Roger Durling with Actor Ewan McGregor, Writer Sergio Sanchez, Director Juan Antonio Bayona, and Producer Belen Atienza
Durling: Sergio Sanchez and Juan Antonio Bayona, you guys did this incredible, visceral, horror story with your first movie (The Orphanage), how did you decide to do a follow up with the Impossible?
Bayona: It was not impossible to tell this story from the moment I learned about it. It was the third anniversary of the tsunami, we were in Spain and it was the first time that this Spanish family, was able to tell their story. It was difficult for them to tell their story because the fact that they survived made it very difficult to handle the whole thing. So they went to a radio show and told their story and it was the only time they told their story also. Belen heard the story and she came to me and was so moved when she was telling me this story, she was not thinking about a film. She was just impressed about the story of this family but she couldn’t get to the end because she was so emotional. I thought ‘wow’, and three days later I was with my parents telling them the story and it was exactly same for me. I thought how powerful this story was, how the story went beyond the context of the tragedy and was telling about ourselves, our families, about legacies, and about the human condition. I thought ‘wow, this is a story that definitely should be told’.
Durling: Belen, what compelled you to think and feel emotionally that this had to be a movie?
Atienza: I had been a mother at the time, my kid was around 1 year old or something like that when I heard the story on the radio. It was this powerful voice, this incredible woman, Maria, telling how she was struggling to stay alive because she knew she was the only thing that Lucas, the oldest boy, had left in the world. So that struggle really moved me. I immediately saw myself in that position and that was the spark and triggered all of the emotions. It is true that while they were telling the story, I didn’t know the outcome because they were telling the story chronologically. So also what happened to the other kids and how Henry had to deal with the search for his wife and oldest son. There was something there for every mother, father, brother, son. We took months looking at what exactly was triggering the emotions so strongly.
Durling: You touch on something that is really interesting about this movie – It’s that we have seen stories of survival in past, but I have never seen a movie that shows us why these characters are surviving. It is so palpable and you understand Henry and Maria, and why they are surviving. Is that something you found unique about telling the story?
Sanchez: For us the most difficult thing when we first starting discussing what type of film this should be – Maria gave us such richness of detail of her story and the story of her whole family, that we could have made like five different movies. The whole time we kept asking ourselves ‘why are we making this movie and who are we making it for’? And it became evident pretty early on that this was not only a survivor story – with the reason that every single character in the film believes that they lost someone. Maria can’t afford to die, because she has to stay alive for her son, rather than be dead that moment when she holding onto the tree. Lucas is orphaned for a few hours and Henry has to make that very difficult decision to leave his kids on this pickup van and send off to the mountains because he doesn’t want them to see what he thinks he is going to see – the bodies of his wife and son. So when they all reunited on that plane, it is like they feel how the other people who weren’t as lucky as them down there. We thought it was an opportunity with this story to tell every story within the context of this one family.
Bayona: One of the most interesting things in the story was that it talks about survival not in a five dimensional was but in terms of you live or you die and also that there is a lot of suffering with survival. This was something that came up very soon when talking to Maria. Every time she was talking about the people who couldn’t make it, she became very difficult. I thought that was what the ending was about, how there is no victory in surviving; there is a lot of suffering. And also the fact that these people don’t behave like heroes in the terms of these kind of movies. I mean, these people have not done anything to deserve their survival because if they would have done something to deserve that, it would have been like telling the people who didn’t make it ‘maybe they didn’t do enough’. The heroines of these people lie in the fact, and this is probably where the most emotion comes from for me; that these people were able, in the way they survived, to keep their dignity in front of their kids. I thought that was very emotional for me.
Durling: The casting, you have Ewan who kept his Scottish accent, Naomi with her Australian accent and the kids speaking with their British accents but this was originally based on a Spanish family. Did you intentionally cast an international sounding family to create universality to the characters?
Bayona: We wanted it to be like a white canvas where everybody could project themselves. I remember talking to a friend and he was very emotional and was telling that he could see himself in the father, in the son, and the brother. That was the most flattering thing to me because I wanted to audience to feel the moment that devastation happens. This is a film that tries to talk very respectfully about the tsunami, and tries to go beyond the context to talk about the human condition and the moment that devastation gets to your life.
