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The Fretts on Film Interview: J.A. Bayona

December 18, 2012

Juan Antonio Bayona is far from a household name in America, but the Spanish director is poised to make a big impact with his first English-language film, The Impossible. Naomi Watts stars as a mom who’s separated from her family by the 2004 tsunami, and while she’s deservedly earning praise for her gut-wrenching performance, Bayona’s work is equally impressive. I spoke with the filmmaker for my New York Daily News profile of Watts, and here’s more of what he had to say.

How did you and Naomi Watts get involved? Was she attached first?

I thought about her from the very beginning. It was very tough job, and she’s really good. Watching her films, she’s great at portraying these characters that talk about dark aspects of life. I was a huge fan. I had very good recommendations from some friends. We sent her the script and she loved it. We had a meeting and we loved each other. It was very emotional—we were telling her the story, and it was obvious how passionate we were and she loved it so she came in very early in the process.

So how physically difficult was it for her to shoot this movie? It looks grueling on screen. Was it really tough?

It was tough. It was very demanding physically, especially the first part of the shooting—we did it in Spain. We shot all the water sequences there for six weeks. But the most challenging for her was probably not that, it was the emotional aspects of the character and that happened when we went to Thailand to shoot.

Why was it so hard for emotionally? Do you think because she’s a mother herself and there’s so much about being separated from your family in it?

Well, to be in Thailand, shooting in the same place and being in contact with people who were there, that was definitely something very challenging emotionally. From the beginning, I tried to protect her. I put her in contact with Maria [Belon, the woman on whom her character is based]. I met Maria many years ago when we started to work on the script and she’s a great, great person. She loved Naomi. It’s funny, when she was asked, ‘What is your favorite actress?’ she told me, ‘Naomi Watts’ so I knew that they were going to have a great relationship.

Naomi’s obviously a beautiful woman, but she has to look pretty terrible in this movie. Did she have any hesitation about that?

She told me from the very beginning, ‘I know this film is not about how beautiful I am,’ so she understood that and we got into action in a very extreme way. She really knew that this film was not going to be about vanity so we only talked about that in the beginning. There are 8 minutes in the film where she had to look great, she had to look beautiful because this is what the film is about—losing these superficial layers, losing vanity was one of the ideas. To show the vanity of the character was an idea at the beginning of the story.

What do you think in general makes her such a great actress? Is it this willingness to go into dark places where others might not be willing to? Or is there something about her fundamentally that just comes across on screen?

I don’t know, but I know she really loves if a director asks her for more. She loves the director to push her to the limit, a place where she probably couldn’t go by herself.

What was her relationship like with Tom Holland, who plays her oldest son?

Very strong. I understood that the film was about the bond between these two characters. I tried to build the bond on the set. They had a strong relationship. They loved each other. I remember that we started to do a lot of rehearsals, 3 weeks of rehearsals before going into the water, and we did lots of different exercises in there just to create that bond so we played, we had fun, we talked a lot about the script and the scenes. And then we spent 6 weeks in the water so by the time we went to Thailand, they were together for 8 weeks, and 8 weeks for a lot of actors is already a film itself. It’s shooting a whole movie. So definitely they had this very good relationship when we got to Thailand. And it grew more and more.

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What about with Ewan McGregor? They’re not together on screen very long, but they have to establish this bond where you believe they’ll go to the ends of the earth to find each other. How did they manage to do that?

One of the great things is that they already did a movie before [Stay]. They have this relationship already established and this is something very helpful, always. They had a really good relationship so we didn’t have that much time to work the bond because Ewan was shooting another film—he was doing Salmon Fishing in the Yemen—but we did some rehearsals with them, around 10 days, and then we went into action.

What was Naomi like on the set? Is she very serious between takes? Is she able to lighten up and have fun?

She is very light, quiet, calm, tries to be focused on the character. She is not the kind of actress that keeps doing her role in between takes, but you definitely notice she is focused. She is always listening to music or doing something to try not to be affected by the atmosphere of the set. Sometimes when you have 100 people working around you, you cannot be focusing on your character. She is trying all the time to be separated from the people and to be focusing.

She’s given so many great performances and she’s only been nominated for an Oscar once. What do you think her chances are like this year?

Well, I mean, I know what she did, and she did an extraordinary job. Everybody on the set was very impressed by her and it was beautiful to see how all the people were affected by it. I remember shooting the last shot of the film where you can see her crying. Crying means so much because this moment in the film, we’re not talking about the family, we’re talking about all the people they left behind. And on the set, not just Naomi, there were many people in tears watching her that day.

It seems like she has no fears as an actress. She’s playing Princess Diana in an upcoming movie, which is a risk in its own way. What do you think drives her to take on these challenging projects?

I think she really needs that to do a film. She’s not a comfortable actress, she will not do a movie just for the money. She needs the excitement. Even though she’s a calm and quiet person, in terms of acting, I think she needs to balance that.

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