Thirteen Lives : Q&A with Director Ron Howard

Thirteen Lives : Q&A with Director Ron Howard
Synopsis : Thirteen Lives recounts the incredible true story of the tremendous global effort to rescue a Thai soccer team who become trapped in the Tham Luang cave during an unexpected rainstorm. Faced with insurmountable odds, a team of the world’s most skilled and experienced divers — uniquely able to navigate the maze of flooded, narrow cave tunnels — join with Thai forces and more than 10,000 volunteers to attempt a harrowing rescue of the twelve boys and their coach. With impossibly high stakes and the entire world watching, the group embarks on their most challenging dive yet, showcasing the limitlessness of the human spirit in the process.
Rating:PG-13 (Some Strong Language|Unsettling Images)
Genre: Drama
Original Language: English
Director: Ron Howard
Producer:Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Karen Lunder, P.J van Sandwijk, Gabrielle Tana, William M. Connor.
Writer: William Nicholson
Release Date (Theaters)  Limited
Release Date (Streaming)
Distributor: United Artists Releasing
Q&A with Director Ron Howard 


Q: Since it’s been awhile since you wrapped and you finished it, how does it feel to watch it? Is it like, “Oh, I should have done something different”? 

RH: I haven’t quite reached that phase for me yet. But that will come if I watch it again a couple years from now or something. 

But no, what I really appreciate is the spirit of the production. I see it in all of these scenes. Most everything was written, but there was a lot that was just discovered along the way through research, through understanding procedure itself — the mechanics of it, the support system, the logistics. Everyone was working so hard. We tried to do what we could to create the environment, and then everyone worked so well to inhabit it in the most authentic way. But the two things worked hand in hand. 

An example of that is, the very first thing that we had to shoot for logistical reasons — because it doesn’t make much sense creatively because there’s so much pressure on this scene — is the scene where Rick and John arrive and actually see the boys for the first time. That wound up being the very first thing we had to shoot. 

We’d been training, working with the boys, rehearsing them. None of them were professional actors. I needed kids from the northern region because the dialect is so different, and I knew there’d be a great deal of improvisation amongst the boys. So I knew we had to get authentic boys. We worked closely with them. I had a lot of help from our Thai co-producers through our Covid period of isolation and then on into our couple of weeks of rehearsal, and finally this day of shooting. 

But still, we couldn’t be sure what it was going to be like, between Molly Hughes’s [production designer] caves, and what Viggo and Colin had learned about the diving from the real guys, Rick Stanton and Jason Mallinson, were there dealing with their dive equipment. The boys were so prepared and so inhabited these characters by then that we did our very first take and it’s in the movie. Viggo came up to me and said “It’s like we don’t have to act with these boys.” They’re just there and the cave is here and our gear was with us. I think in a lot of ways that set the stage and established the tone and the way we were going to work every single day of the shoot, which is create the environment and try to bring it to life, with as much knowledge and insight as we could. 

I never had a crew or a company complain less on a movie. And it was pretty rough. It was cold. It was Australia, but we were getting to the time of year where it was starting to be chilly, and everyone was wet, whether we were in the caves or out there in our fake movie rain. People who began to reach that point where they would normally bitch and moan, all they had to do was remember what people had really done and really gone through to make this story possible for us to tell it. I think we all respected the fact that what the people who lived this gave us is this fantastic object lesson in what is possible. I think we all felt a large measure of responsibility, but also it became fascinating to try to understand it and share it. 

So when you ask me my reaction to it, I’m sortof beat for beat very very happy with the way the details found their way into these scenes and informed things. 

Q: How closely were you following the story when it was in the news? Did it capture your imagination at the time? 

RH: I was aware. My wife, Cheryl, was one of those people who were really glued to it and knew more about it, and was filling me in on it. I certainly was aware, and relieved by the outcome. I felt that dread that all this sounds like an impossible scenario, and then was relieved by the outcome. No idea what the strategies were. 

When I read Bill Nicholson’s screenplay I was surprised in the very best kinds of ways. But I immediately started looking things up just to verify that he wasn’t just making a bunch of stuff up here. I found that his research was fantastic. Sure, we continued to learn more, and I knew we would. I knew we could bring more detail and dimension to other plots beyond the divers and that we would do all of that work. But I really appreciated the way he captured the essence of the story, the tough decisions that he made — long before I was involved — about what to leave out and what to focus on. It was a tremendous jumping-off place, but it remained our bedrock throughout. 

