Feb. 25, 2014 at 8:06 AM ET
Angelina Jolie was looking far and wide for dramatic inspiration, and all the time it was right outside her own front door.
Jolie is directing "Unbroken," the gripping survival tale depicting the life of World War II hero and former Olympic distance runner Louis Zamperini. It turns out that while she was pondering her next project, Zamperini, now 97, was living right in Jolie's Los Angeles neighborhood. From his patio, he could actually see Jolie's home.
"I imagine that for the last 10-something years, (Zamperini has) been sitting there having a coffee in the morning and wondering who's going to make this movie," Jolie told Tom Brokaw Tuesday on TODAY. "And I've been sitting in my room laying there thinking, 'What am I supposed to be doing with my life? I wanna do something important ... I need some help. I need some guidance. Where is it?' And it was right outside my window."
Jolie and Zamperini are now dear friends, with Zamperini calling Jolie "honey" and "my gal" during the TODAY interview, and Jolie responding, "I love you."
Zamperini's life is as full of gripping drama as any film. A member of the 1936 Olympic track team competing in Berlin, he ran his final lap so fast that Adolf Hitler insisted on a personal meeting. During World War II, his bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and he survived 47 days in shark-infested waters before reaching land. He was then held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese and brutally treated. He survived the war and went on to become an inspirational Christian speaker, even forgiving and meeting with many of the guards who tortured him. When "Seabiscuit" author Laura Hillenbrand wrote his biography in 2010, "Unbroken" became a New York Times bestseller.
The film has become "very personal" to Jolie, she told Brokaw. "(I feel) such a huge responsibility to get it right, because I love (Zamperini) so much, and because he's helped me so much in my life," she said.
The journey wasn't easy. "This has been the hardest thing I've ever done," Jolie said, relating that she handmade posterboards telling the "Unbroken" story in hopes of convincing Universal Studios that she could make the film. "I pitched my butt off," she said. (TODAY.com and Universal Studios are both divisions of NBC Universal.)
Jolie has directed two prior films, the 2007 documentary "A Place in Time," and the 2011 romantic drama "In the Land of Blood and Honey," set during the Bosnian War. She told Brokaw she knew her next directorial project had to be something dear to her heart.
"It had to be something I would love and care about," she said. "'Cause it takes much more time away from your family and much more effort than acting."
Jolie said she feels Zamperini's inspirational story offers a bright light of hope for an often-troubled time. "(The world) can seem hopeless and it can seem very overwhelming," she said. "But the resilience and the strength of the human spirit is an extraordinary thing."
"Unbroken" is scheduled for a Dec. 25 release.