On September 22, 2022, the Netflix mini-series “Thai Cave Rescue” will be released. I’m already excited about the 6 episodes, because I was an extra at the shooting. Here I describe my most impressive experiences, where it was filmed and the interactions with the actors.
Scene 1 – in front of the cave in Doi Nang Noon
In the middle of the night, the square in front of the Tham Luang is lit as bright as day. Large raindrops clap on my back and the clayey ground in front of me. I am soaking wet up to my underpants and slowly the cold creeps under my clothes. It is not difficult for me to look exhausted.
This scene in front of the cave in Doi Nang Non is the most intense memory of my time as an extra on the Netflix production under the working title “Thai Cave Rescue”.
The scenes on the stairs in front of the cave entrance were all shot in fake rain. Soaking wet and fatigued, it was not a pleasant experience. All the sitting around and waiting in stand-by was annoying and dissatisfying. Only the pleasant conversations with the other extras made these hours easier.
The miracle of Doi Nang Non
On June 23, 2018, 12 teenage “Muu Pa – translates as wild boar” soccer players and their 25-year-old coach ran into Tham Luang cave in the local mountain of Mae Sai, the northernmost city of Thailand. In doing so, they ignored the warning sign installed there. In the rainy season, caves are dangerous.
In a massive and internationally supported search, the group was found alive on July 2. They had fled further and further into the cave from the rising water and were sitting on a sandbank without light or food.
Contrary to all fears, all were rescued unharmed and alive from the cave on July 10 by an international team of cave divers. This required an enormous logistical effort. There were up to 1000 people on the site at one time: Rescuers, army, navy, police, politicians, international divers, volunteers, doctors and nurses, reporters, film crews, cooks, drivers, masseurs, etc.
A Thai diver and former Navy Seal lost his life in the cave during this operation.
How I ended up with the job as an Extra
“We are looking for extras (background and featured) for this series based on real events in the Chiang Rai area. Shooting various days from August to November. There are different budgets for different roles, 2-5k per day.”
I had understood the ad in the local Facebook group as a call for photo shoots. 40 – 60 year old westerners wanted. I look like a 60-year-old, I thought to myself and applied. I am fine, if they don’t want me.
It wasn’t until the day before my first assignment that I received concrete information: 5:15 a.m. tomorrow morning at the Golden Triangle. Oops, that early? Yes, but the shooting would be over by noon.
Scene 2 – in the luxury hotel on the Golden Triangle
I enjoy the sight of the pretty woman sitting across from me at lunch in a 5-star hotel directly on the Golden Triangle. But my gaze also goes far out over her shoulder to the grazing elephants on the small border river. I wonder if they were put there specifically for the filming or if that is part of the special concept of the Anantara. During the shooting we talk silently and taste from the fruit plate in front of us. I feel completely underdressed in my shorts, which they gave me in the dressing room. The ZARA label can’t convince me either.
Places where Thai Cave Rescue was filmed:
Chiang Mai – in a very beautiful, traditionally designed complex: Monfai. My friend and colleague Bernd celebrated his wedding there. An event location of the finest.
Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort – the Deluxe 3 Countries View Suite is available in low season for 1861,- Euro. Have a look at the ratings on Agoda. At least 4 meals are included.
Tham Luang – In the large hall of the “big cave” in the Doi Nang Noon massif near Mae Sai, in the very north of Thailand, it is pleasantly cool in the hot season. It was in 2015 that I first met Vern, the cave expert, and he pointed out how dangerous a trip during the rainy season in the corridors of the surrounding caves could be.
Khun Kon Waterfall Ranger Station – space, tranquility, jungle and good accessibility. These seem to me to be the reasons for choosing this large park and campground. This place had nothing to do with the drama of the rescue, but is a nice trip to nature from Chiang Rai.
Studio Bangkok – In November, the crew moved on to Bangkok. All underwater shots were filmed there.
Scene 3 – inside the cave
“Hooaa” resounds through the cave. “Action.” Our sign to trudge up the uneven stairs. Carrying the 2 oxygen tanks is supposed to look hard, yet they are made of Styrofoam and light as a feather. I get hot under the wetsuit even with this little effort. With me there are at least 100 people in the cave. Thai and foreign extras in different outfits. Stand-ins and actors portraying the characters who were directly involved in the rescue. In addition, the entire film crew is standing hip-deep in the water. Will I recognize myself in the background of the scene?
The first time in the cave I was excited. Now I would be able to watch how the filming was done. We tried to follow the vague instructions and improvised every now and then. Patience was needed here as well, because many scenes were repeated several times. I watched the director wade through the water back and forth, sometimes disappearing behind a monitor, sometimes giving instructions, sometimes correcting the position of the camera.
In these moments, it became more than clear to me what a huge amount of effort goes into even the smallest scenes. So many people in different functions and roles have to be coordinated so that the vision of the producers, the cameramen and the director can merge into a harmonious whole in just such a short moment.
My Swiss colleague and friend Peter commented: “I had no idea how often scenes are shot from different perspectives. I didn’t realize how elaborate that was.”
(You can find the full interview with Peter here)
The role of the extras is a very subordinate one. Have you ever noticed that everyone involved in a film, right down to the gaffer boy, is mentioned by name in the film credits? But not extras! We had to stand by in case the director decides he needs a few more people moving around right there in the background.
