Rlurks in an environment where the usual laws of breathing and gravity do not apply. But instead of launching into space, this time he’s diving underwater.
The breathlessly tense Thirteen Lives dramatizes the real-life Tham Luang cave-rescue mission from the summer of 2018, when a dozen Thai soccer players, aged between 11 and 16, and their coach were trapped in a flooded, terrifyingly elaborate cave system. An international rescue effort of more than 10,000 people resulted in every one of them being delivered to safety after over two weeks of careful, tricky planning—though not without lives lost along the way.
Previously adapted into the acclaimed documentary The Rescue as well as a nonfiction PBS series, the true story now gets the full Hollywood treatment, with Howard’s cinematic mastery of tension fitting neatly with his penchant for telling stories of great heroism and sacrifice. In this version, the drama within the caves unfolds at a hair-raising clip as British divers John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Richard “Rick” Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) map out the extremely risky, but necessary, way of saving the boys and coach. Then, equal time is dedicated to life just outside the cave, as the efforts of locals—from family members to government officials to spirited volunteers—prove vital in the mission’s success.
All in all, the film’s crew creates a convincing, pulse-pounding, incredibly detailed recreation of a remarkable global event. We went in-depth with Howard and more key players on how they did it—and why.
Howard and his first A.D. William M. Connor’s initial plan to stage the Thirteen Lives production in Thailand—and shoot at the site of the actual caves—fizzled after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. The filmmaker had already tapped crucial craftspeople in production designer Molly Hughes, prior collaborator on Hillbilly Elegy as well as art director on several Harry Potter installments, and celebrated Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Call Me by Your Name, Suspiria) by the time reality had settled in: They’d need to make the film remotely, building much of the cave from scratch.
In working with Mukdeeprom and location scouts, Howard settled on Queensland, Australia. “The topography really serviced northern Thailand,” Howard says. Overall, Mukdeeprom was a key and close early collaborator for the director, who needed to ensure both the film and those behind it could authentically tell this culturally sensitive, pivotal story. “It is a true event, and more than that, it is a famous event—when the event happened, I followed it very closely and was really moved by it. I started to think about how to turn the event into a movie back then,” Mukdeeprom says. “When Ron sent me a script, I was so excited because the script is what I thought it should be. Actually, I was offered to participate in another film about this event, but the script/idea didn’t speak to me [in the same way]!”
The film is structured evenly between the intense action within the caves and the quieter human drama outside of them, where thousands of volunteers and media from around the world gathered, supported one another, and waited nervously for news. The contrast between the two environments was key to Howard from the outset, particularly since the latter part of the story would center Thai characters like Thanet Natisri (played by Nophand Boonyai), a restaurant owner who spearheads a water diversion effort in the nearby mountains to render the caves more navigable.
The film closely tracks that particular story line, and Hughes replicated the real manmade dam in a vivid Queensland location up in the mountains. “We were able to talk to the real Thanet, and he had so many charts and graphs and spent a lot of time with us,” Hughes says of how she approached designing that dam system. “We simplified it for the camera; it was a much more complex effort on his part than what we grabbed, down to the basics: How to tell this story of the sinkholes and the sandbagging and diverting the water as simply as we could.”
The campsite outside the caves, where families, volunteers, and media gathered, offered constant cinematic discovery for the crew. Hughes says, “I’ve never worked on a project where there were so many photographs of things to look at and to go, ‘Okay, what do we like here? What do we want to incorporate into our set?’” Aided by a Thai design crew including art director Lek Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat, she infused the set with elements like Buddhist monks’ bracelets that she saw in research materials. She pushed to import specific props and structures, like tents and vehicles, rather than reconstruct them. “The Thai actors, when they arrived, couldn’t believe it,” Howard recalls of them seeing the detailed set. “They were nice about it, but they said, ‘We had no idea you foreigners would actually get it so right!’”
This is the part of the film that tracks ordinary, everyday behavior and emotions. Howard’s team trained Thai actors to recreate various tasks: working machinery and pumps, spooling and unspooling hoses, refilling tanks, making food, driving heavy equipment, praying. They rehearsed and rehearsed, based on what they saw in news footage and in the PBS documentary. “I felt like it was going into the background, but much of it was so good that I moved it into the foreground and integrated it with the dialogue scenes,” Howard says. “It allowed for a kind of energy, an authenticity that was really alive.”
“At the beginning I felt very much under pressure,” Mukdeeprom says of tackling the cave scenes. “Then, when I had to deal with everything that came to me, I forgot the pressure—just focus on what needs to be done!” Hughes echoes the sentiment: “There was something about the way we approached it, that it never felt on a large scale. It’s only in watching it afterward, we looked at each other: ‘I can’t believe we did that. We pulled that off.’”
The production approached the caves step by step. There was the palette: Looking at the PBS documentary footage particularly, Hughes and Mukdeeprom collaborated to emphasize colors “that are so vivid in particular to Thailand, and counterbalanced by the grayness and the darkness of the rain and the weather patterns that were moving in constantly,” says Howard. They then received the schematics of the actual caves, which Howard and Hughes pored over in great detail. “Once Molly began to understand what the obstacles were in those caves—whether it was because it was so tight, of the stalactites, or of the current—she began to design the sets with her team and look at my storyboards,” says Howard.
“I could ask Rick or John at any moment, ‘Do you think this would really happen?’” Hughes tells me of her access to the real divers. “They would say yes or no.”
