Acclaimed Spanish director-writer J.A.Bayona adapted Pablo Vierci’s book Society Of The Snow, written 36 years after the Andes flight disaster, to give a voice to the survivors and to those who didn’t make it out alive. The event, which took place 50 years ago last year, is well known around the world and has affected (and continues to affect) generations of people.
“The main inspiration for making Society of the Snow is Pablo Vierci’s book because we knew the story, but the book revealed to us a world of many other little stories within the ‘official’ story,” says producer Belén Atienza. “Pablo decides to tell what happened on the mountain from 16 points of view, one for each of the survivors, and that gives it an exceptional human richness. It was while reading the book that we realised the deep complexity that this story has on many levels — psychological, emotional and anthropological. In fact, thirty years had to pass before its main characters could reflect on and tell it.”
“Such a powerful story in J’s hands made the project a very exciting journey. J is a filmmaker who masterfully handles all genres, and this story gave him the chance to work with almost all of them — drama, adventure, action and tragedy — as well as explore the most transcendent aspects of the experience those young Uruguayans went through in the mountains,” says Atienza.
“For this project to become a reality, we’ve spent 10 years developing it, designing it, and figuring out how to finance it.” says Atienza. “Ten years during which we’ve explored different ways to make it happen. When we realised the level of production that the film required to carry out J’s vision, we approached Netflix because we saw that they were betting heavily on projects by great directors. The response was immediate and positive, and their commitment throughout the production process has been very strong. Society of the Snow could not have been made without a partner that from the beginning understood the production challenge in terms of timing and logistics as well as creativity. We are very grateful for the support, trust and relationship with Netflix.”
“Part of what’s so exciting about a project like this is that responsibility of making a film based on a true story. You want to do it because you know it’s a story that teaches you things, that puts you in a place you’re not normally in, that forces you to ask yourself questions. And in a way you also want to continue the legacy, because even though for decades it has affected different generations, it’s still a story that new generations have yet to discover,” says producer Sandra Hermida.
Directed by J.A Bayona, the screenplay for Society of the Snow was crafted by Bayona, Bernat Vilaplana,
Jaime Marques-Olearraga, and Nicolás Casariego.
In 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which had been chartered to fly a rugby team to Chile, crashed in the heart of the Andes. Only 29 of its 45 passengers survived the accident. Trapped in one of the most hostile and inaccessible environments on the planet, they have to resort to extreme measures to stay alive.
Adapting Pablo Vierci’s book
For writer Pablo Vierci the project started with a short email written by J.A. Bayona in 2011.
“It was a short letter, very emotional, written to all the survivors and to me, as author of the book (although in reality it’s a book told by them). And that letter was so emotional, and dove so deep, that we were all fascinated by the idea that there was a completely new, very exciting, very profound version from that point of view. It was an overwhelming and thrilling email where he explained that he had used the book Society of the Snow to write The Impossible, which hadn’t yet come out, and he told us what he felt was needed to tell the story of what happened in the Andes.
“The survivors and I are childhood friends, we’re classmates, I’ve known them all their lives, but their lives
have inspired many works, and not all of them have been well-received. It was difficult, so many years later, for someone to appeal to them. J.A. Bayona managed to appeal to 16 people, and to me, in an email of less than a page.”
“In 2016, J.A., Belén and Sandra bought the rights to the book and from there we started to work seriously on the project. Before adapting the book and creating the script, there was an intense research and documentation phase. In Uruguay, we interviewed the survivors endlessly, along with J.A., Belén and Sandra. We worked together and we talked often,” Vierci says. “I think that what J.A. managed to do was combine the intimate and the emotional, diving deep into each person’s personality. I’m not just talking
about the survivors, but also those who died, through the memories of both the survivors and the family members that we interviewed.
“J.A. always wanted to have absolutely every single fact about what happened with both the living and the dead. He wanted to find the truth, although the truth isn’t always the reality, so to speak, because the truth is often much deeper.”
The script, written by J.A. Bayona, Nicolás Casariego, Jaime Marques and Bernat Vilaplana, used the book as a starting point and then enriched it with all the information taken from the director’s hours of interviews. Marques adds that “the new material was rich and detailed, it barely left space for imagination. Despite how many years had gone by, the survivors had very specific memories about what happened.”
Casariego says that one of the main goals when writing the script was to be completely faithful to what
happened. At the same time, he adds, “the group was the real main character, including those whose role in survival was less well-known, or who died along the way. There are no heroes. There are survivors, and there are those who stayed on the mountain. And those who came back, in reality, also stayed on the mountain. They try to accept the role that was thrust upon them because surviving goes far beyond getting out of there. It’s much more complicated than that.”
