Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi on Charting the Mechanics of the Impossible in “The Rescue”

Ever since Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi became partners both professionally and personally after the two met at a conference Chin was speaking at in his capacity as one of the world’s great professional climbers, hoping to lure Vasarhelyi, one of the world’s great nonfiction filmmakers, to help him make what would become “Meru,” it hasn’t been only been an enormously successful collaboration — the two would earn an Oscar for co-directing their subsequent film “Free Solo” in 2018 — but the films themselves have been beautiful testaments to teamwork in spite of the seemingly isolated pursuits that their subjects have embarked on, scaling mountains where few dare to climb. A profile of Alex Honnold, who used his bare hands to reach the top of the 3000-foot tall rock wall El Capitan, could’ve left audiences impressed with his individual achievement alone, but Chin and Vasarhelyi knew to pull back the camera to show the encouragement he received from his partner Sanni to think bigger than he ever had before, and while the main attraction of “Meru” may have been the thrilling footage that Chin had captured on his own climbs in the Himalayas with Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk, what made it ultimately so endearing was the recognition of both all those involved and their the specific skills that made the impossible seem within reach.

It’s why Chin and Vasarhelyi were so perfectly suited for “The Rescue,” even if it’s their first joint effort away from the mountains. Brought onto the highly sought-after project after “The Mauritanian” director Kevin Macdonald had to leave, the duo take on the unenviable challenge of providing fresh insight into the well-chronicled retrieval of a 12-member youth soccer team and their assistant coach in the summer of 2018 from the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand, an 18-day effort that required the help of over 10,000 people from around the world. The film would become arguably their most daunting to date – besides the necessity to transcend what people already knew about the affair that captured the public’s imagination the world over, they had been prevented from telling the story from the perspective of the soccer team, which had sold the rights to their side of the events to another set of filmmakers, and when COVID reared its ugly head just as “The Rescue” was headed into production, interviews and all other research had to be conducted remotely.

For filmmakers rooted in having the tactile experience of making their films to extend them so viscerally to audiences, this might seem like as big a blow as they come, but in fact it set the stage for Chin and Vasarhelyi’s grandest triumph to date when it required leaning on the kind of network behind the scenes they often celebrate on screen and find strengths may not have known they had. It seems no accident that in introducing each of the divers from abroad involved in the extraordinary effort to bring the boys to safety, it’s mentioned in the same line that John Volanthen is an IT expert, Rick Stanton is a retired firefighter and Dr. Richard Harris, an anesthesiologist – all occupations that happened to come in handy as they worked with the Thai Royal Navy to extract members of the soccer team one by one out of the incredibly tight space and deliver them out of waterways constantly threatening to rise during monsoon season.

“The Rescue” is full of heretofore unknown details about the treacherous two-and-a-half weeks, but Chin and Vasarhelyi, along with their longtime editor Bob Eisenhardt, pull everything they’re able to collect into an even greater whole as they give an understanding of how the mission was affected when unfolding in the deeply spiritual community of Mae Sai, whose mayor calls in the nationally revered monk Khuva Boonchum to ask whether the boys are even still alive when it’s in doubt, and the completely untested process of bringing the team out by putting them to sleep when oxygen levels inside the cave were at a minimum. The incredible extrication is matched in how many various skills are brought to bear by the filmmakers, who recreate some scenes inside the cave, but are equally adept at drawing out their subjects to vividly convey an experience that none will ever forget. It’s unlikely anyone watching “The Rescue” will either and as the film opens in theaters following a celebrated premiere at Telluride, Chin and Vasarhelyi spoke of how they pulled off the film against all odds, the importance of bringing a positive story about the Asian community out to the world and working in late-breaking material.

What got you interested in this?

E. Chai Vasarhelyi: I think it was like many people in 2018. It was a pretty bleak moment in the world and this story was riveting. We followed it as parents, as humans, living the ups, the downs, and eventually the great happiness when everything worked out.

Jimmy Chin: And obviously, we were like, “This is an amazing story.”

Were the limitations on this actually part of the appeal?

E. Chai Vasarhelyi: We got involved in October of 2019 and we were supposed to go to Thailand in February 2020, but we canceled it because we had three cinematographers drop out because of the fears around COVID and also our own fears. But it’s the strange sadomasochistic part of nonfiction where the constraints are actually what’s most inspiring. This film had every constraint. There were the rights questions. There was no footage that we knew of from within the cave or very little, and if you could fill in the cave, it’s pitch black or the water is muddy. And it’s halfway across the world in Thai.

A great part of this becomes the East-West relations, and when you’re facilitating these conversations in your own work, does it help you understand what an undertaking it was?

E. Chai Vasarhelyi: Yeah, we felt like we were in a unique position to listen and we were most interested in that East-West because after spending so much time with the story, who knows if it wasn’t Khuva Boonchum, the monk, who got them out of the cave? Having grown up where Asian spirituality is so much part of both our childhoods, as well as the Western influence, it was one of those special opportunities…

Jimmy Chin: And who’s to say whose belief system is real? Presenting multiple points of view and perspectives was really important to us.

E. Chai Vasarhelyi: And at the same time, there are very few positive nonfiction stories about Asians, and we felt we were in a position to listen properly. And because also it’s true to the story. It was so many different people who came together. The essence of the story, at least in our opinion, was that disparate parties who speak different languages — some who are volunteers, some are special forces, the monk — came together to achieve the impossible. That is why the logistics really mattered because the devil was in the details, and it’s often the case in non-fiction where the details speak more than anything. It’s how you learn about what it actually felt like is how that thing feels, the texture of it.

