Ron Howard leads the Thai Cave Rescue in “Thirteen Lives”. Healthy Aging

By LINDSEY BAHR – AP film writer

It may be etiquette not to spoil the ending of a movie, but Ron Howard learned years ago on Apollo 13 that knowing the ending of a story is different than knowing the story itself. And while the rescue of the Thai boys’ soccer team and their coach in 2018 is far fresher in our collective memories, Howard saw a similar opportunity in it.

“You might know from the headlines that things worked out well, but you don’t know what kind of personal struggles the key players could face,” Howard said. “Through dramatization, through good acting and scene making and filmmaking, you start to connect emotionally with the characters in a way that you just can’t with straight documentary or news coverage.”

The story was tailored in a way for a Hollywood film, with its happy ending and straight-forward heroics. The 18-day saga has already inspired a great documentary The Rescue and several other projects. But the reality of producing Thirteen Lives, which is now in theaters in select cities and available on Prime Video Friday, has been an enormously complex and at times harrowing endeavor. Even Howard said it ranked in the “upper quadrant” of his most challenging films.

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It was not only about the difficulties of filming the dangerous cave diving in the narrow underwater corridors of Tham Luang Lang Non, which production designer Molly Hughes recreated for the film, but also about telling the stories of all the people who helped make it the impossible mission successful. As anyone would quickly discover, there were 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 trainer in the cave, the public servants dealing with the crisis, and the thousands of foreign and local volunteers big and small dimensions involved.

“I felt a bit like a conductor,” Howard said. “Logistically it was very complicated. And I felt more accountable for getting this right on behalf of those involved than probably any other film I’ve made based on real events.”

Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, the majority of filming took place in Queensland, Australia, with additional footage in Thailand that Howard had to direct remotely. It was a hurdle for him as he was keen to ensure the story was as authentically Thai as possible. He hired a team of Thai artists and producers to help, including amazing cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (“Call Me By Your Name”).

“I knew that not only was it the right thing to do, but I felt that if we got it wrong, it would be horrible,” Howard said.

Another was producer Raymond Phathanavirangoon, who was tasked with infusing William Nicholson’s screenplay (“Gladiator”) with details and nuances of northern Thai culture, from the right way to style a visiting Burmese monk to the use of prayers and regional ones accents.

“A large part of the film is in Thai, which is quite unusual for a Hollywood film,” said Phathanavirangoon. “We tried meticulously to set the right accents. Even in Thai cinema, you rarely hear people speak with a Nordic accent.”

The focus, of course, is on the British divers, who swam the boys and the trainer out of the cave one after the other. 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 understanding,” Farrell said. “They really are underground explorers. And talking to them, the most astonishing thing was probably the normality they exude. They are not adrenaline junkies.”

Initially, the plan was for the actors to do some of the cave diving and complement it with stunt double work. There would be a dive director in Andrew Allen and an underwater cameraman in Simon Christidis. But at some point during the intense three-week training, the decision was made that the actors would do most of the cave scenes themselves.

“I blame the Viggo,” Farrell laughed. “He was the one who insisted we should do it. But for me it was a penny, a pound.”

Stanton and Jason Mallinson (played by Paul Gleeson in the film) were also on set and often in the water alongside the cast, who coached them through the process. And it was scary at times, especially for Farrell, who said he wasn’t the strongest swimmer.

“It was as safe and controlled as it could be. But a couple of times it was pretty nerve wracking,” Farrell said. “A full-scale panic attack might not have been exactly what I was having, but there were moments of fear, a very real fear. I assume I’m describing a type of panic attack, albeit a mild one.”

But everyone was also aware that their experience was only a small fraction of the life and death of the actual mission. It wasn’t a set, Mortensen said, where people complained about the breakfast burritos, the coffee, or the weather, especially when the real divers were around.

“The demand was great. It was difficult,” said Tom Bateman, who plays diver Chris Jewell. “But we’re only holding up the candle to a few incredible people. Nobody ever complained.”

And in “Thirteen Lives” everyone had a common goal. After all, it’s a rare real-world example of selflessness and global collaboration that didn’t need to be dramatized at all.

“I’m really excited to be a part of it, not just because it’s Ron Howard and it’s a great adventure story and it’s also very entertaining. But it’s an important story,” said Mortensen. “It’s an important example of people doing the right thing together and large numbers of people selflessly volunteering for the right reasons for the common good, and that’s remarkable these days.”

“It should be more common than the selfish, greedy, power-hungry, competitive, dishonest behavior exemplified by many leaders around the world. When you see people not doing that, you say, “Oh yes, people can do that. It is possible.’ Why not more of this? It’s not just any Hollywood movie. It’s like, ‘Oh, that really happened. These people did this together,'” he added. “That’s the best of us.”

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