In this exclusive interview, Byron Burton talks with editor James D. Wilcox on his latest collaboration with Oscar winning director Ron Howard, Amazon Studios’Thirteen Lives.
The film tackles the harrowing true story of the global effort to rescue the Thai soccer team trapped in the Tham Luang cave network during an unexpected rainstorm in 2018. In the face of insurmountable odds, a team of the world’s most skilled and experienced divers join forces with more than 10,000 volunteers to launch a rescue mission for the twelve missing boys and their coach.
Wilcox spoke to Awards Focus Awards Editor Byron Burton about crafting this complex narrative as an editor, respecting the humanity of the diver who lost his life, and going rogue on an idea that Ron Howard ended up loving.
Click the image above to watch the full conversation.
Awards Focus: Having put so much time and effort into this on another continent, and then having so much time away, what has it been like for you to see everyone again on this awards circuit?
James Wilcox: It’s been amazing. It was such a massive story to tell and there were only four Americans that went to England to work on the film and everybody else was in Australia. It was great reconnecting with everyone in a way where the film has been well received. Now we can talk about the massive undertaking that it took to make this movie. It was really great to reconnect with everyone
AF: Production designer Molly Hughes and Ron Howard are working on this film in Australia and you and composer Benjamin Wallfisch are together in London getting the dailies. You’re cutting throughout the whole process, yes?
Wilcox: It was actually about a year ago around this time that Ron and Bill Connor, who is one of our executive producers and also the first AD, took off just after Christmas for Australia. We get asked why did we shoot in Australia…They had a very strict lockdown, no COVID cases and it was a place where the location would lend itself to mimicking Thailand.
We all came together and really organized ourselves on how we were going to manage all of this footage, logistics, cave geography, location and time and who brought which boys out on which days.
For my cutting room we basically set up a miniature war room and I started cutting right away. The first day I was sent a very small scene where the parents are reuniting with their children at the hospital. That was cool because initially I always like to have what I call a baby scene just to make sure the equipment is working and we are checking the pipeline.
I like to make sure we are receiving the dailies, that everything looks good, the cuts are working and from that point on I can breathe a sigh of relief because I now know that we just have to continue doing what we are doing and that technically we are good.
The second day is when we started shooting in the tunnels. That was a lot of footage that started coming in before we even got Viggo (Mortensen) and Colin (Farrell) in the water. There were a lot of stunt doubles we were shooting with, stunt kids and sometimes the real children. That taught us a lot because it was discovered then and there we couldn’t really use the doubles very effectively for the majority of the film because they would have to swim with their heads to the side or their heads down.
That was going to play against diver recognition and the underwater storytelling. I quickly started sending Ron scenes so that he could see what the potential pitfalls of shooting with the doubles would be… we couldn’t really rely on diver recognition underwater, and no dialogue to hang your hat on, only scuba diving symbols and that kind of non-verbal communication.
Once Viggo and Colin had their training and schedules and went underwater, the precision of that storytelling really took place.
There are seven dives in the film and each one has its own set of circumstances as the days go forward and the risks become even more dangerous. I had to make sure that however I laid out those dives there was not redundancy to them and the audience could not sit back and relax and realize if we got the first boy out then the second boy automatically will come out through the same sort of operation that we saw with the first boy.
AF: The editing around the one diver who didn’t make it out… the way you handled that- there’s a humanity, there’s a fear that you see and then there’s this sadness as the struggle to put the apparatus back together occurs. That moment really ups the stakes going forward… the best of the best are not impervious to the dangers of the cave. Can you talk about that moment in the film?
Wilcox: Thai diver Saman Kuman’s death was handled with a lot of discussion, a lot of care and a lot of recutting. That day, which was day fifteen of the mission, there are so many things that are going on that raise the stakes. That is the day that Dr. Harry, the governor, the minister all agreed to the plan.
Saman, in his volunteerism, agrees that he is going to take those wetsuits in to the boys. He goes in and he’s with a dive partner and everything is going fine. His dive partner assumes he’s okay and he gets tangled in the guideline and as he gets tangled he starts exhausting his breathing. His regulator gets caught and a lot of oxygen releases from that canister.
That particular scene I cut over the course of probably two and a half weeks, not consecutively but I would cut parts of it that I knew worked. Then I would go away to something else in the film that needed to be worked on and I would come back to it because I just needed perspective.
There were times when I cut it too slow and it felt very intentional or almost forecasting that he might die. Then there were times we sped up the cut and that felt in an odd way disrespectful to the sacrifice that he made.
