EXCLUSIVE: Spain’s J.A. Bayona has carved a niche for himself in survivalist drama, starting with 2012’s The Impossible, in which a family’s dream trip to Thailand becomes a nightmare when a tsunami destroys their luxury resort. It was based on a true story, unlike 2018’s Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom, which nevertheless featured human beings facing unimaginable odds when confronted by a terrifying new breed of carnivorous dinosaurs.
With his new Netflix production Society of the Snow, Bayona is back in the real world again, telling a story that might be his most extraordinary yet. Based on the book of the same name by Pablo Vierci, first published in 2008, it charts the story of the 45 people who, on 13 October 1972, boarded Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 from Montevideo to Chile. There were five crew members on board and 40 passengers, including 19 members of the Old Christians Club rugby team. Tragedy struck when the pilot began his descent too early, crashing into the Andes and killing 12 immediately. The survivors clung to the belief that help was coming, but none did. After weeks of hunger, having exhausted everything in the plane’s hold, they were forced to do the unthinkable and eat the flesh of those who had died.
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When we first meet Bayona, in November of 2022, he is orchestrating mayhem on a soundstage in Madrid. Outside, it’s a warm, sunny winter’s day, but inside, we’re transported to the frozen wastes of the Andes, where, nearly 50 years earlier, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 made that fateful landing. Around us, there are sections of an old-school ’70s airplane cabin. all in various states of distress. One is on a gimbal, so that it rocks and shakes, but the most startling moment occurs when an actor, strapped to a barely visible harness, suddenly goes hurtling in the air through the empty space where the tail-end used to be. In another corner, there’s a side-section: a row of seats that will collapse forward, squashing all the actors together in a wince-inducing concertina motion.
Although these scenes come at the beginning of Bayona’s movie, they are the last to be filmed. The director looks at his actors and remarks how healthy they look now. Well, they’ve had a bit of time to put back some of the weight they lost earlier in the year: under the watchful eye of doctors, nutritionists and personal trainers, this cast of mostly 20somethings really put themselves through the wringer to bring a dark page of South American history to life. What they all know full well, though, is that the hardships they’ve suffered were nothing compared to those of the passengers of the real Flight 571, who spent 72 days in icy isolation waiting for help that very — very — nearly never came.
When the cavalry finally did come, and after the initial euphoria died down, the first headlines involved salacious tales of cannibalism. Given that Bayona has used horror imagery throughout his career, from in his 2007 debut The Orphanage to 2016’s A Monster Calls, you could be forgiven for wondering if this transgression might be the film’s focus. But it’s not. As in his 2012 film The Impossible, Bayona is more interested in the mysteries of life than the certainties of death. Using Vierci’s book, co-written with survivor Robert Canessa, as a roadmap, Bayona set out instead to create a film that would take a microscope to the human condition while making a sensitive film that would honor the living and the dead.
The next time we meet, shortly before it is due to close the Venice film festival, Society of the Snow is all but finished, bar a few to-be-perfected FX shots, and Bayona is thrilled with what’s he’s achieved. “What I love about the screenings we’ve had so far,” he says, “is that nobody stood up as soon as the story ended. We have a very long credit sequence — like, 13 minutes — and nobody stood up. All of them were in shock, which, by the way, is the kind of experience I was hoping for. It’s a difficult movie, but, at the end, it’s a most optimistic view of what humans being are at their core. It tells you, when we are taken away from everything that we have, what arises and what surfaces.”
DEADLINE: When did you first hear about the story of Flight 571?
J.A. BAYONA: I read Pablo Vierci’s book while I was researching for The Impossible. In fact, the title from The Impossible was taken from some words by Roberto Canessa, one of the survivors in the book — he mentions the word “impossible” seven times in a single, small paragraph. I thought, “Wow, that’s a quite good title for my film.” That was more than 10 years ago. I just fell in love with the story. It was very inspiring for The Impossible. I remember, I found myself many times reading excerpts from the book to Naomi Watts and Tom Holland in between takes. We bought the rights for Society of the Snow on the last day of the shoot of The Impossible. It took ten years to find the financing to do it in Spanish.
DEADLINE: Why did you want to make it into a movie?
BAYONA: I think I’m attracted to these very extreme stories. They might feel dark, but, in the end, they are very optimistic about life. I think that in order to enhance life, sometimes you need to face death. One of the things that I love about Vierci’s book is that he’s able to get you into the minds of the characters. He makes you go through this experience; he puts you in front of death to highlight life. That’s something that you can find in common with The Impossible. It’s a very different story, though, and it’s a very different context. The Impossible happened in 72 hours. This happened in 72 days, and the geography is totally different. One of the things that I think is very special about Society of the Snow is that it happens in a place where life is not possible. You need to reinvent life. You need to reinvent your beliefs. You need to reinvent your link, your bond, with other people.
