On Thai Cave Rescue 4th Anniversary, Thirteen Lives Helmer Ron Howard & Co-Producer Billy Ruetaivnichkul On Capturing The Ingenuity & Terror On Film

EXCLUSIVE: This weekend marks four years since 12 members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach walked into the Tham Luang cave complex in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, and were soon trapped 1000 meters down by rapidly rising floodwaters. Leading to an extraordinary 17-day rescue effort in which the Thai government and its Navy SEALs were assisted by a wave of volunteers from numerous countries who lent their expertise at a time it wasn’t clear if the boys would still be alive. Bringing half-starved boys through the dark and twisty underwater path was extremely dangerous, as evidenced by the death of a Thai Navy SEAL diver who ran out of oxygen. We all know the happy ending, but we also knew the Apollo 13 outcome and it didn’t dampen the thrills, emotion and tension. Director Ron Howard has again created a gripping testament to human ingenuity. Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell and Joel Edgerton play the divers who helped find the kids, surrounded by a cast of Thai actors who spearheaded the exceptional undertaking. MGM and United Artists Releasing releases the film in theaters July 29, and Thirteen Lives broadens to Amazon’s Prime Video global streaming service August 5. Here, Howard and Thai co-producer Vorakorn Ruetaivnichkul speak about why they feel so bullish about what they’ve got here.

DEADLINE: Ron, Thirteen Lives is reminiscent of your film Apollo 13. But the latter’s events were 25 years old when Apollo 13 was released in 1995, when it won two Oscars and got a Best Picture nomination. The Thai cave rescue is only four years in the past and it was a global media event. Why did you clear the decks and move quickly on this movie when there were others percolating?

RON HOWARD: I was working when it happened, and so I was aware and relieved by the outcome. My wife Cheryl was into it in a much more detailed way. When she and I read the script, neither of us had any idea the sort of risks that were taken and the lengths they went to, to achieve this incredible rescue. It’s a tremendous tribute to cooperation, international effort, and forward momentum. This was a victory for the Thai people and the Thai government, and as a result, they’re very, very proud of it. They should be. They never took their foot off the gas and did everything they could, as a culture, as a government, physically, emotionally, spiritually to make this rescue happen. But they also had the intelligence and the sense of integrity to simultaneously look around and say, ‘does anyone else have other ideas? Can anyone else contribute?’ It was a little bit like NASA back in the Apollo era, where the best idea won, and it wasn’t about three months from now. It was about, what works now, and let’s not hesitate. Let’s not blink, and it took a lot of courage on all fronts.

DEADLINE: What comes through is that while it seemed impossible to bring those astronauts down safely from space, Thirteen Lives seems a tougher one to shoot.

HOWARD: Well, there we had the capsule and the weightlessness, and there’ve been a number of times it has been a real challenge. Whether it’s the fires in Backdraft, the weightlessness and claustrophobia of Apollo 13, the intensity of the Formula 1 tracks from 30 years ago when they were smaller and more dangerous in Rush, and by the way, the boxing in Cinderella Man, where you couldn’t double anyone and [the fight scenes] had to be intense, but choreographed very meticulously. I love those kinds of challenges, even though I don’t always know what the solution will be. I went into this one not entirely knowing what the solution would be, but you’re right that the sort of degree of difficulty was very high for me and our team on this film. On a directorial level, there’s also cultural integrity, which was a massive priority to me and everyone involved.
The script’s written by a Brit, William Nicholson, directed by me. I don’t speak Thai, and yet, it was vitally important that the culture be represented in a very authentic way. That required me deputizing some very talented people in the process, and it was part of the excitement to see it take off and then to see audiences respond to it with emotion and an understanding, a sense of kind of the impact of the authenticity.

DEADLINE: Billy, you hail from Thailand, and as co-producer you are among a number of people who made sure this was not a prototypical Hollywood film but one that captured Thai culture. What do you remember feeling four years ago when things seemed so dire?

VORAKORN “BILLY” RUETAIVNICHKUL: We were of two minds. There was hope that they would come out really soon, but there was another side saying that it’s impossible because, when you see everything that contributing to the condition that they are trapped in, it seems like they wouldn’t be able to make it. We didn’t know at first it is going to grow into such a big operation, but after first few days, the Thai government realized that they can’t do this alone. They started to reach out to the international people to ask for the cooperation. That was the right choice to do. Otherwise, they would end up with a tragedy. In Thailand, we are really sentimental about this, because, at the end, they are our kids.

DEADLINE: Ron, what you do particularly well is capture the feeling of the cold, the dark, the claustrophobia these divers had to overcome to find those kids, who by then were starving and terrified, and figure out a way to get them out before the next storm brought floodwaters that would completely fill the cave and drown them. How did these guys tell you they felt?

