The Impossible dramatizes 2004 Thailand tsunami
Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star in natural disaster film
Jose Hare, Summit Entertainment/Everett Collection
There are some moments in life so startling that you always remember exactly where you were when you heard about them. For an older generation of Americans, it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Lady’s Diana’s death is another, and 9/11 is an obvious example. For many, the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia on Boxing Day 2004 is equally memorable, and certainly Juan Antonio Bayona, the Spanish director of The Impossible, remembers his whereabouts.
“I was with my family having lunch,” he says. “It was a Holiday Inn in Barcelona, and I remember the news. At the beginning they were not saying much about it. I had to wait. It was on the news at night that suddenly I started to realize the scope of the tragedy, and I was kind of upset watching the news and kind of [in] shock about the surreal footage that the news was showing us in those days.
Set in the prelude to and in the wake of that horrific event, The Impossible stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as Maria and Henry, English parents to three children whose vacation in paradisiacal Thailand turns into a nightmare when the tsunami strikes. A wounded Maria and her older son Lucas (Tom Holland) manage to cling to one another, while Henry searches desperately for the rest of his family, who have been separated by the storm. The rest of the film follows their efforts to find each other.
Bayona’s primary collaborator on the story was Maria Belon, a Spanish woman whose family endured the tsunami and whose story provides the basis for the film. Belon made herself available to Bayona whenever he needed her and collaborated with screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez who also wrote Bayona’s last film, the Guillermo Del Toro-produced horror film The Orphanage (2007). Bayona says her insights were invaluable to imbuing his film with a sense of authenticity.
“From the very beginning I wanted to be very true to her because that was a way of getting the authority of the story. She gave us a great amount of detail, retelling her story. But not just their story. All the big decisions we were taking, not just with her but lots of people who were there: survivors I met, volunteers, and even people who have lost their family. And I was all the time trying to get as close as possible to them in order to know what was the right thing to do.”
Casting Watts as Belon was an easy decision for Bayona once the actress expressed an interest in the script.
“I think she’s great in portraying some of the darkest aspects of life, and she can really portray some of the most tragic aspects of human nature,” he says. “I think she has proven very often in her films that quality. Take a look at how many she has made, and from the very beginning she was perfect. And also the fact that I always saw her as an everyday woman. I never saw her as a Hollywood actress, probably because she has been doing these films; more independent or European.”
The Impossible’s most terrifying sequence by far is the 10-minute tsunami scene, which six special effects companies worked on for over a year. Most impressively, the scene was done practically, on sets with real water, instead of being rendered digitally.
“It had to look real,” Bayona says. “It couldn’t look like a visual effects sequence from a factory. It had to be in the mood of the film, which was based on a true story, so it had to be done realistically. The main challenge was not to use CGI water and go to real water, because that made us get to a process of trying to figure out how we would be able to do that. And that took us more than a year, with the most important crew already working [on] the film a year before the shooting. And then we spent six weeks shooting in the water with the actors all the time in there, and that was something very demanding physically.”
The Impossible was shot over 25 weeks between Spain and Thailand on over 60 sets. That included actual places in Thailand where the tsunami wreaked its havoc, including the resort where Belon and her family stayed prior to the disaster.
“Fate and being lucky was something that [was] all the time an idea that we were playing around with,” says Bayona. “Because this is the only reason we can find in survival, when you are getting a family and turning into a symbol of what it was to be there from a Western point of view. So we wanted to use the same pool and the same shores and put actors in the exact same positions, because to be two metres to the left or two metres to the right would have meant maybe a completely different fate for these people.”