"Free Solo" filmmakers recreated Thai soccer team cave rescue: "A massive and chaotic operation"

Oscar winners E. Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin spoke to Salon about never-before-seen footage & adding folklore

Published October 8, 2021 4:30PM (EDT)

The Rescue (National Geographic Documentary Films)
The Rescue (National Geographic Documentary Films)

In June of 2018, 12 youths aged 11-16 and their soccer coach were trapped inside the Tham Luang cave in Northern Thailand. The emotion-filled documentary, "The Rescue," by Oscar-winning filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin ("Free Solo"), out Oct. 8, recounts the 16-day mission that unfolded. Thai Navy SEALs were brought in to coordinate the seemingly impossible effort, and British cave divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen were brought on board because they had the specialized skill set needed to reach the team. 

The combined rescue efforts however, had a race not just against time but against the elements — water levels were rising, monsoons were predicted, and oxygen in the cave was dwindling. Moreover, they had to find a way to get the boys and their coach out safely. When Rick and John saved four pump workers trapped in a cave chamber during an investigatory dive, they got a sense of how difficult diving out 12 boys and an adult would be. 

"The Rescue" features incredible footage of the on-the-ground and in-the-cave efforts. (Some scenes were recreated for the documentary). The filmmakers interview Stanton and Volanthen as well as Richard Harris, who helped the divers find a way to safely rescue the team. That's not a spoiler. Even if viewers know the outcome, it is hard not to hold one's breath as "The Rescue" unfolds, or not be moved to tears by the end. 

Vasarhelyi and Chin chatted with Salon about their remarkable and inspiring new documentary, the challenges they had making it, and what they do for good flow. 

I have to ask how you got the incredible footage you did. It seems as if you had cameras on the ground and in the cave from the moment the story hit the news. Can you explain how you shot, what you recreated, and how you assembled the film?

E. Chai Vasarhelyi: When we signed on to make this film, we knew we had a great story; we also knew there was no footage. What you are watching is a mix of things, this forensic sifting that transpired in terms of news footage, to try to create what was happening outside of the cave — because we weren't there for the actual events. So, a shot from CNN, or from a local Thai website. We were living off of fumes. There was such slim picking. But at the same time, there were a few things shot by divers themselves, like Dr. Harris anesthetizing a child or the oxygen meter. Those were very important. And then there was this rumor that really turned on the divers' memories. One said, "I remember more than just finding the kids. I remember leading them in a motivational cheer." Because he'd never seen the images, he was doubting his own memory. Even if it was just that one clip, it inspired us to pursue the Thai Navy SEALs to see if they had filmed. That was a really long process, but what you see in the film is that mix. We eventually succeeded. The Thai Navy SEALs had this incredible footage that really brought it to life. What you see in the reenactments are in the underwater scenes, because the Thai Navy SEALs never went beyond Chamber 3. So, the reenactments are the underwater or the stuff with children in the cave; most of this footage has never been seen before.

Jimmy Chin: We negotiated for two years with the Thai Navy SEALs just to convince them to sit down to interviews with us. You have to remember they are a covert special operations military team. They don't advertise what they do. They agreed to be on camera but getting the footage was a whole other ordeal. Normally we would go in person, establish a relationship and build trust, but we couldn't do it over zoom. But then Chai flew to Thailand and did the two-week quarantine and went to the Admiral's house and knock and asked, "Can we talk about this some more?"

Vasarhelyi: I called first, and he said no . . .

Chin: We got it. It wasn't like they handed it over. They flew a couple of the Thai Navy SEAL delegates who carried the drives to our editing studio to work with us on it. That was a really big challenge, and timing-wise, we got the footage in June. Our picture lock was June 1. The last few months have been very all hands on deck.

You give viewers a sense of the dangers of the situation and the risks many of the men take in their rescue efforts. Can you describe how you learned the details of the situation and then broke things down so viewers can follow the action?

Vasarhelyi: A lot of people participated in this rescue and the story has all these details. We were always so challenged by that — there was too much to fit. It takes 18 days, and the children were only found on the 11th day. You don't really have a true decision moment, and then the same thing happens 13 times. So, there are a lot of narrative constraints, but leaning into the constraints, and taking the time to build that understanding, proved more rewarding. Allowing the space to go into the story of the cave and the legend of the princess, and the monk, it allowed it to exist from all these multiple points of view. 

Chin: The amount of time and energy spent in just establishing the baseline of the story and getting it accurate — because we were hearing from so many different sources what was happening, and people didn't know that the other people were doing. It was a massive and chaotic operation. We tried to bring that together so people could understand what actually happened, and then build the emotional landscape and everything else around it.

Vasarhelyi: We learned about a lot of the details by doing the recreations when we had the actual participants wearing the actual stuff and showing us how they did it. No one was in the cave with them. That was a special process. The gravity of what they did really comes to life when you see them bind the wrist of child behind their back and their legs and submerge their head. That's our job as filmmakers is to convey that, and we only learned it in the reenactments. 

Likewise, you use animation to show not only the geography of Tham Luang, but also some of the mythology around it. The film explains the myth of the cave and Nang Non, and also introduces Kruba Boonchun, a monk whose prayer soothed anxious families, and who predicted the rescue. Can you discuss the importance of the cave's folklore, the guardian spirit, and Thai beliefs? That was really important and often more interesting than the rescue. 

Vasarhelyi: That is my favorite part of the movie. How do we know that Kruba Boonchun and all those prayers didn't save children? That's why Jimmy and I really wanted to make this film, so we can listen. My mom, she's there. Faith is really important and dignifying the faith and respecting it is really important to us.

