Howard and his first A.D. William M. Connor’s initial plan to stage the Thirteen Lives production in Thailand—and shoot at the site of the actual caves—fizzled after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. The filmmaker had already tapped crucial craftspeople in production designer Molly Hughes, prior collaborator on Hillbilly Elegy as well as art director on several Harry Potter installments, and celebrated Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Call Me by Your Name, Suspiria) by the time reality had settled in: They’d need to make the film remotely, building much of the cave from scratch.
In working with Mukdeeprom and location scouts, Howard settled on Queensland, Australia. “The topography really serviced northern Thailand,” Howard says. Overall, Mukdeeprom was a key and close early collaborator for the director, who needed to ensure both the film and those behind it could authentically tell this culturally sensitive, pivotal story. “It is a true event, and more than that, it is a famous event—when the event happened, I followed it very closely and was really moved by it. I started to think about how to turn the event into a movie back then,” Mukdeeprom says. “When Ron sent me a script, I was so excited because the script is what I thought it should be. Actually, I was offered to participate in another film about this event, but the script/idea didn’t speak to me [in the same way]!”
The film is structured evenly between the intense action within the caves and the quieter human drama outside of them, where thousands of volunteers and media from around the world gathered, supported one another, and waited nervously for news. The contrast between the two environments was key to Howard from the outset, particularly since the latter part of the story would center Thai characters like Thanet Natisri (played by Nophand Boonyai), a restaurant owner who spearheads a water diversion effort in the nearby mountains to render the caves more navigable.