Although we were low in the hierarchy, I think we were not badly taken care of. We were given good food that any Thai family would have been happy to take on a picnic. We had chairs and tables in a tent. Sometimes I brought my notebook, mostly I read when I wasn’t engaged in conversation with my colleagues.
Fellow extras on the set
Above all, I enjoyed meeting so many different people. The long wait allowed for interesting conversations. In one day I counted 20 different nationalities: Thailand, Germany, Switzerland, England, USA, Brazil, Australia, Greece, Iran, Finland, Austria, France, Italy, Turkey, Holland, Belgium, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
The biggest challenge – Waiting sitting, waiting standing, waiting in the water.
Professional cinematographer Heike aka Pushbikegirl had given me a warning. “Take a good book with you”. She was right. Often we waited in the extras tent, older Thai asleep, younger ones playing with their mobile phones and the farang partly grumbling, partly engaged in a conversation. Often we waited for hours until we were called in groups to “stand-by”. That was then near the cave or similar. Only when a scene was being shot where the director wanted us to be there in the background, were we instructed and set up. But even then, a lot of the time consisted of standing around and waiting for the camera to record the scene.
The so-called stand-ins – people who stood in the scene instead of the main actors while cameras and lights were being set up before the actual shooting – also stood in the water at the bottom of the cave for the whole time.
My Italian colleague Bruno commented: “I felt like a tiger in a cage. The waiting was so exhausting. Sometimes it was 10 hours of waiting, just hanging around.”
(You can find the full interview with here)
Restroom trailers – yuck, right?
Have you ever read bloggers venting about restroom trailers? I haven’t. Well now that’s about to change.
Imagine with all your senses a toilet truck at a fair or at the Oktoberfest in Munich. How it smells there. How it looks there. How it feels. Do you now feel a slight sense of disgust? Good. I had that too when I went up the usual stairs. But then suddenly everything was different.
A pleasant chill surrounded me. Wow, air conditioning. Then right after that: it doesn’t smell unpleasant at all. Aha, framed movie posters on the wall. And the music is really good. The mobile toilets on the film set thrilled me.
Contact with the actors
My friend Peter was usually much closer than I was. For example, right at the beginning he was present as a foreign diver at the situation meetings of the divers in the tent. So he had contact with the Thai and international actors right from the start.
“We also ate together, because that’s how it went in the small team at the waterfall. Later, at the cave, this was no longer wanted, but I realized that late.” Peter told me this in an interview that I did with him.
Before the first scene described above, I was once again waiting at the stairs to the cave entrance when Vern approached me. Vern is a British speleologist whom I met in 2015 because he lived nearby. We were also talking about the cave systems in Doi Nang Noon at the time and agreed to do a tour after the rainy season.
So he approached me and I smiled at him. His questioning look irritated me. “Well, we haven’t been in contact that often. He probably doesn’t recognize me anymore,” I thought to myself. It wasn’t until I approached him that it became clear that this was Nicholas Bell the actor portraying Vern that I was talking to. Cool. A bit fuller than the original, but otherwise very fitting.
Yaya has a very familiar face in Thailand. The actress, who has won several awards, plays Kelly in Thai Cave Rescue. She was always friendly and polite to us extras. Some of the younger ones competed for the best selfies with her. Find her on Wikipedia.
But I found it just as fascinating to watch the directors Nattawut “Baz” Poonpiriya und Kevin Tancharoen, or the producers, the cameramen and assistants rather than the actors.
Beam as soccer coach Ek played his last role in this production before he died unexpectedly and under mysterious circumstances in March 2022. Read the article on Yahoo.
Would you like to be part of a film production?
That is quite possible. In 2020, “only” 176 international films were shot in Thailand because of the pandemic. Netflix is also there every now and then. The Corona period brought a lot of money into the cash registers of the streaming video provider. Accordingly, many films are being shot to make the range even larger and more diverse.
So there are by far more films shot in Thailand than James Bond, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Hangover and The Beach.
Thai casting agencies are always looking for ” Caucasian” models for photo shoots, commercial shoots or film productions. Check out “Phuket Casting” or “Actors, models, extra in Thailand” on Facebook. If you are not older than 50 and good looking, you have good chances. Just give it a try. However, you will need to have a high level of patience and flexibility.
Tham Luang Cave was reopened to tourists immediately after the completion of filming on site on October 15, 2021.
Alternatives to the Netflix Miniseries:
Thirteen Lives – AmazonPrime’s 2.5 hour film was released on August 5. A bit faster than Netflix.
The Trailer on Youtube.
The Cave – I was able to see the first production about the miracle of the rescue of the 13 youths in the cinema in Chiang Rai. I could not understand the the critics of many Thais.
The Trailer on Youtube.
The Rescue – award-winning documentary from National Geographic (found on Disney+).
Read more on Wikipedia.
The true events are documented in detail on Wikipedia. One striking difference to the Netflix production: There was no water at the bottom of the huge entrance cave. That’s how I had come to know the cave. During filming, water was dammed up down there, so the actors (and we extras) dramatically waded through the waist-high water.
Photos by: Netflix (Title), Michael, Peter, Bruce and me
Many thanks to Ray from “Life in Chiang Rai” for helping with the translation.