Actress Naomi Watts, left, portrays Maria Belon in "The Impossible." (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Maria Belón wasn't proud of her dumb luck. It had been nearly three years since the Indian Ocean tsunami roared into her family's Christmas vacation in Thailand, killing 230,000 people but somehow sparing her, her husband and her three sons. The family had since returned to Madrid, resumed their routines, but she carried on her shoulders the pain and suffering of surviving something that took so many others' lives. Lost in a quiet grief, unable to enjoy simple pleasures, she wasn't eager to share her story.
One day, she was at home listening to the radio when Luz Casal came on the air to promote her new album. Spontaneously, Belón called in to thank the singer for "Un nuevo día brillará," a song about new beginnings that Belón often sang during her arduous recovery. After that five-minute chat, the radio station persuaded her to come back on air for a program commemorating the 2004 disaster: For the first time, Belón poured out the harrowing tale of how the wave split her family apart and how they were miraculously reunited.
"I always felt nobody would be interested [in our story]. I never felt it was anything special," Belón, 47, recalled recently in Los Angeles. "But from that moment we got feedback from people saying how touched they were. I thought: It does not matter what I feel about it but what happens when people hear it."
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Among the things that happened was a moment of cinematic serendipity: Movie producer Belén Atienza was driving on a highway in Barcelona when the program aired. She pulled over to listen, then abandoned her Christmas shopping for the day.
"I was obsessed with this mother that was in this situation where she couldn't afford to die," said Atienza. "I was a recent mother at the time and I was thinking, 'What would I do? If I die, he would be alone.' That's how Maria felt when she spots the head of Lucas out of the water. She has to live."
As a result of that day, the two forged a connection. It would take five years, but finally, they have brought the family's story to the screen: "The Impossible," starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, arrives in U.S. theaters Dec. 21.
Directed by "The Orphanage" helmer Juan Antonio Bayona, the movie has been met with early critical praise for its vivid, realistic visuals and emotional performances, and it became a blockbuster in Spain this fall. Watts is nominated for a SAG Award and a Golden Globe for playing Maria, a role that's light on dialogue but full of feeling — and required her to spend hours being tossed around in a giant water tank and days trapped in a hospital bed.
Throughout the process, Belón wrote the filmmakers letters — lyrical pieces of prose, filled with vivid imagery. One, "Delirium," conveyed her fragile state in the hospital when she was losing pints of blood and facing death.
"[The doctors] cut a piece of leg. I felt the tug. Can they throw it to the ocean. He is hungry. Very hungry. That's why he bit all of us…"
For Belón, making the film was more than just a glamorous silver lining to a traumatic event: It was a cathartic experience that aided in her personal healing.
Atienza, Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez contacted Belón after her radio appearance.
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"When we first met, I had two objectives," said Belón. "One was trying to scare them and two was to look in their eyes and see if they were the ones who really wanted to swallow this big responsibility."
Her family had traveled to Khao Lak, Thailand, in 2004 for their Christmas holiday; at the time, they were living in Japan because her husband, Enrique Alvarez, had a job there with Gillette. The tsunami hit the resort on the third day of their vacation.
Caught up in a wave, debris pounded Belón's body, breaking her nose, tearing up her leg and causing bleeding in the kidneys, bladder and intestines. Belón found her oldest son, Lucas, in the water soon after the tsunami spit her out of the back of the hotel. She fought for her life in the Takua Pa hospital in southern Thailand, where she had emergency surgery. She and Lucas found Alvarez and the two younger boys the next day. She was airlifted out of the country on Dec. 29 and recuperated for four months in a Singapore hospital.
"I told them the whole story. One sitting. Five hours. Just one take. I was always looking in their eyes, and their eyes were full of life," said Belón. "Full of tears. Full of life. Especially Bayona. He was breathing heavy."
But that five-hour session was hardly the whole story; in fact, it was just the beginning. Belón decided she trusted the filmmakers and spent the next two years working with them on the script. It took another three years to make the movie.
In one letter, she described her mental state as she was reunited with her boys.