Based on a true story, The Impossible centers on the devastating spectacle of the 2004 tsunami, specifically on how it caught up and separated a real Spanish family vacationing in Thailand. And in doing so, it plunges headlong into questions about life and death, and about suffering, survival, and hope.
But what’s truly impressive is that despite the watery weight of all that, the film–one of this season’s best–sticks closer to a nuanced and restrained (and often gritty, terrifying, and painfully realistic) naturalism that speaks to the strength and power of love and humanity without relying on easy emotional points or spoon-fed, feel-good Meaning. And does so in under two hours.
The Impossible stars Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and stellar young newcomer Tom Holland as an Anglicized version of the real-life family. It’s directed by The Orphanage‘s Juan Antonio Bayona and written by his Orphanage screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez based on a story from Maria Belon, whose family actually lived through the harrowing events.
Back in October, I sat down with director J.A. Bayona during the Chicago International Film Festival to talk about The Impossible; about making a film that doesn’t exploit an actual disaster and finding that tricky balance between realism and artistic impact.
Slight Spoiler Warning: The basic plot of The Impossible is that the family is split in half by the tsunami, both halves fearing the others are dead. The discussion below with Bayona doesn’t get specific, but it does touch on the film’s resolution, which is not a surprise if you know anything about the real family’s story or if you’ve seen any advertising for the film.
The Impossible opens today in select theaters and will be spreading wider across the country in coming weeks.
What I really like about the film is that it embraces realism and naturalism, in style, structure, and substance. Yet, it still plays as hopeful, uplifting, and inspirational, just in a more honest way.
Juan Antonio Bayona: I was always trying to be as faithful as possible to the emotion, even more than the facts–though we stayed very close to the facts. I wanted the audience to feel the journey.
I realized that what would be interesting would be to create an emotional journey, so the audience could go with the characters, feel all the emotions, but then send the audience back home without an explanation of it all. Because no one gets explanations in life.
These people were happy and wealthy and without problems, and suddenly they found themselves in Hell, and then someone put them back in a plane and sent them back home without an explanation. So I like to make the audience feel that, to provoke them to think about the meaning of that.
There is that sense of these humans being plucked up by fate and surviving purely by luck.
If you take a family and you put them in the center of this and give them heroic actions that define their survival, it would be like telling the other people who didn’t make it that maybe they didn’t do enough. So the heroic actions of these people have nothing to do with survival, and that’s what makes this story so beautiful.
We don’t know many things about this family before the wave, because I want them to be a blank canvas where the audience can project themselves, so you can participate in the story. One of the things I like about not knowing much about the characters before the wave is that you humanize them after the tragedy. People felt life in a more intense way.
One part in particular I like is the decision of the mother to save another little boy in addition to her own son. It’s the idea of keeping dignity—it’s not just survival, it’s about the price of survival. This is a woman who thinks she’s lost almost everything she has, except she’s not willing to lose dignity in front of her son. That was a beautiful message, it was the most important emotion to me. We started to do research, and we realized very soon that in most of the cases of people who had lost everything, they were the ones with the empathy to help others.
Bayona: I was very worried about that all the time. There is a moment of true happiness in the film when some of the characters come together, and I really want the audience to feel what they felt.
We recorded the score, and it was this very big, emotional piece of music for that scene. But I thought maybe some people in the audience would think the music is too much.
So I went to the real Lucas [played by Tom Holland in the film] and I asked him, “How do you remember that moment?” He told me, “It’s very easy to explain: It was the happiest moment in my life.” You realize as a film maker that you need to make the audience feel like that in order to create the emotional journey of the character.
We started to work again on the music, and the piece that we finally ended up with was very close to what we had started with. I saw myself as not the film maker but the messenger. I was taking all these emotions I was getting from these people and trying to put that in the film using cinematic tools.
Of course the film starts with a shock—the people in this story had no time to think about what was happening because of this sense of urgency. After that, the characters are kind of numb, they don’t want to think about what has happened. But the moment when Ewan McGregor’s character hears his extended family on the phone ask him “What do you mean, they’re not there?” he has to change and think it, and then he collapses. So the emotion goes from zero to a hundred.
The film also doesn’t lay out big, broad character arcs to be resolved at the end.
Bayona: If this would have been a more conventional film, you would have a problem with the couple at the beginning and at the end they would have solved it. This is what we were trying to avoid all the time. For me as a film maker, the conclusion had to be that there is no message—that there’s just a beautiful mystery.
I like the fact we’re telling a film to a wide audience, but with complicated conclusions. Because this film is not about survival as victory. There’s a lot of suffering in survival, so at the end you get to a point where you don’t have a two-dimensional message, where you live or you die. It’s much more complicated than that. It deals a lot with suffering and the guilt.
All these ideas were what I was interested in when I started to work on this, because I’ve never seen these ideas in another true survival disaster movie before.
The film goes from the physical to the emotional, so you have two tsunamis. You have the one you see at the beginning that is very physical, but then in the last shot we have one that is more emotional, portrayed with a single tear on Naomi’s face, and that has the same emotional impact as the first one.