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Capone keeps his head above water with THE IMPOSSIBLE director Juan Antonio Bayona!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

Five years ago, I was extremely fortunate to sit down with director Juan Antonio Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sánchez for their Spanish-language Gothic masterpiece, THE ORPHANAGE. That film moved me (and scared me) so profoundly that I made no secret to the two gentlemen that I hoped they would find another project to work on together down the road. The circumstances that brought them together was the 2004 earthquake that caused tsunamis in several Southeast Asian nations, killing thousands of natives and tourists alike as giant waves engulfed the coastlands.

The family in their latest collaboration, THE IMPOSSIBLE, appears to be British although they have been living in Japan for many years because of the husband's job. In reality the family that had their world turned upside down by this disaster was Spanish. Sánchez and Bayona re-create in horrifying detail the tsunami that struck Thailand as well as the nightmare aftermath that saw a separated family desperately trying to find each other despite insurmountable odds and grave injuries. Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts play the parents of three children, including the oldest playing by British child stage star Tom Holland.

THE IMPOSSIBLE has been accused of being manipulative. Yeah, no shit. But that in no means ruin the authenticity of this account of the solid emotional impact the movie brings. Most movies are manipulative, but this one at least respects its audience enough to couple the heavy emotions with award-worthy acting and writing. It's a film that simply owns your heart from early on. I had a chance to talk with Bayona one again last October when he was in town presenting THE IMPOSSIBLE as part of the Chicago International Film Festival. Please enjoy my spirited chat with Juan Antonio Bayona…

Capone: Hello, sir. It’s good to see you again.

Juan Antonio Bayona: It’s good to see you again.

Capone: It’s been five years.

JAB: It has been a long time. Next one should not take so long…I hope.

Capone: I was about to say, “Do we have to wait five years for the next one?”

JAB: I hope not. I mean it’s going to be something less difficult than this one. Oh my god.

Capone: I don’t think it could get any more difficult than this. So will Naomi Watts ever speak to you again after you put her through this nightmare, physically and emotionally?

JAB: She loves to do that, definitely. As much as you push her, the better for her. That’s what I like about her. We were rehearsing for a long time, for like a month, and from the very first rehearsal, I realized that she likes the director to push her to a limit and to an extreme where she cannot go alone. Do you know what I mean? And I also love that. And we definitely had a very good relationship with a lot of trust, and it was great. I didn’t stop between takes when we were shooting, so I remember going to the end of the take and going, “Okay, first position.” And we were shooting on celluloid film, but it was like going to the end and saying, “Okay, first position.” And there were times when she was so emotiona that way she couldn’t talk. Those were the best movements and she loved that.

Capone: I even wrote that down. I can’t imagine you saying, “Let’s do that again” with some of these scenes, because it feels like once is as good as it’s going to get for her. I can’t wrap my brain around going through that over and over again, because the film has such a raw nerve of emotion, and you don’t really draw a distinction between physical and emotional pain here. They're about the same for you.

JAB: It’s the physical that gets you to the emotional. If you think about the structure of the film, which is quite unique, the film starts with a shark and it works like that. Right at the beginning, they [Watts and Hollnad] are at in the tsunami and they don’t know what to think, they're in shock. And then you go to Ewan and that is the moment when the emotion starts to appear, but you need to go from the physical to the emotion. It’s like working with the actors, sometimes it’s like that; you watch for something physical, and then you’ve got the emotion.

Capone: But they're almost going through it at the same time, Naomi especially because she’s in a great deal of physical pain, but then also trying to wrap her brain around the fact that she may have lost half her family. We know going in that Ewan McGregor and the two boys have survived, but you wait a good 45 minutes to reveal that. I think the trailer even makes it clear that they all survive, but that doesn’t hinder the enjoyment of the film at all. How do you build a film and create drama when we know where it’s going?

JAB: I think the less you know about the story, the better. So don’t watch the trailer. [Laughs]

Capone: It’s your film, I have to watch the trailer.

JAB: One of the things I like about the film is the structure. It’s very unique and it’s bad enough to know anything going in. But the truth is that even though you know the ending of the story, it’s a pretty intense film to watch. They decided to tell everything in the trailer, okay, but the truth is that the film can survive that.

Capone: People seem to be a little nervous about going into a movie if they think there's going to be a sad ending. They want to know if it’s safe.

JAB: One of the concepts I like about this film is that if you put yourself in the mind, for example, of Alfred Hitchcock. For him, to get into a theater was an experience, and he said things like, “You cannot kill the a certain character, because you’ve signing a contract, a deal, with the audience, and they would never forget that." I thought, “Okay, that’s interesting, so this is the story of people who survive,” and people survive in the movie. I just wanted to show this, and have people feel like they survived the screening. so I thought “I’m going to try to make them believe the experience and send them back home without explanation,” because this is what happened to them.

