Interview: Director Juan Antonio Bayona Recreates ‘The Impossible’

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CHICAGO – Juan Antonio Bayona’s “The Impossible,” starring Tom Holland, Naomi Watts, and Ewan McGregor, is one of the most emotionally wrenching films in years (and my #7 film of 2012). The movie recreates the devastating 2004 tsunami through the true story of a family that was there when it happened. The director sat down with us when he was in town for the Chicago International Film Festival and answered criticisms about telling a white story in a non-white country, how he stuck to the truth of his vision, how much of the film was real vs. CGI, and his amazing cast. When we sat down, his film had just set box office records in Spain. Which led to this opening question…

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Do you feel more pressure now that there’s a bigger spotlight for the movie?

JUAN ANTONIO BAYONA: No, I feel very happy. Very relieved. It took me five years to do this film. It’s been an epic adventure. The reason we did this film is because we wanted people to know the story. It was a great story. Watching it in theaters is amazing. All the screenings have been very emotional.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Once people get past the emotion they may ask how much of this is true?

BAYONA: It’s funny because when Maria [the woman on whose story the film is based] is asked about that, she says, “well, the ball was yellow not red.” You can’t imagine how faithful. We were very attached to the original story. I found myself being very attached to the real facts. I worked with Maria in the script stage and every decision I wanted Maria to have an opinion and I met a lot of survivors. I wanted to be very attached to the real story.

The Impossible
The Impossible
Photo credit: Joe Arce/Starstruck Foto

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Don’t you think a filmmaker needs a little creative license?

BAYONA: Yes. There are a couple of things…we tried to avoid a couple of repetitions in the true story and there were details that were not believable. So we decided to clean the original story.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: The TRUE story had details that were not believable?

The Impossible
The Impossible
Photo credit: Summit

BAYONA: Yes. [SPOILER ALERT] I don’t want to ruin anything but the last it wasn’t one plane that was sent for them but two. There were two planes waiting for them. They were on the plane when a call came that another plane was ready. It tells you a lot about the privilege. It’s one of the main ideas in the story — what it means to be a Westerner going there and trying to enjoy paradise and paradise becoming Hell. And then to take these people and put them back on a plane without any explanation. These were ideas that I liked. During the scene with the lanterns, the family’s started to go in another direction and I thought, “This is the perfect image about what it means to be privileged.” But I liked the idea of being two-dimensional in that story. It’s not just that they were privileged and you survive or you die. There’s a lot of suffering within that surviving.[SPOILERS END]

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: I’m interested in the privilege aspect. I’m sure you’ve heard the criticisms that the film doesn’t tell enough of the Thai story but you’re telling me that this was kind of the goal - to make clear that these people were privileged. Is that how you would respond to those criticisms?

BAYONA: It’s funny. There was this journalist who was asking me why we didn’t see any Thai death and I told him that we didn’t anyone see anyone die in the film. We don’t need to show death to express tragedy. And I don’t want to put the Thai people in a situation where I am a Westerner telling the Thai people how they suffered. I felt that was kind of easy. It’s not what the film is about. You can not see who is under the debris - it could be Westerners or Thai. And it talks about the privilege of being a Westerner and going home and leaving all of these things behind.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: How do you recreate the truth of the awfulness of what’s happening on-set with trailers and catering and robes just in arm’s reach of the actors? How do you maintain conditions?

BAYONA: We had a very detailed retelling of the story with Maria. She’s the author. So we had a lot of detail. Even during the shooting we sent emails to Maria. I wanted really to get to the emotion through the physical aspect. For me it’s an emotional journey more than an intellectual one. These people had no time to think about what was happening. Everything happened so fast. As a director, I didn’t have many chances to stop. Everything had to be very visceral. It was more about emotion. What I think is interesting is to make the audience live the experience.

The Impossible
The Impossible
Photo credit: Summit

What moved me to do the story was the way that this mother kept her dignity and her strength for her child. It is what puts her above the most impossible situation — the fact that this woman knew she was dying. She’s a doctor. She knew. But she decided to give a lesson to her son. That was her final act. To rescue that kid. It’s not about survival. That’s a lesson that she teaches her son. There is a payoff that gives meaning to sacrifice. At the beginning of the film she is saying that she’s just taking care of her kids and has no job but it has a payoff.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Everything is a teaching moment. There is no more important job.

BAYONA: What is interesting is that there is a moment when you don’t know if it’s the son teaching the mother or the mother teaching the son. In situations like this, adults become children.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: And Tom really captures that. I think it’s an incredible young performance. How did you find him?

BAYONA: It was a very long casting process. The casting director knew about Tom — he was playing Billy Elliot in London. I gave him a great test and I knew immediately that he was the one. The amount of pressure he had to go through — every day of the shooting he had to cry. He had to constantly think of dark thoughts. He was very willing to find and play the truth. Every time we said “Cut,” he was a kid again.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Were you ever concerned that you were pushing him too far?

BAYONA: There was a lot of protection. He had a coach. There was a constant dialogue about that. The truth is that we really trusted each other. He’s the same as the other actors. Watching him worth with Naomi Watts was amazing because both “jumped without protection.”

The Impossible
The Impossible
Photo credit: Summit

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: And they’re so completely in the moment. Not artificial.

BAYONA: And there were moments when the line between fact and fiction blurred. There’s that moment where he sees Naomi’s leg [which is very bloodied and damaged] and Tom couldn’t talk. We had to ask him if he was OK. It was really happening in front of the camera. It was very impressive.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: What do Naomi and Ewan bring to this that other actors wouldn’t?

BAYONA: They’re not Hollywood actors. You watch their films — they do a lot of European and independent films even though they’ve done “Star Wars” and “King Kong.” There’s a sense of intimacy. I can see them closer than most Hollywood actors.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: I heard during the Toronto screening that someone passed out during the tsunami. Did you ever worry that it was too intense? That you needed to dial it back a bit or risk pushing audiences too far?

BAYONA: I was all the time talking to people who were there and they were the ones putting the limits. I remember, for example, asking if I should show the bodies or not and there was a guy who lost his parents telling me that he would be angry if I did not. We decided to show them. The tsunami scene had to be shocking. It had to be the major point of change in the story.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: The truth was the most important element but were there any cinematic influences that you used in any way?

BAYONA: It was tough to find references. We were very attached to reality. We would never talk about movies. Of course, there were moments where we would talk about Peter Weir. I like the way he talks about man and nature. I remember that I showed Nicholas Roeg’s “Walkabout” to the editors.

The Impossible
The Impossible
Photo credit: Summit

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: How long was the shoot?

BAYONA: Very long. We shot for a year. We had to stop for times. We shot the tsunami and then had to take a month.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: How much of the tsunami is practical and how much is CGI?

BAYONA: Most of it is practical. If you take a look at the sequence, everything is real water. We never used CGI water. The actors were really in huge water tanks with a strong current. They had to be protected. But there were moments when things were being swept away by the water.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: How much of the debris was real?

BAYONA: It was on rigs because we had to keep them safe but the debris was real.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: What are you working on next?

BAYONA: I’m looking at a couple of things but the truth is that I need some rest.

“The Impossible” opens in Chicago on December 21, 2012. Come back Thursday for a full review. content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

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