Durling; Correct me if I am wrong, but you have never played a father in a movie before. Is that one of the things that attracted you to this part?
McGregor: Yeah, very much. The script is always the first thing that locks you into wanting to do a film. It’s the first time you see the story and your mind’s eye. The script was incredibly well written. I didn’t know it was a true story when I was reading it, but there was something very brutally honest to it without over writing and a sparse dialogue. There was something incredibly brutal to it. I thought the violence of seeing her wounds along the lines of dialogue were extraordinary. So that was the first thing, but I wanted to work with Bayona very much, and I think that it is important to be looking for the best directors to be working with. Thirdly, it was an opportunity. I have been a father for sixteen years. I had some children or kids in other films like Nanny McFee 2, but I never explored what it means to be a dad and that unique relationship they have with their wife and kids; and that immediate and unique bond. This was certainly an opportunity to do that.
Durling: Sergio, you had the family working with you to develop the script. Was it traumatic for them to be reliving this experience and sharing them with you?
Sanchez: It was mostly Maria. We did a first round where we actually met everyone, but from that point on we would have a meeting with Maria every two weeks where we should show her what I had written and what Juan was doing with the scenes. She was the mailman between us and the family. We would ask her questions and she would ask her family questions. Sometimes she would come back with an answer, and sometimes she would say ‘this is private we don’t want to share this’. She was really involved, and I don’t think that it was that traumatic. If anything, I think it was healing. It was an open wound on that family. They didn’t quite know what to make of that experience, and I think for her this experience has given her the opportunity to make peace with it.
Durling: The scenes and the dialogue that you see in the film – did it come from them directly or was it your imagination?
Sanchez: Everything that is in the film is true. If there is any transformation that I had to do from Maria’s story to what is on the screen, was actually to tone it down a bit because Maria’s story is so incredible and full of so many details. If you put that into the film people would go ‘I don’t believe that’. So we had to make it simpler, and also get some details that were important that happened afterwards and just condense that into those moments. Again Ewan said that there were some fantastic lines of dialogue and I have to say that some of those fantastic lines came directly from Maria. For example the line Lucas says “Mama, I can’t see you like this”. Again for me the effort was try to get the script to the same simplicity and purity and honesty of some of those lines that Maria gave us.
Bayona: It’s funny Maria was asked after the festival which parts were true and which parts were not, and she said ‘well the ball was yellow’.
Durling: I want to comment on that particular scene that you speak of about the son seeing his mother. That is one of the most heartbreaking scenes I recall in a long time. The vulnerability, the pain, and son seeing his mother in that situation and saying ‘mom I can’t see you like that’. It is a beautiful art for a young actor that he basically becomes the father in this movie and this journey. Juan, you wanted to shoot in the real locations and you used people that actually survived during this disaster. Why did you want go to the real locations?
Bayona: I think in talking to a lot of survivors, we got to the point that in order to pay them justice we needed to be as faithful as possible. For example, we shot the scene in the pool, in the same exact pool in the same conditions. The truth is that fate is something that has to do a lot with survival. As much as you talk to survivors you realize that it wasn’t the best swimmers or the smartest people that survived, it was all about being lucky. So the position where this family had in the situation when the tsunami came was a very important point and determined the fate of these people. So we tried to go to the same places, to feel the times surrounded by the reality of it. It was very impossible to us to disconnect. I mean we were shooting in Thailand 12 hours per day. The extras were people who were actually in the tsunami. You finish your day and you go to a restaurant to have dinner and the owner of the restaurant has a story about the tsunami and you want to know about it. So, all the time we were being faithful to that and tried to get as much reality as possible.
Durling: How did the survivors react to you guys reenacting what happened to them?
Bayona: Thai people are some of the nicest people in the world. They were very happy that the film was being made. For example we shot in the same hospital where everything happened. The people from the hospital came to us very gratefully because for them to do the film was a way for them to tell the people how they behaved in the tragedy and show all the things they did in those days.
