Keeping the Emotion of the True Story: Dana Ledoux Miller and Michael Russell Gunn Discuss 'Thai Cave Rescue'
By Sonya Alexander • September 22, 2022
'Thai Cave Rescue,' gives us the perspective of the in-peril boys. Getting to know the boys provides an emotional foundation the other movies don’t have. Written by showrunners Dana Ledoux Miller and Michael Russell Gunn, the six-episode series has just the right dose of wit, drama, and action.
There have been a few fantastic films about the rescue of twelve Thai children from a Tham Luang cave. Ron Howard’s splendid Thirteen Lives debuted this year with a limited release in theatres and now streams exclusively on Amazon Prime. The nail-biting documentary The Rescue came out in 2021 and The Cave, helmed by Tom Waller, was released in 2019. All the films do an admirable job of portraying the harrowing experience of rescuing the boys.
On September 22, 2022 Netflix releases the limited series Thai Cave Rescue, which gives us the perspective of the in-peril boys. Getting to know the boys provides an emotional foundation the other movies don’t have. Written by showrunners Dana Ledoux Miller and Michael Russell Gunn, the six-episode series has just the right dose of wit, drama, and action. The cast includes Papangkorn “Beam” Lerkchaleampote as Coach Eak and Thaneth “Ek” Warakulnukroh as Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn. All of the twelve boys are played by local actors.
Dana’s film background blossomed in Hawaii. Of Samoan decent, she brings a distinct point-of-view to Thai Cave Rescue. She’s written for HBO’s The Newsroom, Netflix’s NARCOS, and has written and produced for ABC’s Designated Survivor. Michael Russell Gunn also wrote and produced on Designated Survivor and The Newsroom. These two have a long-lasting friendship and their barometers for projects to work on are always in sync.
How did you end up choosing the local actors?
Dana Ledoux Miller: Only the most amazing casting director of all time...who is truly the best casting director I've ever worked with. Her name is Pui. We also used Kirsty McGregor out of Australia for all our non-Thai actors. But Pui was the woman who guided us through this entire process. Just incredible taste and dedication to the point that she flew up to northern Thailand in the midst of COVID and met with every youth soccer team in the region just to get to know the boys and their parents and start to put the word out there. We auditioned boys specifically from Ching Rai and some even from the Wild Boars team now.
How long was filming?
Dana: We filmed from August of last year through December.
And how did this project come about?
Michael Russell Gunn: The project originated with two of the guys who made Crazy Rich Asians, Jon Chu and John Penatti. They wanted to talk to the boys themselves and their families. They wanted to focus on the Thai side of what happened, not just the Western perspective. They pursued the life rights for the Wild Boars and their families. They did that in 2018. Jon Chu's producing partner is a friend. I started chasing the project. I asked Dana to join the project, luckily she was available. Netflix was really cool about it. It’s good to have the executives of the project behind you.
Since you guys have worked together before, did that make production a little easier?
Michael: Absolutely. I don't think it could have been done otherwise.
Dana: It absolutely did. We started as assistants on The Newsroom together. That's where we became friends. After that, we rented an office and have shared one right up until the pandemic began. Then we gave it up. We've been friends for a long time.
We're very different writers but we're very good friends. I think what we both learned as our first time out showrunning was you hear how hard this job is, but it's not until you experience it that you really understand. We trusted each other, which was great to have. There were things we didn't know how to do but we could step back and take a moment to talk it out. I think every show should have more than one showrunner…!
Dana, you said you two have very different writing styles. How so?
Dana: Michael's been writing a lot of features that tend towards political thriller, really exciting stuff. I gravitate towards more character-driven, family drama. This project proved to be the best of both worlds. We got to tell an exciting adventure story but also one that was really grounded in the people that experienced it.
What were the challenges of doing a true story?
Dana: What aren't the challenges! It’s a true story where all the people are still very much alive and not famous. There's a lot of responsibility to take care with their stories. There's also that people feel very passionate about the story all over the world because we all sat in our living rooms and watched it unfold on CNN or wherever. We really took that responsibility to heart when trying to craft it but also were very aware that we wanted to tell a story that was entertaining and exciting and did justice to the peril that these boys were in.
As we approached it, we really started to focus on three figures throughout the story. When we pitched this to Netflix, we said we wanted to be as authentic as we could be and part of that began with language. This idea that the characters would be speaking whatever language they would be speaking on the day. There were Thai people speaking Thai, there were multiple dialects. There were English speakers that came in. There were communication challenges that arose from having so many people from different places trying to do this incredible thing. When we approached the story, we approached it from where it started...with the boys.
