“Because the film is about real people who underwent unimaginable horror and devastation, to honor and portray their experience, we insisted on a rigorous authenticity...”
—Director Juan Antonio Bayona
The day after Christmas 2004, a tsunami devoured the western coast of Thailand. Ensuing deadly tidal waves crashed onto beaches in ten-minute intervals killing over 5000 people there, and more than 230,000 in 14 countries bordering the Indian Ocean. Director Juan Antonio Bayona’s feature film THE IMPOSSIBLE follows the true story of one family caught in the harrowing turmoil…parents Henry [Ewan McGregor] and Maria [Naomi Watts] and their three young sons.
Swept away by raging torrents of debris-filled water, incessant waves propelling them farther and farther from what had been their hotel, the severely injured Maria struggles to reach her son Lucas [Tom Holland]. Together they slosh through the swampy detritus of nature’s apocalyptic thrust, helping others even though Maria is brutally compromised and near death, as they are then rescued and cared for by strangers. At the same time, Henry, with the two youngest sons in tow, desperately searches for Maria and Lucas, fearing the worse, but driven to find them. They share an unshakable faith in each other and in the thousands of strangers who are also victims of the catastrophe, the true-life terror tempered by the unexpected displays of compassion, courage and simple kindness the family encounters during the darkest hours of their lives.
In a statement about the production, Bayona shares, “Because the film is about real people who underwent unimaginable horror and devastation, to honor and portray their experience, we insisted on a rigorous authenticity. We were very careful with the context because there were so many people affected.”
The film was prepped for two years and shot for 25 weeks on more than 60 sets in Spain and Thailand. Principal photography took place at Ciudad de la Alicante studios in Spain and at multiple locations in Thailand, many of which were where the actual events had occurred. Bayona relied on the Academy Award winning team Production Designer Eugenio Caballero and Set Decorator Pilar Revuelta, assisted by Thai set decorators Pacharachan Buranasamut, Witoon Suanyai and Assistant Set Decorators Angela Nahum, Philippe Mayanobe, Mara Matey, Natdhanai Lertphlubphlachai and Chatchamon Puntama to create a realistic visual context. Epic and intimate, devastating and uplifting, THE IMPOSSIBLE is a journey to the core of the human heart.
Bayona talks with SET DECOR about the huge undertaking, both physical and emotional, and of the responsibility of sharing this true story.
SET DECOR: The film is quite impactful…when it is over, there is a hushed response from the audience…
Director Juan Antonio Bayona: This was our intent. We wanted the audience to go through the same journey as the characters…and purposely not give them a message at the end, because no one gave this family a message. So it was all about going through the experience, very emotional, very sensorial…to create an impact with the audience and do something thought-provoking. So it’s great when you see the audience at the end sitting on their chairs, thinking about the film, because this is exactly how these characters left Thailand, going through that and then going back to their world, or at least to the world that existed for them before the tsunami…and trying to look for a meaning.
I remember talking to Eugenio Caballero, the extraordinary production designer, and saying, “We have to find a balance between portraying something real…that looks like real…but at the same time, to have our own interpretation, to create those emotions in the audience, to make the film experiential.”
SD: You were re-creating a real situation, but you also need to bring about the story-telling aspect as well, so how specific were you, for example, with the Orchid House Resort where the family stayed.
Bayona: The resort had been totally rebuilt, but the bungalows were not there anymore because after the tsunami, a law was passed that made it forbidden to build so close to the sea.
So we worked on the re-creation of the original Orchid House. We found a few photos… it was not that easy…but then we were able to get the original plans and re-create the bungalows exactly as they were. After that, we had to make the destroyed pool and hotel. We used the real hotel main entrance, which was set decorated with debris and stuff for the aftermath, but the pool and hotel surroundings had to be filmed in another place. There were only 2 or 3 hotels that had not been rebuilt. Fortunately, one of them had a pool somewhat similar, so we built this enormous set of the hotel and grounds using that location.
SET DECOR: Those first scenes show the details of an ocean-front resort hotel and a few visual clues to the characters. We know they are affluent yet don’t live ostentatiously, as shown by the gifts they give and the way in which they celebrate. Immediately after that, they are amidst rubble and ruins, then in a triage hospital and finally on a private plane. How do these sets help convey the characters as well as the story?
Bayona: The movie starts in a plane and then finishes on a plane…a plane is steel and plastic, symbolic of the world where they came from. This story was telling about the end of an innocent world…a paradise destroyed…and about these people from the outside, from a materialistic world, who go to this paradise, but life gives them a big slap, and suddenly it was the end of innocence for them as well.
They start in this bubble and they finish in a bubble, because these people had to go back to the lives they had been living.
There is this detail I really like…the guy from the insurance company who appears at the end…this guy with his suit looks like someone from another planet, but he belongs to the real world…the world as they knew it. But their world is not the same anymore. In the pristine modern environment of the private plane, we see the dirtiness of the mud they bring in, the blood in the clothes, their matted hair and streaked faces, her hospital bed fitted into the front, tubes attached…so it’s the same world, but….
SET DECOR: What seemed real before, what is surrounding them now, seems surreal.
Bayona: Yes! It’s amazing how symbolism was involved throughout this story. I mean, the hotel where the story took place was separated from the area of the rest of the hotels. So when the water arrived, they found themselves completely alone and alienated from the rest, which is very interesting because this is how the emotional journey works. After the wave arrived, they went through this shock situation and they felt completely separated from the rest of the world. And that is exactly how it was.