You don’t have an explanation of the meaning of life, you just live. So I wanted the audience to live the experience, and it’s pretty intense some times. It’s sad sometimes. There’s a lot of relief also at the end, but to put the audience into all of these emotions and send them back home without explanation, and the reaction it provokes is that the audience starts to think about their own life at the end. I love that.

Capone: Was the structure always split in half like that? Where we don’t see part of the family for quite a while?

JAB: Definitely. The first time we heard about the story, it was exactly like that. She told the story in that way, and we were like trying to figure out “What happened? Did the kids survive?” and we tried to keep it the same.

[One of the film's producers had brought in the Spanish-language coffee table production book that includes several made-up tests for a leg wound Watts sustains at the beginning of the film, each image showing the wound get larger and larger.'

Capone: I’m just looking at this picture of her leg wound, which is horrifying when you first see it.

JAB: [Bayona proudly points to one of the images, which is by far the worst, with a large chunk of the leg missing.] This is my version here.

Capone: It's the worst one, of course. It’s even wider than the rest of them. Oh god. Let’s just talk about recreating the tsunami. How much of that is real? How much of that is effects? Walk me through the process. It’s not just about water; it’s the sound, this unbelievable sound that’s part rushing water, part like crashing metal.

JAB: I’m going to answer as I show you [He begins flipping through the book to find images of how they show some of the tsunami scenes.] It’s sometimes a little lazy that you have to do everything for digital, and I thought that, first of all we didn’t have the budget for doing digital. So we decided to do it with real water, which was a crazy idea, I can tell you know, but the truth is that it works.

Capone: With the actors in the water?

JAB: Inside these kind of tea cups. So we controlled the movement. But we definitely created a strong current of water and we put the actors inside, and it had to be like that, because we had to put the camera very close to the actors into the water. So we had to use them all of the time, and the truth is at the end, the main decision was not to use CGI water. We used all the time real water, so all of those shots are compositions of plates of real water.

Capone: Yeah, I noticed that here, that there’s one shot where you just see a portion of the water.

JAB: Definitely. You can also see it here. This is real, and this is a scale model.

Capone: So you used miniatures, too?

JAB: Yeah, we used a huge miniature for when the water rises.

Capone: But then you incorporate those shots where we see them just getting thrashed around underwater.

JAB: But you can imagine how complicated it was, because they were in tea cups, so every time the camera goes down, we have to change and go to another set. It was crazy, man.

Capone: I read that there was a really unusual shooting schedule too, that you sort of spread it out over a year. Why did that have to happen?

JAB: Because we didn’t know how to do the film. We had to stop, research, keep shooting, stop, research… It was crazy.

Capone: You know, most people do that before they start shooting.

JAB: We were doing it before. For a year, we were preparing the tsunami sequence, but we had to do the 90 percent the rest of the film, so we prepared the tsunami. We shot the tsunami. We stopped for three or four weeks and we were in Thailand preparing the rest of the shooting. We stopped for Christmas, went back to Spain, go back to Thailand, and then right at the end we keep shooting in Spain all the scale models and the more technical stuff. So at the end of the year, we were shooting for around 25 weeks.

Capone: And you used a mostly Spanish crew too, right?

JAB: In Thailand it was half and half--half Thai, half Spanish.

Capone: What was the reaction in Thailand to shooting this and recreating this?

JAB: It was very good. Also once we finished the film, we started to show the film to people who were there, and the reaction is also very good. But the truth is, Thai people don’t talk openly about it. It was very surprising the way they talk about the tragedy, because they are Buddhist, so they have a different view of death, and they deal with the tragedy very differently from the way we do it.

Capone: And these child actors that you have, especially Tom Holland, they are incredible. Was that an additional complexity, working with children?

JAB: I really love to work with kids, and it’s all about casting the good one, but in this film I will never talk about Tom Holland as a kid. He was 11 when he started to play Billy Elliot in London, so he’s been working that piece for three years, being the centerpiece of a huge musical with 100 actors. So he has this kind of reputation and discipline that theater gives you. So working with him, I was excited just the same as working with Naomi or Ewan.

Capone: What did the younger actors add to the process? What did they bring that maybe some of the adults might not have.

