Documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarely lives in fear of not telling the whole story. What if there is another angle to explore? More footage to uncover? Has his search for a subject ever really come to fruition? When she was finally able to travel to Thailand in May, those feelings occupied a large part of her brain.
Vasarelli, 42, and her husband, 47-year-old Jimmy Chin, are best known for the Oscar-winning, death-defying climbing documentary, “Free Solo.” The two had already spent three years painstakingly scouring for every video available for their new film: “The Rescue,” which opens in theaters Friday. It tracks a 2018 global effort to bring back 12 young football players and their coach trapped in the flooded Tham Luang cave in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province. Filmmakers scoured international news feeds and local Thai footage, often cobbling together scenes from disparate sources. He and Chin and the British divers leading the rescue operation were rebuilt in a tank at Pinewood Studios in Britain.
He had essentially completed his film. It was moving and painful, yet it still stuck in Vasarely. It was missing the scope of the operation and some of the smaller, more intimate moments that underscored the gravity of the situation. But those moments were in the hands of the Thai Navy Seals, and after two years of negotiations, no effort on Vasarely’s part had persuaded the military to share the footage with him.
until May. When Vasarely, fully vaccinated and ready to endure a two-week quarantine in Thailand, Rear Admiral Arpakorn Yukongkaw, a Royal Thai Navy SEAL commander, and his wife, Sasiwimon Yukongkaw, a former television journalist, met Traveled to Phuket to meet. The instinct was to give cameras to the jawans at the start of the 18-day rescue operation.
“We spent three years with this story – I’d scream on the floor if it popped up after the movie was over”, she said, referring to any missing scenes. “It’s like the code of non-fiction: if it’s there, we have to do everything possible to get to it.”
This time, after a lengthy meeting when Wasserheli again conveyed his intention to include all sides of the story, they finally agreed. She returned to the United States with a treasure trove of footage and the promise of assistance from Youkongkaew, who flew to New York with 87 hours of footage in her bag and the patience to filter it.
“It’s like a dream come true for a non-fiction filmmaker. It was a nightmare too,” Vasarelli said of all that footage coming in after his film ended. His editor, Bob Eisenhart, “Knowed what I was asking him. You saw the iceberg coming. It was going to be a slow, painful accident, and then no one was going to sleep all summer.”
The result of that extra effort is a visceral, heartwarming cinematic experience as Alex Honnold’s journey into “Free Solo” is in your seat, even though the fate of the soccer team was well documented. Fifteen minutes of footage from the Seals (and the Thai military) is now in the film, giving the film an extra level. Thanks to rescuers’ cameras, onlookers will see divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthan exit the cave for the first time, including shots of hundreds of people, including boys, being pulled out of the water.
“That stuff finally gave you a scale,” said Vasarely, who didn’t understand why so many people were needed for rescue until he saw the footage and visited his cave on his trip to Thailand.
“The Rescue” made its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in early September. Three weeks later, when Vasarely and Chin sat down for an interview, the film was changed again—an extra minute was added to highlight other important rescue tactics.
“The process of this has been so intense,” Chin said. “We want to represent what was really important, and we’ve been digging on this thing for three years trying to fix it.”
“I told my mother that I did everything I could,” said Vasarely, laughing.
Complicating the efforts of Vasarely and Chin was a complicated and complicated usurpation of the rights to life of those involved in the rescue. Vasarely and Chin were initially linked to direct for Universal, which planned a theatrical version based on the stories of soccer players. But the rights to those stories disappeared after the Thai government got involved. Netflix then scooped him up and is currently shooting his miniseries in Thailand.
For “The Rescue”, National Geographic, which financed the film, owned the rights to British divers, a ragtag group of mostly middle-aged men who happen to be the best amateur cave divers in the world. While the rescue effort was global, the boys might not have survived without the divers.
Vasarely and Chin did not have rights to the boys, so they were not allowed to interview him for the film. She met him when she went to Thailand. “It wasn’t on camera,” she said. “I just wanted to hear … and understand.”
Vasarely shared food with some of them and learned more about their 18 days underground. She was taken in by their role-playing exercises in which one child would pretend to be the parent so that the others could rebuild the families they were missing. The children also asked Vasarely to show them the footage they had shown to Dr. Richard Harris, an Australian anesthetist and cave diver, who made the important and controversial decision to inject him with a mixture of Xanax, ketamine and atropine. They could be carried 1 mile underwater (about 2 1/2 hours) without panic.
“It was just surreal,” Vasarelli said. “Of course they wondered what it all looked like. Of course they wanted to know what happened when they were subjected. I’m glad we were able to share it with them.”
Divers were also attracted to Vasarely and Chin’s dedication to accuracy. Producer PJ van Sandwijk, who secured the rights to the divers’ lives in two separate deals—one for a documentary, the other for an upcoming feature directed by Ron Howard—said that the men were initially “apprehensive to do anything ” He continued, “They came back from Thailand with a mindset of ‘this was a global rescue’; there were thousands of people on the ground.” They didn’t want it to be just about those people.”
So when Vasarely and Chin asked divers to join Pinewood Studios to redo the underwater scenes, the men took it as a sign of the filmmakers’ dedication.
Stanton, 60, a retired British firefighter, said, “When we started the documentary what we wanted to do was to demonstrate what we actually did and what we were going through while rescuing the boys.”
For Stanton, it’s part of his retirement plan, a promise to himself that he won’t let himself stagnate. He adds, “I mean if you’ve ever been known for something, why not go for saving 12 kids when everybody, everybody thought they were going to die.”