J. A. Bayona Discusses The Impossible | The Backlot | NYFA

Eric: Hi I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you the director of The Orphanage, A Monster Calls, and most recently a little film called Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, J.A. Bayona.

J. A. Bayona: I mean for me everything comes from my childhood. The first memory in my life is a shot from Superman. So that tells you a lot about me. I don’t have a memory where I was deciding I want to be a filmmaker. I want to be a director it was always there.

Eric: Before directing. T-Rexes and raptors Mr. Bayona helmed the gut-wrenching drama The Impossible. It’s based on one family’s story of survival during the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. After screening the film for our students Mr. Bayona focused much of his conversation on this remarkable and powerful film. So you might want to familiarize yourself with it before listening.

— Do you know the most scary bit for me? – When the water hit.

If another wave catches us down here we will die.

The scariest part, when I came up and I was all on my own.

I won’t stop looking until I find them I’ll look in all the hospitals and I’ll look in all the shelters I will find them. I promise you that. —

Eric: Mr. Bayona’s story is fascinating tracing how he went from film school student to eventually helming a billion dollar grossing film. Though he admits he actually learned a lot more as a teacher.

J. A. Bayona: I’ve been a student in film school for four years and then I was six years more teaching. I learned much more teaching then as a student, as a student I spent too much time on the bar. You learn a lot of things on the bar. I mean but the truth is that I really learned a lot in teaching probably because it’s kind of like you need to be thinking all the time about why are you doing what you are. What are you doing? And as a director I never – I always follow my instinct when choosing the script in working the script and working with the actors. For me, it’s all about instinct. This is how you really find your voice and there’s a lot of, also of intellectualization after that. But the first thing is instinct. What was the question.

Eric:  Mr. Bayona’s instinct and talent helped quickly launch his career as a music video and commercial director. Meanwhile, he continued his film education the same way a lot of us do by watching DVD and their extras.

J. A. Bayona: When I finished school I immediately started to work in commercial and music videos and it was me with all these people in the bar, working doing music videos. And the truth is that we had a great school in there because we do everything ourselves. So I learned a lot of visual effects in working in commercials and music videos. So when I got to the moment of doing this film I was very involved in the preparation and also I used to watch a lot of extras on DVD so you can more or less have a sense of how does it work. Watching that I think it’s very useful to know how it works the Photoshop you know because when you work in post-production everything is made on layers also. So at the end it’s a question of having this knowledge of how could a shot be composed in layers. And also I really like the fact of using as much real as possible. The way James Cameron always says he does so I think one good trick is to use all the time different techniques. Don’t rely only in CGI or in miniatures. So there is a moment where the eyes gets confused and the audience doesn’t know what they’re watching. And I think that’s very interesting.

Eric: In 2007 J.A. Bayona directed chilling Spanish language horror film The Orphanage produced by the legendary Guillermo Del Toro. It’s terrifying and you should watch it. You know if you’re not too scared. The Orphanage went on to become one of Spain’s biggest blockbusters which meant Mr Bayona that his pick of the litter from more horror films but he didn’t want to be pigeonholed.

J. A. Bayona: After I finish The Orphanage I was offered all the. Horror remakes and sequels you could imagine. But you need to find something exciting and sometimes and not sometimes but very often, you need to find something different. I mean this is why even though I I I feel that Impossible is very close to the orphanage it doesn’t have nothing to do at the same time. So so you need to find something new something challenging. I would love to do another horror movie for example but I’m kind of sometimes – you don’t find enough excitement in doing another horror movie so you really need to, I don’t know, I mean I don’t like to think about genre, for example, what genre would you like to work? You go to your agent tells you, what genre would you like to do? I don’t know. I mean I don’t think about genre I mean for me a film is about the story and especially what lies beyond the story and what lies behind the story. It’s always you you need to find yourself in there. I mean I’m kind of like Polanski. He – you can notice that he is a film lover because if you take a look at his filmography he can do a pirate movie a horror movie drama from the Holocaust, I mean he can do everything. I mean he could do a comedy. I mean he loves movies and he likes to tell the stories from from his point of view and this is what I’m looking for.

