Real-life survival stories make for great cinema with one particularly famous incident from 2018 all set to stun movie buffs this August.

With the release of Thirteen Lives, Prime Video subscribers will get to experience the thrilling tale of how 12 boys and their football coach were rescued after a harrowing 18-day experience of being stuck within a cave in Northern Thailand. 

Leading the rescue operations were British divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, who were joined by anaesthetist Richard Harris. The sensational rescue team will be portrayed on film by Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, and Joel Edgerton respectively: 

Farrell and Mortensen went all in for this epic story of survival and the human spirit, undergoing an intense training regimen that pushed their acting muscles to the limit. Here’s the story of how they captured the intense story of Thirteen Lives

How Did Howard Pull It Off? 

Ron Howard Thirteen Lives
Credits: Amazon Prime Video, MGM Pictures

Before considering the gruelling training, Mortensen and Farrell had signed up for, Howard and his crew had to contend with the challenging task of building the film’s unique sets in the first place.

“You can go into real caves, but they’re far too dangerous,” explains Howard to HeyUGuys. “Couldn’t control it and so forth. But Molly Hughes, who’s our production designer, myself, our storyboard artist — we spent time talking to Richard and John about the most ‘challenging bits’, the places that were the most threatening, where the complexity was at its highest.

Those were the sections of the cave that we built, that we wanted to dramatise.”

Building sets seemed to make things easier, according to Howard but the shoot came with plenty of complexities, especially for the actors.

“I thought it was going to be easy — I’ve done a lot of underwater work! But as soon as you actually get people in these super-confined areas, even if they’re sets, it slows everything down, it becomes a little bit more dangerous, a little trickier, and a little more technical.”

Intense Shooting Process 

Thirteen Lives BTS
Credits: Amazon Prime Video, MGM Pictures

“It takes ages just to put the gear on,” chimes in Richard ‘Rick’ Stanton, the actual diver who made first-contact with the stranded group, and who served as a key advisor to Howard and the actors along with fellow diver-hero Jason Mallinson, who will be played by Paul Gleeson in the film. 

Farrell shared much of his personal experiences with the training — a gruelling process that was even harder considering that, well, the actor is a self-defined poor swimmer. 

“To have [the divers] as references was kind of extraordinary,” he added. “They got in the water with us as well, along with a great team of divers from Australia. While we felt there was a lot of attention paid to our safety… at the end of the day, when they built these cave systems, even if there’s an exit, it does play a number on your mind. There was a point where I realised I had no idea that there’d be as much diving as there was.”

“I was nervous at the beginning of the shoot, and while I got a bit comfortable midway through, I began to wonder if something would go wrong towards the end,” laughed Farrell. “I thought it would be a 80-20 percent split between shooting on land and in water. It was more like 55-45.” 

The training was intense, and particularly anxiety-inducing for Farrell who described the toughest scenes in great detail. Not only did he and Mortensen have to handle breathing techniques while in full-gear but also how they had to do so in extremely claustrophobic conditions, while correctly handling the rescues during tense underwater scenes. Speaking to People, Mortensen also shared similar experiences, recounting an incident where a tight squeeze forced his oxygen tank valve shut.

“All of a sudden I couldn’t breathe,” he remembered. “It seemed like a long time, but it was only a matter of seconds. I panicked.” It was the training protocol set in place that saved Mortensen from a potentially nasty incident. 

Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell Channel Their Inner Divers 

Credits: Amazon Prime Video, MGM Pictures

The original plan was to get Mortensen and Farrell trained by the divers, and splice in footage using doubles for shots that didn’t require their faces. The actors, who Howard and Stanton praised for their meticulous, ‘research-driven’ approach to roles, soon decided otherwise — embracing the challenge, training harder, and even working through weekends to get the film as authentically produced as possible. 

“They came to me and said, ‘we don’t want any doubles. We’ve learned it. It’s safe. We can do it, and please let us,” added Howard. “We had to reschedule everything, but the extra effort and days they put in gave me so much more latitude as a director, in terms of how we could show this, and make it personal — more connected to the characters.” 

Through all of the training, Howard also grew to appreciate the connections the actors developed with the divers themselves. “The actors were not only absorbing, of course, the diving techniques. They also understood their personalities, the way they think, details of what went on — you can have all the interviews you want, but a lot more comes out in just conversation.” 

Despite the psychologically draining and technically challenging tasks required from the crew, having the divers around truly made a difference. 

“Making a movie is a bit of a strain,” admits Howard, who has in fact, made a whopping 40+ films as a director alone, not counting his prolific career as an actor and producer. 

“But, all we had to do was look over and sort of see that [the divers] actually did it,” laughs Howard. “What are we bitching about?” 

Thirteen Lives, written by William Nicholson and directed by Howard, will premiere globally on Prime Video, on August 5. 

(Featured Image Credits: Amazon Prime Video, MGM Pictures)