Crying is a Luxury: Sergio G .Sanchez on The Impossible

Why the new tsunami drama isn't a 'disaster movie' and why he won't let anyone else direct his next screenplay.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

The Impossible is the story of one family’s survival in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor portray Maria Belon and her husband Henry. Juan Antonio Bayona directed the film, from a screenplay by his The Orphanage collaborator Sergio G. Sanchez. We got to speak with Sanchez in Los Angeles and he shared some further details about the harrowing and ultimately life-affirming story. We do get into specifics, so Spoiler Warnings apply.

CraveOnline: What were your thoughts on the structure of the film once the family is separated. Could you have started after the tidal wave with Henry looking for his wife and son and later seeing Maria’s story?

Sergio G. Sanchez: We struggled with many different models before I wrote the first treatment. I decided on this. Sorry, when I say “I” it was always in consensus with [producer] Belen [Atienza], Juan Antonio [Bayona] and Maria [Belon] every time we’d get together. But we felt that it was the way to go. The whole film is geared towards that last scene on the plane where each character has experienced loss in a very different way. The mother cannot let herself die because she has to be there for the kid. Lucas is an orphan, if only for a few hours. It feels like he’s lost everything. Henry sends his kids up to the mountains in fear he’s going to find the dead bodies of Maria and Lucas. Thomas has to suddenly be the older brother and that completely blows his mind. When he says something like, “I’ve never taken care of anyone before. You can’t possibly ask me to take care of Simon now.” Simon who’s this bright little kid suddenly has gone numb. So it was five different ways to show how a character can approach loss because it was all about having that final scene on the plane when they leave. When they reunited, they don’t know what to do with that. It’s like an alien world because their heart is down there with all the people who aren’t as lucky as them. They feel what they felt and we felt that we needed that long scene in the plane so that it sinks into the audience. The last thought of the film is not for this family. It’s for everybody else. So in order to get to that scene, the way to maximize that moment of loss for all the characters we could come up with was this one. Okay, so we stick with Lucas and Maria. They feel they’ve lost everything and then Lucas loses Maria. When you think everything is lost, then you jump to Henry because he thinks the other two are going to be dead. When you make that transition and you’re not really sure what’s going to happen to Maria, there was a way to find the balance so that you could explore the sense of loss and fear in those characters.

That makes a lot of sense. One of the major scenes in the movie is the phone call Henry has to back home where he ultimately has to be strong. That’s a moment when in Hollywood films they would never have the vulnerable part where he breaks down first. Was that important to show before he’s able to be strong?

Yes, of course and also many times I would be clumsy enough to write a scene that would be like, “And Lucas cries, he can’t take anymore.” Maria was like, “This is completely fake. In this context, you don’t cry. It’s such a hard slap in the face that it’s shock. It’s not sadness and you have no time.” She kept saying, “Crying is a luxury in a situation like that because you just have to stay alive. And also you protect yourself from all your fears by not thinking. You focus on survival and you keep breathing. You don’t cry. It’s only when you feel taken care of or protected that you can afford yourself the luxury of crying.” So Maria only cries when she’s with all those other Thai ladies in the village that take care of her and wash her up and dress her up. That’s her only crying moment other than at the very end of the movie. With Henry it’s the same thing. He’s just moving forward all the time. He sort of knows or believes he will find the bodies, not Maria and Lucas [alive]. That’s why he sends his kids away up to the mountains, but at that moment when he suddenly talks to Maria’s father on the phone, it’s the first time that it hits him. He has to explain that they’re not with him. At that moment, he breaks down but he breaks down because he’s with all those people. He knows he can break down and somebody will pick him up and still it’s just a very small moment but we thought it was important to show it and Ewan was incredible.

Were you able to explore some of the details of a disaster that maybe the Hollywood disaster movies wouldn’t get into?

Well, there’s two decisions we made that would separate this film from that type of movie, almost to the point that whenever I read or hear about this movie being referred to as a disaster movie, I go, “It’s not.” It doesn’t fall in that genre. Maybe there’s the big tsunami scene but it’s a drama. It’s not an action movie I think.

I would challenge you that the rescue and aftermath is just as important as the disaster that happens. That’s what makes it a disaster movie. There’s still a long journey to the hospital and to survive.