DEADLINE: There have been two iterations of this film previously. The first was Survive! (1976), which has not exactly aged well. Have you seen that movie, and what are your thoughts on it?
BAYONA: I saw the movie again while I was preparing the film, but I couldn’t find a good copy of it. I found a version on the internet that was not good. I checked it out, but I didn’t pay that much attention to it because it was a very bad copy. It’s a very different tale from our story. It was an exploitation movie made soon after the disaster. It was very different from our approach.
DEADLINE: Then, of course, there was the Frank Marshall’s Alive (1993). How is your film different to those previous versions?
BAYONA: It’s obviously the same story, but the telling [in our film] is unique, since, for the first time, it tells the story of all the society [of the snow]. Not only the survivors, but also those who died in the Andes. It shows an untold perspective, so the meaning and the sense of the story feels very different to me.
DEADLINE: What was the first thing you did when you decided you were going to make it? Obviously, it’s a very sensitive story.
BAYONA: Yeah, it took us a whole process to get the rights. We had to talk to all the survivors. We had very good meetings. From the very beginning, they really liked the perspective that I had on the story, and that made the whole process a lot quicker than I thought it would be. They really, really loved the perspective that we had for this story. Then, to me, it was also very important to be in contact with the families of the deceased. For example, we are using, for the first time, the real names of the deceased. Those names are a very important part of the story. We go through all the names of the people who died. To me, that’s what makes the film different from the other versions, in terms of finding a tale, a story, that highlights the role of everybody in the story.
DEADLINE: What were the survivors’ thoughts? What kind of guarantee did they want from you?
BAYONA: It was more about me asking questions to them. Because I’d seen the other films, and the other documentaries, I knew so much about the story. I was less interested in the story itself as I was in small details and gestures. To me, every time I found myself looking at a scene that felt similar to one I’d seen before, I rejected it, I was looking for a visceral, sensorial experience. I was looking to tell the story using meaningful images, and small gestures from the actors, instead of a normal plot. And in that way, it was a very, very interesting experience to me.
DEADLINE: What do you mean by that?
BAYONA: After shooting Jurassic World and Lord of the Rings, I shot this movie in a totally different way. I was very open to improvisation. I sat down with the actors for two months, and I was improvising with them. I got a lot of ideas that I introduced in the script, and we kept researching even during the process of shooting the story. We end up shooting hundreds of hours of material. In fact, we were still working on the story while we were in [the edit], because we had so much material, and so much information from being in contact with the survivors. It was a very productive and exciting process.
DEADLINE: How did you cast the movie?
BAYONA: Well, first of all, we wanted to shoot it in Spanish. That’s why it took us so much time with the film. I wanted to have a cast that was the same age. They were very, very young. People don’t remember that, but they were like between 18 and 25. Numa Turcatti, who is one of the lead characters, was only 25, and he feels like one of the grownups of the group. Also, I wanted to have local actors. We went to Uruguay, but it’s such a small country that we also went for actors in Argentina. From the moment I started to see unknown faces, I realized that having a cast of unknown actors would be much better than having a cast where you might suddenly see a face that you recognize. That would break the tone of the whole thing.
DEADLINE: How did you prepare them?
BAYONA: Well, we had a very special opportunity to work very close with all the survivors and the families of the deceased. First, I sat down with the actors in Barcelona for two months. We rehearsed the movie, which is a privilege [in itself], and then we went to Uruguay, where I put all the actors in contact with the real survivors and the families of the deceased. Some of the cast spent days with them, asking questions, getting all the information. From there, we had a script that we were working on, but it was a very open shoot when it came to recreating the most important scenes. As I told you, I was looking for a more organic experience. It was more about finding meaningful images that would tell the story. It’s such a long story — 72 days — that you need to find something very unique, and very distinctive, with images and special moments that can tell the whole story, instead of trying to build up a plot, knowing how many characters there are and how many days they spend there.
DEADLINE: Did you encourage them to bond at the beginning? The rugby team obviously has a rapport. Was that part of the casting process, to find people who worked together as a team?
