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Diving into the cave

Nang Non, about the recent breathtaking rescue of a youth football team, is now in post-production

Cave rescue diver Erik Brown prepares for a scene in writer/director Tom Waller’s The Cave.

Of all the films scheduled to come out in 2019, one will return Thailand to the headlines. Various projects based on last year's dramatic rescue of the 12 Wild Boars footballers and their coach have been touted, and now a Thai film has completed principle photography and is going through post-production.

Nang Non, or The Cave, has been directed by Tom Waller, a Thai filmmaker of Irish descent who started shooting the film in November last year.

Waller plans to release the film in July to mark the first anniversary of the Tham Luang saga, in which a group of 13 locals in Chiang Rai were trapped in a flooded cave as the mobilisation of volunteers and experts from around the world to rescue them became one of the most gripping news stories of 2018.

The 12 boys and their coach went into Tham Luang Cave on June 23, and the last of them was taken out to safety on July 10.

No sooner had the boys been dried and fed than there were a number of filmmakers, mostly foreigners, expressing interest in adapting the story to the screen. The government, citing concern over the boys' privacy as well as hinting at the need to control the narrative of the rescue, announced that any film project based on the incident would have to be approved by a vetting panel.

That rule, however, appears to have been directed only at non-Thai projects. Waller said he had approached the authorities before the shoot and they had no objection since this would be a Thai film.

The Cave, said Waller, initiated with his interview with James Warny, an Ireland-based diver who took part in the rescue mission, and later some of the other divers also came on board. In a recent conversation, the filmmaker, whose past works include Mindfulness And Murder and The Last Executioner, outlines some of the key points regarding The Cave.

Through the eyes of volunteers and divers

"We've heard so much about the boys and how they got trapped in the cave, so the film will mostly be told from the point of view of the volunteers and the divers," said Waller.

Cave divers Tan Xiaolong, James Warny and actor Alex Winslow on the set of The Cave. Photos: Fredrik Divall © De Warrenne Pictures Co. Ltd

"Some of the divers who were there talked to me and we were able to construct a very realistic narrative of the event. James Warny -- who was responsible for bringing out Coach Ek [Ekkapol Chantawong] -- Erik Brown, Mikko Paasi and Tan Xiaolong, these divers played themselves in the film. I also have one of the water-pumping teams -- much admired for their sacrifice -- playing themselves. There will be many cameos from many others who were at the scene."

And the boys?

To avoid complications and the issue of privacy, Waller said the boys and the coach are not the main protagonists. The characters of the boys will have very few lines in the film.

"I see the whole thing as a story of the volunteer spirit, so we tell their stories and not the boys'," said Waller.

Writer/director Tom Waller on set.

"The film will be told largely from the base camp outside the cave, rather than from inside the cave. It will feature an ensemble cast, and if there's a 'lead character', I would say it's James Warny. He told me it's much more difficult being in front of the camera than diving into the cave!"

The Thai Navy Seals

As in the case of the boys, Waller said it's hard for him to mount the film in such a short period with the official permission of the Navy Seals.

"They will appear in the film, but not much," said the director. "In general, it's hard to get the official account of the event from the Thai side, since there's a lot of bureaucracy involved. I focus more on what I glean from international participants, and mostly from what is already in the public domain."

The location

It's impossible to shoot the film at the actual Tham Luang Cave in Chiang Rai. Though the place has been opened to visitors -- it was thronged with thousands of tourists during the New Year holidays -- shooting there is off-limits. "We shot at other caves in Thailand, and we also built sets, since we had to flood it and safety is our priority."

Who will play Gov Narongchai?

When the first photos from the shoot came out, speculation was ripe about the actor who will play Gov Narongchai Osotthanakorn, the Chiang Rai governor and director of the rescue mission. Observers tend to bet on Nirut Sirijanya, a respected Thai actor known for gravity and elegance.

Waller said no, it's not Nirut.

"We'll use real news footage of Governor Narongchai," he said. "The film will be a mixture of actors and real people. Think Clint Eastwood's The 15:17 To Paris [a film about three young American tourists who disrupted a terrorist plot on a train; it uses real people in the event mixed with actors].

The narrative

"We go from A to Z. The film begins with the boys getting inside the cave, and ends with the last one rescued," Waller said.

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