By minute 19 the tsunami’s gone and it won’t be back. Well, it’s in Maria’s dream. [Regarding] detail, our decision was all the time to stay with a camera on the ground close to the characters. There’s just two moments where the camera goes up and you see the whole scope of everything. We wanted the audience to experience the film as closely as possible as these characters lived it. So it was all about finding those details that you probably wouldn’t see. At the same time, be careful enough to give just a few of them so that whenever they come, it catches you as a surprise. If you’re all the time going through the brutality of the wounds and stuff, there’s a moment where you become desensitized to it. This film is nothing when you compare it to a slasher movie like Saw. The level of gore is nothing, but the thing is you’re so invested in the characters and it’s just one, two, three moments so that when it comes, like Maria’s leg, you’re not expecting that. You’re not ready for that moment. Suddenly then she turns around she’s naked and the kid feels so horrible about seeing his mother nude and wounded. So we tried to get those details to only little moments where they would work to maximum impact. Suddenly that makes you tense I think because you never know when it’s going to come again. Yeah, we struggled to that. It was about finding a balance. It had to be truthful enough so that it wasn’t too light. We had pictures to do research on the film and some of those pictures were really unbearable to watch. So we had to find a balance where it was truthful enough to the real tragedy but also something that you could watch without feeling sick.

Were there any good details you had to leave out?

Oh, thousands. We had to condense 48 hours in an hour and a half and we had this family but at the same time, it’s like everywhere you turn, when we were shooting the film, somebody would come to us who had been there because we shot at the same locations where it happened. Everybody kept giving us details and there comes a point where you just have to go, “Okay, this is the story we want to tell.” If you try to incorporate so many other things, it gets to a point where the story gets muddled. You sort of have to try not to lose focus, but yeah, there were many, many details that we left out.

Were you and Juan Antonio Bayona developing anything else between The Orphanage and The Impossible?

Actually when Belen came to us with the story, we were working on another film that we thought was going to be our second movie. It fell apart [and] one week before, Belen heard this story. It was a coproduction. Our English producers lost faith in the project so we couldn’t do it and immediately, Belen came in with this and it’s like, “We have to do this.” My first instinct was, “You’re crazy. There’s no way. We’re not prepared to do a movie of this scale and we’ll never get the money to make it.” But the story was so powerful and we found it so moving, we really needed to get this film made. Out of ignorance, we set out to do it and we managed to do it because it was very important for all of us to get this movie made.

What was the film that fell apart?

Contractually I cannot tell you because I signed a release that I would not. It’s a film that somebody else made and it’s a film that wasn’t particularly successful, so if I tell you it would sort of feel like revenge and I don’t want that, I’m sorry.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on my own film. It’s a script that I’ve written that I’m going to direct in the fall. In the meantime, I’m taking meetings here. Hopefully I can manage to write another script now before the cameras start rolling. There are several things and nothing has been signed yet. One of them is for Juan Antonio, there’s another other project I don’t know if it’s going to be a Spanish film or international.

What do you want to do as a director of your film?

It’s a coming of age story. It’s a very small film about this kid who creates a fantasy world to find refuge from his family situation where his parents are getting a divorce. It’s a bittersweet comedy with little drops of fantasy in there.

What would make that something you might be afraid to let someone else direct?

No, this one is too close to home. There’s so much of that story that’s part of my childhood, I feel that no one else will do it better than me so I have to do this one. And also it’s been something I’ve been meaning to do forever. I started to be a director. I made short films when I met Juan Antonio and I made movies for television. It was only through meeting Bayona and having this very close relationship and we understand each other so well that I considered writing. It’s not something that was in the plan. Now that he doesn’t need me because now everybody knows him and he can get the best scripts in town without me, now is a good time to go back to directing.

What has your Hollywood experience been like?

It’s great. You get to meet people who you’ve admired forever. It’s very hard to get movies made in Spain. Actually to be here is pretty incredible and also just getting to meet all these super talented people and discover that they’re just nice, hard working people. There’s not an aura or something extraordinary about them. It’s been great, and then there’s the part that you want to be careful about when suddenly you go into meetings where you discover a very different way of making movies, where there’s a big machine that doesn’t want any individuality working. So for us, all our films, even this one which is sort of a big movie but it feels homemade. It’s just Belan, Juan Antonio and me and it’s sort of scary when your’e tempted, when somebody comes up to you to make a huge studio movie and it’s like, “Uhhh, we like our little homemade way of making it.” But again, it’s so nice to have the opportunity to work. I mean, the top talents of the world are here, so it’s tempting.

Was the experience with the film that fell through a valuable experience in how to avoid those situations?

No, it was just unfortunate but you learn from everything you do. As a writer, I feel that I learned a lot from that process and I was able to improve my craft so it was useful. It wasn’t a waste of time. Then again, there’s ideas in there that will come back. We’ll find the film for them so it’s okay.

Photo Credit: Jose Haro

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.