'The Rescue' director on Thai cave divers: 'It's like they prepared for thirty years for this one moment' (exclusive)

·5 min read

Watch a trailer for The Rescue

She’s the Oscar-winning co-director of climbing documentary Free Solo, he’s a 50-year-old IT consultant from Brighton.

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and John Volanthen don’t seem like two people who would be working together, but then Volanthen also happens to be one of the world’s best cave divers, who helped mastermind the thrilling recovery of 13 people (a youth football team, the Wild Boars, and their coach) who were trapped underground in Thailand in 2018.

The incident was global news — not least because of Elon Musk’s bizarre interventions — which is spectacularly retold in The Rescue (in UK cinemas now) by John and his fellow amateur divers, as well as members of the US and Thai military. There is also never-before-seen footage from inside the cave and re-enactments of the operation shot especially for the film.

Read more: Miracle in Thailand: All 12 boys and their coach rescued from flooded cave

“There was a fundamental problem in this film in that there was no known footage from within the cave, so we knew from the get-go we had to do re-enactments,” says Vasarhelyi. “[They] proved to be incredibly important to us, because John and [colleague] Rick [Stanton] and the divers were able to show us exactly what they did that no-one witnessed except for them.”

The Rescue is in UK cinemas now (National Geographic Documentary Film)
The Rescue is in UK cinemas now (National Geographic Documentary Film)

“As cave divers, we would claim that we can’t act, so we would essentially refuse to act, which is the distinction I would make,” adds Volanthen. “The flow was there, the water was murky, we used real Thai children, volunteers… I was certainly very aware of that weight of responsibility again, just to make sure everyone came through safely.”

In electrifying detail, the documentary charts the rescue, as the authorities descended on Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Northern Thailand when word of the trapped children got out. Even though the highly-trained Thai Navy Seals were on-site, the complexity of the caves and the specific skills needed to reach the kids and extract them meant Volanthen and his friends were asked to help.

The Rescue is in UK cinemas now (National Geographic Documentary Film)
The Rescue is in UK cinemas now (National Geographic Documentary Film)

“That idea of a hobby or weekend warrior, pursuing a passion in this very esoteric minority sport, suddenly it’s like they’ve been preparing for thirty years for this one moment,” says Vasarhelyi.

“We were a tiny team initially of three people who’d flown halfway round the world and we knew we were dependent on logistics and support that we could find on-site,” says Volanthen. “To try and wade through that politically to do what we knew was the right thing was almost as difficult, if not more difficult than the diving.”

The Rescue is in UK cinemas now (National Geographic Documentary Film)
The Rescue is in UK cinemas now (National Geographic Documentary Film)

Filming during the pandemic also had its limitations. Even now, Vasarhelyi hasn’t met one of the key members of the rescue team, an Australian doctor called Richard Harris who came up with a way to anaesthetise the team so they could be swam to safety, despite interviewing him with the help of Zoom for the film.

“When it gets really tricky, it’s kind of fun,” she laughs. “We would love to get everyone together, it’s just it’s been a pandemic. I’d love to meet Dr Harris in person.”

The Rescue is in UK cinemas now (National Geographic Documentary Film)
The Rescue is in UK cinemas now (National Geographic Documentary Film)

One problem the filmmakers did have is that Hollywood also wanted a piece of the story. Producers swooped in to scoop various of the life rights of the boys and some of the divers, which meant the directors weren’t able to talk directly to the team themselves. 

Read more: Unwelcome director breaks down first trailer

It also means that Volanthen is currently being portrayed by Colin Farrell in a movie — Thirteen Lives — directed by Ron Howard that should be released next year.

Thai cave rescue diver John Volanthen with the George Medal following an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace, London.
Thai cave rescue diver John Volanthen with the George Medal following an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace, London. (PA)

“I didn’t even know who Colin Farrell was!” says Volanthen. “[The documentary] tells the real story without the glitz or the glamour.”

“We avoided the press deliberately during the rescue and that almost became a game of cat and mouse,” he continues. “Afterwards… other members of the team were very keen to tell the story partly because what had happened had been in some part obscured from the press and there’d been a significant amount of speculation as to what had happened and how it had been achieved.”

Read more: Ron Howard hits back at bad reviews

From the documentary, it’s clear that success only happened because of the courage of those involved — one Thai volunteer, former Navy Seal Saman Kunan, sadly died during the operation — as well as the way everyone came together in pursuit of a shared goal.

The portait of former Thai Navy SEAL, Saman Kunan, who died during the rescue operation is displayed on the Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai during a religious ceremony attended by some of the 12 boys dramatically rescued from deep inside a cave after being trapped for more than a fortnight. - The young footballers and their coach who became trapped deep in a flooded cave complex tried to dig their way out and survived on rainwater for nine days before being found and later rescued. (Photo by Krit PHROMSAKLA NA SAKOLNAKORN / THAI NEWS PIX / AFP)        (Photo credit should read KRIT PHROMSAKLA NA SAKOLNAKORN/AFP via Getty Images)
The portait of former Thai Navy SEAL, Saman Kunan, who died during the rescue operation (KRIT PHROMSAKLA NA SAKOLNAKORN/AFP via Getty Images)

“I wasn’t looking necessarily to be involved in a project that has a message,” says Volanthen. “We wanted to tell a set of facts, but then that’s why I’m a cave diver not a filmmaker. [But] I was pleased the film was able to capture the teamwork and the sense of the group, across nations, across all sorts of different types of disciplines. 

"If I had to pick one thing I was most proud of, it would be that in the end, as the team, we were all able to come together regardless of our nationality or whatever our agendas were.”

“I’m not concerned that people know [the outcome],” says Vasarhelyi. “The story of the film is so riveting and our job was to make it as vivid as possible. To allow audiences immediate access to the rescue itself and the heroes behind it.

“They put their careers, the lives on the line to try and save 13 strangers…I think it reminds us of our common humanity.”

National Geographic Documentary Film The Rescue was released in UK cinemas on Friday 29 October. Watch a clip below.

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