It was great, it was fascinating. Things like the village elder splitting the bamboo — that wasn’t in the original script. But then I was looking at Thanet, the real Thanet [Natisri] in saris [in] photos, iPhone footage and stuff like that that he sent us after I had had a chance to interview him. I said “What’s with the pole, the bamboo?” and he explained the whole thing. I immediately said, “Well, it’s in. We have to do that.” 

It was great, because our guy who was playing the elder [Nophand Boonyai ] is from Bangkok, he’s not from the north, so he was having to do an accent the whole time. He’s like an old rocker or something, and yet when the props came out to split the bamboo, the prop team was getting ready to show him how to do it and he just kindof waved them off and just — [gestures]. 

Q: You talk about reading the script and searching for authenticity, getting all the details right. But there’s more than that, right? Because it’s not a documentary. 

RH: Well, I knew there had already been a five or six-hour series that Thai PBS had done, but the BBC had also jumped on it and embellished it. NOVA did a portion of it, Nat Geo [National Geographic] had an hour of it that they had done. 

Then Jimmy [Chin] and Chai [Vasarhelyi] I knew were making a documentary [“The Rescue”] because one of our producers was producing both. I knew Jimmy and Chai didn’t really want us to see what they were up to, and I didn’t see their film until ours was done. But when I did see it, I thought they did a fantastic job, and I felt like the two were companion pieces if you’re really interested in this story.

The thing that I felt about it going into it. And there were other scripts being developed, and there’s a miniseries version of it [“Thai Cave Rescue”] that can be seen on Netflix. I’m all for as many versions of this story getting out there as possible.

Q: What is it about the story? 

RH: It’s this international group coming together, putting aside all their differences, and it’s not entirely smooth or pretty. But the Thai government did a tremendous job, without ever abdicating responsibility, of making it possible for outsiders to come in and provide some support, and there was this commitment. It’s what our governor character [Governor Narongsak, played by Sahajak Boonthanakit] said: “It’s for the love of the boys.” And that commitment was there. 

The interesting thing to me was that almost everyone who was on the inside of this — whether they were up on the mountain trying to drain the water away, or –. By the way: a lot of other things going on up there that didn’t ultimately move the needle, but people were up there doing a lot of work trying to find cave systems down into it. There was a tremendous amount of volunteers, and of course those farmers making those sacrifices which is absolutely what happened. 

What struck me — not on my first couple of reads, but after a while when I began talking to people who had been involved — [was that] no one thought there was going to be a triumphant outcome. And they were still there. And so many of the people — such a high percentage of the people who really did make a difference in the rescue — didn’t have to be there. They were volunteers. They set a remarkable example of what is possible. And that’s really what drove me. 

Sometimes on my script I’ll write a kind of simple sentence or a phrase or something for myself. For “Apollo 13” [1995], the more I learned about it, on my script I put “Just show it.” When I was doing “Parenthood” [1989], I [wrote] “Greatest sitcom ever told.” On this one, it was “Anatomy of a Miracle”. Because everyone involved felt like something beyond — whether they were religious or not — kindof had to have happened. Things had to come together in a particular way to have realized this outcome. And while they all took pride in their role, each and every one of them, none of them take responsibility. 

Q: The story is so much bigger than any of the individual characters. The story is driving it, not the characters. What was the process like of directing the characters to keep their performances at a certain level so they didn’t overwhelm the story? 

RH: Well, we certainly wanted to avoid overt sentimentality, or forced sentimentality, because we knew there was a lot of emotion there, and it didn’t have to be pushed forward or thrust on the audience. 

I think in my recent years, the last seven, eight years of working on documentaries, those also informed my sensibility a little bit in and around things like that and what can register for an audience in a different way, a more honest way, and often, a simpler way. Also, a lot of it was just inspired by the individuals. 

What a year Colin Farrell has had, look at the range of characters he’s played. But there’s a reason he’s this guy: because he spent some time with John Volanthen, talking to John Volanthen, hanging out. John is a very unassuming guy, and Colin inhabited that to the point where John, who’s a Spartathlon runner — they run 120 miles, mimicking the initial Olympics in Greece — John Volanthen runs those. Colin decided that he would run a marathon. He trained and trained and trained. 

