Director J.A. Bayona has known the story of the 1972 Uruguayan flight disaster since he was four years old. After the initial crash, only 29 of 45 passengers aboard the flight survived and were left stranded in the Andes mountains for 72 days. The tragedy was documented by British historian Piers Paul Read in his 1974 non-fiction book, Alive, which was adapted by Frank Marshall into the 1993 film of the same name and starred Ethan Hawke. However, it was Read's original reporting that made an impression on Bayona at such a young age.
"My first memories of the accident come from Alive and from looking at the pictures in that book," recalls the Barcelona-born filmmaker. "In the Spanish-speaking world, it's a very popular book, and it's one that every Spanish home seemed to have when I was growing up. I was too young to read it, but I vividly remember looking at those images."
It wasn't until Bayona read Pablo Vierci's 2009 book, Society of the Snow, that he first considered making a film of his own about the Miracle of the Andes. "I was preparing to make another movie, The Impossible, when Society of the Snow was published," he recounts. "I like to do extensive research every time I start a new project, and for whatever reason, my research for The Impossible led me to Society of the Snow."
Bayona was shocked by the way in which Vierci managed to recontextualize a story that he felt like he already knew so well. "Unlike Alive, which is based solely on the facts of the story, Society of the Snow offers a much more philosophical take on what happened," the filmmaker tells A.frame. It's not just about reiterating the facts. It's about engaging philosophically and spiritually on a deeper level with the story and exploring the true meaning of what happened in those mountains."
It's taken him 14 years, but Bayona has finally brought Society of the Snow to the screen, and at the 96th Oscars, the film is nominated for Best International Feature Film, as the official entry of Spain. (Society of the Snow earned a second Oscar nomination for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.)
"We are happy to be able to tell this story that, through the power of cinema, aims to show how, in the worst moments, we can give the best of ourselves," Bayona says of the nominations. "I share the Best International Film nomination with the entire Spanish film industry, our Uruguayan, Argentinian and Chilean crew and all the human group behind the society of the snow. Like the Andes odyssey, it has been a collective effort. I share the joy with all of them. Vamo' arriba!"
A.frame: Society of the Snow feels like a companion piece to The Impossible. That film is a disaster movie, but it's also a family drama. Did your approach to Society of the Snow feel similar?
I think it has to do with dignity. There's a moment in The Impossible when Naomi Watts' character is dying and she starts to hear this little kid crying. Tom Holland's character only cares about her — his mom — but she says, "I will save that kid, even if it's the last thing I do." That's the scene that I was most emotionally drawn to when I did that film. I think that scene connects to Society of the Snow, in that it plays with the idea that there's something that exists beyond us. It's about understanding that you and the other person are the same. That's a transcendent realization. I think it touches on something that is almost spiritual and very philosophical. It's about understanding that there's something that's even more important than you.
The film's structure is fairly straightforward, but the script is also complex in terms of how much information is packed into it. What was the most difficult part of writing it?
For me, it's a movie about this one group of people, so it was important to tell the whole group's story. Of course, you still need to find a way for the audience to connect to specific characters. I didn't want to have one protagonist, because the whole point of the story is to make it clear that no one person is more important than anyone else. I did find a narrator in the end, though. He's the one telling you the story, but at the same time, he's always learning from the other characters. He's a little bit like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz — constantly learning from everyone else's actions. Eventually, he finally understands what it means to be where they are. The whole film, he's the one judging what's going on in the story, and that was a conscious decision I made. I told the survivors of the crash that it was very important to me that whatever judgment there was in the film only came from inside the group, because none of us can really judge what happened in that plane. You can't judge them if you haven't had the same experience and haven't gone through the same feelings and thoughts that they did on that mountain.
The film's sound design is very immersive. What was it like building such a sparse yet detailed soundscape?
