It’s been eight years since the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated coastal regions of South-east Asia, killing close to 300,000 people. Like most of us, the Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona was at home, watching the tragedy unfold on the TV news.
“You feel like you’re very far away,” says Bayona, echoing the feelings we all have when natural disasters strike in another part of the world. So it comes as something of a shock to watch The Impossible. “The whole concept of the film was to make people feel the experience of being there.” he says.
Based on the real life experiences of one Spanish family – the mother, María Belon, receives a story credit on the film – The Impossible is so immediate it will leave you breathless.
Set in the Thai beach resort of Khao Lak, the film introduces us to the British businessman Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor), his wife Maria (Naomi Watts) and their three young boys.
When the wave strikes, Maria and their eldest, Lucas (Tom Holland), are swept away, leaving behind Henry and their two youngest, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast).
Amid the chaos and carnage left by the tsunami – brilliantly recreated in a staggering 10-minute sequence – Henry sets out to reunite his family. But if this sounds like another exploitative Hollywood disaster movie, think again. As he managed in his 2007 horror debut The Orphanage, Bayona puts character before spectacle.
“Maria was telling me that the whole film is not about the tsunami; it’s about the moment when devastation gets to your life,” he says. “This is the inspirational thing about the story – it goes beyond the tsunami and talks about human beings.”
McGregor, 41, and a father of four, admits he was drawn by the opportunity, for the first time in his career, to play the patriarch.
“I’ve never made a film that explores parenthood – the love and fear we have for our children, the dread that something might go wrong – they might get lost, they might get sick,” he says. “These are things I know intimately but I’ve never really explored all that in my work. And that’s what it felt like for me, because I was just cuddling those little boys all the time.”
If McGregor delivers one of the most emotional performances of his career, Watts – who has just been nominated for a Golden Globe for the movie – offers up one of her bravest. She spent a month filming the actual tsunami sequence – when Maria and Lucas are torn away from their family – in a giant tank in Alicante, Spain. It meant enduring days in the water, often strapped to a rotating contraption. “A lot of it was no acting involved,” she says. “You’re literally being thrust and sucked under, and you’re genuinely gasping for air.”
It took six special effects companies a year to create the tsunami sequence, blending footage from the tank with material shot at the actual hotel in Thailand where María Belon and her family were holidaying.
“You could still see the wreckage in certain places,” says Watts. “The wetland, the marsh, had completely changed – the way the trees were growing or not. Like any massive disaster, people are still trying to process it. The need to talk about it never goes away, no matter how many years on you are from it.”
That can be seen in the fact that Belon brought her children out to the set – the first time they returned to Thailand since the -tsunami.
“It was very important that they all came, it was very important that they all came together,” stresses McGregor. “But it was very odd that when they arrived we’d dressed the hotel in its post-wave devastation. They arrived at the hotel in the same state as it had been in when they left. And that must’ve been very shocking for them.”
Still, far removed from previous films – such as Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter – which touched on the tsunami, Bayona’s The Impossible is all about confronting a disaster of such life-shattering magnitude.
“It’s about how to go through an experience where you survive at the end,” explains Bayona. “We call it ‘survivor’s guilt’ – how tough was it not just to survive but to leave Thailand? It’s not just about survival, but the price you will pay for surviving.”
For many, it’s a cost they’re still counting.
The Impossible is out now in UAE cinemas