Spanish key art and poster art for THE IMPOSSIBLE featuring Naomi Watts

Every season there is a movie or performance that is a head scratcher when it comes to why it does or doesn't appeal to the Academy.  Films and portrayals that will be long remembered after a number of other nominated works are getting their share of the best picture spotlight now. Immediate examples that come to mind include "Do the Right Thing" (one of the greatest films of the '80s), "The Ice Storm" (ditto for the '90s), "The Dark Knight" (for the '00s) and, oh yeah, Stanley Kubrick's "2001" (of all time).  And as for overlooked actors, last year found both Ryan Gosling ("Drive") and Michael Fassbender ("Shame") of the list of Academy omissions gone wrong.  With the advent of the 10 nomination option for best picture, however, you would think that overlooking great movies would be a rare occurrence. Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I give you my own best picture of the year, "The Impossible."

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In the middle of a very busy Toronto International Film Festival, I find myself racing from one hotel to another for what I think is just an informal conversation with the cast and director of "The Impossible." I have a habit of showing up exactly when something is scheduled as opposed to 10-15 minutes beforehand. I'm rarely if ever late, but it can make some publicity reps nervous. Considering my hotel is three blocks away from the talents I'm not too worried, plus this was all supposed to be just a "get to know" opportunity. I believe the word "tea" was even used at some point. I'm now racing through the streets of Toronto after a publicist's phone call has clarified this is really just a rare 30 minute group interview with Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, newcomer Tom Holland and the film's director Juan Antonio Bayona.  No, this isn't everyone sitting around having tea, it's a full on interview.  I feel unprepared and am beginning to get flustered. Ah, festival life.

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"I know I look like 10, but I am 16.  I look like I'm 10," Holland says.

"I want to look 10," Watts follows with a zinger you wouldn't expect from the normally serious Aussie.

We all laugh, but somehow I feel like I'm about to be grilled by a subcommittee. Sitting on a couch, Holland, Bayona, and Watts face me in chairs lined up like I'm being judged on "American Idol."  A fourth chair is quickly filled by the almost always smiling McGregor.  The publicists for Summit's agency stand in the distance and Holland's parents sit against the far wall. This is hardly the relaxing chat I had been expecting, but luckily the subject matter has a way of erasing everyone's discomfort.

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I'd first seen "The Impossible" almost a month earlier at the Lionsgate screening room in Santa Monica. The buzz had been growing since the spring when Summit and its co-financiers including Warner Bros. Spain had seen the finished product. It was clear the mini-major realized they had something special on their hands.  I start to hear similar reaction from my peers and a non-media person in the industry refers to it as "the finest film Summit's ever made."*

*Tapley will attest he's heard people say this also regarding "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," as have I.  "The Impossible" is a more accomplished achievement, however.

*****

McGregor is a major league charmer. He has a genuine kindness rarely seen in an actor with his years of experience (jaded is almost expected after 18 years in the biz), but also a refreshing bluntness (unlike some of his compatriots he doesn't "pretend" to still live in the UK, Los Angeles is his hometown and has been for over a decade). 

"I thought the script was an incredible read and there was something very brutal about it, "McGregor says. "I didn't know it was a true story or based on a true family's experience when I read it but some of the lines --- the line when Tom sees Naomi's wound in the back of her leg when they come out of the water, that line stopped me in my tracks when he said—now I can't remember exactly what it is, but [something like] 'Mamma, I can't see you like this.'  And it's such an amazing thing to say and it said so many things and it stopped me reading.  I was just completely blown away by it and then when I find out later that it was based on a real family's experience and these are actually lines that they remember saying or hearing they made perfect sense, but it didn't read like another story about the tsunami.  It read about—it read like an extraordinary insight into what—this family's experience there."

