"The Impossible" may have caused two patrons at the Toronto international Film Festival to faint during its premiere screening on Sunday night, but director Juan Antonio Bayona told TheWrap on Monday morning that he felt compelled to include the brief but graphic footage that some viewers found too hard to handle.
"It's a brutal experience, in terms of intensity and emotion," he said of his grueling drama, which stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as a real-life couple who struggled to reunite their family in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
"We were reluctant to show some of the images," the director said. "But talking to people who were there, they were the ones who told us that we had to show some uncomfortable images, because that's what the tragedy was about. The whole idea was to create an experience where you put the audience into the tsunami."
The survivors' requests led to a dramatic and disturbing sequence in which the tsunami sweeps over a seaside Thai resort. As the waters recede, we glimpse the horrific injuries suffered by Watts' character as she is struck by debris — including a deep gash in the back of her leg that drew gasps from the audience.
Bayona said two patrons fainted during the film. One was a woman in the top balcony who was able to walk to the lobby, where she was attended by medical personnel; another was reportedly a man sitting elsewhere in the theater.
Others left their seats during particularly brutal sequences — including the friend who'd accompanied Ewan McGregor to the premiere, McGregor told TheWrap.
"My friend was sitting next to me, and he had to leave during the flashback to Naomi in the water," the actor said. "He couldn't take it. I could feel him getting uncomfortable, and then he split."
The faintings call to mind the furor that greeted Danny Boyle's "127 Hours" at Toronto and Telluride two years ago, when publicity about the graphic nature of the scene in which James Franco's character cuts off his own arm threatened to overwhelm all other aspects of the film.
"127 Hours" went on to be nominated for Best Picture, but it only made $18 million at the box office.
The disturbing scenes in "The Impossible" are far shorter and less graphic, though the film is unsettling.
"I was completely overwhelmed by it, and I was in it and have seen it twice," said McGregor, who was not involved in the filming of the most graphic tsunami scenes. (The film shows his character being hit by a massive wave, but otherwise focuses on Watts and a son, played by Tom Holland during the sequence.)
"It's an extraordinary visceral experience watching it," he said. "It's really hard."