BAYONA: Yeah. They spent some days getting lessons in rugby. To me, the goal was to create a group that felt similar to the society they were trying to portray. I think that’s one of the things that I feel proud of about this film. It was shot [more or less] chronologically. When you get to the end, you really can see the strong bond between them. You really can see that a space is created around them. It was very special and unique in that sense.
DEADLINE: Which scenes did you shoot first?
BAYONA: We started from the first day they spent in the mountains. From there, we shot all chronologically until the very end. We took a huge effort during production to shoot on location as much as possible. Of course, we had many challenges. We had to overcome all those challenges through innovation and careful planning. For example, we shot at… I don’t know, like 3,500 meters? I don’t know what that is in terms of feet. How much is that?
DEADLINE: Nearly 12,000…
BAYONA: We had to move the main fuselage [to] that height. Sometimes, the conditions of the weather were not good, so we were always adapting the shooting plan to the weather. When you shoot in the mountains, that’s the only way. It’s the mountain that rules the shooting plan. When we were not able to shoot in the mountains, we had a second fuselage that was at a better height, so we were able to keep shooting. Then we had a third fuselage in a soundstage that was in the mountains too. We had to build a whole soundstage in the mountains to shoot the interiors of the plane.
DEADLINE: How dangerous was the location? How careful did you have to be?
BAYONA: We went through a lot of security. Of course, when you shoot in the mountains, you have to. Some days we had to leave the set because the wind was too strong. Some days there was so much snow that we had to leave. We were shooting in the Andes, in the same place where the plane crashed, so we had some situations in there. There were some avalanches, but I always had a sense of security. We were with professional mountaineers, climbers, who were always taking care of us. We had some situations there that made me understand what the real situation in those locations would be like.
DEADLINE: Did the mountaineers think you were crazy?
BAYONA: They are very conservative, all the time, so at the minimum they ask you to be [conservative too]. I remember shooting a scene one day, and I asked them, “Are you sure it’s safe for us to shoot here?” We were shooting in the same place where the plane crashed, at the same time of the year, and at that time, they experienced an avalanche. So, I was asking them, “Are you sure we are not going to have an avalanche here as well?” They said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” The day after I asked that, we had an avalanche in that same place. We were not there then, but somebody told me afterwards.
DEADLINE: How were you able to capture the sense of danger they faced? The avalanche scene in particular feels so real.
BAYONA: Well, you get the feeling that we were there because we were there. I remember shooting that scene, the avalanche. The actors were shooting in a fuselage, but that fuselage was in a sound stage in the mountains, in a ski station. It was pretty cold. They were inside the plane, in a platform buried under one meter of snow. They were cold, it was dark. We had to create an atmosphere on set so that the actors were able to go through the experience. They felt safe, and they felt protected all the time, but every time I said, “Cut,” we had to take all the actors out and very quickly put them into pools of hot water, because the situation was very difficult for them. You can see that in the performances.
DEADLINE: Cold breath is famously hard to fake on a movie set.
BAYONA: Yeah. Actually, we had a situation there. In order to keep the breath coming out [of their mouths], [the set] needs to be very humid, and we found out that we didn’t have that kind of humidity. We had to use different tricks. They were smoking, for example, sometimes, and sometimes it’s digital breath. When you work in the mountains, it’s totally out of control. It doesn’t matter how much research you do; the mountains behave in a very unpredictable way. You need to be prepared for that, and you need to adapt all the time.
In that sense, this was a shoot that felt totally different from my other films. As I told you, coming from two movies, like Jurassic World or The Lord of the Rings TV show, they felt like very calculated pieces. I wanted to have a sense of freedom, so I was open to that kind of uncertainty on set. I had storyboards, but I never looked at them. I wanted to feel more visceral. I never planned. For example, every time I designed a shot, it felt fake to me.
When you are inside a plane with 20 actors, and you have an avalanche, and the space is now reduced to half of the space that you had before, you don’t have the space to move the camera. You don’t have the space to place a crane. So, I tried to be as close to the actors as possible, and work with them instead of working with the camera.
DEADLINE: I’m assuming that it’s all based on facts, in terms of where the fuselage landed, and where the tail-end of the plane crashed. Is everything exactly as it happened?
BAYONA: Exactly. We became very obsessed with detail, and we had the luck to be in contact with all of the survivors. One of the things that I [made sure of], for example, was that all the concept art that we did for the film was drawn with the survivors. Instead of me driving the concepts, I sent the artist to the survivors. From the outside, you couldn’t really understand what they went through, like the geography of the plane, or how they built the beds that they built for the injured. That’s why I decided to send the artist to the survivors. He was following instructions straight from the survivors.
