Their Thai cave rescue movie was ready. Then 87 hours of footage arrived.

Documentary maker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi lives in fear of not telling a full story. What if there is another angle to explore? More images to discover? Is her exploration of a subject ever really complete? Those feelings took over large parts of her brain in May when she was finally able to travel to Thailand.

Vasarhelyi, 42, and her husband, Jimmy Chin, 47, are best known for their Oscar-winning, death-defying climbing documentary “Free Solo.” The duo had spent three years carefully flipping every bit of video available to them for their new movie, “The Rescue,” which hits theaters October 8. It follows the 2018 global efforts to retrieve 12 young football players and their coach who were trapped in the flooded Tham Luang Cave in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province. The filmmakers had scoured international news feeds and local Thai footage, often linking scenes from a variety of different sources. What they couldn’t find, she and Chin and the British divers leading the rescue mission recreated in a tank at Pinewood Studios in Britain.

They essentially had completed their movie. It was touching and poignant, but it still nagged Vasarhelyi. It missed the scope of the operation and some smaller, more intimate moments that underlined the gravity of the situation. But those moments were in the hands of the Thai Navy Seals, and after two years of negotiations, Vasarhelyi had been unable to convince the military to share the footage with her.

See you in May. When Vasarhelyi, fully vaccinated and prepared to endure a two-week quarantine in Thailand, made the trek to Phuket to meet Rear Admiral Arpakorn Youkongkaew, a Royal Thai Navy Seal commander, and his wife, Sasivimon. Youkongkaew, a former television journalist who had the instinct to give the Seals cameras at the start of what would become an 18-day rescue mission.

“We spent three years on this story — I’d be writhing on the floor if it showed up,” she said after the film ended, referring to a missing scene. “It’s like the code of non-fiction: if it’s there, we should try everything to get it.”

This time, after a long meeting, when Vasarhelyi again expressed her intention to tell all sides of the story, they finally agreed. She returned to the United States with the promise of a wealth of footage and the help of Youkongkaew, who flew to New York with the 87 hours of footage in her backpack and the patience to flip through it.

“It’s like a dream come true for a non-fiction filmmaker. It was also a nightmare,” Vasarhelyi said of the arrival of all those images after their film was supposedly finished. Their editor, Bob Eisenhardt, “knew what I was asking of him. You saw the iceberg coming. It would be a slow, painful crash and no one would sleep all summer.”

The result of that extra effort is a visceral, heart-wrenching cinematic experience, as edge-of-your-seat as Alex Honnold’s journey in “Free Solo,” even though the football team’s fate was well documented. Fifteen minutes of footage of the seals (and the Thai military) is now in the film, giving the film an extra low-profile. Thanks to the rescue team’s cameras, viewers will see the first time divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthan emerged from the cave after finding the boys, as well as footage of hundreds of people lifting stretchers from the water with the children.

“That stuff finally gave you a shell,” said Vasarhelyi, who admitted she didn’t understand why so many people were needed for the rescue until she saw the footage and did her own cave walk on her trip to Thailand.

“The Rescue” had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in early September. Three weeks later, when Vasarhelyi and Chin sat down for an interview, the film had changed again – an extra minute had been added to highlight other crucial 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 for three years to make it right.”

“I told my mother I was doing everything I could,” Vasarhelyi added with a laugh.

Complicating the efforts of Vasarhelyi and Chin was a complex and intricate grasp at the life rights of the people involved in the rescue. Vasarhelyi and Chin were initially linked to the direction of Universal, which planned a dramatized version based on the stories of the footballers. But the rights to those stories disappeared after the Thai government got involved. Netflix subsequently picked them up and is currently shooting its own miniseries in Thailand.

Before ‘The Rescue’, National Geographic, who financed the film, owned the rights to the British divers, a sleazy group of mostly middle-aged men who happen to be the best amateur cave divers in the world. Although the rescue effort was global, the boys probably wouldn’t have survived without the divers.

Vasarhelyi and Chin did not have the rights of the boys, so she was not allowed to interview them for the film. She did meet them when she visited Thailand. “It wasn’t on camera,” she said. “I just wanted to hear… and understand.”

Vasarhelyi shared meals with some of them and learned more about their 18 days underground. She was captivated by their role-playing exercises where one child pretended to be the parent so the others could mimic the families they missed. The children also asked Vasarhelyi to show them the images she had of them being sedated by Dr. Richard Harris, an Australian anesthesiologist and cave diver who made the crucial – and controversial – decision to inject them with a mixture of Xanax, Ketamine and Atropine so they could be transported a mile underwater (about 2 hours) without panicking.

“It was just surreal,” Vasarhelyi said. “Of course they wondered what it all looked like. Of course they wanted to know what happened when they were under. I’m glad we were able to share that with them.”

Working with the divers brought its own challenges. Due to the pandemic, the filmmakers were robbed of their usual tools for getting topics open: dinners, meeting time, etc. Instead, they had to virtually bond over their shared understanding of extreme lifestyle sports, which Chin, herself a professional climber, more described. as a lifestyle rather than as a sport. “They live it. They plan everything around it,” he says. “I think they recognize that we can understand that. We wouldn’t write them off as crazy people who want to go cave diving. We kind of get it.”

The divers were also drawn to Vasarhelyi and Chin’s dedication to accuracy. Producer PJ van Sandwijk, who secured the rights to the divers’ lives in two separate deals, one for the documentary and another for an upcoming feature film directed by Ron Howard, said the men were initially “peaceful about doing something.” . He added: “They were very happy to come back from Thailand thinking ‘This was a global rescue, there were thousands of people on the ground.’ They didn’t want this to be just about those guys.”

So when Vasarhelyi and Chin asked the divers to come with them to the Pinewood Studios to recreate the underwater scenes, the men took it as a sign of the filmmakers’ dedication.

“What we always wanted to do when we started the documentary was to show what we were actually doing and what we were going through when we rescued the boys,” said Stanton, 60, a retired British firefighter.

“In a sense, we were just doing what we like to do, which is diving. It was us with exactly the same gear, doing exactly what we did in Thailand. Even though it was in the studio, it was an opportunity to go diving.”

Which turned out to be a lot easier than sitting in front of a camera, talking candidly about their childhood and what drove them to the unique hobby of cave diving. That, admitted Stanton, “was extremely painful.”

But since those fateful weeks in the summer of 2018, when it wasn’t clear whether the kids would live or die, Stanton and his fellow divers have had more good experiences than bad. The Hollywood Reporter called Stanton “Telluride’s most eligible bachelor”, he spent two months in Australia watching Viggo Mortensen play him in Howard’s film and he just attended the Royal Albert Hall, where he saw the premiere of the James Bond film. “No Time to Die” attended. His book “Aquanaut: A Life Beneath the Surface” will arrive in the United States next year.

And he loves the movie. “I am very satisfied,” he said. “Most people don’t like seeing themselves in front of the camera or hearing their voice. I don’t think it’s pathetic at all. I think we love each other.”

For Stanton, it’s all part of his retirement plan, a promise to himself that he wouldn’t let himself stagnate. He adds, “I mean, if you’re ever known for something, why not be known for saving 12 kids when everyone, everyone thought they were going to die.”

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