Director Ron Howard‘s survival drama Thirteen Lives has earned rather rave reviews. The film, based on a true incident from 2018, tells the story of cave divers and Thai authorities as they race against time to rescue 12 kids and their football coach trapped in a flooded cave. Prior to the film’s release, the celebrated filmmaker spoke to HT about what went into the film’s making and why he chose to make a film in a language he can’t speak. Also read: Thirteen Lives review: Ron Howard’s survival drama is the best film of the year
Thirteen Lives is the true story of the Tham Luang Cave rescue, where international cave divers helped rescue the kids and their coach after 18 days in the flooded cave during the dreaded Thai monsoons. Ron says he always aimed for authenticity in retelling the story, which is why the depiction of the Thai side of things was very important. He says, “You can imagine it was a very challenging story, a story that people knew a lot about and yet there was so much else to reveal. One of the things that the rest of the world doesn’t know very much about is what was really going on from the Thai side of things. There was so much reported about the divers and of course, we want to focus on that for all its dramatic value. But, on an emotional level, I felt the more comprehensive and surprising elements could be discovered more in the Thai people.”
Most of the scenes involving the Thai cast are in the native language, a tongue Ron doesn’t understand or speak. Elaborating upon the challenges of directing a film where he doesn’t understand half the dialogue, Ron says, “I don’t speak Thai. I also don’t understand the regional differences. It turns out that the north has a very different dialect than the south. As I began to understand, it was important to cast the key actors from the north. I then deputized them to make sure the language of the script was right. So, the authenticity is something for which I had to depend upon my Thai collaborators.”
The film stars some big Hollywood names as the divers, including Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, Joel Edgerton, and Tom Bateman. But Ron said none of them were treated like stars on set. “I told all the actors, even though they are movie stars, that this is an ensemble movie,” he says, adding, “I felt more responsible to recognize the many contributions from the Thai side. I went in with the awareness to try and avoid those clichés.”
This is not the first time Ron has directed a survival thriller based on a true story. His 1995 film Apollo 13 was about the aborted 1970 lunar mission, where American astronauts were trapped in space. The Oscar winner says he was encouraged to make Thirteen Lives because of the experiences he had while making Apollo 13. “One of the reasons I was willing to face all of the challenges in making this movie was that I had a very positive experience with some of the experiments from Apollo 13. It did give me confidence and I innately, somehow understood how to convey that. Then, I began more like a journalist as much as I could about the facts,” he says.
Thirteen Lives released on Prime Video on August 5 and received overwhelmingly positive reviews, with many calling it one of the best films of the year, and labeling it an Oscar contender for next year.