Spanish film director Juan Antonio Bayona (or J.A. Bayona for short) made a name for himself back in 2007 with the horror movie “The Orphanage.” It earned him the respect of his fellow Spaniard Guillermo Del Toro who helped produce the film, and it was a big box office hit worldwide. From there Bayona was offered a number of different movies to make including “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” but he was interested in doing something that was far more challenging for him.
Bayona found that challenge with “The Impossible,” a movie based on the true story of one family that managed to survive the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand. It showed him to have great skill in getting strong performances out of an incredibly gifted cast, and he staged a tsunami scene so horrific that it puts the one in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” to utter shame. It proves to be a cinematic experience that’s as brilliant as it is gut wrenching to watch, and you won’t be able to ignore Bayona’s talent after you have seen it.
Bayona was at the Los Angeles press conference for “The Impossible” which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, and I was fortunate enough to attend one of the roundtable interviews with him. We all thanked him for making this film which many of us agreed is one of the best of 2012.
Question: This is a great movie. Did you realize the scope of it when you got involved? Did you realize how inspiring it would be to moviegoers in general?
J.A. Bayona: Well it was getting bigger and bigger as much as we were getting into it. The first impact we had when we heard Maria’s story was very emotional, and we wanted to figure out where that emotion was coming from. Even though it is a tough story and we’re talking about a tragedy, the emotion was coming not from a dark place. It was something that was coming from the way these people gave to the other ones in the worst moment. So I thought that was very powerful and it was a very beautiful idea of approaching that.
But then you talk to Maria and you realize how much suffering there is still nowadays. They call it “survivor’s guilt” even though she doesn’t like to call it that. She will talk about survival suffering because she doesn’t feel guilty for anything she did, but it’s really that there is a lot of suffering. I thought that would be interesting to tell the story of this family going there and then going back home and not talking about a disaster in a compassionate way and where you only talk about whether you live or you die. There’s a lot of gray space in the middle.
From the very first meeting that we had we agreed that this was not just the family story. It was the story of many people, but the whole ending talks about that; how do you go home to the real world when your real world disappears? I like to see the film tell the story about the end of innocence. They don’t feel the same anymore, they lose the sense of security and their life is not the same anymore.
Question: How big of a challenge was this movie for you?
J.A. Bayona: Well of course there was a huge challenge in the technical aspects of the film, but for me that was exciting and I was not worried about that. The real challenge was how to portray the story of the people who were there and how to give the big picture of what went on there and being respectful of the time.
Question: How much the movie was real and how much what was done with CGI? The movie looks very real even though some of those effects were probably done digitally.
J.A. Bayona: Well it had to be like that because the story was very simple in reality so it could look like a visual effects movie. It had to feel real all the time. We did a lot of things for real like practical shooting and practical effects, and we also used a lot of CGI for greeneries and digital composition. But the great thing is to always mix several techniques so there’s a moment where everything gets lost so the audience doesn’t know what they are watching.
Question: Was anything done to reduce the carbon footprint of the movie or in trying to conserve resources?
J.A. Bayona: Everything these days is now very regulated, so you have to be very respectful. For example in shooting the water sequences in Spain the waters had to be darkened with a coloring used for food because that water had to be sent back again to the sea. Everything had to be natural. The water had to be decidedly desalinated before it got sent back to the sea.
Question: Did you think about shooting the movie in another country other than Spain, or was it always your intention to shoot there?
J.A. Bayona: We did it in Spain because we found this huge water tank which is the second biggest in the world I think. So it was the perfect place to shoot all of the water sequences and once we finished with that we went to Thailand and we shot in the same places the tsunami took place in.
Question: The sound design in this movie is incredible, especially in the opening sequence. The screen is black but you already feel like you’re underwater. Can you tell us more about the sound design for this movie?
J.A. Bayona: One of the things that I soon realized is that the characters didn’t have time to stop and think about what was happening. Everything was so fast that we had to deal more with emotions and sensory details. I was intellectualizing the sequence a lot with the actors, but in the end in front of the camera everything had to be sensorial and about the emotions.
Sound has a great role in the film, and I talked a lot with Maria about the sounds and she was telling me for example that the sounds of the wave reminded her of the engine of the plane. This is the moment where I had the idea of starting with the sound of the engine because the movie was already starting and finishing on a plane. The way the plane sounds at the beginning and at the end is completely different, and that sets the behavior of the characters of how they go to Thailand and how they came back from Thailand. The sound of the way was very interesting. It sounds wilder underwater than on the surface because that’s where the danger was with all the debris and all the things which were dangerous for the people who were in the water were underwater.
Maria was telling the also about the bloody birds, and I said “what do you mean by the bloody birds?” She told me that “once the water receded and we were completely alone in the debris and the devastation I started listening to the birds singing like nothing had happened, and I hated them at that moment because nothing happened to them.” This gave me the idea of how nature goes back to normal and that puts the characters very close to reality at the time, so of course we played a lot with this sound and with the music.
It’s very interesting to see how music plays a lot with things that the characters can find the words to explain. I remember the moment when Maria was being dragged by this old man, and she sent me a message that was four pages of all these things that she felt in that moment. And in that sequence you only have a man dragging a woman so I focused only on Naomi’s eyes and I put some small music in their going up slowly, and only with that Naomi’s performance and only with their eyes and seeing the connection between this woman and this man. Using some notes of music I was able to try to create a thought provoking experience in the audience, and that deals a lot with the four pages that Maria sent me.
Question: When this project began it was intended to be a Spanish production with Spanish actors, but then it became this huge thing. When did you decide to make this change?
J.A. Bayona: Well we wrote the script in Spanish and we soon realized that 80% of the dialogue was already in English because people had to talk in English to be understandable to each other. Also I didn’t want to put the accent on nationalities because I wanted to portray all the people on the same level. I wanted to portray all the people like people, no nationalities. So it felt natural to go to English-speaking actors because first of all to finance a movie like this you need important names, but most of all I never wanted to put an accent on nationalities. If you see the film, they never say where they are from. All the time they talk about going back home. I wanted them to be very universal like a wide canvas so you can project yourself in there.