Most of us remember 2004’s Indian Ocean tsunami from the round-the-clock news coverage, bolstered by home video footage shot by eye witnesses. The survivors’ harrowing accounts and pictures of the destruction evoked waves of overwhelming feelings. Now it’s Hollywood’s turn. Writer Sergio G. Sánchez and Director J.A. Bayona’s THE IMPOSSIBLE is a heartfelt, gut-wrenching testament to survival that tells the true story of the Belon family’s painful ordeal to re-connect after a natural disaster. It’s through the microcosm of this family that we see the world of pain and loss.
The film begins as an idyllic vacation for Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor), and their three young sons Lucas, Simon and Thomas. But their holiday turns into a hellish nightmare when a wall of water wipes out the resort and separates the family. When all is said and done, the tsunami has killed over 200,000 people and left millions homeless. Maria Belon, who was actively involved in the making THE IMPOSSIBLE, is beside herself when she thinks about how fortunate her family was.
“There is no explanation. There’s no reason why we survived and other moms and dads and kids didn’t. We just ask, ‘what for?’ not ‘why?’ If you ask why, you can go dark. We would like to go up.”
Writing commenced on the third anniversary of the tsunami. Sánchez says,
“[Producer] Belén [Atienza] heard Maria’s story on the radio and it moved her to tears. We met Maria in Barcelona and heard an extended version of her story. We sat at a table and the coffee went cold. None of us had planned to do a movie about a tsunami. I think in a way the film is not about the tsunami – it’s a story of a loss of innocence. There was something very universal about it.”
Bayona was able to assemble a cast of incredible actors to help tell this extraordinary story.
“Naomi is really good at getting into the dark places and getting close to the tragedy. And also she’s a very everyday woman. Same with Ewan. He has also has this normalcy no matter the character he’s playing, he’s able to keep humanity. He’s really easy to have a sense of empathy from the beginning.”
The film’s message hit home with McGregor and pushed him to explore new territory.
“This film was an extraordinary opportunity to explore being a dad for the first time. I’ve been a father for sixteen years. This was an opportunity to look at the unique love that you have for your children is a love that you don’t experience with any other human beings in the world.”
Watts responded to the script’s emotional resonance.
“The minute I read the script it just felt rooted in truth and it just felt necessary in a way because it was an intimate piece of storytelling about this family as well as addressing this tsunami.”
While the film shows events almost exactly how they happened, it did go through one major alteration. Filmmakers decided to change the original Spanish family to an English one. Says Sánchez,
“We didn’t know if we were going to get the financing to make this film. That first draft was in Spanish. Even in that first draft, 80% of the dialogue was in English because after the wave comes, that’s the language everyone would use to communicate. So then with the characters, you never know where they are from. We let everyone keep their accents. Instead of working against that, we thought it was an interesting concept to have this family have no home. It’s not clear what’s the home they want to go back to. At the end, they realize home is where they are together. We were trying to make it universal – to try to create a place where nationality didn’t matter.”
“It felt quite natural to get an English speaking cast. It was a film about people – about a Western family going to Thailand and how it’s an experience that transforms them. It’s the end of these people’s innocence. There’s a lot of suffering in survival – it’s not a victory. I thought that was very interesting.”
Watts felt it was necessary to spend time with the real life heroine.
“I didn’t have to worry about the walk and talk and the look of Maria because nobody knows her. I got to invent that part. The power of what she went through was so big. We spoke a lot. There was such a willingness on her part. Although she had reservations about being a part of telling her story for a movie, she also felt it was right that it wasn’t just her story. It was the story of so many. There’s no question that woman has left a massive profound impact on my life. She’s full of courage and so centered and connected. She’s inspired me.”
McGregor felt he had the freedom to create a character from Henry’s experience. He says,
“I’m playing him and I wanted to capture him but we were making them British not Spanish so already I felt I’ll play this guy on the page. I knew that the director knew him and the writer had spent a lot of time with him so I trusted that they steered me in the right direction. When I knew he was coming out to Thailand after a month of our shooting, suddenly I thought, ‘Oh, fuck. What if he doesn’t think I did him at all? What if he doesn’t like it?’ I was nervous that they were coming. It’s a funny idea that you’re playing somebody and it’s an easier idea if they’re not there in a way.”
To help ground the film in authenticity, THE IMPOSSIBLE shot at the same hotel where the Belon’s had vacationed. Sánchez says,
“People kept coming to us asking, ‘do you know this story?’ There’s this palm tree in front of the hotel that’s covered with pictures and teddy bears. There’s many open wounds and a need to tell this story. It’s like sending a message in a bottle to many different people.”
Great care and respect is given to the film’s script in crafting a fitting tribute to survivors of this horrific event. Says Atienza,
“We were cautious because we were invading some place that is painful that went through all that. We soon found out they want to talk about it. They need people to know. When you are watching the news,you don’t feel what these people went through. That is why we were so obsessed with not only telling the story, but the feeling. Everyone there had a story. We had a lot of extras that were at the tsunami. For example the scene with Ewan in the bus station, the people surrounding him are real survivors. Before he shot his scenes, the other people told their stories. It was very emotional and helpful for Ewan to be transported to what that moment was like. They were very generous and brave to openly share with us to help the story feel true.”
“…that created a special atmosphere on the set. I felt not like a filmmaker but a messenger getting all these stories and putting them together on screen.”
To capture the horror of the event, Bayona didn’t rely solely on computerized effects. Instead, they built a massive tank with rushing water and debris. Atienza made sure all of the pieces of the puzzle would be there in order to do justice to this incredible story.
“The only way to do it is step by step. One of the key things was to have the money in order to really tell this story right. Not so much the adventure but how it felt. The realism was key to the story. We started from scratch. We worked for six months on an animatic that had all the shots we needed. There’s very little digital. We shot there with the actors in the water. The rest is a composition in the shot with plates of real water at scale. It’s very precise and fun to do because it’s an old school way of doing things. The problem with digital water was it still had this feel of fantasy. In this film, anything that could bring you out of the story would harm the story. Same with the sets – they were huge. Only the background is composition.”
Astute audiences will note that sound design is key during the initial wave sequence. Atienza states,
“We wanted it to sound like a monster. Suddenly this wave becomes like a monster for this family. It’s non-stop. Maria said she could feel the evil in the wave. It wouldn’t listen to you even though you beg it to stop.”
“Everything had to be very sensorial. Much more emotional than intellectual.”
Belon was at first reluctant to tell her story on the big screen but ultimately changed her mind. And thank God she did. Says Sánchez,
“That was one of Maria’s questions, ‘Why our story? Nothing happened to us.’ So for us we struggled to find within that story a moment of empathy. The whole story is geared to that last scene on the plane – a sort of bookend with the beginning. It’s not a happy ending – Maria is thinking of the woman on her arm, Lucas takes off that tag, Henry opens up that note with the names on the list. Again, it’s all about the people who remain there.”
“I personally feel I came away from the wave with so much presence. It was selfish of me to keep it for me. People have told me they’ve come home from the movie and hugged their children. There’s nothing else to say. Nothing else to say.”
THE IMPOSSIBLE opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 21.