This is always where we wanted to start. Then we let the story grow as it grew in real life. Once they were trapped in the cave, we started to bring in the Thai people. We started to bring in outside people and kept leveling up as the series goes on. We found that there were three people who were very pivotal in telling this story. The coach, who we feel really saved those boys. If it had been me, they wouldn't have made it through! He was so instrumental in them surviving the first ten days. And then, the provincial governor, Narongsak, who really was in charge of operations and took bold chances and trusted people to do wild things to make this happen. Then, Dr. Harry, the Australian, who anesthetized the boys. We shot in the caves and had to imagine what it must have been like to drag a child underwater unconscious....I still have a hard time imagining it.
What were the challenges of filming on location?
Dana: On location, during COVID, and in northern Thailand where there isn't a whole lot of infrastructure for filming. There were a lot of challenges, but the crew that we hired in Thailand and several people we brought in from the outside were truly incredible. They were passionate about the project. We had the advantage of being able to tell a hopeful story about the world coming together when everything seemed so fraught and apart. We recognized how special that was. We were shooting during monsoon season, but the blazing hot Thai sun was out every day...!
Have any of the boys or the coach returned to the cave?
Dana: Oh, they absolutely have. Not all of them, though. When the rescuers left, they left tons of equipment. The next year, after the water receded, they went back to get the equipment and there was a boy in there helping them. They were like, 'Who are you?' He told them, 'I was in the cave!' He had been back several times.
Was there a writers’ room for this?
Dana: No, Michael and I wrote all the episodes.
What was your writing process?
Dana: We sold this about two weeks before the first lockdown for COVID. We started doing research. We hired a documentary team to go into Thailand and interview the boys, their parents and anyone who would talk to us....Governor Narongsak, the Thai government. Then we started. Even though we've never been writing partners, we do have a shorthand with each other and understand each other's sensibilities. We started breaking from there. We'd pass the scripts back and forth. Each taking a draft. It turned out to be a great collaboration.
How does being a producer on a project affect the writing?
Dana: We're fortunate that we came up in television and wrote with a producer's eye really from the start. Michael worked in casting a long time before that. I was a set P.A. for a long time. We both have things that we keep an eye on naturally just by virtue of where we've come from. The budget is never far from our minds. When we first started, we tried to put it all out there. We were ready to have Netflix rein us in but to their credit they didn't really. This was a story they were excited to tell.
What was the biggest adjustment to working in Hollywood compared to Hawaii?
Dana: The weather isn't nearly as good! When I was working in Hawaii, I was working mostly in production and making my own short films. I've been fortunate to move from writers’ room to writers’ room then eventually to doing my own development of shows. What I am desperate to do is to get back to working in Hawaii because the creative community there, the Pacific Islander community, has been pivotal in shaping my creative sensibilities. It is my dream to collaborate with those friends and amazing storytellers again. What I love about Hawaii is that the film community there understands me in a way that I don't have to explain.
Do you remember your first writing job and how have you grown since then?
Michael: If specs don't count, my first writing gig was The Newsroom. My first spec was a feature and that was kind of wild...to go through a bidding situation. How I've grown since then...I think I'm just a better writer. Dana has certainly made me better with character. I also think I'm better at structure than I used to be. Television is extremely helpful with focusing your mind on structure. The television writers’ room does a good job of training you to break story.
For this series was there one episode that was particularly daunting or challenging?
Michael: Episode Three, right through the cutting process, was the most daunting episode.
Dana: I think the second act is always really hard! Episode Three was one where we're transitioning from it being boys-centered to opening it up to the entire world, more people coming in from the outside. It's also the episode that took the biggest hit when we were asked to do extensive cuts for budget about two weeks before we started filming. I hate making cuts on the fly, but we did our best.
Do you believe in outlining?
Dana: I do. I do a lot of prep work before starting a script. I still scribble and still write by hand, even my first draft of a script. Breaking the outline down is really instructive to me about where I'm missing things and where things are working. It allows me to look at things as a whole before getting into the depths of a script.
What message do you want the series to convey?
Michael: That the whole world can come together and save each other. This story kind of saved us a little bit during the pandemic. It's very inspiring.
This story is fraught with emotion. The others focused on the professionals involved.