It’s interesting to hear how important it was to bring a positive story about Asians to the screen, when in part I understand one of the limitations was that the soccer team’s story is tied up by another production. Was it tricky to figure out the perspective on this?

E. Chai Vasarhelyi: Yeah, but we tell the story from the outside in. That’s one of the reasons why we pursued this Thai Navy Seals footage, and we included the Thai Navy Seals, and also it was really important for us to explore Khuva Boonchum, the monk. But it’s not so much about necessarily the Asian “point of view.” It was just being true to the story where the essence of this tale, this story is that people from totally disparate backgrounds came together to achieve the impossible. It was also this idea of who are you that allows you at the critical moment to be your best self, to make the most generous act that you could imagine. Rick [Stanton] and John, they don’t know these kids. Rick isn’t a parent, but he knew he was the only person in the world who could do this and he believed that just saving one kid was enough, so that was something that was really compelling for us and it’s only gained poignancy through COVID.

In doing the recreations with the British divers, could you actually get insight into either the rescue or how people behaved as they went through the motions of it?

Jimmy Chin: One of the reasons we wanted to get the divers together to really demonstrate how they did it was to serve a few purposes — to be able to really actually see how they dive, how they prepare, all the equipment, and the state of mind they go into when they’re diving because obviously there’s not a lot of room for mistakes in cave diving. It was just inspiring to see them practice their craft. But we also learned so much spending time with them, watching them do something that they’ve devoted their lives to and we were able to film them demonstrating exactly how they did it, and that authenticity was really important to us. It was really important to the divers too. They wanted to make sure it represented exactly what they do and how they do it.

From what I understand, you weren’t able to actually visit the cave until well into the shoot. What was it like when you finally did?

E. Chai Vasarhelyi: When I got my second vaccine, I went to Thailand in May 2021. And going to Thailand was very much about walking the cave myself, meeting the children, meeting Coach Ek, meeting a lot of the people we’d interviewed over Zoom but never met in person, and working with the Thai military to try to figure out if we could acquire their footage. So it was late, and the bones of the story were already there, so we had a very difficult summer getting everything in, but it was the right thing to do. And we all rallied around that, trying to be our own best selves.

It was crazy to hear you procured 87 hours of footage that you then could incorporate into the film. That seems like a mixed blessing, given how late in the production it was.

E. Chai Vasarhelyi: The story was very much the same, but we thought the Thai Navy Seals had 90 minutes. And we had heard rumors about what they had — mainly John Volanthen remembered carrying one of their cameras, and he’s like, “I filmed this motivational cheer.” And that alone was enough to justify pursuing this because there was so little footage. But it turned out that they actually had 87 hours and the film was largely finished, but why it was the right thing to do was it allows you to feel what it was like inside that cave and to understand the scope of what we’re talking about. Because until I saw the cave myself, you understand the ceilings are 100 feet tall and just how deep it is, and [you realize] this is absolutely impossible.

Jimmy Chin: Chai was crawling on her belly [to get inside the cave].

E. Chai Vasarhelyi: It’s your worst nightmare. You can’t turn around to get to the other side. But it made sense why they needed thousands of people to support those divers. It also made sense why the children went in because it’s magical. Our kids would love playing in that cave. It’s just beguiling in that way, so we were constantly learning along the way on this one and it was very much probably how the Thai Navy Seals felt. We went in without a map into a pitch black hole, but by listening closely, we were able to put this all together.

A really nice accent on the film is the interstitial animation that conveys some of the more spiritual elements of the story. What was it like to incorporate that into the film?

Jimmy Chin: That was Chai’s vision and we worked with some Thai artists and painters that did an incredible job. The story around the princess for us was really important, and maybe not everybody would’ve chosen to include that in the film, but this is exactly why we felt like we were well-suited to make this film because we did want to give space and respect the belief system around the locals. It’s an important perspective to bring out because oftentimes we only live in our own belief systems and aren’t able to see outside of it, so hopefully we bring that to light. And at the end, our suggestion [to the artists] was how would you portray this in your art? And during the credits, you can see the story played out again in Thai paintings.

It’s such a lovely note to leave audiences with. What’s it been like to finally get this out into the world? You’ve been doing a lot of festivals this past month.

E. Chai Vasarhelyi: We’ve all been living through this really strange time in our lives where we’ve been isolated, we’ve been scared, so it’s this strange thing of it’s amazing to show this film in person because the film is about connection. And on a very basic level, it’s great to see our colleagues that we haven’t seen for ages. But there’s always fear to that and I want people to make good decisions. I want to be safe. So it’s been bittersweet. You make these movies in this dark room by yourself or with your closest collaborators and it’s a hope and a prayer that people understand why you did it, so that’s been incredibly humbling to see people really understand the film and understand the complexity of it and also its enduring heart.

“The Rescue” opens on October 8th in Los Angeles at the Grove and the Landmark, where Jimmy Chin and subject Thanet Natisri will appear for Q & As after the 4:10 pm and 7:05 pm screenings on October 8th and 9th and 1:30 pm on October 10th, and in New York at the Angelika Film Center, where E. Chai Vasarhelyi and subjects Rick Stanton and Mitch Torrel will appear for Q & As after the 7 pm and 8 pm screenings on October 8th and 9th.