“Every time I begin a project, I also embark on a journey”

J. A. Bayona

© Miguel Ángel Chazo / Sitges Film Festival

This interview took some time to come together, and that’s not surprising. J. A. Bayona is a prolific filmmaker, possibly the most renowned Catalan director on the world scene. Despite living in Barcelona, where his company, La Trini, is based, he is a constant globetrotter. We finally had the chance to meet at the Sitges Film Festival, where he introduced La sociedad de la nieve (The Snow Society), a film inspired by a true story: the 1972 crash of a Uruguayan plane in the Andes mountain range. This incident was previously depicted in the film Alive, directed by Frank Marshall (1992), and now Bayona revisits that tragic story. It’s not the first time he has delved into people’s extreme experiences; his second feature film, The Impossible, is based on the first-hand account of María Belón, a survivor of the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami.

Born in 1975, Juan Antonio García Bayona is part of the first graduating class of the School of Cinema and Audiovisuals of Catalonia, ESCAC. He kicked off his career directing music videos until a fateful meeting with Guillermo del Toro in Sitges, who produced his debut feature film, The Orphanage. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival’s Critics’ Week. From this point onward, we could say that the rest is cinematic history, spanning works like A Monster Calls, the sequel to Jurassic World, and the series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

In Sitges, a place that holds special significance for him, Bayona was honoured with an award. He is open to fielding questions not only about his latest film, as he clearly wants to present it to the world, but also about his childhood and adolescence in Barcelona, a period marked by the discovery of his passion for cinema.

I’d like to start by exploring the beginnings of your passion for cinema, specifically within the context of neighbourhood life during a distinct era, that of the 1980s.

For me, a trip to the cinema was a major event because it was quite a trek. I lived in Trinitat Vella, and to get there, I had to take the underground. At that time, our cinematic ventures were around Christmas time, making it an even more special occasion. So my film experiences were mostly confined to television and video.

I vividly remember the first time I went on my own: it was in 1990, during the Oscar season. There was one film from that edition I hadn’t caught: Driving Miss Daisy. While I had managed to convince my siblings to accompany me to see other films, I told my mother I would navigate the journey solo for this one. She agreed. I was 14 years old. I headed to the Comedia cinema, on Passeig de Gràcia with Gran Via.

On returning home, I realised I now could go to the cinema whenever I wanted. Yet, getting there was still a bit complicated.

At what point did you establish a circle of friends with a shared passion for films?

I went to Sant Josep Oriol school in Trinitat Nova, completing my primary and secondary education there. We had this teacher, Lluís Rey, who even attended the première of La sociedad de la nieve in Sitges. He had received an award from the Generalitat Government of Catalonia for pioneering cinema education in schools in Santa Coloma de Gramenet in the 1970s. Imagine what an initiative like that meant back then.

In art class at my school, he gave lessons on cinema. However, there’s an interesting twist. I was in Group A, and he taught Group B. While his students delved into the cinematic world, I was crocheting. It was hard to believe they were studying cinema while I was crafting a case for my pens.

The director during the filming of his latest movie, La sociedad de la nieve [The Snow Society]. © Netflix The director during the filming of his latest movie, La sociedad de la nieve [The Snow Society]. © Netflix

Two years later, he became my teacher, and we did things like making a camera out of a cigar box. We even started projecting films. I vividly remember a school trip he arranged to Queralbs. It was my first experience sleeping away from home with my schoolmates. On the trip, he treated us to a 16 mm copy of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931). He introduced the film, telling us, “You’re about to watch a film with a prologue where a man comes out and says that life can only be granted by God; well, just so you know, the director wasn’t on board with this and was forced to include it in his film.” At eight years old, we didn’t fully grasp his message, but these are the things that linger and resonate. All of a sudden, there I was, envisioning a director and a studio coercing him into doing something against his will.

Lluís Rey was a great person, a film buff through and through. While I was doing my post-compulsory secondary education at the Sant Andreu school, he gave a film course in Camp de l’Arpa. There, we would pick out films, rent them in 16 mm, then screen and discuss them. I was roughly 15 at the time. Come 16, I went to the Sitges Festival for the first time, and by 17, I had started covering the festival as press, all thanks to the nod from the local radio in Trinitat Vella and the neighbourhood television station in Clot. Fast forward to 18 and I was enrolling in ESCAC.

When ESCAC was still in Barcelona…

Yes, on the premises of the Escoles Pies de Sarrià. I commuted daily from Trinitat Vella to Sarrià, usually by bus, taking the No. 60 route.

I imagine there was a bit of a difference socioeconomically speaking.

In the first ESCAC graduating class, you had people of all ages and backgrounds, with students aged 18, 24… It was a real mix. In my class, you had the likes of Kike Maíllo and Adrián López, both from Sant Andreu. A lot of us were from the neighbourhood.

There’s this real essence in your films, you know? A deep love for the genre but, at the same time, this strong pull toward emotional drama.

Back when I was working on The Rings of Power and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Guillermo del Toro used to drop by and say, “Bayona, the next one has to hit hard”. It’s about things that really get under your skin and hurt. Of course, when you’re dealing with The Lord of the Rings or Jurassic World, as a director, you’re serving the story, doing your best in an industry with its own set ways. But then, in the other films, there’s more space to work from this place “that hurts”. I just follow my intuition. I keep digging and poking to find where it hurts, and that always taps into something that echoes in each of my films.

Where do you think it comes from?