Durling: Ewan, 90% of the time you were with the two young boys acting, what was that experience like working with them?
McGregor: Oh it was fantastic. The three boys were very different actors and we had a very short space of time to set up the family. We had eight minutes, I think, of screen time to create a family that you care about and you want to root for through this terrible event. And that was all really down to how the kids behaved with us. Because the Christmas morning scene for instance, Naomi and I were given a camera and we put the boys to bed in the room and said ok and the boys didn’t know what would happen but were told to go to sleep. And then 20 minutes later we came in. I don’t know if they were sleeping or not, but we woke them up anyways and then for 20-30 minutes we improvised a Christmas morning. They had no idea that there was going to be Christmas presents outside, and we opened the presents and it was all down to them really as little actors whether we believed that or not. Naomi and I are both parents so it made that easier and familiar talking to children. Tom is an amazing actor, there is no question. He is just a great professional actor; he has learned his trade in the theater. He spent two years playing Billy Elliot in the West End stage in London and he has learned the discipline of what it means to be an actor and understands it. We all had the privilege of watching him learn and how to take that theatrical knowledge and use it for camera, which he did unbelievably well. Samuel was our middle boy was the least natural actor, I think it would be fair to say, because he was a real analytical little boy. He looked at us during I remember the scene at the end, where Naomi is taking away for her operation before we leave and we are not sure if she is going to make it. It’s an emotional moment and we are standing there and I have little Oaklee in my arms. Tom and I are crying and Bayona called cut, and Simon looked at us and said “why are you crying?” I said “well, we are all crying”. We were always very clear with the children there was never any moment were they were actual frightened or actually scared or upset. We were very careful with them because it can happen on films were children are blackmailed or emotionally blackmailed into giving a performance which none of us wanted to be a part of. They were trained and very clear that this was the movie mom and that this was your real mom. There was never any gray areas for them. But I was saying, “well, Samuel we don’t know if your mummy is going to come back from this operation, so we are upset”, and he went “yes I know, but why are you actually crying?”. He was very analytical of that, but boy did he give a great performance. And the scene where I tell him that he has to look after his little brother, he was absolutely fantastic. And Oaklee, who was five when we shot the film, was just an absolute actor. I don’t know if he knows or knew what he was doing but literally he would be in the scene improvising, crying with real tears, and improvising dialogue coming up with lines. There is a scene where the American tourist does not give me the phone; did he call him a bastard or something? “You bastard”, he was improvising and was getting really angry with the guy. “Give him the phone you bastard!” he said. He is absolutely improvising in the moment and just an amazing little man. The downside of it for me was before every take when everybody is telling us “get ready, standby, roll the cameras’. At that moment, they don’t really roll the cameras at that point though like to think that they do, everyone disappears and of course it’s just me and the two wee boys. And I was Mr. Misery, the last person before each take going, “ok we are really really sad, let me see your sad face. That is not sad enough. Uhh..Ok. We may never see your mother again”. I would be “no, that is not sad enough.” So by the end of the film I was Mr. Misery and I would see myself through their eyes going “Oh no, here he comes…”.
Durling: Speaking of that, because you called their performances fantastic. The scene where you are on the phone, had such a range of emotion, it was like a complete symphony was going on. How difficult was it for you to do that scene?
McGregor: There is usually a scene, when you take a role, you read the script, take a costume fitting and talking to makeup and hair people or just things you do to start prepping for the film, that you gather from everyone else, is your moment. Once I did a film with directors and there was a scene in the film where they went “this is the scene the movie pivots on” and I said “well I can’t fucking do it now”. So this was that scene for me, I knew that this was the moment for Henry where he has managed to hold it all in because he hasn’t had time to fall apart, and we talked about how breaking down was a luxury. We talked to one German survivor who lost both his parents in the tsunami and he talked about how after the first hours after the tsunami he managed to get to a place of safety. I think it was near one of the waterfalls; and he said he took himself way over to the side so that he could sit down and cry, and it was the first moment he did so. And he went off and sat down and just lost it for however long. And he had no idea how long he cried for but then he picked himself back up again and carried on with what he had to do, and it was almost like a luxury to be able to breakdown. So this was the moment where we see Henry able to do that, so as a result this made me very nervous when we came out. But I like acting for that reason. For when you walk out of the trailer and you don’t exactly know what is going to happen, and then an hour or 20 minutes later you walk back to your trailer going “oh ok that was it, it worked”. And that was one of those moments for me, where I wasn’t exactly sure how it was going to play. I knew the importance of it and it made me very scared but then we just did it.
