“The actors certainly all felt fear on several occasions,” said director Ron Howard, who reveals how he filmed the rescue of a Thai football team from a flooded cave, for his latest film.
Thirteen Lives tells the story of the perilous actual rescue of the boys and their trainer, trapped deep within the Tham Luang cave system after monsoon rains arrived in early 2018.
“A few actors later admitted they had a tough time – but no one had to leave the tank and breathe into a brown paper bag,” the Oscar-winning double told the BBC.
The film stars Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman and Paul Gleeson as the divers, who guided the footballers through underwater spaces so tight they could barely squeeze through.
Thai caves are made of limestone, which accumulates water until it is saturated and then flooded – in this case with calamitous results.
The actors had to replicate the conditions endured by real divers.
Bateman plays Chris Jewell, a British computer software consultant and expert cave diver, who was part of the rescue mission. The two stayed in touch on set via text, so the actor could ask her about the role.
“Every day was a challenge for me,” Bateman says, adding that he had scuba-dived before, but never cave-dived.
“I didn’t quite realize how it made you feel…I suffer a lot from claustrophobia and meditated a lot,” he says, of how he coped.
The actor is able to smile about it now, but he describes being stuck underwater for about seven minutes as he guided a diver, who played one of the boys, through a narrow passage.
The boys were heavily sedated for rescue. If they had been awake, it is likely that they would have panicked and injured themselves and the diver.
“I had this amazing stunt double, she just had to lay there and have an actor guide her,” Bateman said. “You think, ‘If this is bad for me, imagine being her – she’s completely helpless.’
Then he got stuck between rocks.
“I remember feeling really hot and thinking, ‘I’m underwater, but I’m sweating,'” he says, watching his pulse race on a wrist monitor. “I could just see my heart rate go up and up and up.
“But the great gift was getting over that… it’s all in your head. It was a really safe environment, so getting over that hurdle of ‘I can do it’ is a small victory every time you do it.”
Howard explains that some of the spaces were so small that despite “great care…you couldn’t get the safety divers in with them all the time.”
Bateman eventually had to break free.
When news of the trapped boys broke, it went around the world and more than 10,000 volunteers rallied to help.
The Thai government assembled a team of the world’s most experienced cave divers, two of whom found the football team alive but very hungry – nine days after they disappeared.
Initial social media reactions to Thirteen Lives have been largely positive. Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin called the film “compulsively watchable” while vocalist Allman Brown added: “Everything on screen serves the incredible true story.”
However, others say it is “not quite as suspenseful or exciting” like some other rescue movies like Apollo 13 or Everest, and reviews from critics won’t be released until later this week.
Although Howard didn’t try cave diving himself, Mortensen really did. Bateman says his fellow actor “found it very calming,” which is similar to how many cave divers say it makes them feel.
Mortensen plays Rick Stanton, a British diver who specializes in cave rescues. Stanton is what you might call a side-thinker, having created a device called a side-mount rebreather, which allowed him to dive to greater depths.
He was one of the film’s advisors, making sure it was as accurate as possible, along with fellow British rescue diver Jason Mallinson.
When the boys became trapped, Stanton flew in from the UK to help, along with British cave diver John Volanthen, played by Farrell.
They were the ones who found the boys alive, and their images of that moment were broadcast around the world.
Having sailed through other world cave rescues, how did this one compare?
“It’s way off the scale,” Stanton told the BBC. “In 2004, I rescued six British soldiers trapped in a cave in Mexico. It was a huge international incident – we had to evacuate them.
“It was just a warm-up act for Thailand. It wasn’t on the same scale at all because Thailand involved boys. The scale of difficulty was not on the same playing field. “
A little disappointed in cave diving after retiring from firefighting in 2014, Stanton – by pure coincidence – had returned to the sport a month before the rescue.
“I don’t even believe in that stuff,” he adds. “But you would think that my whole life had been preparing for this very event.”
Stanton describes Mortensen as “absolutely a water man”, who went swimming before filming and had a basic diving qualification. Mortensen used Stanton’s book Aquanaut: A Life Beneath The Surface as research.
Most of the film was made on a purpose-built set in Australia, which recreated key parts of the torturous route, 2,950m inside the cave system.
Production designer Molly Hughes had slits built in the rock for the cameras, which were then disguised using computer-generated imagery (CGI).
“CGI couldn’t really do much for us,” Howard recalled. He says the actors insisted on doing all their own dives rather than using stunt doubles, which made filming easier.
“But still it eventually became human beings trapped in a tiny space, trying to navigate in and around stalactites. The whole thing was much slower to shoot than expected, and much harder to execute.”
Howard chose this story because, although it was widely covered, he felt there was so much more to know.
“When I read Bill Nicholson’s script, it was one of those situations where I thought I knew more or less what happened. And yet it told me I didn’t know half of it.” , he explains.
Howard is full of praise for the Thai government’s “lack of political interference and unwillingness to put pride aside and open up the situation for volunteers”.
“But make no mistake, they were leading all the time,” he said.
The director was also very clear about the portrayal of the Thai people and their culture in the film.
“I didn’t want to take any risks,” he says. “So there was no version of me accepting that this talented actor from Korea looked good enough to play the part. I just denied that. I was rigid about the casting.”
The film shows volunteers and experts diverting gallons of rainwater from the caves to nearby crops, which local farmers have agreed to sacrifice.
Howard has made numerous documentaries and describes those made on the Thai cave rescue as “gripping”, but adds: “The only thing scripted versions of stories can do is engage the nervous system of audience members. The actors, the dialogues, the camera work and the music…opening up this path of empathy.”
He wants the film to celebrate both the huge rescue effort and international cooperation, as well as “give audiences something exciting, emotional and visceral to experience”.
Thirteen Lives hits theaters on Friday, July 29 and will launch on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, August 5.