The world held its breath in 2018 as a team of divers attempted to save 12 young soccer players trapped miles underground in a water-filled cave. The heroic rescue effort succeeded against all the odds, becoming an immediate target for an onscreen retelling.
First out is The Rescue, a documentary from the makers of the Oscar-winning free climbing documentary Free Solo, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and her husband and co-filmmaker Jimmy Chin.
“It had every challenge in terms of nonfiction possible — there’s no footage, everything’s dark, no one’s cooperating, it’s across the world, and it’s a pandemic,” Vasarhelyi told IndieWire.
As if that weren’t enough, there was a complex rights issue to untangle. The somewhat unseemly fight for the storytelling rights of the actual people involved began almost as soon as the boys were all safe.
According to the The New York Times, Vasarhelyi and Chin were initially attached to direct for Universal, which planned a dramatized version based on the soccer players’ stories. But rights to those stories disappeared after the Thai government got involved. Netflix scooped the stories up and is currently shooting its own miniseries in Thailand.
This meant that they were barred from interviewing any of the boys or their families on camera.
Instead, Vasarhelyi and Chin built their film from international news feeds and local Thai footage, much of it tricky to source.
READ MORE: Their Thai Cave Rescue Film Was Done. Then 87 Hours of Footage Arrived. (The New York Times)
National Geographic, which financed The Rescue, held the rights to the British amateur divers who had played a leading role in the rescue.
Through the divers, they learned that the Thai Navy SEALs who were on the site for the two-and-a-half-week rescue effort had used GoPros, but that no one had seen the footage.
“It triggered this two year quest to collaborate with the Thai Navy SEALs to try to get access to their footage and also to include their point of view in the story, because they clearly played a very important role,” Vasarhelyi told NPR. “When I got my second vaccine, I got on a plane to Thailand, and we approached the SEALs again and again, and they finally said, yes. And what we were anticipating [was] maybe 90 minutes, maybe a few usable shots. [But] they had 87 hours of footage and it was extraordinary.”
What they couldn’t find, the filmmakers recreated with the aid of the British divers in a tank at Pinewood Studios.
“That’s the whole thing about nonfiction, you’re trying your best to allow audiences to experience what actually transpired. It was very strange not knowing that until we were at Pinewood, where the real divers were saying ‘This is actually what happened,’ and ‘No, it’s not like this, it’s like this,’ “ Vasarhelyi told IndieWire. “The reenactments allowed us this opportunity to actually experience it emotionally.”
READ MORE: ‘The Rescue’: How the Filmmakers Brought the Thai Cave Rescue to Life Without Being There (IndieWire)
As it happens, the British divers, John Volanthen and Richard Stanton, signed a separate deal to make a feature film of the event. Directed by Ron Howard and starring Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, and Joel Edgerton, Thirteen Lives is due to release in April 2022.
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Ahead of the documentary’s UK release, Stanton and Volanthen appeared at a special screening in London.
During the event, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Stanton said that it was “quite cathartic” seeing the film and people knowing what they’d gone through at the time. “The whole point of doing this operation was to show what was involved in getting those boys out,” he said. “In many ways, the media made it look too easy, because every day the news bulletins would be ‘four boys out’ and that’s all that would be told. And we wanted to tell the deeper story of how that happened.”
Volanthen said that during the rescue the team deliberately ignored the media. “That was quite an important thing — we just focused on what we did well, which was the diving,” he said. “So when we came home, I was certainly very surprised at the amount of attention that we received. But the reality of it is, we’re cave explorers and our passion, as the film showed, is the caving, cave diving and going to new places. And for me, that continues.”