Eric: The success of The Orphanage eventually enabled Mr. Bayona to direct his 2012 follow up feature The Impossible.

J. A. Bayona: I was very lucky the fact that The Orphanage was a huge success in Spain it was the biggest Spanish film ever. In Spanish. So so that helped me in having the trust of the producers in in doing this film. I remember. I was working on a film with also, with Sergio. It didn’t I mean I don’t know why but at the end we we it was a director doing that after work been working on a script for nine months. So the day after the story appeared by coincidence and producer heard the story in a radio show and she came to me and she tried to explain, “tries” because she couldn’t get to the end she was too emotional and I found myself exactly the same. So I realized that there was something very brutal and primal and that talks about something that goes beyond the fact of the tsunami or the context of the tsunami. And I wanted to explore what was that because it definitely was making this story something that goes beyond the context to make it something more universal and I wanted to figure it out what was that and then we had the script ready. We were working on the script for maybe. Yeah, nine months six-nine months. And we went to the actors and they loved it. They loved the script they loved The Orphanage so everything happened very easily surprisingly.

Eric: Even a movie like The Impossible with its built-in real life drama needs stars to get off the ground. Fortunately, Mr. Bayona was able to cast the talented Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor.

J. A. Bayona: I always was a huge fan of Naomi and Ewan and it’s a question of instinct and I could see them doing these characters probably because I see them not as Hollywood actors because they’ve been doing lots of different stuff with European movies independent movies. So I felt them very close to me. And I think that Naomi is very good in portraying dark sides of life. She’s very good at getting close to a tragic sense of storytelling. And I think Ewan’s is a guy who is very easy to get a sense of empathy and intimacy with with him. So I felt them right. The main challenge was to work in a different language. I mean I talk English now better than before but it’s not my first language. So so that was definitely the main challenge. And I mean right now even doing Q&As you want to talk about life and death and you find yourself having some problems in going into specifics, so can you imagine how I felt in the set with the actors sometimes? But the truth is that we had a very good relationship. We trust a lot to each other from the very beginning I wanted to have a long time of rehearsals and we created a strong bond there and it went really well in fact because Ewan had to shoot another movie. He was shooting Salmon Fishing in Yemen. So he came I was surprised. I thought people in Hollywood they do more rehearsal than what they do really. I mean to to talk to the agents about having a time for rehearsals. I was surprised about that because it seems that they didn’t rehearse that much. I mean I’m talking about my experience so I really maybe I’m saying that and I don’t know but probably every director is different. I know that Naomi has been working with directors where she did a lot of rehearsals but I was surprised how tough it was to find time to do rehearsals. But the truth is that with Naomi we spent three weeks – with Naomi and Tom doing rehearsals with Ewan we had the chance of working some days before the shooting of the Salmon Fishing. After finishing the Salmon Fishing he came join us and we were doing rehearsal for an extra week so we had a good preparation.

Eric: The Impossible is not your average disaster film. The film focuses not only on the tsunami’s deadly destruction but the humans who banded together to survive. So this story needed to rely on more than special effects alone.

J. A. Bayona: First of all you need to choose the best actor possible and also the one who fits in the characters. So the cast is a very important part in creating the character in creating the performance in this film. I remember there was a lot of work in the set to get to this level of exhaustion. So I remember there was a moment that I didn’t cut between takes. Especially because you need to waste so much time between takes. You realize that you’re not helping the actors that they they are loosing the moment. So even though we’re shooting on film I was all the time shooting take after take with no pauses in the middle. So I remember instead of saying cut, going back to first position all the time. It’s a very interesting story because as a filmmaker I realized that you never had a thought of what are they doing. I mean because these characters they didn’t have time to stop and think about that. So there is no moment in the story where they stop and think about what is happening except for the moment where you can see this old lady in the mountains with the kid, Geraldine Chaplin. She really has some thoughts about life and death in that moment.

— You like looking at stars don’t you. Some of those stars have been burned out for a long long time.

How can you tell which one’s are dead and which ones are not?

