How ‘The Rescue’ directors made reenactment scenes featuring the Thai cave divers who were really there

Inside the cave where Thai soccer team was missing
‘The Rescue.’ National Geographic
  • The Documentary “The Rescue” use the Thai cave divers who were really there in its reenactments.
  • The two-week shoot of the reenactments included challenges like a cave set that was too small.
  • The filmmakers also worried the reenactments were over the top in their dramatics.

Filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin were instantly in a dilemma when they decided to take on “The Rescue,” their documentary on how the thrilling 2018 Thai cave rescue was pulled off.

With no footage of what really went on inside the caves during the daring 18 days, how could they show an audience what really transpired to get 12 boys and their soccer coach out of the labyrinth Tham Luang Nang Non cave in the Chiang Rai province of northern Thailand, many of which were completely submerged underwater?

They decided to film reenactments. But that can be a blessing or a curse for a documentary.

Done effectively, reenactments can be memorable like the HBO hit “McMillions” or the fantastic “Dark Side of the Ring” series on Vice. However, if they come off cheesy and unrealistic – think “Unsolved Mysteries” or ABC’s “20/20” – it takes viewers out of the story completely.

But Vasarhelyi and Chin quickly realized they had an ace in the hole. The small group of divers – whose lifelong hobby of going into narrow underwater caves was instrumental in the saving of the kids – didn’t just want to supervise the reenactments, they were willing to star in them.

“It had to be them,” Chin told Insider of having the real-live divers star in their own reenactments.

Diver in the water
John Volanthen in ‘The Rescue.’ National Geographic

The filmmakers used the Thai cave divers in the reenactments because authenticity was essential

Close to the end of doing their principal interviews for “The Rescue,” Vasarhelyi and Chin traveled to the famed Pinewood Studios in the UK. Known as the site where some of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters are shot, the doc filmmakers were there to film the crucial reenactments using a cave set submerged in a water tank.

Rick Stanton, a retired firefighter; his friend John Volanthen, an IT consultant; and a handful of other cave divers who were involved in the Thai cave rescue brought all their suits and equipment to Pinewood to recount what they actually did.

Vasarhelyi and Chin are known best for their death-defying documentaries like the Oscar-winning “Free Solo,” which chronicled Alex Honnold climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope. For them, being painstakingly accurate was essential.

“They were really keyed in that it was authentic,” Chin said of the divers’ involvement. “When we are going to shoot something climbing and your whole peer group looks at it and is like, ‘That’s complete B.S.’… How the participants feel about the film is really important to us.”

Cave divers in the water
Rick Stanton and John Volanthen in ‘The Rescue.’ National Geographic

The filmmakers searched around Pinewood Studios for a larger cave set after realizing the one they had wasn’t big enough

The two-week shoot was done last October in the midst of the pandemic and included everyone being tested daily and working in pods, making the underwater shoots, which are typically filmed at a snail’s pace, being made even slower.

And Vasarhelyi and Chin admit the cave set they started with wasn’t the best.

“On a doc’ budget you can’t really afford a realistic-looking cave,” Vasarhelyi said with a laugh. “So we had a cave that wasn’t big at all.”

The first week of shooting was so frustrating, Vasarhelyi said the crew began walking around Pinewood to see if there was another cave option.

“The DP was walking around and he saw a piece of someone else’s cave, like from some action movie,” Vasarhelyi said.

“It was triple our size and he was like, ‘Let’s take that cave’ and we got permission to get it,” Vasarhelyi continued. “But we didn’t know if it could be submerged, if it would disintegrate right when it hit the water. And it’s too expensive to just drain tanks when things don’t work so it was just a lot of hope it would work and it lasted just long enough for us to use it underwater.”

Finally, with a proper underwater set, the filmmakers were ready for the final week of shooting. But there was still a nagging anxiety about the reenactments.

“We didn’t think it was going to work,” Chin admitted.

Cave diver in an underwater cave
‘The Rescue.’ National Geographic

‘We were worried we were going too far with the dramatics’

As the divers reenacted their remarkable rescue for the cameras, both Vasarhelyi and Chin were concerned what they were filming was going the way of bad “Unsolved Mysteries” reenactment footage.

The water was so dirty (bits of broccoli were put in the tank to make it look like the murky water in the cave) that the directors were concerned audiences wouldn’t see closeup shots of the divers with their masks on underwater. And then there was reenacting the rescues.

“We were worried we were going too far with the dramatics,” Chin said.

Particularly, they were worried about the first rescue Stanton and Volanthen make before even finding the kids. They encounter a group of scared men who were trying to pump the water out of the caves and got trapped. The reenactment footage shows the men flailing wildly underwater as Stanton and Volanthen get them out of the caves.

“I was like, ‘But is this over the top?'” Chin recalled asking Stanton and Volanthen after shooting the scene at Pinewood. “They were like, ‘Not at all.’ It turns out that rescue was a full-on wrestling match because the men thought they were going to die.”

Jimmy Chin in a grey shirt and hat, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi in a jacket and blue hat
‘The Rescue’ directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Vivien Killilea/Getty

Chin said he and Vasarhelyi became less anxious about the reenactments as shooting progressed and Stanton and Volanthen talked them through it.

The result is some of the best reenactment footage you will ever see. With the mixture of the actual cave divers in the scenes and the footage having a look that feels more realistic than Hollywood gloss, it’s hard at times to tell the archival footage from the reenactments.

“There were things that you can’t understand until you see it, like binding the children’s hands behind their backs,” Vasarhelyi said, referring to how cave diver Dr. Richard Harris, an Australian anesthetist, injected each child with a mixture of Xanax, Ketamine, and Atropine so they could calmly be transported out of the caves (which was a two-and-a-half-hour process).

“There’s a gravity of that when you finally see it,” Vasarhelyi added.