SET DECOR: So the people in the hotel wreckage with Henry and the smallest boys become a sort of extended family, and as with other scenes, it becomes the family of man…
Bayona: Absolutely. The tsunami brought people together…and there were adults who were helpless like kids, and kids who behaved like adults. Looking at it through this small close family offered an immediate intimacy…I wanted to discover the tragedy through their eyes.
SET DECOR: There are little clues to the family….the telescope one of the boys receives for Christmas, the red ball…
Bayona: Yeah, everything becomes a symbol…especially from the point of view from our western family who goes to a foreign country and has a transforming experience, everything becomes kind of a symbol. And one of the important details to talk about in the film was fate…and the fact of privilege and how they were lucky.
I’m going to tell you one thing that happened that was beautiful. We were shooting that moment when all the lanterns are being released into the air and, suddenly, the lantern of the family went the other way around.
SET DECOR: Yes! So that wasn’t intended, manipulated?
Bayona: That’s right, it was not on purpose! We looked at each other during that moment, and we realized how powerful the idea, the metaphor, of privilege was…because these people are privileged in so many ways. The movie talks about that and how it was also tough to be privileged…how tough it was for them, even though they survived. They felt very fortunate, but they carry what is called “survivor’s guilt”. When we met them for the first time 3 years after the tragedy, they still felt it. Although there were many surgeries and much pain for them, they feel that they had been privileged and “nothing” happened to them, when they look at it in the context of everyone else.
SET DECOR: You spoke in other interviews about how a disaster like this levels society…across all areas, from race to privilege to position…it comes down to who we are as people.
Bayona: Yes…all that disappeared, although it had to come back at the end, and that was a huge, heavy thing to carry on, to go back to the lives they were living before. I didn’t want to talk about races, or nationalities, or social class….because the tsunami took them all away. When you are taken from what you have, the essence that is left is a very, very beautiful thing.
And when you look at this story, the people who had been most harmed were the ones helping everyone else.
SET DECOR: It is amazing and courageous that after all they went through, the family went back to the actual places with you and conferred about the re-creation. For instance, the labyrinthine hospital, the chaos…and all the specific elements…a closet lined with shelves of medicines is the only space available for Maria’s “cot”. How did the details there come about?
Bayona: We had a very good story told by Maria. She’s a doctor, so she knew exactly what was happening at the time. She knew where she was when she got into the hospital, and she could tell you what she needed…she knew what were the medicines surrounding her, so we had a firsthand opinion. Lucas saw the hospital and the people living outside of it and described for us.
Fantastic that Maria and Lucas were able to give explicit images, details that you could incorporate and that add so much to the truth of it. Did the set decorators talk to doctors and nurses as well?
The hospital was very collaborative…we shot in the same hospital where the story took place. They were very happy with the idea of the film being made because it was a way of showing the world how they had behaved, which was extraordinary. So they gave us a lot of pictures from that day to add to those we found on the internet.
And it was very difficult to put together and shoot…in order to be able to keep following the pattern of light, the pattern of color, of textures, into this chaotic situation which was the hospital, but Eugenio and the set decorators, and Oscar Fauro, the cinematographer, did a great job.
SET DECOR: The hospital was blues and greens, almost watery-hued, with pops of color…someone’s scarf, a bottle of medication, some little thing…and then, outside, the tent city is somewhat colorless, but colored by the people and small objects they had to sustain them… bottled drinks, a towel, pieces of fruit…the things of life had color.
Bayona: Exactly! Again, the symbolism kept coming through, it was like a real life painting.
SET DECOR: Other significant sets were the massive tree, which obviously becomes for a while, the tree of life…and the little village where the two local gentlemen place Maria on a door to transport her up the mountain to the hospital. Was this an actual village and what about the set decoration here?
Bayona: Eugenio called the tree our Frankenstein creation, because we built it and it had to be alive…and since we shot for a long time, we had to keep the greenery alive for weeks! He created this huge structure of cement, where the crew planted real branches. In Thailand, branches take root and grow very quickly. It was remarkable. Suddenly after only two weeks, real insects and animals were living in our set. We created this thing that was integrating into nature…it was great!
But it was also one of the biggest challenges. Eugenio had already done PAN’S LABYRINTH where he had built a huge tree. But this was even more of a challenge, to build this lifelike structure in the middle of an enormous set of water and swampland, a devastated landscape eight soccer fields in size! So it was a great help for the actors because they had the impression of being there.
SET DECOR: Tom Holland mentioned that it was great to be able to work with the surroundings, that they definitely influenced his performance.
Bayona: Yes! It made such a difference for everyone. We made the sets as real as possible and we worked a lot with people who were there and who live there. The positions were taken according to them…
SET DECOR: Did you shoot on stage at all?
Bayona: The last plane was on stage…the private plane with her bed and the monitors and everything. It was symbolically appropriate to have this set on stage, since it represented their world, which now seemed unreal to them.
SET DECOR: Maria Belon says, “We were just human beings, people helping people…that is what the story is about.”
Bayona: All the themes…love, sacrifice, death…they were in this family’s story in a very universal way. Maria thought she was dying, yet she chose to rescue the small Swedish boy as what she thought might be her last act…to teach her son humanity. It doesn’t have to do with survival…it is about the human condition.