Oh you can’t. It’s impossible. It’s a beautiful mystery isn’t it? —

J. A. Bayona: But the rest of the film it’s not. There’s not a pause. It’s all about getting a sense of urgency but we talk a lot with the actors about the moments about what was the meaning every specific situation. For example, I’ll tell you that I had these emails very long email from Maria the real Maria telling me about the connection that she had with this old Thai man who rescues her. And even in that moment there were no lines. There were no dialogues it was just about this man dragging her in the muck. So I got to the set that day thinking all the time how can I do that? I mean I – I don’t have space in there. I mean I don’t have dialogues. I was thinking all day about that and right before lunch I decided to shoot that shot of Naomi’s eyes and I came to her and I, of course, she read the four pages of the email and I found a moment, ten minutes before we stop shooting that day to prepare the shot so we put the camera on her and I really like to work with music on the set all the time because it helps not just the actors but the whole crew to get into the mood. So I remember I put the camera on her eyes and it was a long piece of music around seven minutes. So we were shooting her eyes for seven minutes with this music that goes higher and higher and higher. And there was a moment that Naomi’s eyes were going to explode from her camera. She knew what she was doing, she knew the meaning of that scene because she read that four-page email. So putting them together the shot of the old Thai man and Naomi’s eyes everything was there.

Eric: Before he became our newest web-slinger and joined the Avengers. Tom Holland came to international acclaim playing Naomi Watt’s 13-year-old son. To be honest I am still baffled how he did not get an Oscar nomination for this film. Mr. Bayona explained how the future Spider-Man showed a maturity well beyond his years.

J. A. Bayona: I would never consider Tom Holland as a child actor. Because he even though he was 13 when we were shooting the film. He was already working in West London playing Billy Elliot for three years. So he was the central piece of a stage play with 100 actors more so. So he had a strong sense of responsibility. So I treat him exactly the same than Naomi or Ewan for me it was like working with an adult. And he’s an extraordinary actor extraordinary. So I never treat him as a kid. And talking about working with kids, I think you need to find a balance between create a sense of responsibility in them because they’re working so going to a set is going to school. So I treat them like the teacher. I mean they need to behave, they need to understand they have their responsibilities but at the same time you need to make them enjoy all the time because they’re kids so if they get bored. It’s a problem. So I mean they could lose focus on the scene or so. So it’s a balance of make them enjoy at the same time being responsible. Also there was a huge commitment from the actors I mean from the rehearsals we set the tone of the film and it was clear that we had a responsibility in telling the story of not just this family but all the people who was there. So we felt that not just me but the crew and the actors. We shot exactly in the same places where this story happened in the same pool, in the same hospital in the same hotel. I mean and we were living everyday with the Thai crew, dealing with them, knowing stories from survivors who were extras in the set or people who we were talking everyday. When you finished shooting you go to a restaurant and the owner has a story about the tsunami and you want to know that they want to tell you. And so there is a moment that you’re very surrounded by reality and that gives you a strong sense of responsibility.

Eric: Considering this film was based on the all too real events surrounding the tsunami Mr. Bayona felt that much more pressure to ensure the movie was accurate. During production, he collaborated closely with Maria Belón the brave woman whose family was the inspiration for the impossible.

