The Impossible filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona plunges into the tale behind the wave
With his debut film, 2007’s sad and poetic ghost story The Orphanage, filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona demonstrated that he could imbue a genre movie with beauty and brains—not to mention an almost profound understanding of the fears that haunt every parent.
He does it again with The Impossible, the true tale of a family’s experience of the Boxing Day tsunami that wiped out probably a quarter of a million lives in 2004.
Remarkably, the Spanish filmmaker has no kids himself. “No,” he says, calling the Georgia Straight recently from New York. “And that’s one of the reasons from the beginning that I was looking for actors who were actually parents…they have a knowledge that is very difficult to understand when you’re not a parent.”
Equally, Bayona has never survived a tsunami, but he had Maria Belón to assist him with that. The Impossible, which opens Friday (January 11), is Belón’s story. She was vacationing beachside in Phuket with her husband and their three young boys—Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play the Belóns in the film—when everything changed in an instant.
Maria was hurled underwater through the debris, a sequence that Bayona depicts in jaw-droppingly forensic detail, finishing with an almost metaphysical flourish. She emerges from the churn with horrendous injuries and one son still within view, but what about the rest of her family?
Working with Belón—“I was always asking for her blessing,” the director says of some of the narrative shortcuts he was forced to make to her story—Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez then propel their real-life characters through the delirium and chaos of the next few days. It’s a gut-roiling ride for the viewer, given added weight by Bayona’s insistence on using the actual locations and hiring locals who survived the disaster.
“Fate and the fact of being lucky have a lot to do with survival in this story,” he explains. “It was never a question of what they did to survive. These characters, really, they don’t do anything to merit their survival, so we had to be very careful and try to explain the story as realistically as possible, and to put them in the exact same place when the water arrived was very important.”
That early scene of the wave’s arrival indicates what we’re in for. It’s telegraphed not by digitally buffed effects but by the use of sound and a single arresting image of falling trees. “It’s very difficult for people who were there to remember exactly what they saw,” Bayona recounts. “In talking to different people, they will tell you different versions of it. What we tried to get was a sense of surprise: nobody was expecting that; there was shock; they didn’t really understand what was happening. And also, to be all the time in the point of view of the characters and at the level of their eyes was very important to create this sense of empathy.”
Bayona concedes that he was discomfited at times by the presence of actual survivors on set. Was it fair to make them live through it all again? “For them, it was a moment to talk about it, or it was a way of remembering the people who were there,” he says, adding that their presence kept him connected to the story when the logistics of re-creating surging oceans and drowned landscapes became overwhelming. “And, of course, we tried all the time to be respectful. Nobody who didn’t want to be part of the film was there.”
It’s also abundantly clear that Bayona is that rarest of things: a filmmaker who can direct a blockbuster-effects picture without exploiting the tragedy it’s based upon or reducing his characters to puppets. Imagine what you’d get if Irwin Allen handed off The Towering Inferno to Akira Kurosawa and you’re getting close.
Indeed, Bayona’s intentions with The Impossible come into focus in the film’s quietest sequence, when the full force of the experience finally hits the Belóns. “They lived this horrible situation and ultimately somebody put them on a plane and sent them back home with no explanation,” he says. “That was the first time they were able to think about what happened, and I was trying to create this same emotional journey and then make them think at the end, ‘What is the meaning of all that?’ ”