Unflinching survival epic recounts tsunami horror

by Giovanni Fazio

Special To The Japan Times

Director Juan Antonio Bayona came out of nowhere — well, Barcelona and the world of music videos, actually — to drop “The Orphanage” on an unsuspecting world in 2007. This chilling and intelligent reinvention of the haunted-house genre went on to become No. 1 at the Spanish box office and also did quite well internationally.

Nothing succeeds like success, and on only his second film, “The Impossible,” based on the true story of a family’s ordeal during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 38-year-old director found himself handling a much bigger budget and a Hollywood A-list cast.

In an interview with The Japan Times, Bayona can laugh now about the pressure: “We had to deal with all the budget responsibility, an English-speaking cast — it’s not my first language — very complicated technical effects, and also we had to deal with a lot of kids. So for me, it was not like shooting my second but also my third and fourth films.”

Given the scale of the production — which involved flattening an entire Thai beach resort with tsunami waves, filming actors within this chaos, and re-creating the ruined areas through which the survivors would wander — Bayona admits that “we felt the pressure on the budget. We shot the film with €30 million ($40 million), and the Americans would shoot a film like this with double or triple the budget.”

Bayona shot the entire film using constructed sets, miniatures and water tanks while avoiding digital effects for the most part — unlike Clint Eastwood’s tsunami flick “The Hereafter.” When asked whether he felt any pressure to reduce the budget by doing the special effects digitally instead, the director replies, “No, no, no; digital is much more expensive. For sure. And this is one of the reasons we didn’t use CGI. But the main reason was because nothing looks as real as real water. So we decided to go the old-fashioned way. Shooting in water is very slow, so we spent more than four weeks on those scenes with Naomi (Watts, who plays the mother, Maria) and Tom (Holland, who plays one of her sons) in the flood. But (the cast) were very happy that we weren’t using CGI or green screen. They were performing in sets that were huge; they could look 360 degrees around them and really see the devastation.”

After the success of “The Orphanage,” Bayona was immediately pigeonholed within the industry, and he tells how “I started to receive all the horror remake and sequel (scripts) that you can imagine being made in Hollywood nowadays. But I never thought that was an interesting way to move forward. And when I heard the story of ‘The Impossible,’ I felt it was a story that had to be told.”

While “The Impossible” may not be a horror film, it is easily the most terrifying cinematic experience you’ll have this year. The director perfectly employs subtle little Hitchcockian touches — a bit of turbulence on the flight into Thailand, the constant soft rhythm of waves outside the family’s beachside suite — to put the audience on edge before the disaster strikes. And when it does, the violence of the event is portrayed mercilessly.

“I really wanted the audience to feel what it’s like to be in there,” says Bayona. “We spent a long, long time on research, going to Thailand and all over Europe to talk to people who were actually there. They asked me to represent their story as faithfully as possible and try not to avoid some of the uncomfortable things they saw. I can tell you that what you see in the movie is only the beginning of what they saw and what they lived through.”

Reaction to the film from survivors of the tsunami has been mostly positive; Bayona tells of many letters and mails he has received from tsunami survivors telling him the movie has helped them come to terms with the experience. (“For me that was the best reward.”) But the film has received some rather predictable criticism for focusing on the plight of holidaying Westerners and ignoring the effect the disaster had on the Thais.

Bayona bristles at the suggestion: “I can tell you, the people who say things like that, they weren’t there during the tsunami. They talk from a point of view which is the political correctness; the PC position is always a bad advisor when talking about art.

“Of course the Thai people are in there, and I never wanted to portray them just as victims: It would have been condescending. So I wanted to portray them from the point of view of the enormous gratitude that I always found from the survivors. I never heard a single bad word about how the Thai people behaved during that situation. Quite the contrary: Even people who had lost their families, they always felt a lot of gratitude to the Thais. When you see that old Thai man (in the movie), he’s looking for his family in the same way that Maria is, but he stops what he’s doing and helps her, gets her to the hospital. It tells a lot about the other side of the story. The irony is, of course, that the most honest point of view I can tell is the Western one!”

“The Impossible,” insists Bayona, is not a quote-unquote “disaster film,” but something more. “One of the main reasons for doing this story was to talk about how these people’s lives changed after this event. We as Westerners live in a very comfortable world with a false sense of security, a world of materialistic things. We follow this Western family as they are forced to open their consciousness to the idea that life is about mystery, uncertainty. And at the end of the movie, these people need to go back home and deal with that mystery for the rest of their lives.”