Premise: The real life story of a vacationing family’s struggle to find each other after the infamous 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.
About: Thought this script was somewhat relevant considering Friday’s horrible events in Japan. I’m also reviewing it as a reminder to help out if you can. Please donate to a relief fund if possible. — The Impossible made the lower half of 2010’s Black List. Sergio Sanchez, the writer, is also the writer of one of the best horror films I’ve seen in the last five years, The Orphanage. The film is in post-production now and stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts.
Writer: Sergio G. Sanchez
Details: 102 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
In the eternal battle to determine just how important structure is to screenwriting, I’m tackling a couple of screenplays this week where it can be argued that neither adheres to the three-act structure, starting with today’s script, The Impossible, and then a breakdown of the well-known classic, The Breakfast Club, on Thursday. Here’s how I see it. If you’re not going to have three structured acts propping up your story, you need a driving force that’s so strong, so compelling, we won’t notice or care. The Impossible is a good example of this. This is a movie about survival against insurmountable odds and the search for one’s family. Our need to see these characters succeed in these endeavors diminishes the importance of that success coming via a traditionally told narrative. I will never outright recommend this approach, but if it’s going to be done, this is one way to do it.
Maria and her husband Henry, two Brits by way of Japan, are taking their three children, Simon (5), Thomas (7) and Lucas (11) on vacation to Thailand for Christmas. Like a lot of family vacations with young kids, the work load of organizing everything makes the vacation more work than fun. Maria and Henry are simply trying to manage each problem as it comes up until they can get onto one of those pristine Phuket beaches and relax for an hour or two.
How ironic, then, what will happen on that beach once they get there. Like a lot of people on that fateful day, Maria’s family was simply enjoying a relaxing day on the water when they looked up and saw a terrifying black wall coming towards them. Scattered about with no time to react, all they could do was brace themselves, and the next thing they knew they were pushed out into the streets grasping for any lifeline they could find.
Maria and Lucas get separated from Henry, Thomas, and Simon, and they’re who we start with. Battling currents so strong, cars are whipping by, Maria and Lucas are able to survive the initial wave, but barely. Maria is a wreck, with cuts so deep, pieces of flesh are hanging off her body. Lucas is horrified to see his mother in this condition, but must focus on the task at hand. Find a hospital.
When they finally do get to a hospital, it’s chaos. People with wounds or ailments that would usually get immediate priority are staggering around aimlessly while nurses and doctors ignore them. It’s chaos of the highest magnitude. Which is trouble, as Maria is fading fast. A doctor herself, she knows she doesn’t have long to live. Yet she and her oldest son must sit around and hope amongst hope that sooner or later, someone will give her the medical attention she needs.
Eventually Lucas goes off to find help on his own, but is horrified (spoiler) when he comes back to find out his mother has died. Now Lucas, an 11 year old boy, must hunt across this flooded wasteland, to try and find his father. If, that is, he’s still alive.
The Impossible is an emotionally draining read. And a strange one when compared against traditional storytelling practices. In the first 20 pages alone, nothing happens. And I mean nothing. The family lands in Thailand. They give each other Christmas gifts. But we don’t learn ANYTHING about these people. No problems, no issues, no eccentricities, no personality traits. It would be like getting a real-life snapshot of a family for a few hours. Chances are their interactions would be directionless and boring.
However, this does help The Impossible maintain an essence of realism. The writer’s goal here is not to give you character flaws or a complex plot. It’s simply: Normal family going about their business. Something extraordinary happens. And just like that, this normal family, which could have been yours or mine, is stuck in a life or death situation impossible to prepare for. This is why the lack of three acts doesn’t matter. Because the forces driving the story are so strong. Survive and find the people you love.That’s all we care about.
But don’t be fooled. It’s not like all storytelling has been abandoned here. If you pay close attention, there are character goals at every corner, driving us forward one sequence at a time. The first goal is: Survive. Lucas and Maria are stuck on a tree. And they must survive that initial wave. After that, the goal becomes get to higher ground. After that, the goal becomes getting up on another tree before the next wave comes. After that, the goal becomes finding a hospital. After that, the goal becomes finding a nurse who will help them. After that, Lucas must help others. So while the story’s strength is its sort of “realistic directionless narrative,” one of the reasons we don’t get bored is because the characters are always going after something.
Not surprisingly, the only artificial element here is the attempt to give Lucas a fatal flaw. There’s this whole thing where Lucas feels like he’s not brave, and each situation they find themselves in tests that flaw. But whenever these moments appear, it was like a Hollywood crew showed up to remind the actor playing Lucas of his character arc, and to convey the flaw as aggressively as possible. If I were Sanchez, I would just drop this. The rest of the movie is raw and real. You might as well keep all the character motivations raw and real as well.
Just on a visceral level, The Impossible sticks with you. It’s a reminder that unless you’ve lived something or done a ton of research on something, you won’t be able to convey a truly realistic vision of what you’re writing about. I mean here we get these horrifying images of Maria with half her breast cut off. We have our characters watch hopelessly as cars float past with babies still strapped in the back seat. People stand in shocked daze as big spiders crawl over their faces, unseen, uncared about. It’s very specific stuff that I don’t think a fictionalized account of this tragedy could’ve captured.
The Impossible is a different kind of script. It has big strengths and big weaknesses and is messy and frightening and challenging all at the same time. The dialogue is all on the nose and relatively boring. Yet I didn’t care for some reason. I just wanted to see these characters survive. Ultimately, the determining factor for a screenplay is: “Do I want to keep reading?” If I had the chance to stop, would I? For a large majority of the screenplays I read, the answer to that question would be “Yes, I want to stop.” But for The Impossible, despite all of its faults, I wanted to get to the end. So if you want to read something that breaks the rules and study why it still holds your interest, this is a good screenplay to check out.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I’m torn about the opening 20 pages of The Impossible. During this time, NOTHING HAPPENS. No plot to speak of. The characters don’t have any issues to be resolved. It’s a very mundane boring snapshot of a family. However, this realism is required to sell the moment when the tsunami arrives, as Sanchez is trying to convey that this could be any family, including your own. BUT, Sanchez wrote a popular highly acclaimed movie before this with The Orphanage, which means whoever’s reading his script is going to trust him, even if things take awhile to get going. You, however, don’t have the same success on your resume. So if you took this same approach, the person reading your script might give up before they ever got to the tsunami. So I’d still say that making SOMETHING interesting happen in those first 20 pages (and preferably 10 pages) is the way to go if you’re an unknown writer writing a spec. For example, you might start with the family on the beach, going about their business, then we hear a couple of screams, and cut to a wide shot showing a HUGE WAVE racing towards us. Then CUT to the plane ride 8 hours earlier and proceed the same way the rest of the story was told. It’s a little gimmicky (and yes, I’ve railed against this approach before), but you kind of have to pick your poison. At the very least, the latter option catches the reader’s attention.