The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Thirteen Lives.
What was it like bringing a production of this size to Thailand?
Ron Howard: That was the big question I was asking of myself, going into the movie. I knew there was a genuine hurdle there. I love the story, I believed that I could do it– I thought my experience in recent years, but also going back to Apollo 13, and even Backdraft and things like that, were a real advantage and a benefit. But I just knew that I could not will this into existence. I needed collaborators. I needed to know that I could be collaborating with the cast with real confidence, and that they would speak up. I just needed players of support in that way, and it just became my mantra that that was sort of priority number one. And that was sort of how I met Raymond, and then Raymond brought Billy [Producer William M. Connor] in.
It’s not mysterious: it’s just a lot of hard work
Raymond Phathanavirangoon: It’s really to Ron’s credit that, you know, he dared to make a Hollywood film with literally 30-40% of the language in Thai! Because I think that in itself is a quite unusual thing. We were very much involved in working on the script in Thai, because obviously there are a lot of things that need to be translated, but they were also not just straight translation. We wanted to make sure that the dialog fit the characters. There are just so many nuances about Thai culture that Ron was incredibly open to. For example, when I first told him that, “Oh, the governor can’t express his feelings to the Navy Seal captain,” and Ron asked why, I just said, “because in Thailand… we just don’t do that.” So it’s little things like that which help us make sure the Thai characters were authentic, not just in terms of the language spoken, but also in the way that they acted and reacted together and to each other. And of course, during casting, we were very involved. And Billy was absolutely an amazing asset in every way with the kids— he really performed miracles.
RH: He’s a teacher — young guy — burgeoning director, he’s done some really interesting films. And so he’s just great with these boys. And I’d also like to give a shoutout to Janice Chua, who runs international for Imagine Entertainment. She’s from Singapore, but also acutely aware of Asian cinema. And of course when I was thinking about doing this, one of the first people I talked to — in addition to Karen Lunder at Imagine, and Brian Grazer, and my own agents and whatnot — was Janice. And she really liked the script. She knew the story fairly well. And she actually introduced me to Raymond.
RP: She told me when she described me to you, she said, “oh… Raymond has opinions.”
RH: And I said, “good!” And I did know… I knew by reputation that Thai people are generally very kind, and very gracious. They’re reluctant to give criticism, I would say, generally speaking. I appreciated that on the one hand, and I wanted to understand it… but I also really love to deputize actors. I count on that. I’ve benefited from doing that, over the years. So I really wanted the cast to feel like they had agency. And I wanted to continue fleshing out those storylines in a nuanced, granular way. The elements of them were all their in Bill Nicholson’s script, but as I started doing research I realized that these Thai people aren’t just being helpful— this is its own brand of heroism on display, in a few places, that I could recognize. All that said: Still running through my — through our — filter, there’s still so much to this story. So much detail. But I did feel that a scripted, dramatized version would be a way to reach a large audience. And if we get the spirit of the truth — if we got it right, and got the facts right — and could create that pathway for the audience of empathy and understanding, we’d begin to recognize that there was heroism beyond those divers that was very real, and in fact, the operation depended upon.
What were the first conversations about, concerning the creative vision for this film? What did you want to accomplish?
RH: Performance. I knew that it wasn’t a star-turn, for anyone involved. And I described it that way, from the beginning, even to Vigo [Mortensen] and Colin [Farrell], that it was an ensemble piece that I wanted to continue fleshing out and developing. And I felt that doing a scripted version could offer two things that a documentary wouldn’t be able to tackle quite as well: One, we could really go into those caves and dramatize the near-misses. Because there were so many difficulties! We didn’t come close to dramatizing all of them, even. And I thought, well, that’s something we can do: We can get a camera in there, we can get enough light in there, we can build the sets… we can bring those moments to life in a really suspenseful, cinematic, harrowing way. That’s an obligation. It’s not mysterious: it’s just a lot of hard work. But the thing was to get to the heart of this internationalism, and this sort of cross-cultural set of relationships and interactions, and really… even though it’s all kind of a mess, and people have their eccentricities and personalities, and so forth… to really dramatize that, and to let actors play out these moments of decision where they really have these threshold choices that made a huge difference. Some of them work out, some of them don’t— but I thought if audiences really start empathizing and connecting with not just, “can we get the air tanks and go in,” and not even, “should we anesthetize the boys or not,” but also if the audience could just connect with the journey — with the exhausting journey — of being engaged in this, knowing it’s a long shot, and yet continuing to work the problem… we’d really have something. So, from the beginning, I just felt like we needed to be culturally authentic and specific for everyone there… and to dramatize those turning points.
RP: Let me volunteer one little thing, which I think epitomizes the spirit in which Ron made the film: when I was first talking to Ron about joining the film back in June of 2020, or thereabouts, what he told me something that was really powerful: he was saying to me, “look, we’re going through this terrible pandemic, and the world has a lot of strife socially and politically… and this event that happened a couple years ago is really a testament to the fact that we can come together — regardless of nation, regardless of all our differences — and perform something that is absolutely miraculous. And isn’t that a good message to have when we’re going through all this stuff that is happening right now? To show people that we can overcome our cynicisms, and selfishness, and really come together and do something really great for humankind?” And I remember hearing that and thinking, “oh my God, I have to do this film!”
RH: I often — not for every movie — but if I think of it, and find it, I like to put a super-simplistic message on my script. For me, this one was, “anatomy of a miracle.” And just trying to parse out the beats and bring them to life for an audience in this way.