Impossible odds: Juan Antonio Bayona recreates 2004 tsunami in true account of a family's struggle for survival

With an estimated death toll of nearly 300,000 people, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami will forever be remembered as one of the most devastating natural disasters in history. Based upon events that took place during the tragedy, The Impossible is Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona’s follow-up to 2007’s The Orphanage. Highly acclaimed at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, the Summit Entertainment release makes its U.S. theatrical debut on Dec. 21.

A heartrending true story of one family’s fight for survival and to reunite themselves amid the chaotic aftermath of the mammoth tidal wave, The Impossible stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as Henry and Maria Owens (fictionalized alter-egos of real-life Spanish couple Enrique and Maria Belon). The film also features the acting talents of Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast as the young children who find their world turned upside-down by the horrors that occurred eight years ago.

Bayona’s film was shot in the same real-life locations in Thailand that were affected by the tsunami. Watts describes what it was like to visit the country that was once torn apart by the colossal waves. “It was very strange. Very surreal,” she explains during a recent encounter with Film Journal International in London. “I remember on the journey to the hotel, we could still see the wreckage in certain places. The hotel had been restored back to normal, but here and there you would see reminders. The wetlands and marshes had completely changed. Like any massive disaster, people are still trying to process it and the need to talk about it never goes away, no matter how many years on you are.”

Not only could she discuss the horrific events of 2004 with many of the people she encountered on the film set, Watts also had the chance to meet her character’s real-life Spanish counterpart, Maria Belon. “It was fascinating and always awful hearing about people’s experiences. Meeting the real-life Maria was incredibly helpful,” she reveals, with obvious admiration for the survivor. “She was just so full of the need and desire to express her feelings about it. She’s written endless amounts about the tsunami, and she really wanted to talk about it, which was great for me.”

Along with Maria, the 44-year-old mother of two also got the chance to speak to the other family members, and came away impressed by how tight-knit they were as a unit. “It was intriguing being able to meet the children, as they all coped with it in different ways. One of the kids doesn’t like to talk about it, whilst one of them is very talkative. We all process things completely differently even if we have all had a shared experience. They have their own ways of dealing with it, but no matter what, that family is incredibly tight because of what they went through. They watched it all take place and that is a lot of grief to cope with, so they are incredibly strong.”

Bayona concurs, admitting that he was very grateful for the level of trust the family gave him during the production. “We were very lucky with them. From the beginning, when we had our first meeting with the family, they trusted us,” he divulges. “They felt we were the right people to tell their story. They were very collaborative the whole time they were on set, and always passing notes across when we were shooting scenes to ensure they were as accurate as possible. It was very useful to have them there. Thanks to them being there, we improvised many of the scenes and it helped give a unique form of life to the film, which was especially important here as it was based upon a real story.”

Both Watts and McGregor are parents in real life themselves, and Bayona admits that after discussing the roles with them, this was a large factor in his decision to hire the two actors. “It was like a dream come true to work with them,” he enthuses, having been big fans of the two of them for some time. “They were both parents in reality, and I think that was extremely helpful when it came to portraying their roles in the family unit. They could really sympathize and relate to what it would be like as a parent in this situation.”

The father of four daughters, McGregor agrees that his experiences as a parent played a big role in his performance. “For the first time in my career, this has been an opportunity to explore being a parent on film, albeit in an extreme and horrendous situation,” says the 41-year-old, who is next due to appear in Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer. “I don’t really remember having played one before, yet in real life I’ve been one for 16 years, so I was eager to explore a love a parent has for his kids and the fear they have that something might go wrong, that they might get hurt or lost or something.”

With any film based on true events, there is always the danger it may offend some viewers who don’t feel the subject matter was handled sensitively. McGregor openly admits that he had similar concerns himself, but was careful not to be involved in a project that sensationalized the tragedy, and has yet to encounter any aggrieved parties. “I haven’t come across anyone who didn’t think we should be making the film. I always felt like it was a real responsibility, and it worries me a lot that I would offend anyone. I feel a responsibility to the people who died, and a responsibility to the people who lost their loved ones to make it in an honorable way. I was always aware that I didn’t ever want the tsunami just to became a backdrop to our movie—I never wanted this to be just another ‘disaster movie.’”

Regarding this aspect, we can say he has succeeded—you would be hard-pressed to find any critics who label the film a straightforward disaster flick. An intriguing blend of human emotion and a family’s struggles to be reunited, Bayona’s film stands as a respectful homage to the many victims of the horrifying tsunami on Boxing Day back in 2004...and a timely reminder that no matter what odds are against you, nothing is ever quite impossible.