Ewan McGregor decided to make The Impossible as soon as he read the script. Still, there was that nagging feeling that this project — the true story of one family torn apart when the 2004 tsunami hit Thailand — could go terribly wrong.
"The nature of putting a movie camera on something is that it turns it into a cinematic thing," says McGregor during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, "and if you're making a cinematic statement about a terrible tragedy like this you have to be doing it for the right reasons."
Helmed by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage), the film turned out to be one of the big hits at the Toronto festival. Anything but exploitive, it's a powerful drama that brings images of a catastrophe that's already fading from memory rushing back.
McGregor and Naomi Watts star as English tourists Henry and Maria (changed from a Spanish family, the Alvarez Belons, in real life) who, with their three young boys, travel to a coastal resort in Thailand for a relaxing beach vacation over the Christmas holidays. Instead, a colossal wall of water washes their hotel away and rips their family in two, leaving Henry and their two youngest boys searching for critically injured Maria and their oldest son.
A few hours before the film had its world premiere in Toronto, we sat down with McGregor to discuss the joys and stresses of bringing this real-life drama to the screen.
How do you feel about seeing the film with an audience tonight?
"I'm quite nervous about it in a way that I'm not normally so nervous about a film screening, and it's not because I have doubts about it, but because I think it's so sensitive…. We're making a movie about something that really happened and many people lost their lives, and many people lost their loved ones. The responsibility to those people who died and who survived is huge."
Why was this one family's story chosen among all the stories that came out of that day?
"Three years after the tsunami, Maria [Alvarez Belon] was on a radio program in Spain talking about her experience. She hadn't talked about it at all publicly so she was sharing her experience on the radio and our producer, Belén [Atienza], was driving in a car and listening to it and she was incredibly moved by Maria's story and went straight to Bayona and told him the story. And he was very moved by her telling of the story. They got in touch with Maria and the family and Bayona said he just became obsessed with their story and had to make it into a film."
Did you spend much time with the Alvarez Belon family?
"Not very much. No, they came out to visit us on set and I hadn't met Henry yet. I'd spoken to him, but I hadn't met him, and also, because we changed the nationality, I didn't feel the need to play him physically. But when they came out I got very nervous in case he didn't think what I was doing was right or didn't like it. But I feel like his character is imprinted somewhat in the writing, because our writers spent such a lot of time with them, that I picked up a bit of him anyway, really."
Why did they change it from a Spanish family?
"Well, I don't know, you'd have to ask them. I think to have a bigger audience I'm going to assume."
The film was shot in late 2010 but it's just coming out now. Why the lag?
"[Bayona] wanted a year on post-production of the film. There was model shooting, he wanted only real water in the film. Naomi and Tom [Holland, who plays the oldest son] started the shooting in a tank in Alicante [Spain] where they were hurled around this enormous tank, had things thrown at them, and dragged underneath, for five or six weeks. Then we shot for four months [in Thailand], then [Bayona] shot for another month or two on models…so that took a long time."
Does the finished film look much different than you'd imagined?
"I couldn't imagine it would be so well done, the sets and the devastated area was as far as you could see 360 degrees, it was unbelievably realistic."
So the majority of the effects weren't created with models?
"No, no, no. [Bayona] created the actual tsunami with a model set, so he had many miniature sets of the bungalows…. But, no, the devastated areas, we were driven into them and had to walk for 20 minutes to get into the middle, and it would look like the tsunami happened yesterday, it was incredible. They put in boats and cars and sh-t everywhere, it was unbelievable. It was really breathtaking. It made our job very easy because it was so believable."
With the film concentrating on one Western family when so many Thai people had their lives devastated, was there a conscious effort to include as many Thai people as possible in the hospital scenes and surrounding story?
"No, the truth of the matter is everyone ended up together. All the people were in the hospitals, Thai people were there, tourists were there. A lot of the Thai people were instrumental in saving people, getting people out, and we see that. I don't think it was an effort that was made. I think the effort that was made was to be as accurate as possible to this family's story and the Thai people are totally involved in that."
Have you kept on top of the recovery efforts in that part of the world?
"Well, we saw a lot of it when we were there. We saw a lot of charity workers there, orphanages for children who survived whose parents didn't. But the actual Thai perspective on the tsunami I thought was quite a healthy one; the're very straightforward and honest about it, and very much in the present in terms of moving forward. I only saw a little bit of the coastline where we were, but it seemed like it was all rebuilt, there was very little of it that hadn't been and it was thriving again. There were tourists everywhere, the beaches were full, it didn't look like a place in recovery, it looked like a place that had recovered."
Marni Weisz is the editor of Cineplex Magazine.