JAB: There’s some kind of innocence. The way Tom reacted to the story, he kept all the time his innocence. It was something very beautiful to watch sometimes. There is this moment where he sees his mother’s leg, and he was in shock and he couldn’t talk. There was this moment where I had to be like, “Are you okay?” and he couldn’t talk. It was happening for real, he couldn’t watch her wounds. He was very in shock, because he was able to get into the truth of each specific situation and he was able to keep the innocence of living the story, forgetting that he was in the crew and shooting.

Capone: Wow. There had been a couple of films that have dealt with this tsunami,--Clint Eastwood peripherally dealth with it in HEREAFTER, and then HBO made a movie. But your take on it is focusing on this one family. Why did you think that was the best way to tell this story and really get at the heart of it?

JAB: I wanted the audience to empathize with the characters. Nowadays you take a look at the news on TV and you're numbed watching the stories. So I wanted to be with the characters and tell the story of this family and this family let me understand what happened to the other people. It was a very Polanski idea of being in the minds of these people.

For example, when a tsunami is beginning, there is this iconic image of the water receding, but I didn’t want to show that. I wanted to keep the moment a surprise, because this is how they lived the situation. I wanted to create the same feeling in the audience. So as a director, what I choose is not having distance between the characters and the director. I was very close to them all of the time, into the water, into the emotions, and I want the audience to live the emotions exactly the same way.Take a look at the film, the emotions work in a very high way. It’s like when Ewan talks, when he calls Naomi's father, there is this moment where he's numb, trying not to think about the situation. But the moment he thinks about the situation, he collapses.

Capone: That’s a great scene.

JAB: The way the emotions worked in those days was from zero to 100, and I wanted to do it exactly the same way. The moment when the kids come together, he happiness there is crazy. I wanted to go from zero to 100 to put the audience into the moment, into the mood, and again to live all of the these emotions, different emotions, and you’re going up and down like a roller coaster and then you send them back home without explanation, and they're in shock. They realize suddenly that your life can change in a second. All of these ideas that, as a director, I don’t want to put in the story, but I want to provoke thoughts in the audience.

Capone: That scene with Ewan on the phone, where he bursts into tears, and there’s also a scene towards the end, and I don’t want to say what the circumstances are, where Naomi cries for really one of the first times…

JAB: It’s the second tsunami for them

Capone: I was about to say, it is literally like a wave of emotion.

JAB: You go from physical to emotional. That’s the idea, and I love that. I love that moment, because this is the moment where you talk about the other people. Some people tell me, “Why did you choose a white family to tell this story?” And I think, “If I wanted to tell just the story of this family, I will finish the movie much before where it ends.” The movie keeps going on to talk about the other people, the people you’ve left behind and all of the things you left behind, and that is all of the emotion that creates this second tsunami in the story.

Capone: And this is based on a real family’s experience. How did you come into contact with that family? How did you decide on that particular story?

JAB: I was very close to them, because they gave me the authority of what to show and what not to show on the screen. So Sergio worked with [the wife] very close for the script, and then they came for the shooting like a couple of times. They were there all the time.

Capone: They were around?

JAB: Yeah, not all of the time, but for example I remember shooting some sequences in the hospital asking Maria [the real-life wife's name and Watt's character's name] to send me emails telling about it, and it was very helpful, not just for me, but for the actors.

Capone: I love that there’s that discussion between the couple at the beginning about possibly having to move back home.

JAB: Move back home, because we never said where they were coming form.

Capone: I loved that that, for a little while, that’s the biggest problem they have to deal with on this trip.

JAB: I think if you take a look at THE ORPHANAGE, it was about maturity, and this is exactly the same. These are people who really don’t have any problems, and suddenly they have this big slap to the face.

Capone: I think it’s crucial that, especially during the tsunami sequences, but throughout the whole film, we have to feel like we are the ones going through it. How do you set about accomplishing that? How do you make sure that we are able to experience and keep the audience a part of it?

JAB: Most of the credit goes to the actors. They were amazing, but also everybody gave their best. If you take a look at the sets, they were huge. It was all about trying to put reality into the set. There was no blue screen; shooting the water sequences, everything was for real. For example, Naomi and Ewan, when they were playing sequences, they were surrounded by real people [the extras in the film were locals, many of whom survived this tsunami].

When Naomi is being dressed up by these Thai women, these Thai women were not professional actresses; they were from the same village where we were shooting. It’s the same with Ewan, when he plays the scene in the bus station, he is surrounded by real survivors. So before we shoot him telling his story, we shoot the other people telling their story, so you create a mood to have help the actor to get into the moment. It was a very emotional shoot. I kept using music all of the time on the set. It wasn’t just for the actors, but for the whole crew. There is a moment that everybody is very into the moment.

Capone: You said the real family went back there?

JAB: Yeah, for 10 days or something like that.

Capone: How was that for them? Was that the first time they have been back?

