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Consider This Brunch: Respecting Thai Culture Was as Important as Getting the Cave Rescue Right

Ron Howard, editor James D. Wilcox, supervising sound editors Oliver Tarney and Rachael Tate, and composer Benjamin Wallfisch participated in a panel moderated by IndieWire’s Jim Hemphill.

Benjamin Wallfisch (Composer), Rachael Tate (Supervising Sound Editor), Ron Howard (Director / Producer), James D. Wilcox (Editor) and Oliver Tarney (Supervising Sound Editor) arrive at the 2022 IndieWire FYC Consider This Brunch  at the Citizen News on November 18th, 2022 in Hollywood, California.

Benjamin Wallfisch (Composer), Rachael Tate (Supervising Sound Editor), Ron Howard (Director / Producer), James D. Wilcox (Editor) and Oliver Tarney (Supervising Sound Editor) arrive at the 2022 IndieWire FYC Consider This Brunch at the Citizen News on November 18th, 2022 in Hollywood, California.

Stewart Cook for IndieWire

The Tham Luang cave rescue, which saw 12 members of a Thai youth soccer team and its 25-year-old coach rescued from a flooded cave after being trapped for 18 days, was destined to become a Hollywood film. The combination of dangerous weather, human ingenuity, and international cooperation was the kind of story that most screenwriters can only dream of coming up with themselves. 

Much like the rescue that inspired it, “Thirteen Lives” is a complex work of technical mastery. At IndieWire’s Consider This Brunch, director Ron Howard, editor James D. Wilcox, supervising sound editors Oliver Tarney and Rachael Tate, and composer Benjamin Wallfisch participated in a panel moderated by IndieWire’s Jim Hemphill. They broke down the work that went into the complex shoot, explaining that getting the details of Thai culture right was as important as all the technical specificity of recreating the rescue. Most notably, much of the film is in the Thai language.

And Howard was committed to getting it right. First and foremost, he hired Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (“Call Me by Your Name,” “Memoria”), who immediately told the director, “I’ll be your angel.” Not just as a de facto translator (among many actual translators involved in the film) but as a cultural ambassador to help get the details right.

“I wanted the actors to contribute as well,” Howard said, “to make sure that it felt right. Sometimes I’ve found that an academic translation does not lead to good dialogue. It’s not good scene writing because it’s not diving into the vernacular. And the dialect from the rural north [of Thailand, where the cave rescue took place] is very different from the language in Bangkok, so much so that oftentimes people in Bangkok can’t understand what they’re saying. The entire region of the north is so unique, culturally and spiritually.”

Editor Wilcox wasn’t daunted by just how much of the script was in Thai. Well, maybe a little bit.

“It was definitely intimidating, but it was a real challenge for me, too,” Wilcox said.”We had a plan because Ron has had experience with other non-English language films, notably ‘Rush,’ so he had a gameplan: phonetic translation, a Google Translate breakdown of the script [for planning shots], and of course, there’s some ad-libbing going on. We vetted the language multiple times, one translator after another, and some of our producers as well. When we screened it for a Thai audience, that was when we knew we had it.”

Composer Wallfisch also incorporated Thai rhythms and instruments into his score to make this feel as much like an inside-out perspective as an outside-in one.

Getting the human dimension of the story as accurate as the harrowing events of the cave rescue itself: that’s the Ron Howard touch. But of course, there was that cave rescue itself. To recreate the events with as much accuracy as possible, Howard and his crafts team built a network of caves with such precision that Colin Farrell had panic attacks while filming the underwater scenes. And supervising sound editors Oliver Tarney and Rachael Tate worked to perfect the tiniest details, such as the sound of scuba tanks scraping against rock walls.

The result is an unprecedented experience of immersion. “Thirteen Lives” is directed by Howard, who worked from a script written by William Nicholson and Don MacPherson. It stars Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, and Paul Gleeson, along with a cast of Thai youths.

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