J. A. Bayona: From the moment I knew I needed I was going to do a film about the tsunami of course. You. Tried to get in contact with as much people as possible. So we met some people in Europe and then we went to Thailand we met some people in there. There’s a lot of stories on the Internet also. And of course we work very close with the family especially with Maria she worked with Sergio very close in the script. And at the end I mean I was telling about the authority of doing the film I mean you need to feel the Authority I found the authority not in things related to the tragedy but in related in human nature. I mean I felt how emotional it was for me how these people found their dignity in those moments and how important was the legacy between the mother and the kid. If you think about The Orphanage it’s also a story about a mother and a kid in extreme context. I mean so this is where I found the authority. This is why I say that the film goes beyond the context of the tragedy to talk in a more universal way but the truth is that at the end you’re doing a portrait of what it was to be there. So we met a lot of people and wanted to create a big picture of what was the experience of being a foreigner in there. And also we wanted to tell a story from all the points of view but we wanted to be very attached to the point of view of the family because it’s the kind of – I like to work the stories from the point of view of one character in this movie was five characters but it’s for me it’s like one character. But these people had to be in contact with the rest of the people I remember the first conversation we had with Maria. It was obvious that this has to be the story of this family but also many many people who was there. Also the Thai people from the very beginning I never wanted to separate Thai people from foreign people. This is not a film about nationalities. This is why we didn’t say where the family is coming from. They are coming from the outside and when they went back home they feel that the world has changed they don’t feel secure anymore but we don’t talk about nationalities so so I never wanted to portray the Thai people as only as victims and one of the things I got in talking to survivors and talking to people who lost people there is that no matter if they lose people or not no matter if they survive all the people were talking about the Thai people with wonderful words. So I want them to portray also especially from the point of view of the gratitude of the people who was there because this was a movie made from the point of view of someone from the outside who goes there. So all these arguments all these things you find in talking to the people who was there talking to the family especially. Talking to a lot of Thai people, volunteers. Yeah that’s it.

Eric: He also found inspiration in documentary and home video footage of the events though not always in the ways he expected.

J. A. Bayona: I remember watching a documentary called tsunami caught on camera and in fact there were a couple of moments in that documentary that we share on this script. I mean we had these moments in the script so I was surprised when I. When I saw the documentary. And it’s all based on real footage and I was surprised to see those moments in real footage in that documentary. There was a moment in the documentary where you can see kids opening their Christmas presents and if you have the face of a kid really opening a present and you can catch that moment. I mean the sense of empathy with just one shot is immediate.

— It’s Christmas. It’s Christmas morning.–

J. A. Bayona: So we prepared that scene like a it was real footage. So we did it for real. We didn’t tell the kids that the presents were there. So they were surprised they found the presents and you can see the faces of the kids and you create a sense of intimacy and empathy.

Eric: Mr. Bayona gives much of the credit for the film to its writer Sergio Sanchez who also collaborated with him on The Orphanage.

J. A. Bayona: Sergio is a brilliant screenwriter I mean you can you can feel reading his lines. I mean it’s not just the description of what is happening it’s he’s also a filmmaker he has shot a couple of short films and some from for Jovito. So he really is able to capture emotion when he’s writing. And that’s very helpful not just. For me but also of course for the actors. The truth is that he was a very very emotional story from the very beginning. As I told you the first time. I was telling the story to my friends there were moments that had to stop because I was overwhelmed by emotion. And I wanted to figure out where that was coming from. It’s a disaster movie. I mean you can call it a disaster movie. It’s a film that talks about survival in an unconventional way. It’s not just about if you live or you die. There’s a lot of suffering also in survival. I mean there’s a reality of emotion. I like the fact that that you tell the story from the point of view of a foreign family. So it talks not just about a survival story it talks about this kind of like a coming of age story not just for Lucas, the character played by Tom Holland, but but for the whole family because it tells about the ending of a world of a world of innocence for world of materialistic things that they don’t use they don’t have a use anymore. I mean I like the fact at the end how you can see this guy from insurance company appears this guy who looks like a guy from another planet, wearing a suit.

— You have nothing to worry about now.–

J. A. Bayona: This guy represents the real world for them but the world is not the same anymore for them. And I thought that that was very interesting. And of course I am a foreigner in Thailand so it was the most honest way to approach to the tragedy also. And I liked the fact that the heroism in the story in the characters doesn’t rely in what they do for survive I mean the heroism relies in what they do for the other ones. There is a moment in the story where the mother who was a doctor she knew that she was bleeding to death but even though that she wanted to go and help this little boy that was asking for help.

— Wait. Did you hear that. There’s nothing we can do wait we are almost there we have to get to safety. No we have to help that boy. —

J. A. Bayona: So she was choosing in that moment what might be the last act in her life. I mean if you talk about life in story that is a moment you realise that you can not control life but you can control your own decisions. And what this woman was doing was choosing her last act. And she chose a lesson of what was the right thing to do. So the heroism relies not in what they do for survival but what they do for keep their dignity as human beings. And I thought that was very emotional.

