‘Society of the Snow’ Director Explains How a Famous Survival Story Was Finally Depicted ‘Using Real Names’

TheWrap magazine: “We used all local actors with Uruguayan accents, which was so important to us and to the survivors,” says director J.A. Bayona

"Society of the Snow" (Netflix)
"Society of the Snow" (Netflix)

A 1972 plane crash in the Andes mountains has been the inspiration for films (1993’s “Alive”), several documentaries and TV series (including “Yellowjackets”).

But director J.A. Bayona’s “Society in the Snow” (Netflix), based on a celebrated non-fiction book, is the most faithful adaptation of the story. Bayona, in his first Spanish language movie since his breakout “The Orphanage” (2007), cast actors mostly from the region to play members of a Uruguayan rugby team, 16 of whom (out of 45 plane passengers and crew) survived amid frozen temperatures, avalanches and starvation.

Since his debut film, Bayona has also directed “The Impossible,” starring Naomi Watts and Tom Holland; “A Monster Calls”; and “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.” “Society of the Snow” is the submission from Spain for the Best International Feature Oscar. Spain has won the award four times (from a total of 20 nominations), most recently for 2004’s “The Sea Inside.”

TheWrap: This is just your second Spanish-language film after 2007’s “The Orphanage.” Has this project been in your mind for a long time?
Very much. To give you an idea, when I made “The Impossible” (about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami), that title was taken from the book “Society of the Snow” (by Pablo Vierci). In one paragraph of the book, the word impossible is repeated and I thought that would be a great movie title. So when I was researching for that film, this book was a great resource in explaining the inner life of someone going through a survival experience. 

“The Impossible” was based on a Spanish family but we ended up shooting it in English. In this case, we said from the very beginning that to capture the reality of this story, it needed to be in Spanish. And so that decision took us 10 years
to get the financing to make the movie, using all local actors with Uruguayan accents, which was so important to us and to the survivors. 

Many already know that this true story of survival includes cannibalism. But how did you approach that topic, given that it makes people so uncomfortable?
Pablo Vierci’s book was a big help, because when you finish that book, you have the impression that cannibalism is quite a secondary theme in the story. There’s another idea that is on top of that, which is the extreme humanism and the bond
established between the group. So, of course, the film includes the cannibalism, but it is turned upside down and secondary to the love, friendship and camaraderie in the story. 

Obviously to tell this story, you needed to mount a massive production. Where did you film it?
We wanted to shoot in real locations, so we went to the mountains and to the snow, both in the Andes and then for about 130 days in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Spain. In the Valley of Tears, which is the actual spot where the plane crashed, it takes three days to get used to the altitude. But you need to be there to understand what these men went through.

I mean, the only thing that you can hear in that valley is yourself, your breathing, your footsteps. Because there’s nothing alive. So we were fighting against the mountain and, well, it was the mountain that was ruling all the time. 

This event occurred more than 50 years ago. But how much access did you have to the survivors or the families of the deceased?
Yes, the very first thing was I sat down with the survivors. I met them and I recorded them. I went to Uruguay and recorded about 50 hours of interviews. I sat with them and told them what my ideas were. Then I sat with the families of the deceased, because we really wanted to tell tell their story and to use their real names. The real names were never used in the other films. And for us that was so important – since this film tries to be like an homage to those who never came back.

You mentioned the actors. There are a lot of charismatic young men in the film, but they are faces that we are seeing in movies for the first time. What was the casting process like?
The way we developed the film was almost like if we were shooting a documentary. So when I was doing the auditions, I had an idea of each character. It was very challenging because it was online and then we finally did auditions in person in Montevideo.

But perhaps the good thing about our process was that because it was during the pandemic, the guys had to stay like one week doing quarantine before the auditions and then to go back to Argentina, because most of them were from Argentina. And they had to do another week of quarantine to get back to Argentina.

So by the time they finished the auditions, they had spent two weeks together. A group of 30 guys, between 18 and 25, quarantined together. So you, you can imagine they were already friends with before they were into the film. So imagine after all that time, the chemistry and the strong bond that they created was there, of course.

What was it like working with the actors, up there in the cold mountains?
A lot of these guys are from Latin America. So it was a shock for them as they went through the journey chronologically: losing weight, feeling the cold, feeling the loneliness, because they were filming in Spain for six months. It was important to create the context and to provide the atmosphere that really stimulates the performances that we need, like a documentary.

And was that part of the strategy that you developed for shooting the film?
Yes. I told the cinematographer Pedro Luque, “We have prepared this like a documentary and these guys are really going to go through the journey.” So we needed to be with our cameras ready all the time to capture that journey.

And shooting in Spain was also very demanding. We were at quite an altitude. We were looking at the weather forecast all the time, and at the minimum doubt we didn’t go to shoot up there.We were shooting in a ski resort in a pretty inaccessible place where you cannot bring cranes or dollies. I remember one day the Pedro (the cinematographer) had to leave and go back to the hotel because he was feeling dizzy. That just tells you how demanding it was.

How does it feel to be making your feature film in Spanish in more than 15 years?
It wasn’t meant to be that long of a gap. But, you know, it was great, because when I’m on set, I really like to be close to the actor, sometimes talking to him all the time during takes. In this case we did very long takes where we would improvise.

So I was with them, talking all the time, suggesting things, giving them ideas. It was very organic. And when you talk in your same language, it’s a lot easier. I felt more secure in that sense and secure that we were telling this story not just in Spanish, but in a Uruguayan accent. It’s the first time the story has been told with an actor in the center that is Uruguayan with all the actors using that accent.

This is also a great expression of visual effects. You’ve utilized CGI throughout your career, but was this project even more challenging than the others?
It really was. Because when you work with visual effects, one of the most difficult things is the tone. A lot of CGI takes us to a fantasy world, but this was a story based on reality. My “Jurassic World” film, in a way, was much easier because I told a science fiction story and I had the best technology to play with it.

But in this case, the effects had to go unnoticed. In most of the shots, all the backgrounds have been replaced, because when we shot in Spain, the mountains were ten times smaller than in the Andes. But it was very important to me that we never distracted the actors, so we didn’t ever shoot on green screens. Maybe that’s the one good thing about filming in the snow: We were replacing white background for white background.

“Society of the Snow” will premiere on Netflix on January 4th.

A version of this story first appeared in the International Feature Film issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Juliette Binoche (Jeff Vespa)

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