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SHOWBIZ: Reliving the deadly tsunami

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The true story of a family wrecked by the 2004 tsunami runs the gamut of emotions and visual effects

BRITON Henry Bennett (played by Ewan McGregor) and his doctor wife Maria (Naomi Watts) brought their three sons to Thailand on vacation but the Indian Ocean tsunami on Dec 26, 2004 separated the family.

Maria was badly injured and oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) got her to a hospital but Henry and the two younger sons, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), didn’t know this. A frantic search began.

Gifted Spanish director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) brings to the audience the astounding sensation of being swept away, dragged underwater, tangled in debris and fighting for breath in the film adaptation of the true story by Maria Belon.

The actors make the film even more memorable by the go-for-broke intensity they bring to their characters. The surprise is the screen debut of young Holland, best known so far as Billy Elliot in the stage version at the Victoria Palace

Theatre, London. He gives this film its grieving heart.

Although The Impossible is based on the incredible survival story of the Alvarez Belons, they are Spanish in real life, not English as portrayed in the movie.

It was not easy for the family to entrust anyone to depict their story on screen, but, as Maria pointed out, they realised their story was bigger than themselves and that telling it would also be cathartic for the family.

Admits Maria: “They didn’t know it, but I needed to tell this story, although I was unable to do it by myself.”

It all began when producer Belen Atienza heard the story  on radio. Screenwriter Sergio Sanchez recalls: “(Belen) arrived in the office in tears and told us about it. Suddenly, J.A. (Bayona) said, ‘we’ve got to make a movie of this!’.

Everyone had the same reaction when we told them about it.” The movie begins with a moment that changes the lives of the Alvarez Belons completely, in seconds, but from then on, the film is a journey.

“We all saw the devastation of that tsunami on television and the Internet, almost in real time. What The Impossible explores is the moving, emotional and very human story of the people who lived through it. That’s very far removed from everything we’ve heard in the news.”

Sanchez, who wrote the award-winning The Orphanage, adds that finding the right balance and tone was intimidating.

The Impossible is as scary as a horror film but also a powerful testament to the human spirit. It is also a true story and not everyone was as lucky as the Alvarez Belon family.

“What scared me the most was telling the story of five survivors within a context where almost 300,000 people died. The most important thing was to find a way to respectfully tell a story about such a tragic loss,” says Sanchez.

The opportunity to work with Bayona and Sanchez’s screenplay drew McGregor to the project. He says: “I liked the script very much. There was something honest and true about it and a brutal simplicity that made it very vivid. And I liked The Orphanage and wanted to work with Bayona.

“We (Naomi and I) are both parents and we tried to make this couple seem real, not like a movie family,” McGregor says.

The story of the family also resonated with McGregor in a very personal way. “When Henry finally sees his kids in the hospital after his family has been separated by the tsunami, when he finally reunites with his family... that made me cry as I was reading the script. It was such a moving moment. I have four children now. And I’ve never really played a parent in a film before. I felt like I wanted to make Henry much more like me,” he adds.

Young Holland describes the film as “... a love story between a family”.

The Impossible prepped for almost two years and shot for 25 weeks between Spain and Thailand on more than 60 sets.

Principal photography took place at the studios of Ciudad de la Alicante, Spain and at multiple different locations in Thailand, many of which were where the actual events had occurred.

One critical location was The Orchid Resort where the family had gone for their Christmas holiday. Maria joined the film company at the resort, her first time back since the disaster.

“I found myself not just at The Orchid, but sitting exactly where I was when the wave hit. The sounds of breakfast, the easiness of the tourists, the trust that the hotel is in full working order, a few guests making plans for the day... the situation was exactly the same in the movie version as it was in reality. It was a beautiful morning on our holiday, then life changed completely in a matter of minutes. I have so many mixed feelings — they call it survivor’s guilt, I think,” recalls Maria.

In order to recreate the tsunami, the production worked with six special effects companies. It took a year to create the horrific 10-minute sequence in which the first enormous and deadly wave engulfs the coast.

Award-winning  special and visual effects masters Felix Berges and Pau Costa were tasked with creating the tsunami itself. For Berges, the only option was to use real water. “Digital water was not considered as it just wasn’t realistic enough,” he says.

That decision led to some daunting production challenges. For example, the crew had to move over 132,489 litres of water on a daily basis in order to recreate the violent mass of water.

Berges’ team conducted extensive tests to create the most realistic and ferocious deluge without actually drowning the actors.

“We saw that it was (only) possible to prepare a channel  between 10m and 15m, to keep the actors safe and be able to guide them without any problem when using elements such as trees, rubble or many other things,” says Berges.

“We are talking about a sequence that, from the beginning, we knew would last about eight minutes and would have 100 shots or so, so it had to be something very versatile.”

The production filmed the scenes in which the family was swept away and particularly the tighter shots of Maria as the water literally swallowed and bashed her, in a tank in Spain for about 1½ months, a process that Berges calls “a nightmare”.

“We shot the flood with two units. The tank was 100m x 80m, with a light blue screen at the back. We couldn’t use a green screen because we had so many green elements but a traditional blue screen would have seemed to dark, so we painted it ourselves.

“The difficult thing about filming the flood is that water moves at a vertiginous velocity, everything moves. So each change required an enormous crane to move something that weighed four tonnes,” he recalls.

Oscar-winning production designer Eugenio Caballero says that perhaps the most meaningful part of creating the world of The Impossible was the reaction of the  locals who worked on the movie or appeared as extras as they saw havoc and destruction of the tsunami reappear.

“Many of the people who worked with us were local, families that lost members in the event and there were very different reactions. I remember a taxi driver who arrived with a passenger at The Orchid when we had it all set up with the destruction.

“He stared at the set for two minutes, shaking his head. He had lost his wife who had worked in a hotel too. For him it was like going backwards in time. That type of reaction happened on the set and also at the hospital. Many of the nurses that were there are doctors and nurses who took care of the injured who came in.”

Says director Bayona:  “We’re not just dealing with a survival film. It also raises the question of who you want to survive for and in what way.

“There is something very powerful that goes beyond the tragic and speaks of the human condition, something that moves people very deeply when they hear the story.”

The Impossible opens this Thursday.

FREE: NST-The Impossible Preview

Catch a special screening
(150 tickets) of The Impossible, courtesy of NST and GSC Movies.
When Tomorrow, 9pm
Where GSC, Mid Valley, Kuala Lumpur

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When Tomorrow, 7.30pm to 8.30pm
Where GSC, Mid Valley

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Son and mother (Naomi Watts) cling on for life after the tsunami recedes.

The Bennet family partying before the tsunami strikes.

Director Bayona at work with crew and cast.


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