
This film was written before I had my surgery. I did feel that I needed to not change things because I had it. Yes, I thought about it. I had written the bathtub scene before. When I was going to shoot it, I did have a thought that maybe I don’t need to do that or show myself.
Then I decided that I would absolutely do it for that reason. It was important to not hide and to let other women know that the surgeries are different—you can still have your breasts and they feel a little different but you still feel like a woman.
You said that the film might have been harder to make if you didn’t know each other well. But there must be little things that bug you.
Oh, to be clear, we have fights and problems like any other couple. That was just to say that these aren’t our specific problems. If they were our specific problems, we couldn’t do this movie because it would be too close.
Our problems are different but we certainly have them all, the same as everybody. We certainly have days when we just drive each other absolutely mad and we want space. The sunglasses is a real thing and it drives him nuts. I am the kind of person who just throws my glasses around and don’t take care of my things. Brad finds that irritating.
And what do you find irritating?
All the things, big and little. There are lots of things. It’s a hard thing. Anybody who is married knows that you try your best not to focus on them because you are going to live with them for the rest of your life.
What have you learned over the years about relationships? What do you tell your children about relationships?
Those are heavy questions like I am in a therapy session. But you are right, it’s good and I should be asking myself this. I think I have learned a lot. There is a discussion on compromise. I feel the opposite. I feel like you have to really maintain yourself and you have to help the person you are with to be the best version of himself. You need to really stay… [the way] you are and make sure that you are not asking him to bend in a way that is not natural to him.
That is what I learned. It’s also very important to have a common goal. That’s what keeps people together—your moral fiber is the same and you have something that you are doing together that matters. You have purpose and certainly children are the easiest way to have the sense of purpose together because no matter what, they are first.
I try to talk to my children a lot about anything. If they ever hear their mommy and daddy argue, we try to explain to them what we were talking about and why and most of all, you want your children to be able to ask you questions. Like we say to them, did you have fears and are you worried? If their friends’ parents are divorced, they want to sit down and ask us questions and want to know.
It has been 10 years since you and Brad worked together on a film. Can you talk about the difference with working with him now? You were also the boss since you directed him as well. How well did he take direction?
Of course, it was very different when we first worked together. We didn’t really know each other. We were young and it (“Mr. & Mrs. Smith”) was a really fun film. Maybe we thought this film was going to be that kind of fun. We realized very quickly that it wasn’t that kind of fun.
But in the end, I enjoyed the process. Of course, these are very sensitive themes… But I know what he could be and what he is thinking about. So if anything, I had to step away and be very careful in how he was directed.
The strangest is when we were both fighting in the scenes. It’s the weirdest thing. It’s so hard to explain. It was so weird to be in a fight trying to tell him how better to fight with me. And then I am crazy Vanessa who is so broken and weird. Then when you [say,] “Cut!,” I am not Vanessa. I am this other person who is a director and has all these very strong opinions and is nothing like her (Vanessa).
I have to go over to Brad’s side of the room and go talk to him. Then I have to meet him in five minutes on screen where I am now Vanessa. It was schizophrenic for all of us. And then we had these iPads… and it was a really helpful way to direct because I couldn’t go back and forth to the monitor.
So they would have to give the iPad to me and I would hold it (demonstrates holding the iPad while being in the bathtub and showing the shot she wanted). But like in the bathtub scene, being naked in a bathtub and trying to direct the camera crew with your husband outside the room through a microphone and an iPad, it was just weird.
The husband and wife in the film deal differently with their problems. Your character turns inward while Brad’s Roland wants to talk about it. What are you like when you are mad?
When I am really mad, I get quiet. I get self-contained. It’s almost when I stop talking that I get dangerously angry. If there is still something to debate [about], then there is hope. But once you are sure that there has been something that is wrong or you are very angry or against something, then there is very little to discuss.
But I do like to solve things quickly. I don’t sit on anything which probably drives Brad a little mad because I do need to discuss it right now. But being artists, we both do talk a lot which is very helpful in a relationship because he is an actor who studies behavior as part of his life.
Do you think what happens in the film happens to many couples?
I do. But they (Roland and Vanessa) may seem an extreme and unusual couple. But in fact, they are not that unusual. It just comes out in different ways. But sometimes she wants it to go bad. She wants to face it. She wants it to blow up and tear it apart. She wants to take her pain, paint the world with it and destroy because she feels it’s destroyed.
So somehow her response is to test and push and see if she can push her husband away, if she can push him into a fight… It is something we do quite often without knowing it—that we are almost self-sabotaging a situation.
You’ve gone through serious health issues. Do you sometimes ask yourself if you want to go on being busy? And do you have moments when you feel very fragile?
I am doing less. I don’t think of my next year as this movie or that movie. I am now doing films that really matter to me or something I can really enjoy with my children. And if something inconveniences my children too much or takes me away from them in a bad way, I won’t do it.
When I was younger, I was choosing… to just test myself.
These are the years of my life with my family. For example, Maddox is now working with me in production. So when I have my production meetings, he is sitting right next to me. We go through our notes. Pax is going through the photography. Shiloh is sketching the sets. It has to be with family and they have to be a part of it now.
The film (“First They Killed”) I am doing now, it’s getting us all to talk about the history of one of our family’s countries (Cambodia). So it’s very fulfilling. I will try to always, in some way, do it that way now.
I have many moments of fragility. It’s a strange thing. I wrote this film and I don’t really allow myself to sit on a bed and cry (as Vanessa does). But I have to understand why. Sometimes as a writer, you don’t even understand what you have written and you don’t know why you wrote it.
I have watched the film myself and think, I have had friends say to me after they have seen it, “Are you okay? Do we not know?” I guess there is something I do need to come to terms with, where I cry very easily when I need to in film. When things are slow and subtle, I do carry a lot of pain.
Somebody mentioned to me, “This is the second film you have written and it’s the second time a woman is trapped in a room.” And the other films—they are at prison camps. That didn’t even dawn on me. I will get to a therapist at some point (laughs). Or you will have to suffer through the film with me.
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