Three months later McGregor will wake up and discover he's received a Golden Globe nomination for his work in "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," a mixed bag of romantic dramedy lazily directed by Lasse Hallström. If he truly cares about awards, and it's unclear if he really does, "Yemen" was not the film he thought people would be talking about at the end of the year.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

*****

It's December 12. The 2013 SAG Awards nominations are announced and in a happy surprise Naomi Watts has made the cut.  Moreover, it’s an excellent sign she'll land what would be only her second Oscar nomination. The next day Watts also earns a Golden Globes nomination in the best actress - drama category, but "The Impossible" earns nothing else. Since Gurus of Gold had begun in September, Deadline’s Pete Hammond and I were the true believers that "The Impossible" would make the 10. After Globes and SAG he drops it from his 10.  I’m the only one left.

*****

After initially being reluctant to have the picture made, Maria ended up spending a lot of time on set and both she and the rest of her family contributed anecdotes and details to the screenplay.  To some the events may seem too coincidental, but it’s almost beat for beat how they played out.  At one point, Bayona says one of the family members was asked how close the film came to their actual experiences.  One of the boys replied, “Well, the ball was yellow.”  That refers to the red ball Henry goes after in the movie before the wave hits.

“The truth is that it's funny that you said coincidences because we really play with that because we have to play with that,” Bayona says. “There is no reason to survive more than being lucky.  We couldn't put any kind of heroic action in the characters that would define their survival because it would have been like telling the other people who didn't make it maybe you didn't do enough.  So we were very, very careful with that.”

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As December rolls on more and more national reviews are published. Unlike Bayona's native Spain or even the U.K., they are surprisingly mixed to positive.  American critics for the most part are not warming to the tale.  By its opening day in New York and Los Angeles, "The Impossible" has a 73% on Metacritic and a 79% on Rotten Tomatoes. Very good, but not the great you need for trade ads and end of year top 10 lists. I find it somewhat disheartening.  The picture has already narrowly beaten "Zero Dark Thirty" for best picture on my own top 10 list.  A number of colleagues I respect have it on their own top 10's or close to it. Excuses such as "too intense," "too melodramatic" and "too coincidental" begin to rear their heads.  Yes, a film that's factually more accurate than "Argo," "Lincoln" or "Zero Dark Thirty" is "too coincidental."

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Naomi Watts has played real life people before, most famously as Valerie Plame in “Fair Game“.  While Plame’s life was turned upside down by a Vice President’s vindictive leak, Maria thought she’d lost her entire world and life over the course of just a few hours. Meeting Maria for the first time was something that’s clearly etched in Watts’ mind.

“Maria is incredibly open. When we got together you don't want to just hit them with actor questions and pry because we're making a movie,” Watts says. “But with Maria she is just so open to speaking and it's so right there at the surface that it just kind of poured out of her.  For the first few minutes in the room we just sort of sat opposite each other and she started to cry because this story is part of her now and to tell it and give it away is emotional for her and it will continue to be that way.”

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"The Impossible" doesn't do wonders in limited release when it opens in 15 cities on Dec. 21. Sadly, I saw this coming. There wasn't enough heat in December around the release and just too much competition.  Outside of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the art house market is glutted with too much product that is all underperforming (“Hyde Park on Hudson,” “Anna Karenina,” “Hitchcock” and, now,  “Not Fade Away").  Plus, films such as “Les Miserables” and “Django Unchained” are the first choices among even the art house crowd.  There is some hope with less than a week before Academy member’s ballots are due. Reese Witherspoon wrote an op-ed in Entertainment Weekly and said she was “blown away” by the picture. Angelina Jolie and Kate Hudson both held private Academy member screenings for the picture in London and New York respectively (Del Toro also hosted a screening). 

The screener is out there, but will members watch? Will they recognize this impressive epic that is a more complete achievement than some other Academy hopefuls?  Considering little feel settled this Academy season anything is possible, right?  Throw the screener in your DVD player Academy members.  You may be surprised at what you discover.  If you don't?  The legacy of "The Ice Storm," "Do The Right Thing" and "The Dark Knight" awaits.

"The Impossible" is now playing in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Toronto, Phoenix and Philadelphia.