HOWARD: How they felt is the key. In recent years, I’ve been really enjoying working on documentaries, as well. It’s a fantastic medium, but I’ve come to understand that documentaries promise one thing for an audience, and scripted, dramatic retellings promise something else. Documentaries are about being as comprehensive and informative as possible. Scripted versions of true events have to offer that as well, and yet, their promise also includes something else. It involves engaging the nervous system of the audience by relating to and connecting to those characters and their circumstances. And to the question of how could all this have possibly happened? This sort of anatomy of a miracle? If I’m doing my job well, I’m making it more personal for the audience member and intense. I believe the way to do that is by moving back and forth between the two worlds.

To answer your question about how we did the diving scene, it was a huge challenge cinematically, because we wanted it to be very, very authentic. As authentic as our weightless scenes were in Apollo 13 where we actually went weightless with the actors. In this case, we couldn’t shoot in real caves. Too dangerous. And there’s virtually no recorded doc footage of them in the cave, because it’s too dark, too murky, too hard…nothing was recorded. So, this got down to lengthy conversations with the divers looking at maps, looking at schematics that’d been done when the caves were dry and not flooded, and some photographs and understanding where those key turning points were, those most dangerous, most challenging dens, and places where they would narrow, to the point where [the divers] would actually be stopped and have to wriggle through. My job was to understand this and our production designer Molly Hughes had to build so that we could create that. Then the cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and I had to figure out how to shoot it. Same for everything else. This is a great blessing. We had Rick Sampson and Jason Mallinson…two of the actual rescue divers, with us most of the time. To help us understand, on a real granular level, what it entailed. What tools were used to try to solve a problem? What if they couldn’t get any of their tools and they have to improvise a solution, and none of that was in the script. That all came through this research, but they were also there to train the people we thought were going to be the stunt doubles.

DEADLINE: What do you mean, thought?

HOWARD: Well, then the actors got involved. Led by Viggo Mortensen, followed closely by Colin Farrell, they started swimming with the real guys, and they got so good, they came to me and said we’ll shoot Saturdays. We’ll waive turnaround [time]. Wrap us on first unit and put us on second unit. We have learned how to cave dive, which is very, very specific, from the actual guys, and we want to do this. Their leadership by example opened the door for me to shoot it in a very immediate, very personal way, and that could’ve never happened without them volunteering. The whole movie is about volunteering. That’s the difference between Thirteen Lives and Apollo 13, where those were trained individuals dedicated to a mission, and they improvised remarkably and made it home. Most of the people we’re depicting in this movie, they did not have to be there. They raised their hands. They thought, if you were Thai, you stopped doing what your business was, you dropped everything. And you came to help. Whether that was cooking or climbing the mountain to try to find an access point so you could lower down to reach the boys that way, or divert the water, all of these remarkable acts of sacrifice like the farmers allowing their rice fields to be flooded and destroyed in the hopes of saving just one boy. Just one boy! It’s so moving.
I’m going on and on because this is the first time I’ve talked about it, but I got to tell you one other little anecdote. You know, it takes place in Northern Thailand. They have a very specific dialect that, of course, I knew nothing about, but learned about very rapidly to support the cast and many people who actually had that dialect as possible. Others would learn it with a dialect coach, just like you would, and we did both, but one woman that we cast, she was in Queensland, living and working there, but Thai, and from the north, and she came in. Had never done much acting before, but was interested. Auditioned, and she was terrific. She plays the spokeswoman for the farmers, and you remember the scene…

DEADLINE: Yes. You mean when she and the other farmers are asked to surrender their harvest by allowing floodwaters to overflow in their fields, because it might buy time for the rescue…

HOWARD: She hears the argument, talks to the other farmers and conveys the message that they’re going to make the sacrifice. Here’s a woman who’s never acted, a rookie. I’m a little bit concerned about her. We started rolling the camera, and in the tape, she gets unbelievably emotional. It’s so organic and truthful. I immediately said to Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, our cinematographer… get a close-up on her right away. I did one more take. She just nailed it. It was so good and it rang so true. I was amazed that this woman, who’d never acted before, had achieved this moment of such truth and emotion. I talked to her about it, and she said, well, I’m from the region, and I was only a half hour away when all that was happening, and we were all praying. Now, this is a woman who’s a professional, an academic. Yet she grew up working in the rice fields. Her parents were from that region, and that’s what they did, and she so utterly understood what was at stake for the people there. It’s just a great tribute to the Thai people and the Thai spirit, the way they rallied around just a faint possibility that they could save even one of these kids.

