Pedro Luque, SCU, and director Juan Antonio Bayona look back on the stressful shooting of "The Society of the Snow"

"Alone in the world", by François Reumont for the AFC

[ English ] [ français ]

In competition for the first time at Camerimage, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Impossible, Jurassic World : Fallen Kingdom and the Amazon series "Lord of the Rings") and his Uruguayan cinematographer Pedro Luque answered the audience’s questions after the screening of his new film, The Society of the Snow. (FR)

An adaptation of Pablo Vierci’s book by the same name (2009), the film was intended to recreate as realistically as possible the plane crash that happened during the autumn of ’72. A part of the Uruguayan rugby team, with a few other survivors, ended up abandoned in the middle of the Andes during the height of the austral spring.
Although this story had already been adapted by Hollywood in the mid-90s (Frank Marshall’s Alive, adapted from an earlier book), this time the Spanish director gave a much more faithful version, based on the first-hand accounts of the main survivors.

Pedro Luque et Juan Antonio Bayona face au public de Camerimage
Pedro Luque et Juan Antonio Bayona face au public de Camerimage

When asked about this change, -shooting a film in Spain-, despite his already established Hollywood career, Juan Antonio Bayona replied : "I discovered the book in 2010, when I was preparing the film The Impossible. While researching the subject of survival, I came across Pablo Vierci’s book, which really moved me. From that moment on, I had always wanted to create an adaptation for cinema... But it’s not easy to finance such a film in Hollywood, especially as I was absolutely determined that it should be made without a Hollywood cast, in Spanish, and with actors capable of reproducing the Uruguayan accent. After trying for several years, the project was finally put together thanks to Netflix who gave it a green light, and agreed to take these risks."

Cinematographer Pedro Luque stresses the importance of this story in Uruguay : "It’s a story that’s been in my heart for a very long time. It was a major event in the history of our country, and has had a strong impact on every family ever since. I remember going as a teenager to see Frank Marshall’s adaptation in Montevideo in the city’s biggest cinema... it was an important event, and I rather liked the film at the time. But I remember that there were quite a few details in the film that didn’t seem real. The way, for example, the maté tea was served to the pilot at the beginning of the film. With just a negligence like that, a lot of people were somewhat taken out of the movie !
When Juan Antonio contacted me about the project, I immediately said yes. He’s a director I admire enormously, and I knew he would give all these events the utmost attention and respect."

Pedro Luque explains the challenges involved in making the film, particularly in terms of the historical fact’s accuracy : "We decided to shoot the film mostly in chronological order. I think that was very important for the actors, and to maintain the slow progression in this unique location. So we started in the high mountains, in the Sierra Nevada in Spain. It was very cold, and the actors actually lost weight, so did we. The shooting conditions were really extreme. But this sacrifice was necessary for the film, even indispensable I’d say".
The director adds : "The set was based on a series of location scouts we were able to do in October, in Chile, in the area corresponding to the crash at the time. It took us three days just to get up there, and we had to stop at different stages to acclimatise to the altitude and avoid getting altitude sickness. I remember sleeping there for three days, just to get the feel of it. It’s a very hostile place, with an immense glacier. Moving around is very difficult, and you immediately realise that human life just isn’t sustainable up there. Obviously, it would have been impossible to organize a shoot this high up, so we looked for a set at a lower altitude that could work...
Then, this Spanish ski resort offered us the opportunity to shoot in a valley with a cirque at 2000m. Although ten times smaller, it resembled what we had seen in the Andes. The digital effects in post-production enabled us to visually enhance this setting, based on the many photos we had taken during our location scouting in Chile.”

Pedro Luque remembers : "Yes, it was less impressive than in the Andes, but we still had to travel 45 minutes to get to the set in vehicles with snow traction. That’s where the design team rebuilt the fuselage that we used as a set for most of the scenes in the film. Once we got there, every day was a bit of a race against the sun. We had about eight usable hours, so we really couldn’t afford to waste time, especially with almost 25 actors in each scene that needed managing.
Juan Antonio Bayonna adds : "For me, this was by far the biggest challenge of the film - managing this number of actors daily. That’s also why we immediately opted for the 2.55 ratio. Just imagine, getting everyone to fit in the frame ! It would have been impossible otherwise ! But the production’s decision to shoot everything at altitude really helped the actors get into the right mindset for their performance.”

Questioned about his preparation, the director confides : "I tried to give my actors as many tools and elements as possible to build their characters. I put them in touch with the real survivors, whom they could call throughout the shoot if they had any doubts or questions. We also spent 7 weeks in rehearsals before filming, during which some scenes were even rewritten based on this work. It was crucial for me to give them as much freedom and space as possible to try things out, to suggest things...”

