‘Thirteen Lives’ cast and crew talk risky aspects of making the film

Thirteen Lives
(From left) Colin Farrell as John Volanthen, Joel Edgerton as Harry Harris and Viggo Mortensen as Rick Stanton in ‘Thirteen Lives.’
Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

When you work with director Ron Howard, he makes sure you’re checked in—even at the riskier moments. That’s what the cast and crew on his latest film, ‘Thirteen Lives,’ says it felt like while they worked on this emotional and compelling true story. 

Thirteen Lives
Director Ron Howard on the set of ‘Thirteen Lives.’Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

‘Thirteen Lives’ follows the harrowing string of events involving the Tham Luang cave rescue in the summer of 2018. In late June and early July of that year, 12 members of a junior association football team (ages 11 to 16) and their assistant coach were rescued after heavy rainfall partially flooded the cave system, blocking their way out and trapping them deep within.

The story is one that made national headlines at the time particularly for the valiant efforts that involved more than 10,000 people, including more than 100 divers, scores of rescue workers, representatives from about 100 governmental agencies, 900 police officers, and 2,000 soldiers. 

Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell lead the ensemble cast as Rick Stanton and John Volanthen— British cave divers who volunteered their skills to help save the group alongside Australian diver and anesthetist Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton) and Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman). 

“I thought I knew a lot about this story, and then once I got involved with the project…there were things that were not really available to the public that were surprising to me,” explains Edgerton, who plays Harry Harris. “Ron [has talked] about the emotionality of the film, and I found it incredibly emotional. And as a side note, I became a father during the shoot. So then it just became more emotional for me in terms of the responsibility and the care of children… Harry took on that risk, and it was a beating heart of the story. We all watched it on the news, and the great thing about this film is that you get to see the points of view of so many different people who all participated and joined in on the rescue, and you learn so many more details.” 

Thirteen Lives
Joel Edgerton (left) as Harry Harris and Thira “Aum” Chutikul (right) as Commander Kiet in ‘Thirteen Lives.’ Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Howard and the cast and crew made it a point to talk to everyone they could who was involved with the rescue in 2018. Through hours upon hours of FaceTime footage, training, and mountains of research, the cave set was built and the cast was then tasked with doing as much of the diving as they could themselves—and for some of them, that was terrifying.

“I’m claustrophobic, so it was a struggle every day. I still vividly remember one of the last stunt dives was one of my last days. I loved this experience very, very much… but my God, I was happy to get out of there,” says Bateman who plays Chris Jewell. ” When I read the script, like everyone, I only knew about 1 percent of what I know now. And what really blew me away and touched me was the detail with every single person involved [and what they] went through. As if we needed any more affirmation of it and what these people did—not just the divers, but every single person—when we go into those caves on the set, there’s something haunting and truly desperate and dangerous in everything. The design was incredible and we spent the whole shoot wet, and cold, and underwater. Even with doing this in these conditions, I still cannot imagine after everything that they did what they did. To be a small part of telling their story is a real honor. But, my God I was happy to be finished.” 

Everything from the dialect of the region, to being true to the riskiest currents of the cave were picked apart by Howard and producers Raymond Phathanavirangoon and Vorakorn “Billy” Ruetaivanichkul. And with keeping the realities of the film on the forefront, that meant involving Thai actors as well. 

“This experience has been great for all of us Thai actors,” explains Popetorn ‘Two’ Soonthornyanakij, who plays Dr. Karn in the film. “The honor to be able to tell our story through Ron’s film…It feels like we had that responsibility to just do a really good job for all of us Thai people. It’s been a great ride and we just enjoy every moment of it.” 

Thirteen Lives
Teeradon ‘James’ Supapunpinyo as Coach Ek in ‘Thirteen Lives.’ Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Other Thai actors involved in ‘Thirteen Lives’ include Sahajak ‘Poo’ Boonthanakit who portrays Governor Narongsak, head of the rescue operation, with Teeradon ‘James’ Supapunpinyo playing Ekkaphon Chanthawong, the team’s assistant coach. Other castmembers span Pattrakorn Tungsupakul, Tui Thiraphat Sajakul, James Teeradon Supapunpinyo and Weir Sukollawat Kanaros.

Ultimately, the cast of the Thai Navy SEALS and the divers from all over the globe were part of the process by detailing the incident. It was then up to the actors to make it look as real as possible, even when stuntmen were supposed to be involved.

“Viggo led the group and said we don’t want anyone to double us, we’re doing it with whatever it takes. And this is what they all did. It helped make the photography fluid and immediate,” explains Howard. The director also went  through the caves and studied aspects, such as currents and visibility. But then through research, the team behind ‘Thirteen Lives’ also learned what was going on up on the mountain with village leaders, and emotionally, the stakes were just as high for them.

“There was so much cinema involved [with] making this a visceral experience for people,” finishes Howard. “It was a huge technical challenge creating the caves. But, we had the advantage of lots of footage and news coverage, and we studied that and broke it down. From talking to the divers, we found the most troubling and dangerous places in the caves. And with everything up on the mountain and with the challenges in the camp, we kept recreating the behaviors that we saw. So, it was an ongoing process of creating the environment and the effort and then attaching the humanity to it. There are many brands of heroism that are demonstrated through the movie, and so, we all took this task on with real pride and a sense of honor.”

Thirteen Lives
Director Ron Howard on the set of ‘Thirteen Lives.’ Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

‘Thirteen Lives’ is open in select theaters for a one-week engagement. The film will drop globally on Amazon Prime Aug. 5.

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