Portraying heroic Australian cave diver, Dr Richard “Harry” Harris – who played a key role in the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach – was a particularly emotional experience for Joel Edgerton, who had just become a dad in his own life.
Co-starring with Viggo Mortensen, Tom Bateman and Colin Farrell in Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives, Edgerton was surprised to find there was so much that he didn’t know about the dramatic rescue of the boys and their coach, trapped in the flooded Thai caves for a staggering 18 days.
“I thought I knew a lot about the story, and then once I got involved in the project, there were things that were not really available to the public [at the time], that were very surprising to me,” says the actor.
“There are elements to the rescue that I think were quite shocking and surprising, particularly the way that the children were anesthetized to be taken out of the caves. But I think the thing that surprised me most about Harry – and I have played real people before – but it’s rare that I’ve been that humbled and impressed and therefore a little nervous about taking on a role, because he’s such an impressive person and a real national hero in Australia as well,” he says of Dr Harris, who together with fellow Aussie diver Craig Challen was awarded the Star of Courage for “displayed conspicuous courage” and the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) “for service to the international community through their specialist response roles”. In January 2019, Harris and Challen were furthermore named Australians of the year.
Perhaps the most surprising fact that Egerton learned about Dr Harris was this: “Harry – until the first day of the rescue and even into the second and third day – thought that he was participating potentially in the death of children, and it went against everything that he believed in, except that he knew that if he didn’t give it a try that the chances were that all the kids would perish anyway. The fact that Harry was willing to take that risk and was successful in doing it, I found just…” he tells us, his voice cracking with emotion.
“I found it incredibly emotional. Hearing some of Harry’s stories and reading his book. To me, that felt like such a beating heart of Harry and a beating heart of the story. There’s a lot to learn about something that I think we all watched on the news. And I think the great chance of this film is you get to see the point of view of so many different people that all participated and joined together to help in the rescue,” says Edgerton, 48, who shot the film on the Gold Coast, at Springbrook National Park as well as at Village Roadshow Studios.
Faced with insurmountable odds, a team of the world’s most skilled and experienced divers – uniquely able to navigate the maze of flooded, narrow cave tunnels – joined with Thai forces and more than 10,000 volunteers to attempt a harrowing rescue of the twelve boys and their coach.
With impossibly high stakes and the entire world watching, RonHoward’s film spotlights the group’s most challenging dive, showcasing the limitlessness of the human spirit in the process.
Filming in claustrophobic conditions and assisted by the rescue’s real life divers Richard Stanton and Jason Mallinson, Edgerton recalls, “I was a relatively novice diver, well, completely novice, and thanks to Rick and Jason and all the Australian Navy guys who assisted in getting us through these incredibly tight pinch points with side-mount tanks and a lot of equipment…
“But then to start to understand that we would have to do the same navigating, the same kind of S-bends and tight spots, carrying stuntmen who were acting unconscious to replicate the rescue of the young boys and the coach. And then, beyond that, occasionally to have camera equipment attached to us so that we can get certain shots,” says the actor.
“And I did have one moment where I felt a little overwhelmed when I was carrying not only a stunt person and all the equipment but having a camera mounted to my chest – all for the sake of a close up – and it really hit me how vital it is for everybody to be putting their safety first, to understand how rational and calm the psyche or the attitude of a regular and extreme cave diver would have to be, that sets them apart from us regular folk.
“And we were doing that in a controlled environment, where people could come immediately and help us and extract us and ask us if we were okay. Now imagine doing that in a place where you are a kilometer or two or further into a cave and you had nobody but yourself and your dive buddy to help you through any sort of moment. It just reminded us you have to be really sharp and really look after each other,” says the actor whose crime thriller The Stranger recently premiered at Cannes.
Portraying British diver Rick Stanton, a cave and rescue specialist, it was Viggo Mortensen who led the charge for the actors to ultimately do all their own stunts; Colin Farrell – as British cave diver John Volanthen – bravely signing on despite, in his own words, he can ‘barely swim’.
“The real Rick Stanton and Jason Mallinson came in to work with the actors and help them understand so that when I did the angles that would feature them that they would have an authentic feel, but it was even more important to train the stunt doubles so that in the shots with a lot of intense water volume and pressure and the unbelievably tight squeezes, that the stunt people actually knew how to dive,” explains Howard.
“But the actors started working with Rick and Jason, and Viggo led the group and basically said, ‘We don’t want anybody else to double us. We are learning this, and we’ll do it. We’ll work on weekends, we’ll go into the first unit and go to the dive unit, whatever it takes’, and this is what they all did.
“I sort of placated them and said ‘To the extent that we can, sure’, but they did it. It enabled me to make the cinematography so fluid and immediate, because they were doing every one of those squeezes and every one of those pressurized situations where the water volumes were dumping on them and with the kids and all of it. This is volunteering on a level of professionalism to just try to get it right and that’s why they’re great artists,” says the director.
Actor Tom Bateman, portraying British diver Chris Jewell, suffered from intense claustrophobia during the shoot. “What we went through was pretty intense. I’ve dived before, but I never dived with a roof on my head. And with a whole person strapped, handcuffed onto your hand getting through these tunnels. It was quite amazing. I’m claustrophobic so I struggled pretty much every day.
“I still vividly remember my last stunt dive – and I loved this experience with Ron very, very much – but my God I was happy to get out of that!” says the Brit.
“The design was incredible; there’s water constantly coming in and we spent the whole shoot wet and cold and underwater, and you think we’re doing this in these conditions but the real guys doing it, and I still cannot believe what they did, so to be a small part of telling their story is a real honour. But I was so happy to be finished,” he laughs.
Thirteen Lives streams on Prime Video from August 5, 2022