Belon is someone who lives in the clouds. Huge swells of love and sadness pool just behind her eyes. She guesses she has always been like that, but facing death made it all the more intense.
"It's like when you see a snake and it goes into the forest to shed its skin," she said. "When it comes back, it's the same. But my skin is over there [in Thailand]. I have a new skin. I'm myself, but my whole is something new."
A twist of fate
Belon's family was on board with the project, although her husband, nicknamed Quique, was the most cautious, not understanding why their story merited a film. So Belon served as her family's liaison to the filmmakers -- sharing drafts as they created the screenplay.
Her primary concern was ensuring that her family not be portrayed as heroes. They survived through luck only, she believes, standing in the right place when the wave hit.
She articulates the idea of fate in a letter titled "Daniel's Mom," written to the deceased mother of a boy she and Lucas rescued in the aftermath of the wave.
"It wasn't your fault you died nor my fault I survived, it was fate. But fate has a sharp edge, it leaves wounds and buries scars. Fate isn't always fair, and that hurts. The pain is pain, but not guilt . . . . That pain is like an invisible stone in my shoe, making it impossible to forget with every step. I'll never get rid of it. The best I can do is to adapt to its presence."
That message resonated with the filmmakers.
"One of the things this story taught us is you don't get to decide when you die and when you live," Sanchez said. "This story has to be about loss. There are lots of people who lost lots of family members, who were not as lucky as Maria and her family. We had to be very careful to not do a version of the story where they can be offended."
Added Bayona: "Survival was a question of fate. The position of every character -- 2 meters to the right, 2 meters to the left -- defined their destiny."
Bayona decided to shoot in Thailand -- at the Orchid Beach resort where the family stayed and the hospital where Belon and Lucas were reunited with their family.
The family embraced the idea. They had been invited back to Thailand a year after the tsunami, but Belon was still recovering and couldn't fly. Six years later, they had the chance to find some closure with the land.
"We had to go back with different feelings than how we left," Belon said. "We left feeling pain, shock. We needed to go back to that land, that place and say sorry for the moment we spent together."
In December 2010, the family joined up with the production in Thailand. Each member of the family helped their actor counterpart to get the wave scene right -- to place them in their exact spots when the tsunami hit.
"I could almost feel all the souls there," Belon said. "It was raining and raining and raining during the whole shoot -- and it shouldn't be raining; it was the dry season. Bayona would say, 'Maria, what is going on?' I would say, 'They need to cry. Let them.'"
Bayona showed the film to the family in August. Belon described the experience as a roller coaster -- engaging in the intensity personally, then looking over at her children and husband, worried about how they were faring through the ride.
She broke down toward the end of the film. It was a scene in which McGregor, playing her husband, opens up a slip of paper -- a calendar page. On one side, with the date Dec. 26, were the names Kathy and Gina, a fellow tsunami survivor's missing wife and daughter whom he was trying to help find. On the other side was a note they'd jotted down just before the wave struck: "We are at the beach."
That moment, Belon said, overpowered her with grief for the hundreds of thousands of victims. Yet, at the same time, she was confident the film honored their memories sufficiently and respectfully.
"I thought, 'They will forgive me for any mistake I made,'" Belon said. This movie, she explained, "It's for the people who didn't make it and for the people who are alive. I think of them every day -- those that are suffering, those that miss people. I don't miss people in my life. Missing people is the worst thing that can happen."
Lucas, now 18, is studying medicine. Tomas, 17, is attending high school in Wales, and Simon, 13, is living with his parents in Madrid. Enrique is a general manager for Johnson & Johnson, and Maria is deciding what she'll do next. She is lighter now. The wave changed her profoundly, but it didn't break her. For that, she is thankful.
"I never believed in heaven or hell. I now pass freely through one and the other, in a moment," she said. "Hell is after the wave. It's living full of dead people. Heaven is a divine gift. It's being untouchable; it's believing that none of this is real. My heaven has Simon's smile, Tomas' cheeks, Lucas' hands and Quique's eternal kiss."