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The Impossible - Juan Antonio Bayona and Tom Holland interview

The Impossible, Juan Antonio Bayona

Interview by Rob Carnevale

SPANISH director Juan Antonio Bayona and teenage actor Tom Holland talk about their experiences of shooting The Imposible, based on the true story of one family’s experiences during the tsunami Boxing Day natural disaster of 2004.

Bayona also relays why he strove for authenticity throughout, including using real water to capture the intensity of the devastation, and why he was happy to liaise with the real-life family involved. They were speaking at a BAFTA event in London.

Q. Why did you want to make this movie?
Juan Antonio Bayona: I think the first time I read about the story I was so impressed and I remember emotions were running so high. Belen Atienza, the producer, couldn’t get to the end of the story and I was exactly the same when I was telling it to my friends, so I realised there was something there that goes beyond the context of a tragedy and talks about the human condition in a very brutal way, a very primal way. And I wanted to have that to demonstrate to people about what happened there and make something emotional.

Q. It looks very real. How did you achieve the effects?
Juan Antonio Bayona: Well, that’s because it was very real. For example, we used real water for all the water sequences. CGI water is so expensive. For that scene involving the tsunami they asked five times the budget that we had for the whole film’s visual effects! So, we said: “It’s going to be with real water!” But the truth is that one of the main reasons we decided to go with real water is that CGI water doesn’t look real. This film is based on a true story, so it had to feel true. We didn’t want to do a CGI show in the middle of the action. So, we went with the real stuff, which was also a crazy, crazy idea because it meant we spent a year in development with key members of the crew and we shot for a month. In fact, Naomi [Watts] and Tom [Holland] spent six weeks in the water.

Q. Tom, how did you feel about shooting in water?
Tom Holland: For me, personally, I was 13 at the time and it was like having your own personal water park. I was on wires and being thrown around. I was learning how to scuba dive. It was a very real environment. The debris would hit us in the face… it was obviously rubber and stuff. But it was a very real feeling that we could use to benefit our performance. And they gave us full on lines to say and after about two runs in the machine we realised we couldn’t say anything. Whenever you opened your mouth you just swallowed so much water. So, everything that you see is very real.

Q. Juan, how involved were the real family?
Juan Antonio Bayona: We worked very closely with them, especially Maria who was very involved in the script. She gave us extraordinarily detailed stories. The level of detail… this is a film where you can get caught up in the big important ideas and lose sight of the important small ones. But I love details… storytelling is a lot about detail and she was working with us. It was great. She came a couple of times while we were shooting. They saw the film as soon as we had a first cut. We were very nervous but we left them alone during the screening and they came out afterwards and were very proud of having this film made. I mean, it was not easy for them to give the decision to make this film because they are still dealing with a lot of guilt for surviving. But this is one of the strongest points in the film for me… it’s not so much about how many people died but rather how much suffering is there in survival? I remember when I was talking about The Orphanage, I loved the contradiction in how much suffering you can find in hope. So, this film is also a contradiction in how much suffering you can find in survival.

Tom, did you get to meet your real-life counterpart?
Tom Holland: I didn’t have time at first because I was always mucking around in the pool with my brothers. But then I was introduced to him and I froze… I couldn’t say anything because I knew what he’d been through. But you’d never know that he’d been that badly affected because he’s the most giving person. I was very aware of not crossing the line and not asking questions but he opened up and explained his story like no one else could because he experienced it. He was there a lot on set and if I had a question he would always answer in as full a way as possible. He would never hold back and say: “Actually, that’s really close to me, I don’t think I can share that.” He was always sharing. It’s amazing. He’s training to be a doctor now and it’s incredible how he was saving lives in 2004 and he’s going to be saving more lives in the future. I think it’s the perfect ending to his story.

Q. You shot in a lot of the real locations, didn’t you? Ewan, for instance, is stood in the actual pool his character was stood in when the tsunami hit…
Juan Antonio Bayona: Yeah, it had to be like that. Ewan is right in that this isn’t a movie about heroes. It’s all about faith, it’s about being lucky and when you start to do research you realise that you’re using a family as a symbol of what was there. You cannot put heroic actions in there because it wouldn’t be fair on the people who maybe didn’t make it. This was all about fate. So, being stood in that pool you realise that maybe standing two metres to the right could have determined a completely different fate.

So, we wanted to keep exactly the same positions that the gamily had when the water arrived, so we put them in the same pool in the same positions and we tried to be as faithful as possible to that moment. But there is something definitely heroic in the way they behave. They didn’t do anything to merit their survival but I think the one thing that moved me to decide to do this movie was when Maria decided to go and rescue the little boy. I mean, this woman was trying to look for shelter with her kid and she knew that she was dying because she’s a doctor. And in that moment she still decided on what might have been the last action in her life. It’s true that you cannot control life butt you can control your decisions and what this woman decided was to give a lesson to her son about what the right thing to do was. And that was something that was very emotional for me and heroic.

Q. Tom, what was it like working with Naomi?
Tom Holland: She was like a mother figure both on the set and off the set and she taught me a lot. I think that what’s amazing about Naomi is that even if she wasn’t on the screen, she’d give it 100% just to help you. It made it feel like we were a team. It was a really remarkable experience for me and I learnt so much. I went on the steepest learning curve that anyone could come up with. It was incredible.

Read our review of The Impossible

Read our interview with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts