In ‘Thirteen Lives,’ Ron Howard directs the Thai cave rescue
It may be common etiquette to not spoil the end of a film, but Ron Howard learned years ago on “Apollo 13” that knowing the outcome of a story is different from knowing the story itself. And though the 2018 rescue of the Thai boys’ soccer team and their coach is considerably fresher in our collective memories, Howard saw in it a similar opportunity.
“You may know on a headline basis that things worked out well, but you don’t know what kind of personal struggles may be in store for the key characters,” Howard said. “Through dramatization, through good acting and scenes and moviemaking, you begin to connect emotionally with the characters in a way that you just can’t with a straight documentary or with news coverage.”
The story was in some ways tailor made for a Hollywood film with its happy ending and straightforward acts of heroism. The 18-day saga has already inspired a great documentary, “The Rescue," and several other projects. But the reality of making “Thirteen Lives," now playing in theaters in select cities and available on Prime Video, was an enormously complex and sometimes harrowing endeavor. Even Howard said it ranks in the “upper quadrant” of his most challenging films.
And it wasn’t just about the difficulties of filming the dangerous cave diving in the narrow, underwater corridors of Tham Luang Lang Non, which were recreated for the film by production designer Molly Hughes, but of telling the stories of all the people who helped make the impossible mission successful. As everyone would quickly come to realize, there were quite a few people worthy of the camera's focus. There were the British divers and the Thai Navy SEALS, of course, but also the parents, the boys and the coach in the cave, the public servants managing the crisis and the thousands of foreign and local volunteers who contributed in big and small ways.
“I felt a little bit like a conductor,” Howard said. “Logistically, it was very complicated. And I felt a deeper responsibility to getting this right on behalf of those involved than probably any other movie that I’ve made based on real events.”
Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, the bulk of filming took place in Queensland, Australia, with additional photography in Thailand that Howard had to direct remotely. It was a hurdle for him because top of mind was making sure the story was as authentically Thai as possible. He enlisted a team of Thai artists and producers to help, including the great cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (“Call Me By Your Name”).
“I knew that that was not only the right thing to do, but I sensed that it would be, you know, terrible if we got it wrong,” Howard said.
Another was producer Raymond Phathanavirangoon, who was tasked with infusing William Nicholson’s (“Gladiator”) script with details and nuances of Northern Thai culture, from the proper way to style a visiting Burmese Monk, to the use of prayer and regional accents.
“A large portion of the film is in Thai, which is quite an unusual thing for a Hollywood film,” Phathanavirangoon said. “We painstakingly tried to get the accents right. Even in Thai cinema, you rarely hear people speak with a Northern accent.”
Naturally, though, there is a focus on the British divers who swam the boys and the coach out of the cave one by one. The roles attracted the likes of Viggo Mortensen (as Rick Stanton), Colin Farrell (as John Volanthen) and Joel Edgerton (as Dr. Harris), who developed close relationships with their real-life counterparts.
“What they do as a pastime is kind of beyond my comprehension,” said Farrell. “They really are subterranean explorers. And talking to them, I suppose the most amazing thing was the normality that they exude. They’re not adrenaline junkies.”
Going in, the plan was for the actors to do some of the cave diving and to supplement it with stunt double work. There would be a dive supervisor in Andrew Allen and an underwater director of photography in Simon Christidis. But somewhere in the intense three-week training, the decision was made that the actors would do most of the cave scenes themselves.
“I kind of blame the Viggo,” Farrell laughed. “He was the one that was insisting that we should do it. But I was in for a penny, in for a pound.”
Stanton and Jason Mallinson (played in the film by Paul Gleeson) were also on set, and often in the water alongside the actors coaching them through the process. And it was scary at times, especially for Farrell, who said he is not the strongest swimmer.
“It was as safe and controlled as it could be. But there was a couple of times it was rather nerve-racking,” Farrell said. “Full scale panic attack maybe wasn’t exactly what I had, but there were moments of anxiety, a very real anxiety. I suppose I’m describing a panic attack of sorts, albeit a light one.”
But everyone was also keenly aware that their experience was just a small fraction of the life and death stakes of the actual mission. It wasn’t a set, Mortensen said, where people were complaining about the breakfast burritos, the coffee or the weather, especially with the real divers close by.
“It was high demand. It was difficult,” said Tom Bateman, who plays diver Chris Jewell. “But we’re just holding the candle up to some incredible people. Never once did anyone complain.”