In that sense, the entire screenwriting team believes that one of the great achievements of the script is telling the story from Numa’s point of view. “His role isn’t that of a classic hero, but of action and triumph. Its power is at the spiritual level, in telling the story of those who never left and who are often forgotten. Because in their way, they gave the most. And they’re still with us,” Casariego says.
Jaime Marques expands by saying “as we follow the events through Numa’s eyes, we’ve transformed the story from one with a main character to one told by a chorus, where each one of the characters has their moment, big or small, and their own voice. The movie is a fitting tribute to those who survived and those who stayed on the mountain. Without the latter, the former would have never been able to tell their story.”
Vierci views the process of adapting his book in a positive light: “They gave control to some excellent screenwriters. The most important thing, in my mind, was shedding light on what had been hidden before. I always knew that what happened back in ’72 had infinite layers, many of which we’d never managed to uncover. And now I’m convinced that, with this movie, we’ve been able to reach layers, or levels of awareness, that we didn’t know existed, and that I only now know. I think this symbiosis of the intimate, of the heart, with spectacle is explosive. And J.A. does it marvellously, because he happens to have experience in both spheres: in the singular, the psychological, the sense of going within to uncover what’s not immediately visible, and in the spectacular, because this is spectacular. J.A. captured both the majesty and the solitude.”
A Conversation With Writer-Director J.A Bayona
HOW DID YOU COME ACROSS SOCIETY OF THE SNOW?
I read the book Society of the Snow more than 10 years ago while I was preparing to film The Impossible, and it turned out to be very inspiring. The title of The Impossible, for example, came to me when I read a statement by Roberto Canessa, one of the survivors of the Andes. I remember sharing excerpts from the book with Naomi Watts and Tom Holland during breaks between takes. The two films tell the stories of two human tragedies that share an idea of survival that is not only physical but also emotional.
WHAT INTERESTED YOU MOST ABOUT THE BOOK?
Pablo Vierci manages to get you into the mind of each of the characters, and you experience something extreme that puts you face to face with death — and from there, the focus is on living. It’s a fascinating and complex story. His book is full of strong contrasts between light and dark, and it’s very human. I was especially interested in the sense of guilt that permeates throughout the story, which dismantles the classic hero’s tale of films that depict these kinds of stories. In the book, Roberto Canessa addresses the dead 40 years after the accident and asks them to peacefully accept having experienced the life they did not have. One of the film’s themes originates from this idea: the need to establish contact between the living and the dead to write a story that highlights the fundamental role played by everyone, including those who stayed behind.
WHAT ROLE DID PABLO VIERCI PLAY IN THE MOVIE?
He was the custodian of the story and characters, but I never felt that he constrained my vision. On the contrary, I felt supported and safe with him by my side. The survivors were also fundamental — their enthusiasm galvanised the film and my point of view. We went through an exciting and creative process together. If any questions came up on set, Vierci would pick up the phone, and we would talk to the
people who had first-hand experience of the situations we were trying to recreate. It was a unique experience.
DID VIERCI ALSO AGREE WITH THE POINT OF VIEW OF THE FILM?
Yes, he supported it from the very beginning, even when that point of view differed from that of the book. In his work, the story is told by the 16 survivors. We include those who died. He thought it was a brilliant idea and always supported it
IT’S YOUR FIRST TIME AS A SCREENWRITER
With Society of the Snow, I didn’t want to strictly follow a script. The story was well known, so I was more interested in capturing powerful expressions and images than the facts themselves. Having direct access to the survivors was an extraordinary source of information, so I decided to recreate what happened with their help. We gathered a group of more than 20 young actors and rehearsed for two months. A lot of new ideas came out of that. During filming, more images and situations emerged that we incorporated into the script. This story could not be told from a distance — we needed to fully immerse ourselves and to feel the cold, the hunger and the isolation of the mountain. The film comes not only from a previous script but also from the experiences and ideas we explored during rehearsals, shooting and editing.
DID YOU ALWAYS FEEL IT WAS CRUCIAL FOR THE ACTORS TO MEET THE SURVIVORS?
Always. I give the actors the space and the confidence to improvise. But for that to happen, information is necessary. That’s why it was essential for them to connect with the survivors and the other families. During the shoot, the guys were committed to their characters, and they put their hearts and souls into it. I am very proud of the result. Working with the actors is the part of this profession that I love the most and that brings me the most joy.