JAB: The first time, yeah.

Capone: How was that for them?

JAB: Well, it was a moment for them. They will tell you that for them it was easy, because nothing happened to them. They felt very privileged, and that’s one of the ideas of the film, which I like, talking about privilege as a painful thing. Looking at the light lantern sequence, for example, something that really happened on the set was that their lantern went to another direction, and the kids say “It’s going another direction,” and I thought “Wow, this is the idea of what’s going to happen to them.” The idea of talking of survival not as a victory, but also as a lot of suffering. That, again, tells you with the last moment of Naomi, crying and this is one of the things that I really liked about the real story.

Capone: Alright, well thank you so much. I will see you tonight.

JAB: Okay, great.

-- Steve Prokopy
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Readers Talkback
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  • Dec. 18, 2012, 10:02 a.m. CST


    by TheMachinist

  • Dec. 18, 2012, 10:05 a.m. CST


    by rusty

    great interview!

  • Dec. 18, 2012, 10:07 a.m. CST

    Ewan on Jimmy Fallon last night

    by rusty

    He talked about how intense the shoot was. The director had them stand in the same spots as the family when the tsunami hit. Second.

  • Dec. 18, 2012, 10:30 a.m. CST

    Saw it on 26/12/04. No wish to revisit it.

    by MotherPussBucket

    Strangely though, my daughter was born nine months to the day after the tsunami here in Phuket. That's my silver lining to that horrible cloud.

  • From what I've seen of the trailer this movie looks like it might be pretty good.

  • Dec. 18, 2012, 10:57 a.m. CST

    Finally, someone focuses on the real tragedy of the Tsunami...

    by MateoMcD

    No, not the thousands of brown people who died, the white family who were separated for... like... a long time!

  • is why I quit volunteering in that sector.

  • Dec. 18, 2012, 11:30 a.m. CST

    This is the most offensive movie I've ever heard of

    by BeMoreFunny

    Of course I haven't seen it and won't, but every time I see the preview I am just shocked at how absurd the premise for this movie is. A disaster in a foreign country is all well and good...until it affects a wealthy white family on vacation! And then it's a terrible tragedy that we can all relate to! So preposterously offensive and creatively barren. I can't wait until this movie bombs.

  • Dec. 18, 2012, 12:24 p.m. CST

    The Subplot with Ricky Gervais

    by Fart Vader

    As a wise, gay atheist oppressed by unreal ghosts, really ties the movie together. This is sure to win a Darwin Reeligion-Free Cinema award at Skepticon this year.

  • Dec. 18, 2012, 1:05 p.m. CST

    Well done

    by Brian

    I'll be checking this out.

  • Dec. 18, 2012, 1:31 p.m. CST

    Although this piques my interest, I'd rather see Hobbit.

    by Fart Vader

    As per Harry's suggestion.

  • Dec. 18, 2012, 1:32 p.m. CST

    RE: Offensive Racismness

    by Humie Bubbie

    I saw this at TIFF by mistake. It's a well done film, but there are only two Thai people who are ever part of the plot- an old man who drags Naomi Watts to safety in the roughest manner possible, and an incompetent hospital staffer. While all the white people are these incredibly emotional and loving family people, the Thai people come across as stoics who are just used to tragedy and are quietly enduring the hell their land just went through. Maybe that's just the perspective/baggage of a half-white, half-not guy. It's not really a racist film, it's just Hollywood ignorance. It was a Spanish family that went through this in real life, but we get a lily-white Brit couple instead of a Penelope Cruz/Javier Bardem led family.

  • Dec. 18, 2012, 3:15 p.m. CST

    As over 200,000 brown people die all around them...

    by theskypatrol

    ...five white people rise above the tide in a fight for survival!

  • Dec. 18, 2012, 4:54 p.m. CST


    by Nasty In The Pasty


  • Dec. 18, 2012, 6:35 p.m. CST


    by peter_dickinson

    Capone, why are you defending this ridiculously offensive film? You want to interview these people? Fine, but to apologize for their efforts in the beginning of this writeup is pathetic. Is that what it takes in order to do your job?

  • Dec. 19, 2012, 4:26 a.m. CST

    a movie starring brown people wont get financing

    by Hugh Gustavus

    unfortunately for a movie about the tsunami to be made it needs to star known actors who can help put together enough money to pull off the scale of the disaster. thats just the way it is, at least they are making about it, its been eight years

  • Dec. 19, 2012, 3:38 p.m. CST

    Brown people or white brunettes, apparently

    by MateoMcD

    Sure, there are some blonde Spaniards, but they don't usually look like McGregor or Watts...