Director Ron Howard Explains How ‘Thirteen Lives’ Proved Itself ‘A Story for This Moment’

TheWrap Screening Series: “When we were making it, the world was in a pretty grim place with COVID,” said screenwriter William Nicholson

Ron Howard is no stranger to the challenges of filmmaking, having built his career crafting movies that unfold in fiery infernos (“Backdraft”) and doomed whaling ships (“In the Heart of the Sea”) and literal outer space (“Apollo 13”). Telling such tales in the most accurate way possible requires exhaustive and exacting production requirements and Howard’s most recent film, “Thirteen Lives” is no exception.

The biographical drama is inspired by the events of the Tham Luang cave rescue, in which 12 junior football players, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old assistant coach were trapped several miles into a partially flooded cave system, and the global effort required to save them.

But from the start, filming on “Thirteen Lives” was special. “I never had less complaining while making a difficult movie than I had on this film,” Howard said during a virtual screening of the film as part of TheWrap’s 2022-2023 Awards Season Screening Series.

And the explanation likely comes from the source material itself.

“The world was in a pretty grim place with COVID and it felt to me like here was a story about a whole lot of people doing something for nothing,” said “Thirteen Lives” screenwriter William Nicholson. “Nobody got paid. 5000 people descended upon that cave to try and save those kids for nothing. And they actually got them out. And I thought, ‘My God, we need we need to know that human beings are like this.’”

“The way Bill did that this, this is a story for this moment,” Howard said. “Everybody felt this way. It was the spirit of it. And it’s one of the reasons I like talking about it.”

Even more than the spirit of community exhibited by the real life events, the rescue had its own narrative that made it an irresistible story to tell.

“What is astonishing is these two divers, the two key British divers, they got out there, they managed to find the kids, and this is the halfway point in the story,” Nicholson said. “And you think, amazing, they’ve done it. But what is so fantastic is, that was the moment when they knew they were screwed, because they’d found the kids, everybody was cheering, and they knew the kids were going to die. Now, when I saw that, I thought, ‘That’s a drama.’”

For Howard, delving into Nicholson’s screenplay was an exercise in learning how much he didn’t know about the events themselves, from the looming threat of monsoon season and how closely a storm hit after the rescue was concluded, to the use of anesthesia in transporting the children safely out of the cave.

“I didn’t know about the the sort of the risks, and even once I did know, to recognize, that there were so many ways in which people who, on a voluntary basis, were risking themselves physically, emotionally,” Howard said. “None of them thought this was going to be a triumphant, happy ending. They really didn’t. They felt like it was going to be heartache at the end of all of this. But, nonetheless, once they were there, they just felt they needed to commit to the the effort and see.”

“Even if you can get one person, one kid out, that’s where it was a remarkable. It was full of surprises. And I think it was that spirit of volunteerism that I found the most moving.”

Watch the full interview here or at the top of this file.