Eric: On a technical scale, this movie had its work cut out for it. It needed to convince us that we were seeing the same tsunami that we all witnessed on TV back in 2004. You throw in working with young actors filming on water and a multilingual crew, it’s no wonder this movie was called The Impossible.

J. A. Bayona: Everything looks like impossible when we started to work on this in fact the title was kind of like a joke at the beginning. We were saying we are going to do the impossible because everything. I mean we were dealing with kids very young kids we were dealing with water. In a shooting in another country in another language with Hollywood stars. I mean everything felt like challenging. The logistics were very difficult. I mean to go everyday to the set and to have all the people in there it was an epic shooting. I mean there was thousands of extras. There was 100 people that fly to Thailand from the crew and there was a next. There was 100 people more from the Thai crew. So everything was kind of difficult. So I don’t know probably the difficult thing was to put all the pieces together especially as a director to balance the emotions in the story. I mean first of all to be close to the people who was there, trying to be respectful and then to balance. I mean it was a very emotional shooting just be there every moment. We don’t have a limit and then we measure all these emotions in the editing room. The truth is that it was very challenging because the emotions doesn’t work in a conventional way in a situation like that. I mean you can see in that scene when Ewan McGregor in the bus station you can see how the guy goes from zero to 100. That’s the way emotions work.

— Maria and Lucas are not here the ocean came and swept everyone away. —

J. A. Bayona: You can see the moment when the kids come together and it’s pure joy. I remember talking to Lucas and he was telling me to cry was a privilege. We didn’t have time to cry and we cried when we had a moment of release. So for him, he was telling me the moment I met my brothers it was the happiest moment in my life. It’s very simple. There’s no more explanation. And the whole idea of the film was to create an emotional journey in the audience, to put them into a theater and to send them back home with no explanation because this is what these people lived. These people they went to Thailand. They were expecting to have a happy holidays. What they what they had was a horrible experience and then at the end someone put them into a empty plane and send them back home with no explanation. So I wanted to create the same feeling in the audience to to live the moments of anguish the moments of fear, the moments of relief, of happiness, of joy. Of course not at the same level but try to make an emotional journey in the audience and then send them back home with no explanation so that so you leave the audience a chance of having their own interpretation on the story.

Eric:  J.A. Bayona’s done some truly magical work taming raptors in Jurassic World bringing a talking tree to life in A Monster Calls and capturing the real-life horrors of a tsunami. But his initial inspiration as a storyteller like most of ours came from his own life.

J. A. Bayona: I think my childhood I mean it’s your own personality. I mean you need to follow that and then you start to meet people you go to film school you have a lot of references. I mean you like Speilberg movies for example but there is a moment that that is only useful to put your personality. And it’s a question of instinct it’s not, it’s not a plan. Prepare. I mean it’s just follow your instinct follow what moves you. What makes you laugh. Truffaut used to say that movies are a mix of what you would like to live when you had lived and what would you be scared of living. I mean for me everything comes from my childhood. The first memory in my life is a shot from Superman so that tells you a lot about me. I mean it’s I don’t have a memory where I was deciding I want to be a filmmaker I want to be a director. I don’t have that memory. It was always there. But there is a moment that that you. Use that. All the references all your knowledge that you had in school. To just follow your instinct and this is where you find your voice. This is very important. I remember when I was a teacher at film school the first thing I used to say to students was listen to everybody and don’t listen to anybody. I mean it’s like just follow your instinct just try to get as much information as possible. And then follow your instinct. This is for me what storytelling is about when you want to. Tell a story from your point of view.

Eric: We want to thank J.A. Bayona for making the impossible possible and sharing his film and his experiences with our students. And thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A moderated and produced by Tova Laiter to watch the full interview or to see our other Q&A’s. Check out our youtube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner; edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson who also produced this episode with Kristian Hayden and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible to learn more about our programs. Check us out at nyfa.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

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