DEADLINE: Billy, you worked closely with the young actors who played the kids stuck in the cave. And the coach. The reaction to the latter initially was, how could he let those kids go in the cave with the storm approaching, but in the movie it seems clear those boys would not have survived without him. He kept them meditating and calm, even as they went without food for over a week.

RUETAIVANICHKUL: The coach kept the kids remaining calm by getting them to practice meditation. He was ordained as a monk for several years, and I think he went into the monkhood for a while after that. I worked directly with the cast of kids. Most are non-actors, just only one or two have experience in acting. So, what Ron taught me to do is to prepare them to be able to get into the character and have a workshop to get the sense of community among them.
The other thing is that because we are shooting this film with a lot of extras, we need to make sure that everything looks right on the screen, because this film has a lot of cultural artifacts and also cultural aspect that we are really care about. The film is set in the north of Thailand, which has cultural aspects that are different from Central Thailand, and we wanted to make sure that we are authentic about this. You can spot the dialect of the parents, who don’t speak like the government officials. So, that is something that we would like the audience to know, that we really care about these details.

In Thailand, we have the sense of Buddhism, we think a lot about karma, and in that way, so many contribute because they just would like to make something good and pass on the good energy. Everybody was so into the thinking that we must do anything that we could do just to ease the situation. The farmers who made the decision to sacrifice their own crops, which they work on all year long, and that might mean that they are not going to have anything to eat or to live on for another year. But they decided to do that the other way anyway, because the fact was, we couldn’t complete this mission by any single department or any single organization. We are selfless and we are contributing to the mission with anything we could do, including from the Navy SEALs divers and also the other Thai divers and also the Thai engineer, the farmers and also the government officials. We try to do our best just to come together and make sure that we think about every possible way to make this rescue come true.

DEADLINE: At one point there were several competing Thai cave rescue movies. Aside from that woman, there’s a scene where a guy walks through the wet forest, seeking out a local. He is Thai but from the U.S. and an expert on drainage. His idea was, divert water running down the mountain away from the holes that were filling the cave. Was there a specific heroic thing that made you feel, who cares who else might tell this story, I’m in?

HOWARD: It started with the number of story twists and turns when I read Bill Nicholson’s original script, and then it went even further as I began to interview people to understand more details, like the one you just cited, which was not originally in the script. It was through talking with that engineer, Thanet Natisri, who lives in Illinois now, and is a water engineer. He volunteered, just showed up. Deputized locals and had a huge impact, and by all accounts, talking to the divers, they all agreed that it really mattered. It just kept deepening. We would learn about a pinch point, and well, what does it mean to go through the pinch point? Well, the divers would start to describe it, and I said, well, that’s cinematic. That’s emotional. That’s intense, and who the hell would understand that unless you could just see it? My job was to stage it and share it in as much detail as possible, and yes, recognize to the extent that I could in a movie that just runs a little two hours, the scope of the volunteerism. Beyond even the dive team that was certainly at the epicenter.

The commitment of the Thai Navy, the risks that the local politician was taking, the quick, dynamic decisions with no assurances of what the outcomes would be. It just was an amazing story. I felt like, I’m going to learn a lot, making this movie. I’m going to come to understand Thai culture better. I know a little bit about scuba diving, but nothing about cave diving. I’ve done a fair amount of diving, but the only caving I’ve done was, you know, in dry circumstances. I found it claustrophobic as hell. I couldn’t imagine what these guys do, and also, they’re hobbyists. Now, they’re elite, but no one pays them to do any of this. No one does. There’s no sports. You know, you got people from the tech world. You’ve got a construction guy, a retired firefighter. They’re passionate, they’re dedicated, and they’re the best in the world, but it was not what they do for a living.

DEADLINE: Apollo 13 was a major theatrical release. As is happening more and more, Thirteen Lives will have a week in theaters, but most will see it globally on Amazon. What do you think of the strategy?

HOWARD: Well, it’s MGM and Amazon’s strategy. I have a voice, but it’s not my decision. Of course, I love the big screen presentation, and they’ve pledged to do as much of that as they can. But there is something, as it relates to this specific project, that I’m excited about, which is their global reach. When this goes out to the world, in some ways, it’ll kind of rhyme with the experience that people had [in the rescue], in sort of understanding what the outcome of this story was going to be through…and being glued to their TV sets. I recognize that that’s going to be an exciting day to look forward to for me, and again, look, the themes, humanity, what’s revealed culturally through this story is something I hope a lot of people see. In an utterly honest, unsentimental way, it can remind us all of what it takes to bring out the best in us, what that looks like, and the way that that needle can be moved. I’m just hoping that maximum number of people find it worthwhile to watch our movie, and I really hope they enjoy it.

DEADLINE: Will it be eligible for awards season?

HOWARD: That’s part of the strategy, for sure.

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