Nat Geo Doc Films Embarks on Thai Cave Rescue Project Directed by Kevin Macdonald (Exclusive)

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Kevin Macdonald

The film — to be produced by John Battsek, P.J. van Sandwijk and Michael Lesslie — has lined up exclusive interviews with the British cave divers who assisted in the rescue.

National Geographic Documentary Films — whose Free Solo was just awarded the best documentary feature Oscar — has greenlit its next feature project, an account of the 2018 rescue of a Thai youth soccer team that had been trapped inside a flooding cave.

Kevin Macdonald — an Oscar winner himself for the 1999 documentary One Day in September, about the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics — is directing the project, which is being produced by John Battsek, who was a producer on One Day, along with P.J. van Sandwijk and executive producer Michael Lesslie. 

The rescue operation, which attracted international attention, saved 12 boys and their assistant coach after they had spent 18 days in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in north Thailand as approaching monsoon rains threatened further flooding. 

The film, which currently has the working title Thai Cave Rescue, will feature exclusive interviews with British cave divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen along with Chris Jewell, Jason Mallinson, Connor Roe, Josh Bratchley and Jim Warny, as well as in-depth interviews with Australian divers Dr. Richard Harris and Craig Challen. Aiming for a 2020 release, the doc will also include interviews with Thai officials and volunteers whose assistance played a critical role in the successful rescue efforts. 

"This rescue mission is more than just a story of hope, it’s a story of humanity coming together," Macdonald said Monday of the project. "This film will represent a full 360-degree view of the crisis, told through unexpected angles and with untold stories."

Added Battsek: "The inherent drama of this rescue captured the attention of the world like few recent events have. As producers, for P.J. and I to now have the opportunity to tell this remarkable story in partnership with the team at National Geographic Documentary Films, who have been responsible for some of the most successful and impactful feature documentaries of recent times, is extremely exciting."

The film originated with Storyteller Productions and its producers van Sandwijk and Lesslie, who approached Macdonald — he also directed the recent documentary about Whitney Houston, Whitney — after the news of the successful outcome of the rescue mission and subsequently secured the rights of the British divers. It also marks the second production in a long-term strategic partnership between Storyteller Productions and Passion Pictures.

"I’ve long admired Kevin MacDonald’s artistic vision and virtuosity when it comes to authentic storytelling," Carolyn Bernstein, executive vp scripted content and documentary films for National Geographic, said in announcing the project. "I’m elated to be working with him, John Battsek and P.J. van Sandwijk to help audiences better understand the complexities of this captivating story."

The Thai rescue has attracted the attention of a number of filmmakers, although to date only one project has completed filming: The Cave, an independently produced Thai feature from Bangkok-based DeWarrenne Productions and writer-director Tom Waller. Others who have been pursuing the subject include producers Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti for Universal Pictures; Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu, working with Ivanhoe Pictures; and God’s Not Dead producer Michael Scott for Pure Flix Entertainment.

National Geographic Documentary Films, which was launched in 2017, saw Free Solo, about Alex Honnold’s rope-free climb up the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan, collect Cinema Audio Society, Motion Picture Sound Editors, Critics’ Choice and Cinema Eye awards in addition to its Oscar. The film made its broadcast debut Sunday night on Nat Geo. Last year, the documentary unit also scored Emmys with two films produced under its banner — Jane, about primatologist Jane Goodall, and LA 92, about the rioting that was sparked in Los Angeles when four police officers, charged with assaulting Rodney King, were acquitted.