I think he also felt like there was a message here, there was something calling him for a reason beyond the movie and that job that he was playing this character, and it did mean a lot to him. Then I found out that there was a marathon in Brisbane that he wanted to run, on a Sunday. We were shooting Monday. I said “I don’t want to stop you from running your marathon, Colin, but you know how tight this schedule is and I’m not going to be able to take it easy for you.. Not only can I not give you the day off, but it’s a pretty f***ing hard scene that we’re going to do.” This was swimming, but it was also lugging those tanks over to the cave, and all that. 

Well, he ran the marathon, finished it, was very happy with himself. He was in really, really bad shape on Monday. He tried not to show it, but man, he was suffering. I was kindof chortling a little to myself. But he did both things: he ran in the marathon and did his work on Monday. 

Rick Stanton and Jason Mallinson were our technical advisors. John and Chris [Jewell] couldn’t be there in person; they were both working and had family obligations that prevented them from going to Queensland, which is where we shot most of it. But Rick and Jason could come and they did. When Viggo, who’s good in the water and experienced, and Colin — they’d been certified before but they all got re-certified on their own before they ever came, and went through quarantine and went through our certification. We didn’t have a long time. We had two or three weeks for them after quarantine before we started shooting, and a couple of weeks with the kids and the other actors. 

But they’d started training. Rick — and John, from afar — and Jason had been very helpful to Molly Hughes in terms of helping us understand, after we looked at the specs, which portions of the cave were the most challenging, the most threatening to the operation, the most difficult to navigate. Those were the sections that Molly replicated. We built four different tunnel systems and three different chambers, and kept sort of doubling things up and moving around. 

Once Rick and Jason dived those real caves, they couldn’t believe how real it was. But they were also tricky, because more often than not, they were just a tunnel, about the length of the theater here. So the guys had to learn not only to look like they understood cave diving, but they really needed to be functional from a safety standpoint, and they did all that work. 

Then Viggo was the first to come to me — and Colin [in league] with him — and said “Look, I don’t want to be doubled because this diving is so particular, and I’ve learned the technique and I want there to be consistency in it, and so much of my character [is] played out underwater. I want that to be my performance.” I said “Well, that’s great, Viggo, I understand. Man, I respect it. But we’re not scheduled for that, and I’m not sure it’s safe anyway. And I hadn’t planned for that. I had planned for you to do a lot of diving, just the design shots for you to be in, but not that.” And he said “Well, I really would like you to work it out if you can, and I will show up on Saturdays. The minute you’re done with me on the dialogue unit, send me to the water unit and I’ll do it.” And I think everyone else all confirmed it. 

Well, once our safety people and our second unit team did confirm that they were fine, they were going to be very confident and safe, we worked it out. And lo and behold, we did what we could do, but mostly they just extended themselves and they did it all. They did every single shot. 

Q: The film was beautiful and inspiring, and at times it was really hard to watch. The scene where the diverse were preparing the boys, it was really challenging. 

RH: I’ll tell you about that. So much of the movie — again, it was there, it was explained, but we experienced it as we were going along in our own way. Again, this was really thoroughly prepared. Bill Connor, the first AD and also one of the producers of the film, is great about this. He’s so organized. All the background people, they weren’t people just showing up on the day. They were people who had learned the task, whether it’s rolling up or unrolling the hose, working the pumps, and cooking, it was great. We had all of these scenarios, these little vignettes, that we were basically borrowing from the news footage that we had running.

I build a style reel and I have it running constantly in the production office, and the art department and my office, with the sound off, non-stop. Then I ask all the department heads to put all of their research visuals just up on the walls, just color [photocopies] — especially heading to the bathroom and the kitchen because that way I know people will really see [them]. So assume we have a shared aesthetic, a sense of what’s truthful and what’s honest. And we begin working toward that. 

Now one of the things that we needed to do was put a stunt person in the rig and have Jason and Rick show us what was entailed. How much of it were we going to shoot? What dd it really look like? How long did it take? They did it with one of the doubles for the kids under water, with two professional divers. Both were women, about the right size. So they performed this process, Jason leading them through this and tying and clipping and all of it. The stunt person was awake, obviously. 

But I watched it and it was emotional. We all watched it, we watched it play out. And I said “We have to show all of this.” It does break your heart. Then when we got to the editing room, I still wasn’t certain we were really going to use it all. James Wilcox, our editor, felt exactly the same way. James was nominated [for an Academy Award] today, and so was Sayombhu [Mukdeeprom, cinematographer]. It made me very, very happy today, because their work was so meaningful. 