Durling: Bayona, the 10 minutes of the tsunami where Naomi and Tom are being thrown around with all that water, that wasn’t CGI. You had gallons and gallons of water being pushed on them. Can you describe how that was done?
Bayona: We realized from the very first moment that since, this film is based off a true story. It had to be very realistic, and nowadays it seems that visual effects are lazy and they go straight to CGI, and go straight for all this imagination/imagery that is great for fantasy films, but in this case it would have been like doing a CGI show in the middle of a very realistic story. So, we decided to do it for real. It was the craziest idea that you could have. I mean no one trusted us at the time, in order to be able to do this. But the truth is we spent, for just that ten minutes, a year working every day with key member of the crew talking about the hundred shots that we had to do. We created all those sequences in a huge water tank in Spain and we didn’t use CGI water at all – we went to the old fashion way. I mean, sometimes you look at the old movies and you see that they are more realistic. Films from the 70s compared to things they are doing right now. So we went to that way.
Durling: So Naomi and Tom were always safe and were harnessed?
Bayona: Well sure, I mean the main reason was to have all that security. One of the things that we needed to see, them in the water, and we had the camera a lot of the time very close to them so they had to be the actors in the water. We put them in these teacups with railways so we can move them with joust sticks, and they were only trying to pretend that they were swimming even though in fact we were moving them. I mean, I used to say the best visual effects in the sequence are always the actors. They were amazing, they were swallowing water, and while we were shooting those 10 minutes in a month, they were swallowing dirty water every day; they were dealing with that in a very extremely demandingly physical way. Finally it worked, because we started to shoot the sequence and we hadn’t seen results so we started without knowing how it was going to end up like. But in the end it really worked.
Durling: I want to ask you about that gorgeous sequence where when Naomi is in light in the water and she breaks through a wall if you will, and it goes into total darkness of light, and it creates beautiful imagery. Can you discuss it?
Bayona: I think one of the themes in the story was the connection between this mom and son, and I like the fact that you have to reveal that moment because you know that it had to be there again and again on their minds after the tragedy. So I thought that was a very interesting moment to go back to that moment, and to see it kind of like a dream where it starts with the mother and ends with the son, so you can have a connection that goes beyond the physical and goes more in a spiritual way. In fact, this tends to be very abstract so that everyone could have their own idea what this scene is about; where this mother is having a rebirth I some way and is not the same anymore once she goes out of the water.
Durling: And the ball. I know you want to leave things ambiguously, but you intentionally put that red ball to symbolize for us either hope or redemption or fate…
Bayona: You are right, I mean the truth is that that when the ball went out into the water and Lucas went out to get it, the ball was there determining the fate of this family. So I thought that it was a perfect symbol of fate or of being lucky. It was very interesting to play with that idea. It is very difficult though because when you work on a script you work it so that coincidences don’t happen. In the film it needed to be shown that people deserve their own destiny by what they do. However in this case it was very tricky to talk in those terms because with this family it was all about being luck. At the end they were a symbol of all these families that were lucky or unlucky in how the event played out.
Durling: How do you feel, and most of the audience doesn’t know this, about the fact that this movie opened in Spain and has broken all records and has made more money than Titanic?
Atienza: It has been an amazing surprise. We know that the film was popular before it was out but the good news about that weekend was that we were hearing from people that were texting and calling us around Spain, that they couldn’t see it in the theaters because the tickets were sold out. And there was a line of people waiting even. It seems like the last time I was feeling like that was E.T. It was really exciting and very moving for everyone involved. It was a great weekend.