The first feature film about the dramatic cave rescue of 12 young boys and their coach premieres this month

Even though Netflix and some Hollywood heavyweight producers have been lining up to tell the inspirational story of the young football players and their coach trapped in a cave in northern Thailand, the first movie to hit cinemas or widescreen TVs is by a small lm production house in Bangkok.

Director Tom Waller, who runs De Warrenne Pictures, was hooked by the story and its cinematic possibilities when he saw the story break on TV. “Like everyone else on the planet, I was following the news with much anticipation. I realised that as a filmmaker with Thai nationality, I was in a unique position to tell this story from a unique perspective without the need to wait for lengthy government permissions, which a foreign filmmaker would have to do," he says.

That’s how and why The Cave, which hit the international film festival circuit in October and will be shown in Thai cinemas in late November, beat the big boys to the box office. For a film about rescue divers overcoming gigantic odds that triumph seems like poetic justice.

Indie filmmakers can never compete with Hollywood for bloated budgets, big-name actors and technical razzmatazz, so they have to find more ingenious stories to tell. In the case of this film, Waller recruited some of the volunteer divers from the rescue mission, like Jim Warny from Belgium, to reprise their roles in front of the cameras.

Warny is an experienced cave diver. When he saw the news on TV that the former Thai Navy SEAL, Saman Kunan, lost his life when delivering air tanks to the boys, he thought it was high time to join the rescue effort. At the beginning of the mission, he was a support diver. Soon he was called into service to carry the boys’ sedated coach through a twisting passageway as well as administer doses of ketamine that would keep them from waking up and panicking.

By focusing the film on such real-life heroes, who received little press and remain largely unknown, the director and the screenwriters, Don Linder and Katrina Grose, are bringing a fresh perspective to what was one of the most well-covered news stories of 2018.

Those events unfolded in June 2018 when 12 boys and their coach from the Wild Boars football team wandered into a cave for an after-school break before heading home for dinner. They had explored the cavern before. Out of the blue, the skies burst open and the cave was inundated by a flash flood, forcing them to flee to higher ground.

That’s when the international rescue effort began in earnest. “Although the story is embedded in a Thai narrative, the film features an international cast. In the same way that this rescue was a mix of participants from all over the world, I’ve tried to match that variety by using a diverse ensemble cast, which includes people from the rescue as well as trained actors to portray certain roles," says Waller.

The film was shot over the course of 30 days between October 2018 and early 2019. The filmmakers used settings in and around Tham Luang Cave, while parts of Ireland and Wales served as other locations. When Linder, who had co-scripted the screenplay for Waller’s previous film, The Last Executioner, which won the kingdom’s biggest film award for best screenplay, visited the Thai location for the first time, he says: “No matter what I had seen on TV or in photos, nothing captured how dangerous and seemingly crazy it was for the 13 to climb down a slippery escarpment and enter the tiny entrance to the cave."

Since shooting under those conditions was impossible, production designer Pongnarin Jonghawklang stepped into the brink to bail out the film shoot. On the fringes of

Bangkok, he found a derelict sports complex with a pool of Olympic proportions. There the production team constructed a set that resembled the rocky ledge where the boys and their coach were found. Once the pool was flooded, the camera crew and actors waded into the deep end at night to shoot the diving scenes.

The story may have played out like a movie-in-the-making, but scripting such a scenario, where the uplifting climax is a foregone conclusion, pushed Linder’s creativity to the max. “There was a huge challenge in writing the script. That was, how to create and maintain dramatic tension when everyone already knew how the story unfolded and how it ended," he says.

Even if the viewer knows the script’s final destination already, the first movie version of The Cave, fraught with white-knuckle suspense, is a journey, by turns harrowing and heart-wrenching, that’s well worth taking.

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Published 22nd November 2019