Writer/Director/Producer Tom Waller (Thomas de Warrenne Waller) was born in Bangkok to a Thai Buddhist mother and Irish Catholic father. He graduated from the Northern Film School in Leeds, England in 1995 and his first film project as producer and director was “Monk Dawson” (1998) aka “Passion for the Priest”.
He was nominated in 2012 for two Thai National Film Association Awards: Best Director and Best Screenplay for his murder mystery Mindfulness and Murder (2011), and won the Best Director award at Dhaka International Film Festival for his biopic, “The Last Executioner” (2014), also Best Picture “Tukkata Tong” Golden Doll award (Thailand’s equivalent of a Golden Globe) in 2015. He founded in 1996 his production company De Warrenne Pictures, one of Thailand’s leading full service production companies serving foreign productions.
On the occasion of his latest film “The Cave” being screened at the BFI London Film Festival we speak with him about the emotional drive of the project, the challenges, Jim Warny and the other humble heroes behind the rescue and more.
First of all, your movie is really interesting and gripping. Can you tell us a bit about the back-story? When did you first think about making a film about the event and about getting the rights to the story? It must have not been easy!
I was watching the news like everyone else on the planet and people’s hearts were beating. Nothing else seemed to matter except whether those boys had been found. I happened to be in Ireland at the time during all this unfolded and when I discovered there was a diver who had been involved in the mission to extract the boys from the cave, who happened to be from Ennis in County Clare, I reached out to him. That’s when the project was born since I met Jim Warny, one of the cave rescue divers, not long after he had come back from Thailand. When he recounted his story to me over a cup of tea I just knew I had to make this film.
I actually really liked that the main focus wasn’t on the boys… was this your plan or a legal/rights necessity?
I knew from early reports that it would be almost impossible to get access to the kids since the Thai Government were their chaperones, so I decided to concentrate the story for the film on the unsung heroes and the volunteer spirit of the rescue.
My idea is that people of the region were happy with the project and love the whole production of “The Cave”, but I might be wrong… What can you tell us about the reaction of the people?
Yes, local people were delighted to be involved, but anywhere that was connected to a government agency such as the National Parks authorities or other entities met us with caution. The ‘wild boars’ became a sensitive issue because of the rights situation and the fact that the authorities were looking to sell their story and life rights to the highest bidder. Therefore, we had to be cautious and aware of this, treading carefully not to ruffle any feathers at the Ministry of Culture. Some individuals declined to be involved, waiting for Hollywood to approach them (I think they’re still waiting!). But mostly everyone involved in the project was very enthusiastic.
Another educated guess is that the cave of the film wasn’t the real cave …? Or was it?
Most of the cave you see in the film is another cave in another province of Thailand that looks similar, but all the exterior shots are at the real Tham Luang. We were granted permission by the Thai authorities to film there eventually after months of lobbying.
Did you have from the start the idea of using the real divers and other real participants to re-enacting the rescue?
I had seen and enjoyed Clint Eastwood’s “The 15:17 to Paris” which used the real people in the story telling. I felt that would be an interesting approach for this project too and who better to play a Belgian diver with an Irish accent who was an expert cave diver, than Jim Warny himself!
Re-enacting such a stressful mission must have been difficult and emotional for the divers. Where they reluctant to participate?
Jim hesitated at first, confessing that he “wasn’t an actor”, but then when I explained it would be him playing alongside professional actors and that he had to “re-enact” rather than “act” he was fully up for it. It was certainly an emotional experience for him, and the other divers who reprised their roles.
How did you meet Jim Warny and how about his involvement? He has quite a lot of space in the movie and he looks like a lovely and sympathetic man.
That initial message on social media got me a meeting with Jim. From the minute I met him I knew he would be an interesting character for this story – an ordinary and humble man who became a hero. Without him and his story, I wouldn’t have been able to make this film.
The turbojet pump manufacturer story was another surprise. Did you come across many of these touching episodes while researching?
Yes, the pump guy’s story was one of many I discovered during the course of my research. With so many participants in the rescue mission there were hundreds of stories. This guy was such a character and his story encompassed the selflessness of the Thai people that I wanted to capture. With the event itself embedded in a Thai narrative, I felt he was a good way in to the story on the Thai side, showing ordinary people who went to extraordinary lengths to help with the rescue, before the foreigners became involved.
There is lots of spirituality in your film and in the location itself. Can you talk about your view about it?
It was important for me to incorporate the local beliefs and traditions that the Northern Thai people especially believe in, hence the theme of the legend of Nang Non in the film. My films often have a spiritual context which is not always about religion, although I wanted to show that the power of prayer could also have been a contributing factor to the success of the mission.
Can you talk a little bit about some of the specific production challenges you faced on “The Cave”? How big was your crew and how long did you film?
With so much attention on the kids after they had been rescued and the fact that they were being groomed for a Hollywood movie, we had to make this film somewhat under the radar. We knew it wouldn’t be easy dealing with Thai authorities so tried to film in locations that were not too obvious. We also constructed a cave complex set with underwater tunnels at an abandoned swimming pool in a secret location in Bangkok. The whole production was several hundred people, but we remained discreet and tried to keep it to a small crew in order to be able to film at various locations, including sequences shot overseas in Ireland and the UK.
“The Cave” is a rather different type of film. Why was it important for you to tell this story in this way and now?
I realise that my film is not typical. We have the real rescuers playing roles in the film. It’s not a Hollywood production. It’s very honest and true to what actually happened, with almost no embellishment. It’s a unique film for a unique event. I hope audiences will appreciate that this was really a passion project to tell the story in the right way.
Are you working on any new projects?
Yes, but I’m waiting to see how this film goes before deciding on the next project!