Ewan McGregor says real-life horrors of Thailand tsunami gripped him while making film

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TORONTO -- Surviving a tsunami that kills 230,000 people in a dozen countries isn't the only or real meaning of the movie title "The Impossible." Living with the pain and guilt of that knowledge, as sweeping as another monstrous wave, is the other.

Producer Belen Atienza had heard Maria Belon, whose family's story is told in the film opening today, talk about the harrowing ordeal in a radio interview in her native Spain.

"She was so moved by her story and how she talked about afterwards, how do you survive something like that? But, when you leave it, how do you survive it? The terrible survivors' guilt that they feel," actor Ewan McGregor said in an interview during September's Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie had its world premiere.

Talking about director J.A. Bayona, he said, "That's why he wanted to have 'The Impossible,' the title, at the end of the film because he felt this is where the impossible starts. How do you carry on after something like that?"

The real family is Spanish, but the movie turns them into Brits on holiday with their three boys at the Orchid Resort in Thailand at Christmastime 2004. Questioners asked Mr. McGregor how accurate the story is.

"I don't know that there's any dramatic license as such, in that it's totally their story and the dialogue is their dialogue, as much as can be remembered." They either said it, heard it or did it.

Mr. McGregor, looking boyish in black jeans and T-shirt at the Trump International Hotel and Tower, wielded a light saber as young Obi-Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars," warbled in "Moulin Rouge," and was son to Academy Award winner Christopher Plummer in "Beginners." But "The Impossible" brought a special challenge.

"I wanted it to be my first real exploration of being a parent in a movie. I hadn't really done that before. I mean, I might have had children in a film but this film was very much to me about that unique bond you have with your children and your wife," said Mr. McGregor.

Naomi Watts, being touted as a possible Oscar contender for best actress, plays his wife, Maria, and the couple's boys are portrayed by teenager Tom Holland (honored by the National Board of Review as breakthrough actor) and young Oaklee Pendergast and Simon Joslin.

While Mr. McGregor was making "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," Ms. Watts and young Holland were being punished and pummeled by water in a shooting tank in Alicante, Spain. They were sodden, submerged and slammed by water for remarkably lifelike scenes. Mr. McGregor received email updates.

"It's a strange feeling to be attached to a film that you want to make and hearing how it's going when you've not started yet and while shooting another one," he said.

After he finished "Salmon Fishing" in Morocco, he returned to Los Angeles "for, like a minute," to see his wife and four daughters and then plunged into the project in Thailand. He had about a week to spend with the young actors. They went to the beach, dined together, hung out and, because he spends most of his time with the younger two, ran scenes with them, "developing our style of how we were going to go about it, really."

Mr. McGregor had told the director he didn't want to be involved with any game-playing with the kids, "like frightening them on purpose for a reaction. I didn't want to do that, because I don't think that's right. I don't think he wanted to, either."

It didn't take long for the five to bond. "Because Naomi and I are both parents and because the boys are so brilliant and lovely, it very quickly felt like a family. I liked it very much hanging out with those boys."

In fact, he wished he had spent more time with the young performers, but the nature of the film almost dictated they relax on weekends.

Although he was always happy to speak to survivors or friends or relatives of victims, he had to quit reading about the tsunami at a certain point and decided twice was enough to watch a documentary, "Tsunami: Caught on Camera." It provides a minute-by-minute account of the tsunami through amateur video along with eyewitness accounts.

The Scottish-born actor and others stayed in hotels once ravaged by the disaster.

"You were surrounded always by it," he said. "I'd lie awake in bed at night knowing that that room had been full of water on that day and not knowing if who'd been in there had survived or not."

Associated Press news accounts published in the Post-Gazette described how that region's most powerful earthquake in 40 years tore open the sea bed off the Sumatran coast, displacing billions of tons of water and sending waves roaring across the ocean at jetliner speeds as far away as East Africa. The lobbies of five-star hotels in Thailand were filled with corpses. More than 200,000 across the world were dead or missing and nearly 2 million lost their homes.

By the time the movie crew arrived in Thailand, most of the devastation had been cleaned up, but Mr. Bayona, who made the horror hit "The Orphanage," had to re-create it.

"He set himself this enormous challenge to make this huge film. He's passionate, he's such a lover of film. He wants to be a great filmmaker, but he also wanted to make up something really big and difficult. He wanted to be at the helm of something almost uncontrollable and he did it brilliantly."

Always, though, the charge was to remember the real people who died and the thousands of others who lost loved ones.

"Our responsibility is to those people, to tell a story honestly and truthfully and never to let the movie drive the story. Always the other way around, so that you really feel that the moviemaking is being utilized to tell this family's story."


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.


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