One of our big challenges [was] so much of this was about our having seven different dives, and three of them with the boys, and how did we differentiate them? The first one was entirely about process, and understanding how harrowing, exhausting and grueling it was. The second one was more about media, and the outsiders not really knowing what was going on and what was entailed and how difficult it was. And the third one was all about the encroaching weather and the race against time. 

James did a great job of helping to lead that process of really understanding what each of these scenes could deliver and how much that density we could maintain throughout. 

Q: When taking on a true story, what are some of the most difficult and daunting tasks pertaining to the  narrative structure? 

RH: In this case, Bill Nicholson made a lot of the important decisions on his own. He’s had a lot of experience, and so have I. It varies because for me, this fell into line with “Apollo 13”, in a funny way with “Cinderella Man” [2005] which was more of a TikTok. It literally is, try to understand it and show it in as particular a way, as specific a way as possible because it’s one of those stories [that], if it hadn’t really happened, you’d never believe it. So therefore, you need to show how it really did happen, and that’s part of what was so engaging. 

Other times, you’re dealing more with themes and the values that the real event offered you. As my friend Peter Morgan, who — I’ve done two of his projects, “Rush” [2013] and “Frost/Nixon” [2008]. “Rush” was another one, almost like a TikTok. How did that conflict between those two characters really unfold? But as Peter said, “You know, you have to make the decision. You’re always trying to convey the truth of the story as you understand it. You always recognize that it’s your interpretation. The audience has to recognize that, too, and it’s running through a filter. But sometimes you have to lie to find that truth and to express that truth.” 

In this case, again, we stayed very close to the facts because they’re so mind-blowing. But while I knew that there were documentaries that had existed and would exist, I did feel like it was very worthwhile because scripted narrative dramatized using cinema, it does something else. It drops the audience in alongside in a very granular, impersonal, and therefore emotional way. I think it creates a pathway of empathy. It’s just a different kind of experience. The eighth grade actor in you uses the camera and the editing and the cinematics and music of it the right way, and you’re creating another kind of an understanding. 

Q: Can you talk about directing underwater?

RH: Well, it sure changed from the “Splash” and “Cocoon” days. [laughter] 

In those days, I would have to be underwater, and Darryl Hannah and Tom Hanks didn’t have masks on. I would have to physically take them, lead them to an inverted tank that we had buried in the bottom of the ocean with waves, go in there, blow the water out with my oxygen, so I could talk to them and give them a note. So in that case, it was always about rehearsing up on deck and then going down and hoping that they could remember what shot we were into, and using little boards to write notes and things like that. 

In this case, I never got in the water. Because there was no room, first of all. And second of all, the comm systems going to the divers, they still can’t really understand what you’re saying over a microphone other than “Action”, and you have to repeat that three or four times, and maybe they can hear “Cut”. But the video monitors are great. Those video feeds are fantastic, and it really means that you don’t have to do anything. 

However, in this case, this is more about physically doing everything. They weren’t doing much acting. They were diving, and they were swimming with those kids or a stunt person. Dummies didn’t look good. When we couldn’t safely do it with our actual kids, we did do it with a stunt person. So they always were there, trying to guide a person who was relying upon them through these tight spaces.  

They also became so competent that we began instituting this step in the process where we would do a selfie pass. The lead diver would swim along and hold the mini-cam out, and then we would also do versions where they would do their own point of view [POV] going through. But we also had one of the world’s greatest underwater photographers, Simon Christidis, who is very remarkable. 

So it’s definitely evolved. It’s definitely evolved. But we didn’t rehearse much because again, I wanted a bit of the fumbling and a bit of the struggle. It is more about just do a pass, everybody pops their head up in the tank, and you talk about it. It’s slow. 

I’ve had a lot of experience with underwater stuff, and I’ve always had good luck with it. I found this to be so much more challenging than I expected it to. All those guys who trained and trained, and every time I’d go by and say “How’s it going?” It would always be thumbs up, Ron, no problem. They all admitted later that at some point or another they all felt like they were in real f***ing trouble. They really struggled with it. It was safe, but it was challenging. 

Q: We see the boys go into the cave and we see the water start to go in and we don’t see them for a really long time. In other films there would be some kind of contact with them. Then at the end of the film we see them, and it’s moving because we hadn’t seen them for so long. Was that in the script? 

