When the production team behind Summit’s The Impossible met with 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami survivor Maria Belon at a quiet coffee shop in Barcelona in the spring of 2008, they weren’t certain that she would agree to have her family’s harrowing story told in a feature film. Producer Belen Atienza knew they were in for an emotional afternoon—she was the one who first heard Belon’s story on the radio, a drama so profound that it left Atienza in tears after it concluded. But Atienza, director Juan Antonio Bayona, screenwriter Sergio Sanchez—who have a shorthand from working together on Bayona’s Spanish-language horror hit The Orphanage—gained Belon’s trust in a simple way: They listened.
“We were all really nervous,” Atienza recalls about the initial meeting. “She talked for three and a half hours. It was exhausting for her and for us. We didn’t open our mouths—we were just listening—and she was extremely thorough.”
The resulting film, an almost unbelievable tale of one family’s struggle to reunite amidst a country’s horror and loss, stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, whose performances started some Oscar buzz after the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September. The Impossible also has the benefit of being cofinanced and distributed by a studio familiar with nurturing films through awards season, Summit, which was behind the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker in 2008. The Impossible doesn’t open in the United States until Dec. 21, but it has already earned the distinction of having the biggest opening weekend in Spain’s boxoffice history, with $13.3 million on 638 screens.
Though bringing Belon’s story to the screen wasn’t without its challenges—from uncooperative weather to complex visual effects—Sanchez says Belon made her intentions clear during the first meeting, and it became a constant refrain during production.
“Maria kept saying, ‘This is not our story. This is the story of lots of people,’” Sanchez recounts.
The first step in giving the story more universal appeal and demonstrating how the tsunami’s destruction of 300,000 lives touched multiple countries was to dramatize the family itself. Belon is Spanish, but Watts and McGregor play their roles as British. Sanchez says the decision was clear after he finished the first 40-page treatment for the film, most of which ended up having English dialogue. Atienza adds that, more importantly, it made sense from a
“We needed to finance the budget, which was 30 million Euros, and the Spanish-speaking market is not so big,” she says. “There is no question that an English-speaking film has a potential for a much wider worldwide audience.”
Yet as big a concession to the truth as that might seem, it’s one of the few instances that the script veers from the details that Belon provided during months of meetings and email exchanges with the production team. However, 30 drafts later, Sanchez says some aspects of the story didn’t make the final script both to compress time and to keep the script grounded.
“Sometimes we were just bringing the story down a few notches,” Sanchez explains, “because there were some moments in the real story that were so incredible that it’s, like, ‘Nobody will believe this. We have to make this simpler because otherwise it’s going to look like a movie.’ ”
Watts, who was the first actor to sign on to the film, admits that hearing the concept for the script didn’t initially pique her interest. But that all changed when she started reading.
“Right from the first page I felt like, this feels real, this feels authentic,” Watts explains. “Yes, the tsunami is the important backdrop of the film, but at the core of it was this beautiful family story with a whole lot of heart that I found incredibly moving.”
For McGregor, it was a chance to play a role he’s had in real life for more than a decade. “One of the main draws for me was that it was the first time in my career that I explored parenthood. I mean, I must’ve had some kids in films before, but not many, and I’ve certainly never made a film that’s really about that relationship,” McGregor says.
Re-creating such devastation on a grand scale meant that Bayona had to ensure that every scene in the film was fully realized before shooting commenced, so that he could focus on the performances. Ultimately, he storyboarded the whole film.
“Everything had to be very controlled. Everything had to be written on paper,” Bayona explains, adding, “so all the time I was trying to put life back into the process.”
Bayona allowed for about three weeks of rehearsals: Watts and her young costar Tom Holland worked together, while McGregor and the two actors playing his sons, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast, forged their own relationships for the screen. (Incidentally, Watts and McGregor’s characters are separated for much of the film, so they didn’t spend any time rehearsing together.)
Bayona was intently focused on maintaining the realism required to engage the audience, which is why many of the extras are locals who lived through the tsunami and there’s no digital water at all in the film.
“We did it almost the old-fashioned way,” the director says. “We barely used green screen, and sets were huge. We were trying to be faithful to the real story.”
Watts and Holland shot their wave scenes in the second-largest tank in the world in Spain, strapped into containers Bayona refers to as “teacups” to keep them protected as a series of pumps churned the water. It took about a month to complete the tank shots.
“We did have a lot more dialogue on the page than we actually ended up saying,” Watts says. “We quickly worked out that you cannot speak in those situations because you’d just be swallowing a bucket full of water. It felt very safe, but it was difficult.”
The final onscreen tsunami sequence was a series of tank shots and miniatures, which when combined with a bass-heavy soundtrack is one of the most frightening scenes in the film. It also happened to be a real nail-biter for Atienza.
“We had to destroy the miniature because the big wave goes against the hotel. The miniature was really expensive, so we had one shot for that. That was the most tense moment,” Atienza recalls.
The tension continued when the production moved from Spain to Thailand, where the monsoon season was supposed to have just ended. Nevertheless, it rained from mid-October through Christmas, forcing some rewriting and shooting some of the more emotional scenes earlier than anticipated.
“For the first time in a century, the monsoon lasted until Christmas,” Atienza says. “So our nightmare was that we were running out of interior effects to shoot. We had to change the schedule around all the time—the art department went totally crazy.”
Despite the forces conspiring against completion of the film, Bayona says he believes he did justice to the story that Belon first told in that café in Barcelona. There was no official screening for the family because Belon was onhand for much of the shoot. But the family of five was at the film’s Toronto premiere, where the audience gave them a standing ovation.
“It already felt like a film when Maria was telling the story on the radio,” Atienza recalls.