Now that I’ve started interviewing my parents and family to document their stories, I’m throwing questions at them, and there’s this recurring theme: fear has always been a constant in my family. Suddenly, there are events that occurred and left a lasting impression. My dad is a huge film buff, and as a kid, he hustled by selling sunflower seeds and sweets just to catch a film. So, he basically got in for free almost every day.

We recently returned to the cinema he frequented as a child, and I asked him what the first image he recalls seeing on the screen was, something that stuck with him forever. His answer was Bela Lugosi reaching out.

Of course, this is an image I used in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom when the dinosaur is lurking in the room. And then I wonder, “How did this fear legacy get handed down?” As far as fear is concerned, it’s also intertwined with the context – those times of hardship in Andalusia. In La sociedad de la nieve, chatting with the survivors, one of them told me that the emotion propelling him was fear: fear of being stuck in the mountains, fear of their meagre meals, fear of never making it back home. All of this, precisely, contributed to making it into a horror film.

You were mentioning the image that left the biggest impression on your dad. Which one has stuck with you the most?

For me, it’s the scene from Dracula (John Badham, 1979) with Frank Langella. He hangs upside down on the façade and raps on the window with his hand. It’s mind-blowing - it’s like my dad’s memory of Bela Lugosi’s hand. Maybe someday I can incorporate something of this, explicitly referencing these images in a different setting, like Trinitat Vella, rather than just in Jurassic World.

You grew up in a city, but your films aren’t very urban.

I reckon it’s just a coincidence. The other day, someone was asking me about Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans. It’s true that it’s a film where he talks about his childhood, but the truth is that childhood features in all his films. In the end, what really matters is how you approach stories, how you make them your own. The Orphanage was a script by Sergio G. Sánchez that already existed, The Impossible is based on a story by María Belón, and Jurassic World is a job I was hired for.

And still, each one paints a world that’s uniquely yours.

With A Monster Calls, even though the story was pre-existing, there’s a subtle aspect in the subtext tied to neighbourhood life. When you dig a bit, you’ll find something connected to the industrial crisis during the Thatcher era, which was already woven into the novel.

There’s been a notable shift in Barcelona’s cinephile scene – the cinemas that used to be around are no more. How do you feel about this change?

It’s disheartening to see cinemas vanish from the city centre, and it seems to be a widespread issue. Conversations with cinema operators highlight the recognition of this problem, particularly affecting the younger crowd who now have to trek to the suburbs for a cinematic experience. Planning an entire afternoon there isn’t as straightforward as it used to be. In the past, you could catch a film at the Pelayo cinema and then unwind with a drink at the L’Ovella Negra.

These days, a trip to the cinema means spending an entire afternoon in a shopping centre. There’s a growing awareness that moving away from city centres hasn’t played out well. It is sad to see cinemas disappearing from urban hubs. It’s part of the evolving way of life where consumption patterns change. Yet, there’s a realisation that these streaming platforms share more similarities with television.

I’m hopeful that one day, the big cinemas will make a comeback in the city centre. However, it’ll be a different experience due to the prevalence of platforms. Television and video have already drawn audiences away from cinemas, but contrary to expectations, it hasn’t led to the demise of cinemas. I strongly oppose the notion that cinemas have perished. They’ve undergone transformation, but they’re very much alive.

Your films seem to revisit a cinema from another era, blending entertainment and authorship. How do you navigate the intersection between your own personal world and the whole industry scene?

I watched classics on television during my childhood, thanks to Spanish television, which used to feature series dedicated to Truffaut, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Kurosawa, and so on. No labels, no biases, you know? I remember watching seriously offbeat films like Cría cuervos (“Raise Ravens”, Carlos Saura, 1975), The Tin Drum (Volker Schlöndorff, 1979), right alongside The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957) and X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes (Roger Corman, 1963). It was all part of the experience. When you’re that age, your perspective is free from prejudices, and you find every film just fascinating.

Surprise is closely related to what I do. I always think that first shot I saw in my life, Superman taking flight, shaped my whole idea of cinema.

Surprise could be that or a drama like La sociedad de la nieve. Fear is wrapping your head around living through a plane crash in the Andes or coping when a wave wipes out everything in seconds. Surprise is also a part of a more dramatic and realistic cinema.

Both The Impossible and La sociedad de la nieve are films that really hit home for the people who actually lived through the experiences they’re based on. How do you manage to connect with these people?

I feel a lot of pressure with all the details they provide. Especially with La sociedad de la nieve, I realised they were rather astute – by offering me so much, they were shaping my perspective on the whole story. But my perspective wasn’t boxed in. I know there are parts they didn’t expect to end up in the film, but when they saw them, they were okay with it.

When you read Pablo Vierci’s book, the backbone of the film, you see just how amazing that group was, and the whole individuality thing becomes quite complex. Everyone did what they could. I did clash a bit with the screenwriters who wanted everything in the film to be neatly tied up but altered the facts. I urged them to leave the facts alone and just try to understand.

You’ve worked in London, in Hollywood, and jetsetted all over the globe to make your films. The latest one, for instance, delves into an event that occurred in Latin America. How does this globetrotting life play out in practice?

Every time I begin a project, I embark on a journey too. For The Rings of Power, I spent a solid year and a half in New Zealand. While La sociedad de la nieve was shot in Spain, I travelled extensively to Montevideo, becoming acquainted with Uruguayan and Argentinean culture, and trying to tap into the cultural reality of that time. I keep hopping around the world, like when I went to London to shoot Jurassic World, but I have always lived in Barcelona, and I’m not really considering living anywhere else.


The newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date with Barcelona Metròpolis' new developments