MPA Creator Award Recipient Writer/Director JA Bayona’s Epic Journey

J.A. Bayona’s Society of the Snow, a reimagining of the real-life 1972 Uruguayan plane crash in the Andes Mountains that caught the world’s attention, is a viscerally astonishing feat of empathetic filmmaking. It was nominated for two Oscars: Best International Feature for Spain and Best Makeup and Hairstyling (Ana López-Puigcerver, David Martí, and Montse Ribé), a sweet coda for a filmmaker who returned to his home country of Spain for the majority of the film’s production.

“I was obsessed with reality and having the actors shooting in real snow in the mountains, in sequence,” Bayona tells us. He found those mountains in the Sierra Nevada region of Spain, which served as a base of operations.

One of the most accomplished filmmakers of his generation, JA Bayona is the Motion Picture Association’s 2024 Creator Award recipient. Bayona is no stranger to ambitious projects—his 2012 film The Impossible was centered on a tourist family in Thailand caught in the catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. His 2016 adaptation of Patrick Ness’s fantasy novel A Monster Calls was a touching, critically acclaimed, visually arresting, and emotionally cathartic family drama. In 2018, he took on the second installment of the Jurassic World franchise, Fallen Kingdom. Yet, taking on a story that’s already been told on film before (Frank Marshall’s 1993 Alive, which featured a largely American cast) and offering something both closer to the truth and populating it with a Spanish-speaking cast primarily from Uruguay and Argentina, was new kind of challenge. 

While Bayona didn’t make his actors film in the Andes, he went there with a team to shoot and get a proper sense of the scale of the South American range, one of the world’s longest. “Shooting in the actual location was impossible—to bring a normal crew to those conditions was out of the equation, but we brought a crew of specialists that spent three weeks shooting all the landscapes of the Andes,” Bayona says. “Then we went to Spain and were scouting for a location that had the same kind of shape in terms of the geography.”

Bayona paid a price for his commitment to accuracy—he got altitude sickness in the Andes—which only deepened his appreciation for what the actual survivors endure. “You really cannot get an idea of what was to be there until you’re there and you experience the mountains and the altitude,” he says. “The first night, I lost a sense of time. I thought I spent the whole night, but when I looked at my watch, it was only an hour and a half that I’d spent in that tent.”

Bayona had to figure out how to tell the story of two dozen passengers who had to figure out a way to survive in the Andes for more than 72 days, narrated largely by Numa (Enzo Vogrincic Roldán), a young man from a conservative, religious family. Society of the Snow is based on Pablo Vierci’s 2009 book of the same name, and Bayona’s approach was to both deeply invest in the specific individuals who boarded that fateful flight and then reveal, with exacting detail, the catastrophe that unfolded and that impossible choices they had to make to survive. Bayona drew on both the book and conversations with the survivors to depict the moments of the crash and life deep in the mountains.

“I like to treat the context [of the crash] as something that will help you to understand the inner process of the character,” he says. “When you think about my movies The Impossible, A Monster Calls, or Society of the Snow, they deal with the moment we get conscious about the uncertainties of living. They deal with how your life can turn upside down in one second, and everything can change. We talk about death in a very straightforward way. I don’t consider these movies to be dark, even though they talk about death, because I always try to look for the light in the darkness. So in that sense, these stories believe in human beings and the better version of ourselves.”

Principal photography in the Sierra Nevadas took place at altitudes that, while not as high as the Andes, were still considerable at around 10,000 feet. Yet there were several distinct advantages of shooting in these conditions, one of which was that it created a natural visual illusion that benefited the story they were telling.

“One of the very few good things about shooting in the snow is that it’s impossible to calculate the distances when you don’t have references because everything is white,” he says. “So it didn’t matter that much that the Sierras are ten times smaller [than the Andes]. In the end, we were able to shoot in quite a high location, around 10,000 feet, and it gave us the perfect geography to do the set extensions, and it was possible to bring the actors to conditions that were similar to the ones the survivors had in the Andes. It was the perfect environment to do the visual effects.”

As Society of the Snow tracks the evolving bond between the survivors, filming in these conditions had a similar, if less potentially deadly, effect.

“I think these environments are great for creating a strong bond with the crew and the actors,” Bayona says. “As a director, you tried to help the performance, and using these conditions in these locations stimulate the performance. If we shoot a sequence in The Impossible in the same hotel where the story happened, that gives a special commitment to not only the crew but especially to the actors and the work they’re doing. I like to create a special environment to help the actors get into the performance.”

Leading a film crew at 10,000 feet was no easy task, and specialized trucks were required to haul cast, crew, and equipment at that altitude. Because the ski resort where they were based remained open, production could only film in the morning and toward the end of the day, the coldest time of any ski day. “It was almost like shooting a documentary, and that was good for the film because it increased this sense of realism that we were looking for,” Bayona says.

That realism was achieved to such a degree that the real survivors had trouble differentiating between what Bayona captured, actual photographs from their rescue, and their memories of the experience.

“They were confused, actually,” he says. “I remember that I showed the real Coche [played by Simon Hempe] a picture of the rescue scene, and he was so shocked because he told me, ‘I didn’t remember I was sitting in this moment.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, that because – that’s not you, that’s the actor. This is a shot from the movie.’ So that was the level of realism that we achieved.”

Society of the Snow – Production Still Image. Courtesy Netflix.

Bayona’s career has been marked by a consistent interest in telling stories about family bonds—those we’re born into and those we create—put to extreme stress tests.

“I like to follow my intuition, especially when I choose a project, so the film becomes a way of this decipher and to understand where the intuition comes from,” Bayona says. “Movies like The Impossible, A Monster Calls, and Society of the Snow come from the very deepest part of your soul, and if you’re able to get there during the process of making the film, I think you’re able to connect with the audience.”

Returning to Spain was especially poignant for a filmmaker who has been filming outside his home country for nearly two decades.

“I had the chance to go back to Spain and shoot in a very different way, where the shooting was more like an exploration,” Bayona says. “And I felt a lot of freedom in looking for what the film was about. The question was, what made these people who they are? It’s kind of complex to explain, I had so many different voices, there were 16 survivors telling the story in the book and they were so different, some of them believe in God, others didn’t. So, to me, it was all about finding the common denominator. By doing that, when you get that deep into the characters who are so different, you get to basically what makes us human. It’s such a big challenge when that’s the goal—it’s like suddenly you find yourself trying to give an answer to questions that these men have been asking themselves for 50 years.”

Answering that question might have been an impossible challenge, but so was what the survivors endured.

“I told the survivors, ‘Listen, you’ve spent 50 years trying to look for an answer to what happened. I have only two and a half years to do this film, so I’ll do my best,’” Bayona recalls. “But it’s interesting that since that goal was impossible, I tried to focus the story from a sensorial, emotional point of view. To me, it was more about bringing the audience into that plane and make them go through the same moments the survivors went through, and by doing so, the audience will ask themselves the same questions the survivors did in the mountains. And that, to me, was much more interesting because it was not giving the answer to the audience, but forcing them to make themselves ask the same questions, which is interesting because, in the end, the film becomes bigger in the mind of the audience. That was the kind of exploration that we proposed to ourselves when we did this film.”

Featured image: JA Bayona on location filming “Society of the Snow.” Courtesy Netflix.


Bryan Abrams

Bryan Abrams is the Editor-in-chief of The Credits. He's run the site since its launch in 2012. He lives in New York.