It’s meant to be an immersive film, so everything in it has to incorporate all of our senses. That was very important, and I remember the first thing I did before filming began with the actors was I went to the place where the plane crashed. I went to the actual location at the same time of the year that the crash happened. It took me three days to get there, and I didn't get there until it was almost night on the third day. I had a terrible first night, too. It was really difficult for me, because I had altitude sickness. But when I woke, I saw the landscape and I realized the size of those mountains. I've never seen anything like that, and the only thing you can hear is yourself. Up there, all you can hear is your breathing and your footsteps, because there's no life there. That was one of the challenges of the film's sound design, was that we had very few elements to play with. We only had the voices of the actors, their footsteps, the iron sounds from the fuselage, and the wind. That was quite a challenge.
In the end, there's something very symbolic about going there to heal yourself, which is essentially what the characters are doing throughout the film. They end up there, and they discover the emptiness of life. In a very brutal way, they discover life itself and they understand that it's them who need to latch onto life — not the other way around. That's an idea that came to me when I was thinking about my experience going up those mountains the first time.
Your past few projects have been A Monster Calls, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and the first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Those are very ambitious fantasy and sci-fi titles. Was it refreshing to return to something that is, for lack of a better word, more grounded?
Well, to me, fantasy needs to be very grounded. In my mind, there always has to be a psychological layer that connects the fantasy with the reality of the characters. I'm not just a fan of fantasy, per se. I really need to connect with the characters when I'm making a film. When I was doing The Rings of Power, all those scenes with Galadriel lost in the sea whilst a creature's swimming beneath her were very symbolic to me. They symbolize what it feels like for her in that moment, to be somebody lost in the world and convinced that there is some evil lurking underneath the surface of it all. Sometimes, the best way to visually tell that kind of story is to base it in fantasy. That's the way fairytales work. They use fantasy to help kids understand the harsh reality of what it means to be alive, and that's the kind of fantasy that I'm drawn to. I always need a psychological way to connect with the characters.
I think those movies and The Impossible and Society of the Snow all deal with the moment in life when the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and what it takes to process that. Personally, I love fantasy, and I grew up watching fantasy movies and TV shows, and I love to use visual effects, but it's always character and story that has to come first.
Was there anything you learned while you were working in the franchise worlds of Jurassic World and Rings of Power that you brought to Society of the Snow?
It's a constant learning process. In the case of Lord of the Rings, we had to deliver two hours of fiction — because I only directed the first two episodes — that were on the same level as what Peter Jackson did. We had to try to be at the same level as him, and we only had nine months to prepare for that. We started from scratch, and I'm very proud of what we did because we had very little time. I learned a lot. I worked with the best people and that really helped, but it was very challenging. With Jurassic World, I was really working at the service of the franchise. When you're in that position, you don't try to hijack the film. I was there to provide a service. I was working with the director and producers who had done the franchise's previous film, and I really tried to do my best.
Still, looking at Fallen Kingdom, it still seems like you succeeded in bringing your own perspective to it.
Yeah, and I'm happy that I managed to find some space to put my own stuff into it! I’m very proud of the fact that I directed the weirdest Jurassic World movie that will probably ever be made. [Laughs.]
What was the most daunting aspect of this film's production?
Listen, it's not a joke: Every day. To step out of my bed every day and think about what I had ahead of me. It was the same feeling of anxiety again and again and again every single day. In the end, though, it’s just one shot after the other. You very slowly just take care of one shot and then the next one and then the next one and then, one day, the movie’s completed.
Do you think Society of the Snow is the most challenging film you've made to date?
To me, the most challenging film I've ever done is still The Impossible, because at the time, I was coming off a tiny film in Spanish and suddenly working on a much bigger movie. That was a huge challenge. It was still made partly in Spain but with English-speaking Hollywood stars. That was a step that was so big for me that I've never actually ended up in a similar situation again. Ultimately, though, I think that every film you make prepares you, in one way or another, for whatever you do next.
By Alex Welch
This article was originally published on Dec. 7, 2023 and has been updated throughout.
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best International Feature Film category for an interview.