‘The Impossible’ Director J.A. Bayona on the Challenge of Making a True Disaster Movie

By  · Published on January 5th, 2013

‘The Impossible’ Director J.A. Bayona on the Challenge of Making a True Disaster Movie

The Impossible is a tough movie for many reasons. With a real-life tragedy of this magnitude, if the smallest moment comes off as what we usually label as “entertainment,” the movie can become offensive with any hint of Roland Emmerich-ness. Director J.A. Bayona seems well-aware of this fact, as he was sure the right choices were made from the start.

Bayona didn’t want to make a “disaster” picture, but rather a faithful, emotional experience set through the eyes of a Western family during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Not only is bringing those feelings to screen a major storytelling challenge, but it’s also a technical one.

Here’s what Bayona had to say about being his own audience, why he may be romantic for film, and the many challenges of The Impossible.

We begin with a comment from the director:

It was a tough one to make.

In terms of getting the project off the ground or the technical challenge?

Well, it was definitely a huge challenge. The main challenge of it was telling the story of the tsunami through the point-of-view of this family and being respectful. It’s great showing the film to the audience, making them know the story. We did the film because we thought it was a great story. You’re scared when you show it, but you want the audience to know the story.

Do you think at all about how an audience will respond while making a movie like this?

As a director, you never think about how an audience would respond. You can think about that, but you will never change what you’re going to do. You can not control that, since you never know what an audience will think. I can consider myself my audience, and I’m not that weird. I’m fortunate in the things that I like, most people like. Also, when you’re working on a movie you’re never aware of what you’re doing is going to be on screen and lots of people are going to watch it. If you’re aware of that, you’ll probably be so scared.

Basically it’s better to think only one person will see your movie?

Yeah. You’re watching the movie for the first time when you’re working with the actors in front of the camera. You don’t think about how the audience will react. You discover the film.

So you never think on the set, “Would this image be too much for people?”

There was always the question of going to the people there and knowing their opinion. Talking to those people, they want to see something faithful on the screen, which meant we had to show some uncomfortable images. When you’re portraying a tough situation you have to show some of the things in there. Of course there is a moment where you stop and think whether there’s a moment that doesn’t reveal the truth that was there, which comes before shooting. It was always a question of going to the people there and asking them. I asked one survivor, “What would you think of me showing corpses?” He answered, “If you don’t show corpses in the film, I’ll feel angry. The tsunami was about death and devastation.” These people want to see what was close to reality. Those are the people who have the authority over what is the right thing to do. All the big decisions were made after those discussions.

A fine line for a movie like this is whether the scene is traumatic and faithful or a “movie-movie” suspense moment which feels more like entertainment.

Well, I think it can be entertainment by making people think about what they’re watching. To make them think, it was making them go through the emotional experience. The tsunami happened so fast none of those people could stop to think about what’s happening or even to cry. I remember being told it was a privilege to cry. I want the audience to feel the situation. At the end, I want them to think about what happened. It’s an emotional journey, which wants to be a thought-provoking experience.

In terms of the technical side of the film, directors always say, “Don’t shoot on water and don’t work with kids.”

[Laughs] And doing that in English was even worse, because it’s not my first language. It was dealing with kids, water, a different country, great actors, and in another language…

Was shooting the tsunami as difficult as you thought it would be?

Yeah, especially for the actors. For us, it was a technical challenge, but it was physical for the actors. Naomi [Watts] spent a month in the water, and she was already having stomach problems on her third day of shooting. You can imagine how physically demanding it would be

When you are working under conditions like that, is there still room for experimentation?

I always try to do more than one or two takes, if we have the time. With the water sequences it was very technical, so you are attached to pre-visualization work. I tried to shoot with two or three cameras at a time for a documentary style. For the rest of the film, everything was very prepared. For a film of this scale, it has to be prepared before going on set.

When it came to portraying the tsunami, did you try to use a lot of practical effects?

Yeah, a lot of practical effects, digital compositions, and miniatures. We always wanted to mix a lot of different techniques at the same time, so there are moments where you don’t know what you’re watching.

Did you shoot digitally or on film?

We shot on film. I think your behavior is different when you work on digital or film. It seems that … I feel most focused if I’m working on film. I don’t know if it’s a romantic thing, but our cinematographer preferred to work on film because he really, really likes to work the light in an old fashioned way. I’m not saying digital is doing it the other way around, though. On my next film I may do it digitally, because it’s come so far in the past four or five years. For example, we chose to shoot on film, because the reflections on the water created very different areas of bright lights and dark lights in the same frame [with digital]. Film was better with capturing the different levels of light within the frame. Now, it would probably be exactly the same shooting digital.

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The Impossible is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.