DEADLINE: It’s something that will be very hard for modern audiences to accept or understand: How can a plane with 45 people go missing like that, and for so long?
BAYONA: It was pretty challenging to portray the geography, because the mountain tricks you all the time. The distances, the heights, they feel very different when you are there. I remember that I found myself in the Andes once telling the cameraman, “Let’s do a shot here, and then we’ll go over and do a shot from that place over there.” Meanwhile, the mountaineer is telling me, “But that place over there is four hours away!”
The mountain tricks you all the time, and the mountain also tricks the camera. That was one of the biggest challenges: How do you sell the distances and the heights? At the same time, these characters, they don’t know that they’re in the heart of the Andes. We couldn’t do a super-wide shot, because we would be telling the audience that they were in a place that was totally impossible to find them in.
DEADLINE: The elephant in the room, with every version of the story, is what they ate to survive. What decisions did you come to about that?
BAYONA: Well, that was a difficult but necessary part of the survivors’ story, since as it reflects the moment they found themselves in. They were totally abandoned, with no hope. At the end, they had to do so in order to survive. We were very careful to protect the privacy of the deceased. We found out that it was always better to suggest the emotion of those moments instead of showing explicit images.
It’s totally impossible to watch the movie from the same perspective [as the characters]. It took them days of starvation, and sleeping at temperatures under zero, to get to that stage. You cannot do that in two hours. I was more interested in the symbolic nature of the gesture of the act. To me, what was very emotional from Pablo Vierci’s book is the idea of seeing cannibalism as an idea of giving yourself to another. At the heart of Society of the Snow, there is a spirit of collaboration and camaraderie that spontaneously appears. The greater the adversity is, the more solid is the group. I thought that was very, very symbolic, and very interesting, and very emotional, actually. There is a quote from Roberto Canessa in the book where he says that, 36 years after the accident, he asked to make peace with the dead for living the life they didn’t have the chance to.
To me, there was an idea of establishing a contact between the living and the dead in order to find peace, and finding a story that finally highlights the fundamental role that everybody played. It’s a movie that tells about heroism, but at the same time, dismantles the kind of hero’s journey that these kinds of movie are made of. I remember telling the actors, “This journey is a journey that goes from looking up to looking to the sides.”
DEADLINE: What did you mean by that?
BAYONA: When you look up and everything has abandoned you, then you look to the sides and find yourselves, and embrace yourselves. That felt, to me, very transcendent in a spiritual way, not in a religious way.
DEADLINE: An idea that is recurrent in the film is that, when you take human beings outside civilization, what is left of them? Was that always something that struck you, or did it come to you more clearly when you were literally up on the mountains?
BAYONA: Well, that’s the kind of thought that you can have after 72 days. Earlier, I was comparing The Impossible and Society of the Snow. The Impossible was so immediate, it was 72 hours, but this is 72 days. You have so much time to think about what you’re going through, and this is when these kinds of questions arise. To me, the value is the question itself. It’s not the answer. The question is the value of the story. It’s not about the answer, it’s about the questions. Each of you has a question that needs to be resolved by yourself.
DEADLINE: Have you had a chance to show it to the survivors yet?
BAYONA: Yeah. They saw the movie all together in Montevideo, about a month before the movie was finished. They were very nervous because they didn’t have the chance to read the script. We didn’t want them to read the script, but, ultimately, they loved the film. They loved the realism, and they felt that the story was told in a very authentic way. Actually, all of them loved the film. Which is very difficult — to find something where everyone agrees.
It was very liberating, of course, for all of us, but also for Vierci, the author of the book. He was the one who convinced them to do the film with us. He was very happy. All of us, we were very happy to hear what they said: They felt that the movie was a faithful reflection of what they went through in the mountains.
DEADLINE: What would you like viewers to take away from this film?
BAYONA: It’s a very extreme and very immersive, but, ultimately, I think it’s a very rewarding experience. It forces you to [confront] death, which is something that you can find in some of the other films that I’ve done. The Impossible and A Monster Calls were a little bit the same. It’s not the kind of movie that ends and everybody wants to applaud. In that way, you can tell that the audience is thinking about themselves, which is the ultimate goal when you do a film. It’s like you’ve transcended the anecdote, and the movie is talking to the viewers in a way that makes them find themselves in the story.
One of the lines that I love from Vierci’s book is one of the survivors saying, “People want to know about our story, because they want to know what their limits are.” This is basically why we watch films. We want to know more about ourselves. We want to discover things about ourselves that we didn’t know before the movie started.
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