“The Impossible,” directed by Juan Antonio Bayona in only his second film outing, takes the opening scene of Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter,” which depicted the tsunami that hit Thailand on December 26, 2004, and expands the terrifying wall of water that swept onto the southeast coast of Asia into a feature film. The film had its World Premiere at the 48th Chicago Film Festival on Thursday, October 18, and Director Bayona, who was present, was given an award as an important emerging visionary filmmaker. (Previous film, 2007’s “The Orphanage”).
The true story focuses on a family celebrating Christmas in Khao Lak, Thailand. Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor), oldest son Lucas (Thomas Holland), and younger siblings Simon (Oaklee Pendergast, the youngest) and Chris (Samuel Joslin) are about to see Paradise turn into Purgatory.
The opening of the film features a wall of sound, which, when a picture materializes, turns out to be the plane landing for the family to go on holiday at Orchard Beach Resort. There is an effective swelling orchestral score (Fernando Velazquez) over the realistic scenes of devastation, which were shot in a studio in Spain with the second-largest tank in the world. (Clint Eastwood’s tsunami scenes were also shot in a tank, and were easily the best part of that film.) Geraldine Chaplin also has a small role as a 74-year-old woman who befriends the young Lucas in a camp following the disaster.
In addition to following the ordeal of, first, Maria (Naomi Watts) and Lucas (Thomas Holland), who are swept away, endure injuries, and wind up in a run-down local hospital and, secondly, the father Henry (Ewan McGregor), who is alive with his two sons, but is desperately seeking reunion with his wife. Each group thinks the worst has happened and that the others have perished. Family members are separated as the younger boys are evacuated to the hills. I
In many ways, this is a story of reunions that take place repeatedly throughout the movie…not once, but several times. At film’s end, Maria is being evacuated to Singapore Hospital for surgery on her leg, and, subsequently, the family experiences much survivor guilt because they survived and are all still alive when so many did not. Estimates place the loss of life from the tsunami as high as 300,000 dead, five thousand of them in Thailand.
At the conclusion of the film, Director Bayona answered questions from the audience as follows:
Q: Was it your mission to make us cry?
A: It was a very, very emotional journey. My producer heard the story on the radio on the first anniversary of the tsunami. It was the first and only time the family ever told their story publicly. They were crying when retelling the story. This story goes beyond the context of the tsunami and transcends it. We worked on location with the family and with real survivors playing roles. There was something very emotional about that.
Q: When the family visited the set, what was their reaction?
A: It was very difficult for the family. It might seem easy, because they all survived, but they feel a lot of suffering and guilt. This is really a film about people who survive and who get a second chance. There is suffering in survival, also. These people went to Paradise and it became Hell.
Q: How did you recreate the tsunami?
A: All sequences for the tsunami were shot in a water tank in Spain, the second biggest in the world. It took a year for those sequences alone. At the end, I think it looks quite real. The actors were involved in the tank with the rushing water, which had food coloring used to make it look dirty.
Q: So, you had the actual actors in the water?
A: Yes. We had to be very close to the actors and put the cameras in the water. The actors wanted to do it themselves, not using stunt doubles. They spent one month in the water. It was very hard on Naomi watts, who got bronchitis.
Q: What was your shooting schedule?
: The whole process took more than 4 years. It took 1 year to do the tsunami sequence. Then, we’d prepare other parts of the film. We went to Thailand. Then we went to Spain for Christmas. Then we went back to Thailand for a month. Then, we went to Spain and there was technical shooting of such things as the overhead shot of the hotel, which is a miniature.
Q: Where did you find the young actors, who were so natural and so good?
A: Well, Thomas Holland had been playing in Billy Eliot in England for 3 years, so he was used to having a large cast that revolved around his role. It was amazing to see him perform with Naomi Watts. I was blown away by their connection to one another. The younger two boys had coaches who would help try to explain what they should be reflecting.
Q: In the paper lantern sequence, as the family celebrates Christmas Eve, illuminated paper lanterns are sent into the sky, and one of the boys says, “Ours is going in a different direction.” Was that a scripted line?
A: No, but it was perfect. This family did illustrate the suffering that privilege causes.
Q: When you returned to Thailand, was it still destroyed?
A: No, it was rebuilt within a year.
Q: Is the sense of isolation that Naomi and Thomas experience (as do others) intentional?
A: Yes. Their hotel was far away from the others. We shot the mother’s story (with Lucas/Thomas) first, and then we shot the father’s experiences. It was very emotional when Ewan has his scene at the bus station, because all of those people really were survivors, and they told their stories. It was one of Ewan’s greatest tasks.
Q: What was the time span during which the movie supposedly takes place?
A: 48 hours.