Hughes and her team built four 100-feet-long tanks in an Australian warehouse, backed by a high-tech pump filtration system. They then built tunnels on the ground before lifting them into the tanks and filling the tanks, with about eight different scenarios to match the development of the rescue mission—for example, “a really long flat area that you had to crawl through and you couldn’t get through, unless your tanks were on your side and on your back,” says Hughes.
Then, the lack of visibility underwater gave the crew great freedom in imagining what it could look like: “Sayombhu and his team found ways to light that in a very naturalistic way, so that it does not have that look of artificial illumination in there beyond the headlamps of the divers,” Howard explains. Mukdeeprom adds that he created several tests of underwater photography “until I found a sweet spot to convey what we’d see.”
As Howard captured the set from multiple angles, he had video monitors hooked up to the dive units constantly. “It’s hard to make caves look real—some of it has to do with how it’s lit, but it has to do with those textures,” Howard says of Hughes’s designs. “And yet they have to be durable because we were shooting in each of these sets for weeks, not days, and they had to hold up.” Hold up they did, and Howard credits Hughes’s experience on the elaborate Harry Potter sets, working under Stuart Craig, for how they pulled it off.
This isn’t to say they were going for an exact replica. Hughes gives me one example of how narrative informed the design: The film highlights the way news arrives from inside the cave to the outside camp, often by tracking characters in succession, from one checkpoint (or “chamber,” as they’re called in the film) to the next, in a clearer fashion than it was in real life. Hughes designed the transition between the two areas to be one where it’d end on characters at the top of the stairs, looking down at those they’ll provide updates to—whether encouraging or tragic. “ I liked the idea of literally seeing the news travel,” Hughes says. “I designed the relationship of the edge cave entrance to the camp, so that you could always be looking down on this expanse of camp from the top of the stairs.”
The design and cinematography ended up being so thorough that the digital aspect of recreating the rescue mission wound up fairly minimal. “Far less than I expected,” Howard says. “Molly was able to accomplish so much.”
The tension of the cave scenes is derived primarily from what followed after all this planning and filming—the postproduction process.
In his initial conversations with Howard, supervising sound editor Oliver Tarney—a five-time Oscar nominee known for ticking-clock thrillers like Captain Phillips and 1917—realized he’d need to emphasize the contrasts of the soundscape outside and inside the caves. “That sort of almost frenetic energy [outside] that you would have, it would need to be very, very different to that isolation in a hostile environment that the cave divers and boys were experiencing,” he says.
The everyday chaos of the action at camp, then, sounds more familiar to the average ear—underwater, it’s anything but. “Sound is traveling four or five times faster in water than it does in air, and we also don’t really use our eardrums—making it much harder to discern where the source of a sound is in relation to the person listening,” Tarney explains. “We use that to great effect in the water scenes of the film. We deliberately made everything very diffuse, very divergent, so that it was difficult to ascertain where the source of a sound was to each diver. You’d hear it as an audience member, like the divers would, so that one of your senses was being compromised.”
It’s not dissimilar from how Howard describes the visuals of the underwater scenes: “You’re driving through on a high mountain pass,” constantly hitting cloud systems. It’s disorienting, unclear—and immersive.
Sound is a key element of the film’s most heart-racing sequence, in which the divers realize they must sedate the boys to safely transport them outside the cave. We see that the boys are not conscious but hear that they are still alive. Diver John Volanthen actually did a recording session with the sound crew near the end of the process, in an underwater cave area, with hydrophones placed underwater and microphones on the top (to mimic what you’d actually hear). “Using the cadence of the breathing, whether it’s rapid or very metered, was definitely a tool that we used a lot,” Tarney says. “You have to keep the audience in touch with that and hear that very metered breathing of the boys as they’re going through—so that we are hearing what the divers are hearing, which is that the boys are still alive.”
Finally, there’s the matter of putting the whole movie together. Editor James Wilcox, who cut Howard’s Genius pilot as well as Hillbilly Elegy, had a mountain to climb: At the start of the process, there were 382 hours of footage to sift through. “Honestly, there were days where I felt like, I don’t know how I’m going to be able to look at all of this,” he says.
Wilcox started by considering the film broadly: feelings of peril and hope, the catharsis at the end, the spiritual elements that stretch throughout. “One of the things Ron kept talking about was the ‘anatomy of a miracle,’” Wilcox recalls. “I thought that is a brilliant way for us to take a broad approach into what this movie can be.” This meant focusing closely on Thai culture and spirituality—giving that “miracle” notion some tangible, appropriate context—and prioritizing subjectivity when wading through hundreds of takes of a given set piece.
Wilcox points out that the first 10 or 15 minutes of the film are entirely in Thai, as we get to know the team. “I’m thinking to myself, How am I going to get this translation right? How am I going to get the cultural aspects of this language right? How am I going to get the dialect correct?” Wilcox says. “Not only are these boys from Thailand, but they’re from northern Thailand and some of them are near the Myanmar border. That dialogue is very different from [that of] the people who reside in Bangkok.” So he’d put together cuts after assembling batches of footage, then have a translator brought into the editing suite, and leave her to watch the scenes in a room next door. Out of that, he’d adjust pacing, honor pauses, and bring the characters to complete life: “It’s all starting to feel like, Yes, I connect with the mother. Yes. I understand the frustration with the Thai divers not being able to get to their boys. Yes. I understand the governor and the politics involved with his position.”
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