THIS IS YOUR FIRST FILM IN SPANISH IN OVER 15 YEARS. HOW WAS THE EXPERIENCE OF FILMING IN YOUR OWN LANGUAGE AGAIN?
For me, filming in English was difficult at times. Added to the insecurities of any director is the disadvantage of not being able to defend yourself in your own language. I would have liked to have shot Society of the Snow earlier, but it took us 10 years to finance this film. I had to film Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and The Rings of Power to earn the right to direct this story as it was meant to be — in its original language, in the places where it happened, and with the ambition with which we approached the project. Shooting this film was liberating not only because of the language, but also because it allowed me to rediscover myself as a director.
HOW DO TWO SURVIVAL STORIES SUCH AS THE IMPOSSIBLE AND SOCIETY OF THE SNOW DIFFER FROM EACH OTHER?
There is an important difference in terms of the time frame: from the 72 hours that the survivors of The Impossible lived through to the 72 days that the characters in this one go through. The experience is very different. In this film, there is room for reflection, for asking questions. The context is also very different. Society of the Snow is about life in a place where life is not possible. The characters have to reinvent it. Relationships, customs and bonds are reinvented.
IT CAN’T BE EASY TO TELL THE STORY WITH SO MANY PEOPLE INVOLVED
Reaching an agreement with all the survivors and families of the deceased was vital to this project and everyone responded unanimously and favourably to the approach to the story. The survivors were instrumental, their enthusiasm fueled the film and my perspective.
THE TRUE STORY INVOLVES A RUGBY TEAM AND THEIR COMPANIONS. IT’S BASICALLY A GROUP OF MEN. IN CONTRAST, YOUR FILMS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN KNOWN FOR HAVING GREAT FEMALE LEADS. HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT THIS CHANGE?
It’s true that the film represents a change, and I found it very interesting to be able to use that real basis to reflect. We’re talking about men in a very specific context — Latin America in the seventies. They all end up on the mountain with a set of masculine roles that were strongly defined by society, but the mountain forces them to question and break from those roles. They are men who have to learn to love and care for each other, both physically and emotionally — they sleep in each other’s arms, they constantly massage each other at night, they heal their wounds. I was very interested in portraying a type of masculinity that was not related to the heroic or to the most spectacular action but that was already present in the bodies, gestures and small interactions between them. In that sense, for me, the mountain makes the characters leave behind their preconceived ideas about masculinity in the same way that it also makes them rethink their relationship with spirituality.
ANOTHER THEME IN SOCIETY OF THE SNOW IS FAITH
At a pivotal moment in this story, the characters set off blindly down the mountain, with no clear destination and to certain death. For me, it’s not an act of faith but of dignity. Dignity was also expressed in those who died giving encouragement to their companions. These behaviours are the result of a profound transformation. In a situation of complete abandonment, when everything has been taken from you, you have the ability to choose how to die. And they did it by giving of themselves to their friends. I’m sure that, for many of them, it was a transcendent experience. For me, it’s not a religious film but a spiritual film.
WHAT WERE THE MOST DIFFICULT THINGS ABOUT FILMING SOCIETY OF THE SNOW?
One of our main decisions was to go for authenticity and realism. Achieving that on a set, where the snow isn’t real, is very complicated. That’s why we shot most of it in the high mountains, in places that are difficult to access, facing snow, wind and cold. This involved a great deal of effort in terms of organisation, getting the crew and filming equipment there, and adapting to constant changes in the weather.
DO YOU REMEMBER ANY SPECIFIC DETAILS OF THE SHOOT THAT ARE PARTICULARLY SIGNIFICANT?
The most important thing for me was to get the actors to form a bond similar to the society they represent in the story — a strong and solid group of people that will support each other in difficult times. Creating that space between actors is something we manage to do over time during casting, rehearsals and filming.
WHAT QUALITIES DID ENZO VOGRINCIC HAVE THAT MADE HIM THE PERFECT ACTOR TO PLAY NUMA, THE FILM’S MAIN CHARACTER?
Enzo’s an outstanding actor with an impressive screen presence. But his character is also similar to Numa’s. They are two hard-working people who care a lot about helping their companions, and at the same time, they avoid being the centre of attention. The fact that Enzo shares a similar sensitivity to Numa helped a lot when it came to working with the character.
