November 28, 2014 at 02:00 PM EST

All she can see, in every direction, is water. It’s Oct. 16, 2013, the first day of filming on the WWII drama Unbroken, and a barge has taken Angelina Jolie, her crew, and an enormous crane camera onto the open Pacific off the coast of Queensland, Australia. As she stands on the ship, silhouetted by bright blue sky and deep blue sea, actors Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, and Finn Wittrock float nearby in a small yellow raft. They are skinny and weak and starving, having subsisted on just 500 calories a day for two months. Suddenly, the wind picks up, stirring salt spray and waves. The crew on the barge begins to slip and fall. Jolie can barely hear O’Connell, her young star, deliver his lines, and for a moment she can’t even see him. As the camera zooms in for a close-up, he bobs helplessly in and out of frame.

“If you saw that first shot and my reaction to it, you’d be absolutely sure that this was going to be one of the great disasters of filmmaking history,” Jolie says today with a smile, sitting on a sofa at Milk Studios in Los Angeles. “The only thing you could do was laugh at how insane this was all going to be. And then you just had to take a deep breath and figure out what to do next.”

Ah, the eternal unanswerable question: What will Angelina Jolie do next? In a life that has spanned her transformation from Gia Carangi to Evelyn Salt, from femme fatale to media-sainted ambassador, from wild child to mother of six, she has been everything except one thing: predictable. Now, on the heels of the highest-grossing film of her career, Maleficent, Jolie, 39, is shifting her focus from movie star to director. Unbroken, her $65 million period epic, is her most ambitious undertaking yet.

The film (in theaters Dec. 25) tells the true story of Louie Zamperini (O’Connell), the son of Italian immigrants who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and fought in the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, when his plane went down over the Pacific. He survived the crash and spent 47 days adrift on a raft before Japanese troops took him to a POW camp. There he endured more than two years of near-relentless brutality, most of it at the hands of a sadistic guard known as the Bird.

This is Jolie’s second film as director, and while her first, 2011’s Bosnian war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey, was hardly a tidy chamber piece, the scale of Unbroken is  massive, unfolding over multiple decades on three different continents—and on lots and lots of water. Even filmmakers as seasoned as Joel and Ethan Coen, who helped adapt the script from Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 best-seller, have described the project as “a motherf- - -er” to make. “I didn’t know what I was up against when I was first getting into it,” Jolie says. “I had never done anything like it. I was up for the challenge, but I had so much to learn.”

Only four women in history have been nominated for Best Director Oscars, and while a fusillade of male actors have transitioned behind the camera to Academy acclaim—Robert Redford, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, et al.—Jolie joins a ridiculously small group of A-list actresses who have built significant careers as directors: Ida Lupino, Penny Marshall, Barbra Streisand, and Jodie Foster are pretty much it. None have been nominated for directing. Whether Unbroken will shatter that glass ceiling remains to be seen. Regardless, Jolie has found her calling. “I’m very happy as a director,” she says. “I may be stressed, but I’m loving every difficult challenge. I love seeing a story through from beginning to end. I like the nurturing aspect of it—building the family of crew and supporting everyone.” She grins. “I’m much happier not being that person out in the front.”

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