Playing a part in human devastation

Times Staff Writer

THE title alone of HBO's upcoming television movie -- "Tsunami: The Aftermath" -- was enough to cause trepidation among the actors who would eventually be cast in the leading roles. Was it too soon to fictionalize the disaster? Would it be exploitative, sensationalized, overly sentimental? It sounded to some like a disaster movie.

But after reading the script by British screenwriter Abi Morgan, the apprehension faded. For some, it was replaced by a sense of responsibility for the victims and survivors of the Dec. 26, 2004, catastrophe in which nearly 300,000 people died or vanished into the Indian Ocean.

"You just wanted to be so bloody truthful to the people who went through this," said Sophie Okonedo, the British actress who plays Susie Carter, a mother on vacation with her family when the wave hits who must search for her missing child.

For others, it was a chance to inform those who, like themselves, weren't there.

"There was so much in the script I hadn't considered, the real human cost of what had happened as well as the implications of government, planning and infrastructure in the lives of people who lived in those regions and those who arrived there on holiday," said Chiwetel Ejiofor, the British actor who plays Carter's husband, Ian, a businessman who caroms between hope and despair during the chaos that follows the tragedy.

Grounded in actual histories, the co-production between BBC Drama and HBO opens with the discovery of bodies floating outside a Thailand resort. The story backtracks to the devastating wave, then weaves the stories of survivors, a British couple (Ejiofor and Okonedo), a British tourist (Gina McKee) whose husband and son both die, a Thai survivor (Samrit Machielsen) grieving for his family while watching opportunists seize their land, and those who come to help and observe: a British journalist (Tim Roth), an Australian relief worker (Toni Collette) and others. The two-part series starts tonight and concludes next Sunday.

Though he knew tourists who experienced the disaster, Ejiofor ("Dirty Pretty Things") said he fell into the pattern of most people who saw the tragedy unfold on television. "I initially didn't know much about it; I became involved when people I knew were connected, and then I disappeared when the glare was turned off.

"I think it's important, just in the sense of the world getting smaller, that people understand when things happen in perceived remote areas. If they've seen a project like this, they'll have a clearer understanding of what actually is going on as opposed to waiting for CNN to briefly stay on that story and then move on to something else as your mind does," he said.

"That serves the people who lost their lives as well. It does a little thing to help."

Morgan, the screenwriter, said she traveled to the region in July 2005. After meeting with human rights workers, survivors and others, it was clear to her that the important story was about the aftermath and the connections forged by an international community to cope with grief and chaos. She said politics prevented her from filming in her first location of choice, Sri Lanka. She chose Thailand partly because of the large Western international community, which "resonated in the international psyche perhaps more profoundly."

As a result, the film does not expose the mass devastation in other affected countries without a significant Western community. "That's something we have to take on the chin," Morgan said.

Filmed mostly in Phuket and Khao Lak, areas known for paradisiacal beauty and friendly people, the film offers a stark contrast with the brutal force of the tsunami, depicted through footage and computer-generated graphics. On location, Ejiofor said, they frequently encountered reminders of the devastation -- such as dumbbells from a hotel's first floor that were later found in a room on the fourth floor.

One indication that painful lessons had been learned, he said, was an obviously new warning sign with simple graphics. A big wave and a man running up a mountain advised people to seek high ground in the event of another tsunami.

Morgan rejected the idea of a documentary, which she said would be too limiting. Fiction also offered the advantage of accelerating stories that took place over time -- such as the developers grabbing villagers' land. Still, she said, it was crucial "to get the facts right and make it feel as authentic and truthful as possible."

Though some characters are almost biographical, Morgan said, details were changed to protect real individuals' identities.

One survivor Morgan interviewed, a Western man who lost a child, inspired Ejiofor's character. "He said, 'What do you do when the impossible happens?' That's the question at the heart of Ian and Susie's relationship," Morgan said.

The character of Nick Fraser (Roth) was based on an Australian journalist who shared his experiences. "He didn't bring a change of clothes, just a laptop. He thought there was no story," said Roth, whose father was a journalist. "When he arrived, the devastation was so immense, it was incredibly touching for him. He thought of himself as hardened."

Raw emotions

LATER, the reporter regretted stories he did uncover. One involved a Buddhist monk who was burning unidentified bodies at a time when people were searching for lost relatives.

"In Buddhist societies, monks do the cremation," Roth said. Although the reporter's story suggested wrongdoing, "in retrospect, [the monk] was doing what he was supposed to do, making sure [the dead] were going on to the next life and also prevent disease."

Roth and Collette said their characters were less exhausting to play than others'.

"You'd show up and see an actor who'd been crying for three weeks," Roth said.

"There was not a single day filming where we were not going through the worst day of our lives," said Okonedo. She found it complicated to play a woman whose life and mind had suddenly shattered. "There were lots of feelings. I found I was changing gear, sometimes five or six times within one sentence. If you can imagine constantly changing: 'What to think? What not to think? Who is to blame? Is she dead, is she alive? Should I have gone on holiday, was she wearing her water wings, why did I go on the diving trip?' She becomes incredibly fragmented in her mind."

Similarly, Ejiofor said the behavior of a real person in that situation was complex and hard to evaluate. "The desperation becomes at times anger, at times hope, and hope makes the desperation and the anger worse. Then there are moments of serenity and calm that come out of nowhere and then back into desperation."

Although he read survivors' accounts of their experiences and watched footage, he said he didn't want to "get too invested in specific heartbreak."

"The stuff we were going through, I wanted to keep that as raw and organic as possible," he said.

Because of their initial apprehensions, many of the cast were careful to make locals aware that the film was a human drama and not exploitative, he said. "In a sense, we were overcautious," he said. "They were just incredibly happy that we were there. For the most part, people had moved forward with life."

Perhaps surprisingly, few locals objected to their work, according to those associated with the project. One reason is that the producers hired a large Thai crew to help with production, providing income and industry to an area still trying to recover, Morgan said.

"The only time there was any kind of tension that I saw was when we were working in Khao Lak and a Western woman hotelier came up to berate the producers about making the movie. She didn't care if it was a human drama, that it wasn't an exploitative film, only that it might stop people coming to Thailand," Ejiofor said.

Roth, however, called the reaction mixed. A story was printed in the local newspaper that local European crew members were paid more than Thai crew members, he said. "It's common practice around the world" in countries without unions, Roth said. "That's what's so disturbing.... So I wonder about the motive behind it. I think it was local businessmen who were nervous about what the film was saying about local businessmen."

Morgan said the reaction from survivors to the finished film is also mixed. In three screenings held in London and Leeds, England, she said, many survivors chose not to come or felt it was too early to relive their experience. Many cried as they watched.

Those who expected it to be sensationalized, however, said they were surprised.

Morgan said many came up afterward and thanked her. "They wanted their families and friends to see it, to understand what went on."

lynn.smith@latimes.com

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