THE PHYSICAL TRANSFORMATION OF THE ACTORS THROUGHOUT THE FILM IS IMPRESSIVE
The actors were brave and committed wholeheartedly to their performances, experiencing a small measure of the cold and hunger the survivors would have endured. The entire process was supervised by doctors, nutritionists and a personal trainer who accompanied them week by week.
YOU TRAVELLED TO THE VALLEY OF TEARS, WHERE THE PLANE WENT DOWN. HOW DID YOU FEEL?
It was amazing to visit the Valley of Tears — in the same place and at the same time of year as the crash. It’s a fascinating and terrifying place. The first night I spent there was one of the worst of my life. The altitude sickness made me lose track of time, and the constant headache was excruciating. But experiencing the extreme cold, lack of oxygen, and constant exhaustion helped us understand what the main characters went through. We travelled to the Andes up to three times during production, and shooting some scenes there was an unforgettable experience.
HAVE THE SURVIVORS BEEN ABLE TO SEE THE FILM?
Yes, all the survivors saw the film together in a cinema in Montevideo several months before it was finished. They were nervous because they had not read the script, but ultimately, they loved the realistic and authentic way their story was told. For me, as a director, it was a very important moment. Seeing them and hearing their reactions left me feeling reassured and grateful. I will never forget that day.
J.A. BAYONA (DIRECTOR, SCREENWRITER, PRODUCER)
His directorial debut, El orfanato (The Orphanage, 2007), was shown at Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival and won myriad prizes, among them seven Goya Awards. Since then, J.A. Bayona (Barcelona, Spain, 1975) has become one of the most prominent Spanish
filmmakers on the international scene. In his second film, he made the leap to English-language productions with The Impossible (2012), a story of survival inspired by real events. Much like his first film, it received many awards. For his third film, Bayona created a supernatural story, much like his first: A Monster Calls (2016), a drama about loss, won nine Goya Awards. His fourth film has otherworldly elements as well: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), in which he put his personal stamp on the celebrated franchise created by Steven Spielberg, who executive-produced the film.
JAIME MARQUES / NICOLÁS CASARIEGO/ BERNAT VILAPLANA /J.A. BAYONA (SCREENWRITERS)
Nicolás Casariego (Madrid, Spain, 1970) is a screenwriter and novelist who worked on the scripts for ¿Tú qué harías por amor? (Carlos Saura Medrano, 2000) and Y decirte alguna estupidez, por ejemplo, te quiero (Antonio del Real, 2000). He wrote Intruders (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2011) along with Jaime Marques (Madrid, Spain, 1968), with whom he has returned to work on Society of the Snow.
Marques is co-screenwriter of, among other works, Noche de reyes (Miguel Bardem, 2001), Thieves (2007), which Marques himself directed, and Valley of the Dead (Javier Ruiz Caldera and Alberto de Toro, 2020). Bernat Vilaplana, a prestigious editor, has written various shorts and debuts this year as a feature-length screenwriter on Free Fall (Laura Jou; premiere pending) and Society of the Snow.
This is J.A. Bayona’s first feature-length work in which he appears as a screenwriter.
PABLO VIERCI – (AUTHOR OF THE BOOK “SOCIETY OF THE SNOW” AND ASSOCIATE PRODUCER)
Pablo Vierci (Montevideo, Uruguay, 1950), the author of the book that inspired Society of the Snow as well as an associate producer of the film, is also a writer, journalist and screenwriter. His published works include Los tramoyistas (1979), Pequeña historia de una mujer (1984), Detrás de los árboles (1987), 99% asesinado (2004), La sociedad de la nieve (Society of the Snow, 2008), De Marx a Obama (2010), Artigas – La Redota (2011), El desertor (2012), Ellas 5 (2014), Tenía que sobrevivir (I Had to Survive, 2016; written with Roberto Canessa), El fin de la inocencia (2018) and La redención de Pascasio Báez (2021). Society of the Snow, a bestseller in Latin America, has been translated into English, Italian, Catalan and Portuguese. Vierci has received numerous awards for his literary work, such as the Uruguayan National Prize for Literature in 1987 and 2004 (for the books Detrás de los árboles and 99% asesinado, respectively), and the Gold Prize from the Uruguayan Chamber of Books in 2009, for Society of the Snow. Vierci also has his own experience with film and television. Among others, he worked on the scripts for Aqueles dois (Sergio Amon, 1985), El viñedo (Esteban Schroeder, 2000), Matar a todos (Esteban Schroeder, 2007) and The Story of Artigas (César Charlone, 2011)