RH: It was in the script that way, and that was a definite Bill Nicholson idea that I kept defending. Because there were a lot of people that said “Well, shouldn’t don’t we need to at least shoot the material to have?” We didn’t ultimately have the production capacity to shoot extra stuff. The first cut was very, very long, mainly because we played those scenes out in tremendous detail. But we didn’t have time to be shooting extra scenes that we didn’t need. The only thing that I added was taking them deeper into the cave to begin with, which Bill hadn’t written, because I wanted you to see more of the cave before it was flooded. And also get a sense of how much fun they were having going in. 

Q: Could you talk about shooting under the water? 

RG: It was low-50 days, that was first unit. We had about 35 or 40 water unit days that we’re running concurrently. They were staggered so that the actors — and I, when I needed to be there — could work on the weekends. And then we had a couple of weeks in Thailand. One week was a beauty unit, just shooting drones in and around the mountains and catching the different weather systems. Then another week of things like the kids riding their bikes through the rice fields and the towns — which I couldn’t even get to go to, because for awhile we weren’t going to be able to go at all. We saved these scenes that we had to have, and finally we got the green light to go. But there wasn’t time to wait for me to go through quarantine. So the actors were already there, Sayombhu was there, and I had pre-rehearsed those dialogue scenes. There weren’t that many of the dialogue scenes, but we had a really good remote unit, and we got it done right away. 

Q: Did you make your own way into the cave?

RH: No. No, I didn’t get to go to Thailand at all. [The cave] is very tight, it’s pretty passable when it’s dry. But it’s unpredictable. It’s not the most dastardly cave ever that they’ve ever faced, but it was challenging. And the currents kept shifting. It was described to me that most often it would go to zero, where they just couldn’t see anything. Of course, we couldn’t photograph it that way. But it was described to me as like driving through the mountains when a cloud sets in, and you might get little moments where you can see the road and then all of a sudden, zero. That was very much what it was like there. 

Q: What was it like working with real Thai people, and the film was mostly in Thai?

RH: Yeah, there were multiple dialects, which I didn’t know about going into it. Of course, I don’t speak Thai. I had two co-producers who came on initially as translators to help translate the screenplay. I found that if you take academics in the past, if you have academics do it, then when you get actors, they say “Well, this isn’t very conversational. This is not really a scene.” It’s too literal. 

So I needed Thai filmmakers to come in and work on that translation, and they were great. One’s a writer-producer [Raymond Phathanavirangoon], one’s a writer-director [Vorakorn Ruetaivanichkul ].  I deputized them. I said “Please stay with me beyond the set all the time.” They brought so much to it. And Sayombhu the cinematographer is Thai, and he was the second person I hired after AD Bill Bill Connor. I said to Sayombhu, “Look, I’m an outsider, this is a Thai movie in my mind. We’ve got to get this right.” He said “I will be your angel” and he was great. But there were other Thai crew members: in the art department, we found a couple of great production assistants to help us. In the end, I think having them behind the scenes really conveyed to the actors  that it wasn’t just paying lip service. I actually did want them to contribute creatively, to comment on the dialogue, to improvise where helpful, and to challenge it. They brought so much to it, especially the nuances of the spirituality. 

Pattrakorn [Tungsupakul], who plays Buahom the mom, and Kagiay, the dad with the straw hat, they’re professionals, Kagiay is more of a director than he is an actor. But they’re from the north and they brought so much detail, specificity to the religion, about the bracelets and also the nature of the prayers. Because there’s old blended with new; there’s animism and  other qualities in line with Buddhism in that region, and I wanted to get that right, too. So it was fascinating. 

The short answer is that at a certain point, everybody realized that I really wanted their help and I really wanted to try to get that right, and I was able to deputize them and they contributed mightily. It was a real joy. Also, a lot of the actors are very experienced, and a number of them spoke great English. The guy who played the governor [Sahajak Boonthanakit] lived in Brooklyn for 20 years. A couple of the guys were raised in the U.S. or lived a good portion of time in the U.S. So I was also able to say “How we doing?” with them, and take them aside and make them big collaborators. It was really gratifying. 

I was holding my breath on the day we had our press day in Thailand. I wasn’t there, it was remotely done. But the feedback was so positive, and all the cast members were giving us information that “Hey, everybody really feels it’s authentic.” That meant so much to me. 

Q: Thank you. 

Check out more of Nobuhiro’s articles.

Here’s the trailer of the film.


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