How Angelina Jolie Worked Through Real-Life Grief in 'By the Sea'


Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in ‘By the Sea’ (Image: Universal)

Angelina Jolie’s new film By the Sea, co-starring her husband Brad Pitt, is about a couple whose marriage is deteriorating. While the movie’s subject has invited much speculation about the actors’ real-life marriage, Jolie — who wrote and directed By the Sea — says it’s actually about the grief she experienced after the death of her mother and the subsequent trauma of her own mastectomy.

“I wrote By the Sea because I wanted to explore grief,” Jolie, 40, said in a behind-the-scenes video on “Much of the film and my character are very much about my mother and my feelings about my mother.”

Related: ‘By the Sea’ Trailer: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt Live Unhappily Ever After

Jolie’s mother, actress Marcheline Bertrand, died of ovarian cancer in 2007 at the age of 56 after a seven-year battle with the disease. Jolie began working on the script for By the Sea shortly afterwards. “We can’t say what the whole film is about, but a lot of the film was when I went to visit my mom in the hospital, when she found out she had cancer the first time. She was gonna have her ovaries removed, [and] she was very upset, feeling like…they’re taking out her parts that were female, and there was a woman down the hall who was wailing. I later found out it was a young woman who had not had children yet, and that put everything into perspective,” she said in a recent interview with Today.

Set in France during the 1970s, By the Sea is about a couple — Vanessa, a terminally ill former dancer (Jolie) and Roland, a writer in a career slump (Pitt ) — who travel to a seaside resort during a tumultuous time in their marriage. By the Sea was Jolie’s first screenplay (she would subsequently write In the Land of Blood and Honey, her 2011 directorial debut, and direct last year’s World War II epic Unbroken.) “I didn’t really know if I could make film, and I didn’t think I could write film, so I wrote with a certain amount of freedom. I gave myself the task that it would be about grief and how different people react to and process it,” she told the Wall Street Journal.

Watch the trailer:

In one very personal scene, a bartender advises Pitt’s character to make peace with his wife’s illness, saying, "If you really love someone, you want more for them than you want for yourself."“That’s me speaking about my mother,” Jolie told WSJ. “I think maybe his character came from the purest place inside me.”

Six years after her mother’s death, Jolie (then 37) learned that she had a gene mutation that predisposed her to cancer. She underwent a preventative double mastectomy in 2013 and a subsequent ovary removal in 2015, both of which forced her to re-live some of the experience of losing her mother. "We had some of the same nurses, some of the same doctors,” Jolie told Today. “So, the doctor that did my ovary surgery was my mother’s doctor. And apparently my mother had said to her, ‘Promise me you will take Angie’s ovaries out.’ So when we kind of got together, we both had a big cry, and she said, 'I promised your mother, and I gotta do this.“’

Initially, Jolie didn’t plan to star in By the Sea — and, she told the New York Times, her cancer scare made it even more daunting for her to take on the role of Vanessa. “There were lots of scenes I wanted to change or cut. I realized it was going to be me [naked] in that bathtub,” she said of one revealing scene. “But I told myself, put all of that aside. Like, you can’t change or cut this scene because you’ve had a mastectomy, or because we’re married and people are going to analyze this or that. That would be cheating.”

This is not the first time that Jolie has used her movie career to work through a difficult time in her life. Action films, Jolie told WSJ, once served as a helpful outlet. “I did Wanted after my mother died, and I did Salt after I had twins,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I go through these moments where I just want to pull the covers over my head, so I go get aggressive instead.” Now, as a director, she doesn’t shy away from painful subjects. After By the Sea, her next project will be a Netflix film about one woman’s survival under Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. It’s personal because her oldest son, 14-year-old Maddox,was adopted from Cambodia — and will be traveling on location with Jolie to assist with research. “He’s going to sit with me while we watch the videos and re-create such a difficult time in his people’s history,” said the director. “It’s important that the whole family understands all that it means to him and to us.”

As for By the Sea, Jolie told the New York Times that the finished product is “like my study of something that I didn’t even understand about my own pain, my own self. It was a very strange experience — and not one I think I’ll do often.”

By the Sea opens the AFI Fest in Los Angeles on Nov. 5, then hits select theaters on Nov. 13