The intense, harrowing, and very personal story of one family's attempts to reunite following the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami comes to life on screen in The Impossible, hitting theaters on December 21, 2012. Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, The Impossible stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as a couple who take their three young son on vacation and are suddenly thrust into a fight for their lives as the tsunami hits and wipes out the hotel and surrounding area.
Based on one family's true story, The Impossible follows McGregor and Watts as they attempt to reunite their family. And in support of the Summit Entertainment release, McGregor discussed the research process and how he prepared to take on the role of a father of three.
On The Impossible's visual effects and how they differed from his past film experiences:
"Every film’s different from the last, you know? Every film is a unique experience. This wasn’t a visual effects movie, in that other than the actual arrival of the wave, we didn’t do many visual effects really. Everything was shot as realistically as possible. Certainly my story line was all done in … the designer did an extraordinary job, created these huge areas of devastation that we acted in the middle of. There were no green screens. It was all very realistic. The wave itself, you don’t follow me when the wave comes, you follow Naomi [Watts] and Tom [Holland]. For them, it was a very tough six weeks in Alicante in the South of Spain in a water tank where they for four weeks shot the sequence moving through the water when they were trying to get to each other, and then when they do get to each other. And then two weeks in an underwater tank with Naomi shooting the underwater stuff. I know it was really, really hard to do, brutal and slow. Shooting in water is very difficult.
That was very realistic. The only real special effects moment, if you like, when we felt special effects, was when the water hits the hotel. That we shot over many days because the weather was very bad. We were cursed with lots of rain so it took us a long time to shoot that, for that reason only. Then they shot for about a month after we’d finished principal photography in a third scale set, which is still quite a big model set, for some weeks, shot that set being hit by water and then putting the two, matting the two images together or maybe slightly more than that, created the actual effect of the wave coming in.
So it didn’t feel like a special effects film to me."
On preparing psychologically for the role:
"I had a very good script to work from. It was a really, really brilliantly written piece of work. There's something very immediate and brutal about the script, and it’s very sparse of dialogue. It was a very, very well written script. I worked from that really, and from what I knew from speaking to [the real man] who I play. Although I didn’t get a chance to meet him before we started shooting, I spoke to him on the phone. The writer and the director, who were present all the time, knew him very well. I had all my sort of character needs taken care of there.
Then in terms of the tsunami, there was a great documentary that we used called Tsunami Caught on Camera that was produced by Channel Four in Britain. It was made from holiday makers hand footage from their cameras, only using their imagery that was captured by the people who were there. Then interviews with people, that was very useful because it was very difficult to watch. It was brutal and honest. Then we had a great deal of research, material and photographs that were taken there, many photographs from the hospitals in that area, beaches, hotels, temples where they took the bodies."
On speaking to people who survived the traumatic event:
"I met some survivors of the Tsunami, yes. There's a woman I met in London who’s a friend of a friend of mine, who sat with me for three hours or so and told me her whole story, which was very similar to my character in the film's story, really. She lost her husband, sadly. They have three children and her husband was separated from her and her two kids with her eldest daughter, much the same as I am separated from Naomi in this film. There was some kind of parallels between her story and the character I was playing in this. Except that her story ended much in a terrible way."
On what he learned from survivors that helped him approach his character:
"There’s something that’s very interesting about her. She couldn’t remember any time frame. There was no sense of time and/or distance, or whether things happened at night or during the day. She couldn’t tell you. It’s melded. She managed to find a place to leave her children, her two daughters, while she went to look for her husband and her other daughter. It was like a clinic or something and there were Thai women there who were looking after people’s children who had been separated from their parents, I suppose. She spoke very fondly about the Thai people and how quickly the Thai people mobilized and organized things and how instrumental they were in looking after people, saving people’s lives, getting people to hospital, which I hope we’ve kind of touched in the film. I hope that’s the flavor in our movie, that that’s the case. Naomi’s saved by a Thai man who drags her from the tree, and the villagers that dress her, and the guys that take her to the hospital, and then the staff in the hospital. It was a very important part. She talked about that. But then she talked about where she eventually discovered her husband’s body which she remembered as being very, very far away and maybe taking hours and hours to walk there. In fact, when she went back, she’s been back several times; she realized it was very close by.
It’s easy to start picking into what people do and trying to understand what the decisions they make, but my instinct wasn’t to think about the shock that everyone was in. One minute people are on holiday, or at work, or wherever, and the next minute their world’s turned upside down. With no warning for our family anyway, no idea that anything was going to happen. The shock of that, what that does to some people, what state they're in afterwards was important for me to think about I think."
On disasters bringing out the best in people, and only occasionally the worst:
"It was very rarely that we would hear of negatives. People would be honest about themselves and some people talked about them not dealing with situations well, or they were regretful about [something] because after two or three days … it went on and on, trying to find their family members and reunite with people for days. Some people were in situations where they were starving and would be in a situation with authorities maybe. People’s nationalities became quite important somebody told me, which was the first time they’d felt that that was an important thing ever before. All the governments set up help, but for their nationals. In this case, this person was married to someone who wasn’t the same nationality as her, and her children had adopted the nationality of her husband. Anyway, they wouldn’t help her children but they would help her. She lost it, she said. People were regretful about their own behavior, if you like, in situations like that. We touch on it a little bit in the scene where we put the kids on the back of the truck with the guy who won’t let me use his phone, that sort of selfishness if you like. Mainly you hear stories of great selflessness; people would put themselves out of their way to help other people."
And one Star Wars question: If there's a way to come back as the ghost of Obi-Wan in Star Wars VII, would he be interested?
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The Impossible is rated PG-13 for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity.
Also of Interest: Naomi Watts The Impossible Interview