Guillermo del Toro, who knows how to spot talent, helped to push J.A. Bayona's 2007 smart horror Spanish Oscar entry "The Orphanage" into an international smash hit ($79.6 million). The same trio behind that movie, Bayona, NYU-educated screenwriter Sergio Sanchez and producer Belen Atienza, became fascinated by the true story of a Spanish family who survived the 2004 tsunami that swept over the coast of Thailand, causing some 5000 deaths. Atienza was so moved by a radio interview with Maria Belon, who fought to live for the sake of her young son, that she arranged a meeting.
Soon the entire team became obsessed with this survival saga. First, Sanchez wrote a screenplay for "The Impossible" in Spanish–which was mostly in Engish because that's how the multi-national tourists in Thailand communicated with each other. Translated into English, the script for "The Impossible" (December 21) lured top stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, joined by young "Billy Elliot" theater star Tom Holland, whose discipline and professionalism impressed Bayona. All three give awards-deserving performances in this $45-million action drama, which is already breaking box office records in Spain. (Below is my video chat with McGregor covering a range of films, from Polanski to Soderbergh.)
As a European independent film, Summit-backed "The Impossible" bypasses the usual studio pitfalls. It's not a sweet and softened "family movie." It's an intense, realistic, horrifying journey of survival, more like "Touching the Void" or "I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash." But at its heart are real human emotions. As in any reality-based story, luck and happenstance play a role in who lives or dies. And the filmmakers ratchet up the drama as it suits them. McGregor admits that when the film veers toward melodrama, it's what actually happened; the filmmakers tried to avoid heroic Hollywood moments. The cast and filmmakers felt a huge responsibility to those who survived the tragedy–and those who did not.
Movies like this serve to show us what we might be capable of under such circumstances. Any parent will be devastated. The mother (Watts) and older son (Holland) are battered by swirling debris as the tidal wave sweeps them inland, where they have to find shelter, food, water –and save another child in the process. Watts and Holland were buffeted by real currents of tank water that they had to endure for a month and a half; they could barely get their lines out, and were swung around in moveable chairs under water.
As Belon, Watts undergoes extreme duress, dragging a deeply wounded leg. They wind up first in a tree–a major design element– then a hospital, where the mother fights for her life. Meanwhile the father (McGregor), not wanting to accept the real likelihood that his wife and older son are dead, makes the wrenching decision to sends his two youngest sons to a refugee camp–from which they are moved and thus lost again– and stays behind to search. That any of them were reunited is indeed a miracle.
While I admire the craftsmanship and skill that Bayona and his team bring to this film–which was shot in 25 weeks in Spain and Thailand and boasts a superb production and sound design and score– I can't help wondering how American audiences will respond. "The Impossible" played well for Sneak Previews; but would these educated movie fans have gone out to see it? Summit knows what it is doing, and awards attention will help. The film is the biggest hit ever in Spain, where it stayed number one to beat the opening weekend of "Skyfall" there.