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In late 2018 — not long after John Volanthen and I helped free the 12 boys of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach, Ekkaphon Chanthawong, from the flooded caves in the Tham Luang cave system in July of that year — producers P.J. van Sandwijk and Gabrielle Tana approached me about making a film about the rescue mission. At the time, we had no idea who the director would be or what the screenplay would look like, but we began to talk to a script researcher for what would eventually become Thirteen Lives.
Once screenwriter William Nicholson was on board, director Ron Howard got involved and MGM decided to fund it. My diving partner and I had a Zoom call with Ron in which he shared his vision of what he wanted, and it was in September that Ron telephoned to say he’d gotten an actor to play me and asked if I would be prepared to spend time with him. That actor was Viggo Mortensen, whom I also met on Zoom before the film began shooting in Australia in March 2021.
I was on set for rehearsals and six to seven weeks of filming, while my colleague Jason Mallinson (who was played by Paul Gleeson in the movie) was there for the whole shoot period. As technical advisers, we were tasked with teaching the principal actors — who also included Colin Farrell and Joel Edgerton — how to dive like us. For Viggo, I had to teach more than just diving, as he was in the lead role — playing me.
Jason and I are detailed, driven people. That’s why the rescue was successful. Likewise, on set we paid enormous attention to how the actors would look because the gear was unfamiliar to them. When we didn’t think something looked accurate, we took great care in correcting it, and we made sure that the actors were not just familiar with the diving equipment but also looked and felt comfortable in their gear and were able to move like us by the end of their training sessions. Since their art is acting and taking direction, we would give them directions on diving. We weren’t instructing them; rather, we would demonstrate to the cast, and they would follow us and pick it up quite quickly. They might not know what they’re doing, but they could certainly look the part. Convincingly, they appeared as if they had amassed 40 years of cave-diving experience in that environment.
Because of our training, the actors were confident enough to want to do their own diving. There were stunt divers on hand, of course — and I could have been one myself. But it was much more real having the actors do their own scenes underwater, with the camera dwelling on their faces to get their emotions rather than relying on a back or side shot. As a result, those images of the cast in the cave look completely authentic — I’ve heard no criticisms of the diving’s authenticity, and I think it’s the best depiction of diving in a Hollywood film.
The production schedule was not in a linear sequence. What I call the “money shot,” which was finding the Thai soccer team still alive in the cave, was in fact the first scene that was filmed. John Volanthen (played by Farrell in the film) and I first came up into the chamber together, and that was really the first time that they’d been shown diving underwater. I remember the cameraman captured an amazing shot where all four faces of the divers were looking into the camera at the same time.
The next sequence of shots was through the tight passages in the re-created Tham Luang cave, and the cast hadn’t yet gained full familiarity with the cave’s topography. If they look scared, it probably was because they were. After that, in the bigger and wider tunnels, it was all plain sailing from there for the crew. The actors presumably looked more confident and the passages were easier.
When we were in Thailand [for the rescue], there was clearly a lot of pressure. We were very focused and shut out from all the press. We ignored everything except for the task at hand, which was concentrating on how we could rescue the boys. During the filming, there was a much broader outlook on everything that was going on. I’d never been on a film set before, so it was fascinating. The local crowd scenes outside the cave in particular felt viscerally real in terms of chaos and tension.
We’re not particularly emotional or fearful people, and that is one of the reasons, along with our experience, why we were the most suitable divers to do the rescue. But when the actors who played John and myself came out of the cave after finding the boys, and then performed the elation we experienced upon completing the rescue mission, it brought emotion out of us because it was completely real. There was joy everywhere, permeating the rescue effort to the whole procession down the cave’s steps in the rain. There must have been 250 extras and actors there — that scene brought home all that we had accomplished.
Being expert divers, at the time of the actual rescue, we knew that everybody around the world was looking at us through the eyes of the news. For onlookers and people watching us on television, I don’t think they were really engaged with the specifics of our actions, because we made it look easy. Thirteen Lives depicted how high the risks actually were.
I have been involved in many projects about the 2018 rescue in Thailand: this film, a documentary and my own book about the mission. I had been tapering off on my diving, actually from before the rescue — I was even questioning why I chose cave diving as my life’s commitment; those events justified what I have spent my lifetime devoted to. And since Thirteen Lives, I’ve begun to reconnect with cave diving and have been going more and more, being able to once again get away from all the noise.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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