• Entertainment
  • Television

Netflix’s Authentic Thai Cave Rescue and the True Story Filmmakers Can’t Stop Retelling  

5 minute read

With news about war, inflation, and energy shortages gripping the headlines in recent months, it’s no wonder that the incredible real-life story of hope and survival of 12 young soccer players and their coach—who were rescued after being stuck in a cave in Northern Thailand for more than two weeks—continues to get air time.

On Sept. 22, Netflix will release a six-episode miniseries covering the story of the Thai youth soccer team and their 25-year old coach who got trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system in mid-2018 due to heavy rainfall. It’s at least the fourth major retelling of the dramatic rescue operation which grabbed the world’s attention. But those behind the series promise that it offers a different perspective and maximum authenticity. Thai Cave Rescue includes exclusive insights from extensive interviews with the real-life Wild Boars and their guardians—and some of the scenes were shot in the boys’ real homes. “The boys are the heart and soul of our series,” showrunner Dana Ledoux Miller, who created and wrote the show with Michael Russell Gunn, tells TIME.

Netflix’s new series is one of many adaptations of the rescue story for the big and small screen. In 2019, director Tom Waller’s Thai production The Cave used a mix of reconstructions and news footage to tell the story. This depiction gives the European diver Jim Warny, who played a key role in rescuing the team, a leading role in the story, playing himself.

The 2021 National Geographic documentary The Rescue followed, incorporating footage shot by Thai Navy SEALs during the mission to save the boys. Ron Howard’s vivid true-life drama Thirteen Lives, which was released this summer, was filmed in Queensland, Australia. It stars Colin Farrell and Vigo Mortensen as the British cave divers executing the risky operation.

Focusing on the boys at the heart of the story

According to the creators behind Thai Cave Rescue, their decision to put the boys at the center of the miniseries is what sets this retelling apart. “To have that kind of access and be able to ask the questions on the ground with the people who were actually inside the cave stuck, like the boys, was invaluable,” director Kevin Tancharoen tells TIME. “I just think that point of view is something that sometimes gets missed in other projects because it’s mainly focused on the mechanics and just how difficult the task at hand was on a technical level.”

Miller says that she and Gunn were both apprehensive about working with the boys to tell their stories. “The last thing we wanted to do was re-traumatize kids who had gone through something so incredible, and fraught,” she says. “I think the surprise was that they walked in and they were so open and eager and they shared so much with us.”

She adds that their sense of humor shined through. “They were telling stories about the pranks that they played on each other and the ways that they supported each other throughout it.”

Read More: Thai Soccer Team Describes How They Survived by Drinking Water From Stalactites While Trapped in Cave

Casting actors for an authentic retelling

When it came to finding actors to play the boys, the miniseries cast locals from Northern Thailand—most of them without prior acting experience—who worked with an acting coach to get them screen-ready. The show’s creators say that having locals, who would speak the regional dialects and knew the area, was important for the project’s authenticity. But they got a little more authenticity than they bargained for. Gunn says the first time they went to meet the cast, one of the boys told him that he had been there the day that the Wild Boars decided to enter the cave. “He and his brother were both on the team and they’re both in the show and they just happened to not go to the cave that day. It was stupefying to us.”

“Several of them play on the Wild Boars now and know the real boys,” says Miller, “so they’re playing versions of their friends.”

Not only was the series filmed entirely in Thailand, but several scenes were shot inside the complex cave system—which extends several miles into the side of a mountain—where the boys and their coach were trapped. All 12 boys and their coach Ekapol Chanthawong, or “Coach Ek,” were eventually rescued, though retired Thai navy diver Saman Kunam lost his life during the operation.

Filming at the real location was no easy task, and the weather didn’t help. “It did rain while we were there. I mean, we were filming in the exact season that they were there,” says Gunn. “It just swallows the sound and the light right out of the space and so it’s extraordinarily terrifying.”

But those behind the show hope that their efforts help bring a new perspective to the story, and appeal to audiences in Thailand. “Authenticity has been our main agenda since day one,” says director “Baz” Nattawut Poonpiriya. “We hope that this authenticity will reach the audience.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Amy Gunia at amy.gunia@time.com