So it took a really long time to get the careful balance of all the things that we wanted that scene to speak to which was respect for what he had done which was the ultimate sacrifice. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the film as tragic as it is because it’s the ultimate sacrifice for the boys that he lost his life.
In that scene I feel like, departmentally speaking, it really illustrates how we all were intent on working together on that scene because you see the difference in the breathing as he goes in calmly, then when he gets tangled in the line how his breathing becomes heightened.
Then score kicks in to accentuate that frenetic nature of him trying to untangle himself. Then finally when he does put his gear back on and continues forward, that to me is so noble because a lot of people would decide just forget the wetsuits just get yourself out of there. There’s a very specific shot where he looks back where he has come from and realizes he can’t make it back and then he looks forward and decides maybe the best option is to go forward and that’s where you start seeing his labored breathing.
The scene kind of gets deconstructed to the point where the last thing in the scene is Saman losing his breath, the last bubbles happen, it’s really silent and you hear that last scrape of his tank scraping down against the stalactite.
It spoke a little bit to one of my fears which is not the claustrophobia of being in the cave but the fear of drowning. I’m not the biggest guy who is gung-ho about going in the ocean or diving in certain situations and things like that so I just put myself in that situation not knowing what that would feel like and I just wanted to make sure we handled it delicately so that he would be honored.
It wouldn’t be that we just rushed through it just to show a death and then next scene.
I’m really proud of that because of the construction and deconstruction of it. And the fact that this really happened and at some point his wife and children may see this and this may be a living document to honor what he did.
AF: That’s beautifully put and so wonderfully handled in the film narratively and with respect to the tragedy of the real life scenario. I’m thinking also about getting the kids out and administering the medication and showing the detail… that’s what I loved about what Ron did and what you did in the edit.
He didn’t rush through parts for any sort of narrative purpose. That’s what a great studio like Amazon and a great filmmaker and editor aim to do, they want the audience to understand the process and not cheat it.
I really loved watching how you cut the kids being sedated and the divers working with them to keep them kind of loose (relaxed), strapping them in and then of course the difficulties and the uncertainties as this is an untried procedure. Can you talk about that in the climax?
Wilcox: There was a lot of discussion about that, on paper it was a procedure to get the kids sedated and strap them up. The plan was that Rick Stanton, played by Viggo (Mortensen), would wait at a certain checkpoint, they’d bring a kid there, tell him it’s working and then they could start sedating boy number two and continue the mission.
Ron and I talked about it when the footage came in. He usually gives me some notes on his plan, but as we’ve worked together over the past five years and my role and his trust in me has expanded greatly to the point of now he’s like, “Show me how you see this scene.”
Originally, he wanted to start with boy one, crosscut that to boy two, maybe come back to boy one, start boy three, go back to boy one and then boy four and just kind of crosscut it all.
When I put it together Byron, the first boy and the procedure was so compelling… I had great difficulty cutting to the next boy because it turns out to be the blueprint for how they were going to get the kids out.
I thought, we should just stay with this. When Ron came into the edit, I explained to him that he’s not going to see the sequence exactly as the plan that he discussed. I said, “I want you to see this, and I have your cut set aside just in case we need a version that is combining the two ideas, or one that you feel just doesn’t work and we’ll go with your idea and I’ll show that.”
When he sat down and he saw it he said, “Oh my gosh, I see why you did here because it is so compelling it takes us all the way from the first kids being brought up and the little boys mask not fitting so we see that there are difficulties and challenges.”
That was one of my favorite scenes, Ron happened to like it so it worked very well for helping the audience understand this was the missing piece that you guys never knew about. Each one of those divers has a moment where it shows that they’re vulnerable, they’re human beings.
We weren’t trying to make them these God-like figures who just expertly went into the cave and there was never any risk involved with there… there was emotion and attachment to the children. Those emotional breakdowns add to the drama and the complication and all the risk associated with this mission.
It heightens the drama and really shows you how risky it was for not only the boys that were being brought out, but for the individual divers and the emotional toll as well as the physical toll that it took on the dive team and the Thai navy seals to get the kids out.
AF: I love this film and I love your work on it. You’re such a presence, James, your talent and your person just amplifies that. It’s a beautiful collaboration and I hope to see you guys continue to do many more projects. Thank you for your time, James. I wish you the best of luck with this, with your guild and at the Oscars.
Wilcox: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure to talk to you. I feel like this is just the beginning of us getting to know each other and doing this again.