Revisiting four months of 'The Impossible' with Oscar's deadline looming
A plea for Academy members to consider one of the best pictures of the year
It's the end of October and I'm moderating a Q&A with Bayona and Holland. McGregor wanted to make it, but was trapped shooting "August: Osage County" in Oklahoma. As I introduce the director and star both are shocked to discover the SAG nominating committee members and other guild reps are giving them standing ovations. I've done a number of major awards season Q&As with big stars, but I've never seen this reaction. Especially for two relative unknowns. Afterward, they are joined by Bayona's producing partner Belén Atienza and the trio is on a high after the audience’s response.
Credit where credit is due, Atienza actually discovered the story of Maria Belon and her family after the survivor spoke about their experiences on a major Spanish radio news program. Bayona had made his name with the Guillermo Del Toro-produced horror-thriller “The Orphanage,” but after Atienza conveyed the Belons' harrowing story he couldn’t get out of his head.
“I realized how hopeful it was and I became obsessed with this story and started an obsession for me because I don't know why, but the story talked to me very straight,” Bayona says. “I mean it's a very universal story and I think one of the most interesting things is that the natural disaster provides the context to talking in a more universal way.”
It turned out Maria and her family weren't keen on reliving the horrific memories of loss and devastation they experienced during the tsunami outside of that one radio interview. Eventually they earned enough of the filmmakers trust to give their blessing, but they had one specific request that became a torch for Bayona.
“The only thing that they asked me was to ‘remember this is not our story. Our story is many, many people's story’ and this is what the film is about,” Bayona admits. “You live the tragedy through the eyes of this family, but this family also explains what happened really there and how tough it was to leave Thailand after surviving. I really like the idea that it's not a two-dimensional story where you live or you die. There is a lot of suffering also in surviving. There is no victory in survival and I thought that was very, very interesting.”
It's November 2nd and at the last minute I decide to head over to Summit's annual holiday party. It's awkwardly early so talent in town for the final "Twilight" movie can attend. I live 90 seconds away and figure after a rough week a free drink wouldn't be so bad. After catching up with Summit's Nancy Kirkpatrick - the mastermind of the fan friendly "Twilight" campaign and a former colleague from Paramount back in the day - I end up running into Bayona once more. He seems happy to see a friendly face and we end up chatting about what's he's going to do next (tons of meetings), his close encounter with "Man of Steel" (his story if and when he wants it out) and the pluses and minuses of Madrid vs. Barcelona (he's the first person to tell me Madrid is the better party city, but he would know more than me). Atienza finds us and we discuss the massive Spanish box office in detail. Shockingly, the film is on track to be the highest grossing picture in Spanish history knocking "Titanic" and "Avatar" from the top spots. As you can guess, she never thought they would come close to covering the picture's $45 million budget in Spain alone. The alcohol takes over a bit and she admits she's worried about the upcoming French opening (had to fight the local distributor on the poster) and is nervous about the U.S. release. I try to reassure them both that the publicity agency on the picture in the U.S. is strong and Summit has been treating it like a serious player so far. Bayona just wants Watts to get a nomination. I tell him I'm convinced the picture is in. The guild reaction was too strong. Whatever happens with Oscar and in the states it's clearly gravy though. The success back home has them on cloud nine.
While it was initially shocking that “The Impossible” didn’t make the 10 picture “bake off” for best visual effects (especially a wave sequence that blows “Hereafter’s” nominated shockwave out of, um, the water), perhaps it was because so much of the picture’s devastation was realized with practical sets.
“Tom and Naomi spent six weeks or five weeks in that tank in Alicante being dragged through real water doing underwater shots, breath out and be spun around and hit with foam bricks and stuff and then on the day,” McGregor volunteers. “And then we shot for a month or two with the model set and real water. So all the water in the film is real. I mean obviously [they] weren't hit by a wave, but there was no green screen as such. The devastated areas were [expletive]—sorry, my mouth—huge set, massive areas of devastation, like unbelievable sets to look at, so it felt very real and it wasn't like a green screen movie in any way.”
To say Holland, whose previous acting experience was limited to “Billy Elliott” on the London stage, was stepping into the proverbial fire was something of an understatement. He refers to the scenes depicting the initial aftermath of the wave as both “amazing” and "tough.”
“Physically it was really, really tiring. I remember getting home and just not talking to anyone, just ‘I'm sleeping,’” Holland admits. “I mean the water tank was tough and it was fun as well. I mean I was thrown around and got to scuba dive and things like that, but it was a really good way to like experience acting when you can use your surroundings to influence your performance. I mean at times I really thought I'm going to drown right now.”
Holland’s parents must have heard this anecdote previously because they don’t flinch. Then again, once you hear the teenager talk about his role in Kevin McDonald’s upcoming “How I Live Now” they might be Saints of familial support.
Watts, on the other hand, went through quite the ordeal to play Maria. She’s swung with CG apes for hours on end, but admitted her work in the water tank became a bit too real at times.
Watts recalls, “I remember this one time where something went wrong when we did the underwater stuff and we were anchored to a chair that would spin and before the cameras rolled you had your breathing apparatus and then rolling, action, put it away and the chair starts to spin and you have got to do all this, all that stuff, all you know. Then as you run out of breath [you’re supposed to] un-strap yourself or something and you float to the surface you know? Of course, you want the shot to go on as long as possible because you want the moment to be good.”
One take in particular was a little too close for comfort for the previous Oscar nominee.
“Just as I'm starting to un-strap myself the chair went the other way, so I couldn't get myself out,” Watts says. “So the reason I bring this up is because when Juan had me do [the moment where I’m] screaming on the tree, I was like, ‘What?’ But when I came out of that water and I had been forced to hold my breath longer than I had wanted to I started shouting. I started shouting. I was like what the—it made me so angry.”
Watts adds, “It was panic. I was just pure panic and that I guess was the moment that you were looking for, which I didn't quite get until I had had that moment. It didn't feel right. He just had me shouting and shouting and shouting and hanging onto that tree and then I understood it all later.”