Director Juan Antonio Bayona discusses tsunami drama The Impossible
The film, which stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, is based on the true story of the Balon family
Eight years after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona has created a powerful movie capturing one family’s experience of it. James Mottram speaks to him
In 2007, Juan Antonio Bayona delivered one of the year’s most effective horror films, The Orphanage. Five years on, he’s back with new film The Impossible. And you might say the 37-year-old Spaniard has achieved just that, creating an experience that’s even more nerve-shredding than his debut. For this time the horror is all too real. Set across that fateful Christmas in 2004 when the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated coastal regions across South East Asia, The Impossible is about one family torn apart when the wave sweeps across the Thailand holiday resort of Khao Lak.
Bayona was in Barcelona that Christmas, like most of us watching jaw-dropping footage on news reports. ‘You feel like you’re very far away,’ he says. ‘The whole concept of the film was to make the people who felt the tragedy was very far away … to make it feel like it was very close to them, and to make them feel the experience of being there.’ Partly, The Impossible does this by zeroing in on one family unit and avoid what Bayona calls ‘the usual structure’ of disaster movies, where a multitude of characters are focused on.
It means the story is as simple as it is devastating. When the wave strikes, British businessman Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor) is left with his two younger boys, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), watching aghast as his wife Maria (Naomi Watts) and eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) are swept away. The remainder of the film cuts back and forth between both sets of characters, as they try to reunite amid the chaos and devastation – though the bravery isn’t all from the adults. ‘It’s partly a story about kids behaving like parents and parents behaving like kids,’ says the director.
Crafted from a script by Sergio G Sanchez, itself based on the real-life horrors faced by the Spanish Balon family, Bayona recalls something the real Maria – who receives a story credit on the film – told him. ‘She said that the whole film is not about the tsunami; it’s about the moment when devastation gets to your life. This is the inspirational thing about the story – it talks about the tsunami but goes beyond that and talks about human beings.’
What most people will remember, however, is the film’s unbelievable ten-minute recreation of the tsunami. The sequence took six special-effects companies one year to create, blending footage from real Thai locations – including The Orchid, the hotel where the Balons stayed – with material filmed in a giant liquid tank in a studio in Alicante, Spain. So vast was the set, while the debris was fake, the water had to be prepared with chlorine to prevent infections. ‘It’s so big you cannot control a set like that,’ Bayona says.
While the Balons did visit the set, Bayona is swift to point out that he doesn’t want The Impossible to be seen as ‘their’ tale. ‘They never felt like the protagonists in the story. And they never wanted to be the centre of the story. They wanted to avoid that because it’s very difficult for people to deal with that.’ The way he sees it, it’s more universal, the story hinting at the mental toll a disaster like this takes on a family. ‘It’s not about survival,’ he says, ‘but the price you will pay for surviving.’
The Impossible is on general release from Tue 1 Jan.