“The film is so introspective that we couldn’t work on it the same way as a simple disaster film. That was one of the directions I gave Pedro initially, explaining that I needed to be there first and foremost for the actors, and that we might have to change quite a few things depending on what they would bring to the table, including improvisations on the set. It was very difficult to plan in advance. Even though storyboards were made in pre-production, we hardly ever looked at them on set. They were a precious foundation that helped us find better solutions during the actual shooting. You know, in cinema, the most important moment is when you’re with the actors in front of the camera... everything you’ve done beforehand, like the editing or rehearsals, should drive you to find what works best for the film day by day. This is a story where the characters are forced to adapt to the place, to question their beliefs, and to accept their true nature. It’s also a way of saying that heroism isn’t only in action, personified by whoever survives at the end, whoever is the bravest.
The character of Nuna, whom I chose as our narrator, has to learn a new form of heroism. He has to learn how to cry, how to die... perhaps also to redefine masculinity. You know, telling this story from the perspective of one of the victims changes things completely for me.”

When asked how he created the lighting for the plane wreck, Pedro Luque replied : "Most of the time, I placed my light sources outside of the set, otherwise it always looked a bit fake. Nevertheless, there was a scene in the scenario, after the avalanche, when the characters find themselves in total darkness. In this kind of situation, we had to think about all the technical possibilities available, such as shooting with infrared. But as there was no such thing in 1972, it wasn’t a narrative tool that we could use. In the end, we managed by creating an extremely soft light, with very little contrast. With my colourist, we curated the image in such a way that it resembled a photo you’d find on an old black and white newspaper. It was a particularly complicated moment for me on the film.”

Of course, the plane crash sequence was another issue at the beginning of the film... Juan Antonio Bayona explains : "It was by far the most complicated sequence in terms of production. So we saved it for the end of the production schedule. We set up in a studio in Madrid, and the plane set was reconstituted on a jack system so that it could make the very sudden movements we needed. We were faced with the problem that each survivor had a very different memory of what happened... My directorial choice was to stay with them at all times in the plane, to ensure that the audience wouldn’t know more than the protagonists in the plane. If you look at the sequence in detail, you’ll see that there are only four cutaway shots from the outside. Most of them were removed during editing.”
Pedro Luque adds : "In this kind of sequence, every shot, even the most insignificant, requires a great deal of coordination from everyone. The actors, the special effects team, the stunt supervisors and, of course, the camera. Two planes were built for this sequence. The first was a full replica that moved very little. The second was a replica of only half of the plane, which could make really impressive movements, as in the shots when the passengers are thrown around inside the cabin.”

Juan Antonio Bayona adds : "But this kind of big setup shouldn’t blind us to the fact that on screen, sometimes the details make all the difference. For example, adding the sound effect of a bone cracking, mixed in the right place, at the right time, will transcribe the pain felt much more effectively than anything else in the image. This kind of thing allows the viewer to hold on to something concrete in a situation that is pretty abstract to them. It’s a style I’d already experimented with in The Orphanage. I created a very simple shot, where one of the characters tears off their own fingernail. It turned out to be one of the film’s most horrifying moments ! For me, cinema is first and foremost a visual art. So I always ask myself whether the audience will understand the film even if the sound is muted. The camera’s position, the choice of lens, the precision of the cut... each of these decisions is crucial, at least as important as the one that led to writing the script."

When asked about the film’s music, and the instructions given to composer Michael Giacchino (The Batman, Rogue One, Up, Ratatouille), the director explains : "I remember turning up at Michael’s house after asking him to read the script, and he invited me in and took me to his piano. He opened the key lid and began to create a very deep sound by violently plucking the strings with his hand. “That’s it”, he said, "that’s the sound of the mountain !” That’s when I immediately understood what he was trying to convey, remembering those soundtracks from the 70s, like Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Planet of the Apes. That became his way of giving a menacing presence to the snow-capped peaks, right from the very first scenes after the crash. Another aspect he made me aware of was the importance of balancing emotion and energy in the music throughout the film. The story is very repetitive, almost always happening in the same place, with scenes that all look the same - eating, sleeping and dying...
For this reason, with the editor, we had to be very brutal in our choices on Avid. It was also a big challenge for Michael to calibrate his orchestration right up to the final release. For example, when the two volunteers leave the plane to go and get help, it’s important to believe that they might make it... that’s when he decided to use a lot more percussion, to give a primitive aspect to his composition. I think it worked really well because it resonated with the survivors’ testimonies about feeling like they had reverted to a prehistoric state”.

When asked how his film had been received by the real protagonists of the tragedy, Juan Antonio Bayona said : "Among the very first screenings, the most important one was in Montevideo for the fifteen survivors still alive today. It was, of course, extremely moving, and they all told us how intense that moment had been for them. Some of them even admitted that it was the first time in 50 years that they had had the impression of being back there and reliving the experience. A second session was organised with the families of the 45 passengers that were on the plane, so about 300 people. I was a little apprehensive about it, but it turned out to be quite incredible. Many of them confided in me that it was the first time they had really understood what had happened up there. Something they could finally relate to, talk about together, and perhaps finally mourn so many years later.”
Pedro Luque adds : "Following the screening, I learned that one of the victim’s mother (Marcelo, the team captain) had met up with one of the survivors, Eduardo, for the first time since the crash. In all those years, she had never had the courage to meet him in person or talk to him, even though the two boys were best friends on the rugby team.”

(Language provided by François Reumont, and translated from French by Chloé Finch, both for the AFC)

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