Chin: It was really important to us as Asian filmmakers, because there is this East meets West story/subtext to it. It highlights why we wanted to make film. All of these people came from different countries, cultures, and belief systems to save these kids. Who's to say whose belief systems really contributed to rescue?

Vasarhelyi: There is also something kind of self-referential in that so much of traditions and religions in how you tell the story. I'm particularly delighted by our end credit sequence where we had the same Thai painters and artisans imagine how they would tell the story in images. You know this rescue will become legend in some way. 

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I like that the coach teaches meditation to calm the boys. John and Rick and Richard and Chris who did the dive were inspiring as they talk about controlling their emotions, too. That was an interesting parallel. And even though many of them said they "don't play well with others," yet here work together as a very effective team? Can you talk about the personalities involved? 

Chin: They are clearly great characters, but personality-wise, cave diving is the most extreme end of diving and scuba. It reminded us — my peer group in the climbing world, that do a very specific and extreme end of the climbing disciplines — you have to be a certain type of person to be drawn into crawling into a muddy hole and submerging yourself underwater. We talk about it in the film. They are misfits and never felt they belonged anywhere. This was a deep calling for them and lifestyle for them. Their entire lives are centered around doing this very specific activity because it brings a lot of peace and joy and satisfaction. This life they live is very intentional.

Vasarhelyi: Everyone who participated in the rescue found their place and being their best self. What is interesting about the divers is that they dedicated their lives to something that is obscure, weird, or random because they are misfits and can't fit, and they found a place to fit. Suddenly, this event shows that you can put this very strange skill to great use. It also allows them the opportunity to show their character; they make these impossible decisions and they are incredibly generous and make the absolutely moral decision. 

There is some real bureaucracy involved in his mission, from calling in American soldiers from Japan, and the British cave divers, Australians, and more. I was surprised that things were sometimes very territorial on the ground given the urgency of the situation. Can you talk about the strategizing? It seemed like everyone wanted to be the hero, but no one wanted to shoulder the blame if things went south.

Vasarhelyi: The divers were willing [to shoulder the blame]. That is the whole point. They really believed that saving one child would be a success and understanding the immense toll it would take on them should a child die on their watch. Dr. Harris, he would forever be known as the guy who killed a kid. Who is ever going to let him anesthetize them? 

Chin: They had everything to lose, and they made the hard decision because it was the right decision. When you are managing a rescue situation and scenario that is that huge and complex, it's very complicated because there is external pressure from a lot of different places you might not think about. In Thailand, there is bureaucracy, and political and PR considerations. It's delicate. It would be the case in any country when it's being scrutinized by the entire world. There was a lot to manage and a lot of people involved were feeling a lot of pressure.

Likewise, the film has a very powerful moment where Rick and John find the soccer team alive. The had been told the rescue is possibly a lost cause — and feel guilty about that. But once they realize they can save them they have to figure out how to do the impossible. Richard Harris talks about the confidence he needs to instill in others to make this happen. Can you discuss the complex emotions at work with these men?

Vasarhelyi: I think it's like an absolute morality. If you are the only person in the world who can do something, you realize you won't succeed, but you are the only person who can do it. And it is for someone else's kid, who you have not met before. They are their best selves. That still moves me. If we can all be our best selves, the world would be a lot different. They made a great, generous effort.

Chin: They are not getting paid. They are volunteers. They are electricians, IT consultants, and retired firemen. That is the beauty of story. Hopefully it inspires people. Anybody and everybody has the potential to be their best selves.

I'm curious why you did not interview the coach or any of the kids on the team about their experiences. I assume that was deliberate. I like that you did that, but can you discuss that decision?

Vasarhelyi: I'm proud of the film we made. There was a rights situation with this story, which is not normally a thing in nonfiction. One network owned the children's rights and the families', and another acquired the divers' rights. We didn't have access. That is why we pursued the Thai Navy SEALs footage so doggedly. Those images have never been seen. I feel them enough now. It's bittersweet. 

Given the mindset of the men in this film, and say, Alex Honnold in "Free Solo," I appreciate that you like to film adrenaline junkies, either high up or underground. What do you do, other than make films, that gets your blood flowing?

Vasarhelyi: Jimmy is also a professional athlete, so he is going to argue that they are not adrenaline junkies.

Chin: I would argue that is a misperception. My only peer group is not climbers and professional athletes. When I think about these types of athletes or people, they are the most calculated people that I know. You wouldn't survive otherwise. They are professional risk assessors. Their entire lives are centered around mitigating risk, assessing risk, and calculating risk. That's because, as Alex has said before, "If I'm feeling adrenaline, then things have gone seriously wrong." He can't be adrenalized when he's doing this stuff. It's too calculated. You are trying to calculate so you don't feel adrenaline in some ways.

Vasarhelyi: It's like they say, "I put my emotions in a box and the box on a shelf and it's there." This is what Alex does share with the divers — you have to control your emotions because as Terry says, emotions are death in a cave, panic is death. But to answer your question about what we do for adrenalize, I like balloons, magic, glitter, and unicorns with my kids. I have a flow state and that's pumpkin picking. I love work, but I also really love the fun we have as parents. People in Jimmy's world are always talking about flow, and I think getting successfully through the airport with the children happy is my flow state. I crush it. My greatest challenge is executing the perfect drop off plus the conference call at the same time and no one knows!

Chin: She does that very well. I still climb and ski and surf and run for my personal well-being and meditation.

"The Rescue" releases in select theaters Friday, Oct. 8

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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E. Chai Vasarhelyi Free Solo Interview Jimmy Chin Movies The Rescue