Thai-Irish director wins the race to turn the astonishing Thai cave rescue story into a film
Whether it came from his Irish Catholic father and the years spent at a Benedictine monastery boarding school in Yorkshire, England, or the influence of a Thai mother who founded a successful line of independent clothing shops in Chiang Mai, Tom Waller’s career shows a remarkable sense of drive and discipline.
After attending the Northern Film School in Leeds in 1995, he started his own film production company, DeWarrenne Pictures, the following year and produced and directed his debut film Monk Dawson (1998), an ambitious made-for-TV movie based on the award-winning novel by Piers Paul Read about a young priest who discovers romantic love and betrayal.
In 2002, Waller returned to the city of his birth, Bangkok, where he began working as a line producer for local and international film productions in Thailand. Among the more notable were Butterfly Man (2002), Ghost of Mae Nak (2005), The Elephant King (2006), and Soi Cowboy (2008), which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in Un Certain Regard.
After co-producing three more international films, Waller yielded to his filmmaking passion to direct Mindfulness & Murder (2011), his Thai-language directorial debut. The film, about a retired police detective who, as a Buddhist monk, uses his investigative background to solve a temple murder, was nominated for five Thailand National Film Association Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
That same year Waller’s company served as local producer for Hollywood action thriller Elephant White starring Kevin Bacon. The filmmaker followed this with another turn in the director’s chair for The Last Executioner (2014), a dark biopic about Thailand’s last prison executioner. The film won the prestigious Tukkata Tong or Golden Doll, Thailand’s equivalent of the Oscars, for Best Picture and Best Screenplay.
Waller’s biggest production to date came along when he was selected to serve as line producer for scenes shot in Thailand for the action blockbuster Mechanic: Resurrection (2016), starring Jason Statham, Jessica Alba and Tommy Lee Jones.
Flash forward to June 2018, when Waller, who holds both Thai and British passports, was on vacation in Ireland with his wife and children. On the 23rd of June, twelve Thai boys, aged 11 to 17, and their 25-year-old football coach became trapped several kilometres deep inside Tham Luang, a long and deep cave they had been hiking through after the caverns became flooded by heavy rains. With all exits from the cave blocked, the 13 were stranded on a small ledge in a small dark cavern just above the waterline for an unbelievable 18 days. From day one forward, a coordinated emergency rescue operation worked around the clock trying to devise a workable strategy for getting the boys out safely. Meanwhile, a press corps of over a thousand journalists from around the world camped outside the cave, sending news reports out day and night.
In the end, an ad hoc team of experienced cave divers from several different countries extracted the 13, one by one, in a bold diving rescue the likes of which had never been attempted before. Each of the boys and their coach were heavily sedated, fitted with scuba tanks, masks, and air regulators, and pulled through treacherous, pitch-black underground waterways to safety. Against the odds, all made it out alive. Afterwards, Thais called it the Miracle of Tham Luang.
Obviously, the story held great potential as a Hollywood blockbuster, and a half dozen production companies around the world soon announced their intentions to make such a movie. Among them was Waller, and when he learned that one of the principal rescue divers, Jim Warny, was living in the next county over from where Waller was staying in Ireland, he decided to try and contact him.
“I knew this would be an amazing story to tell on screen,” he said. “But I needed an angle.
Warny, born in Belgium but working as an electrician at a Lufthansa factory in Ireland, was a passionate cave diver who, during his time off, explored water-filled caverns around the world, many of them previously unmapped and unexplored. Back in Ireland, fresh from the rescue operation, Warny was impressed with Waller’s sincerity and agreed to help the filmmaker put together a strong storyline focused on the unsung heroes of the rescue operation.
While casting for the film, Waller and his producers invited actual rescue divers to portray themselves onscreen, since performing the underwater action for the cameras would be very technical, not to mention risky. In the end, four divers joined the cast: Jim Warny from Ireland, Erik Brown from Canada, Mikko Paasi from Finland, and Tan Xiaolong from China. Two other cast members also reprised roles they played during the rescue in real life: Todd Ruiz, an American editor from Khaosod English who reported live from the scene at Tham Luang, and Phu Yai Tan, a Thai waterworks engineer who brought in and operated powerful water pumps to help bring water levels in the caverns down.
“Although this is a Thai movie in the sense that I’m Thai and my production company is locally registered, we’re positioning it in the market as an international film,” says Waller.
“The rescue team was international, and the story belongs to the world,” he says. “I hope that anyone who was riveted to news sources over the 18 days the boys were trapped a year ago will find the film inspiring.”
When released on YouTube the first week of September, the film’s teaser-trailer quickly garnered nearly two million views. Many Thais who commented on the clip said they wept during the trailer, and expected to weep again when the movie opens in Thailand this month.
The Cave (titled Nang Non in the Thai language) had its world premiere at the prestigious Busan International Film festival last month, followed by screenings at the Vancouver International Film festival, BFI London Film Festival, and Byron Bay International Film Festival. The film will be released in Thailand cinemas on Thursday 21 November 2019.