Not for Cynical People: J.A. Bayona on The Impossible

The director of the disaster drama talks about recreating the tsunami and navigating the Oscar season.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

In 2004, we all watched news footage of the Indian Ocean Tsunami and its aftermath. Eight years later, we can see it from the inside in the film The Impossible. Based on the true story of survivor Maria Belon and her family in Thailand, the film stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as Maria and her husband Henry. It is the second feature film directed by J.A. Bayona, whose debut film The Orphanage made an impression in 2007. We got to catch up with Bayona in Los Angeles about his five year development on The Impossible and how it shows an uplifting side of the horrific tragedy. He does mention some specific incidents from the film, which were based on real life, so please accept our Spoiler Warning as we present the complete interview with Bayona.

CraveOnline: How did you decide what order to follow the stories, beginning with Naomi’s journey and then revealing Ewan’s?

J.A. Bayona: From the moment you choose a family, you choose a character to portray a tragedy, everything becomes very symbolic. Not just what they do but the whole experience. So I wanted to create an emotional journey that explains the whole picture of what it was to be there, following the steps of what they went through. So the film starts with the shock and then as it moves forward, emotions get in and you finish with these characters in this empty plane, going back home with no explanation. No one gave them any message or explanation of what happened or why it happened. I thought that was very interesting. It’s not just the story of this family but all the people who were there. So you start with Naomi and Tom [Holland] and then you go with Ewan and you see what it was to be during the night out of the hospital looking for the family. And then, once they are together, you don’t finish the film there. You talk about the people who didn’t make it through the point of view of these people. So that was the plan from the very beginning.

How did you place the damage, like the boat on top of the hotel? Were there accurate reference photos of the aftermath?

Yeah, yeah. One of the challenges in doing a film like this is that there’s plenty of information on the internet. So you need to find a balance between telling the reality and having your own interpretation about it in order to recreate in the audience the same kind of emotions that these people had during those days.

The film is so sincere. Is that a difficult tone to maintain?

We tried to be honest. We tried to be honest and we tried to do that being very close to people who were there and try to be, of course, very respectful. So all the big decisions were taken after lots of conversations with them. I remember talking to a guy who lost his parents and I asked him, “How would you feel if I showed the corpses?” And he told me, “I will feel very angry if you don’t show that, because the whole scenario was about death and devastation.” So you realize that what these people want to see is an experience matched as closely as possible to what happened.

Yet some movies can be cynical about it.

Yeah, this film is not for cynical people at all. Especially because the emotion that drove me to do this film was the one coming from the decision of Maria [Belon] of going back to rescue this little boy Danny. I think in that moment in the film, in the story, this woman who knew she was bleeding to death decided what would probably be the last thing to do in her life. She chose to give her son a lesson of what was the right thing to do. So this woman couldn’t control life, decided to control her decisions and that was to show that lesson to her son. So you found heroes not in the way they behave to survive, but in the way this woman tried to keep her dignity in front of her kid. I thought that was a very, very powerful and beautiful emotion to explain in a film.

Something else that struck me was that nudity is an issue in the disaster. Her clothes get torn and her breast is injured. Was that a complicated thing to address in the movie?

Well, it had to be like that. There’s a lot of very symbolic elements in this story. The fact that it happened in a very paradisiac place, the fact that it happened during Christmas, the fact that the water took all the layers including of course the first one, the clothes, but also nationalities. We’re not the same anymore. Ultimately the social level – and even though at the end there’s a comment about that because these people were privileged and they had to go back home – but they went back home completely transformed. You’re telling the end of a world of innocence where materialistic things don’t have a price anymore and they don’t have a sense of security anymore. The film starts with the characters talking about the alarm and if they will keep their jobs. All these things don’t matter at the end.

Obviously a volcano movie or a tornado movie wouldn’t have any nudity at all. Does that make it more realistic, because that happens in a real disaster?

Yeah, we found lots of stories of people who were completely naked and they didn’t realize it at the beginning. So you can imagine how they were in those moments.

When you were putting the movie together and you might’ve known it would be a year-end release for Oscar season, do you think about any expectations or pressures of telling an important story at a time when people are looking for movies about important stories?

Yeah, the thing is that this film has already been very rewarding for all the people involved. It’s been a vital learning experience to be working on this film. The shoot was, not just for me, but for the cast and the crew, we were all the time feeling the responsibility of portraying events that were not just part of the script of the film. They were part of real emotions, and that created in us a strong responsibility but at the same time, it was very rewarding. I can tell you how, during the premiere of the film, a woman who I met in Thailand, who has lost all her family, she came to me saying, “Thank you for doing this film.” I think that’s the most rewarding thing that can happen to you as a filmmaker, so you really don’t think about these other things.

Could it be a trap you fall into if you think this is a tragic and uplifting story about recent events, so it could get this kind of attention? Do you have to avoid playing to that?

But right now, because we’re doing a lot of promotion and we’re right in the middle of awards season, as a filmmaker you feel completely lost in that. If you take a look at the press, every week there’s a favorite movie for the Oscars. So that tells you a lot about what the whole thing is about. It’s something I cannot control so as a filmmaker I don’t get into it.

Why did it take five years since The Orphanage to finish your next film?

Because it was a very, very tough movie to do. We were writing the script for a long time, and then we had to develop the way to shoot that. So we spent a year preparing the water sequences and then took us a year of shooting, and another year of post-production. I mean, the first time we heard about the story was for the third anniversary of the tsunami and we started to work right after that. That was five years ago, so we’ve been working almost five years now.

So The Impossible was always your next film?

No, we were working for less than a year, maybe between six and nine months, we were working on another script that didn’t work. The project fell apart and another director did it. It was very frustrating but it was interesting. The day after that happened, this story appeared and we completely became obsessed about it. At the end it was a good thing.

Were you glad the American remake of The Orphanage didn’t get made?

To have a remake is always flattering because you can always say that you did the original. I’m not against the idea of that. The truth is that they tried and it seems like they couldn’t, so people will always look at the original and say what they think about it.

What sorts of things are you developing next?

I’m developing a couple of things right now. I’m trying to work on a smaller project in Spanish and also I’m working with my agent here on a couple of big projects in English.

Are you in pretty high demand in Hollywood right now?

Well, I mean, fortunately I was like that after The Orphanage and I went through all the meetings at that time. It seems that people love the film, people from the industry, all the people I met really liked The Impossible so that’s always helpful in getting another project.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel