Sporting a tan bomber jacket and a man-bun and finishing his Starbucks coffee, Erik Brown is standing at Vancouver’s Sutton Place Hotel like he’s just some regular guy. The only indication of his internationally celebrated act of heroism is the Vancouver International Film Festival badge around his neck.
Mr. Brown, who was born and raised in Langley, B.C., is making his feature film debut at VIFF. He is not an actor; he is a scuba-diving instructor. In The Cave, which has its North American premiere at VIFF on Tuesday, he plays himself. It is about last year’s rescue of a boys’ soccer team and their coach from a flooded cave in Thailand. Mr. Brown, 37, was one of the divers who pulled off the complicated and unprecedented rescue.
Mr. Brown, who now lives in Langley and Thailand, did most of his training in Mexico. In fact, he had never done any cave diving in Thailand before the July, 2018, rescue. Conditions were very different from Mexico, where he has been used to about 100-metre visibility. Visibility in Thailand’s Tham Luang cave? “Zero,” Mr. Brown said. “You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.”
Mr. Brown arrived at the cave last July more than a week into the operation. A few hours later, jubilation: The 12 missing children and their coach were found alive. A plan was devised to have the divers swim them out; the boys would be tied up and sedated.
The first four boys were rescued on July 8. It was a long swim out. Mr. Brown had been at his station inside the cave for hours when the first diver appeared. He was moving so slowly that Mr. Brown was worried the boy hadn’t survived. Then he saw bubbles come out of his mask. “It was one of those slow-motion scenes that I’ll definitely always remember.”
There was tragedy, too; two days earlier, one of the volunteer divers died when his oxygen ran out. But miraculously, all 12 boys and their coach were rescued.
The Cave focuses on the rescuers – the divers, engineers and others. (The rights to the children’s story have been sold to Netflix for a miniseries.)
Director Tom Waller had not initially planned to use actual rescuers to play themselves. But after he met Irish diver Jim Warny – the film’s central character – Mr. Waller felt it would be difficult to cast someone else for that role, given the need for the person to be able to dive and to speak with Mr. Warny’s accent.
“It wasn’t a question of trying to educate him into being an actor. I didn’t require that. I wanted someone to re-enact rather than to act,” Mr. Waller said ahead of The Cave’s world premiere on the weekend at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea.
“When you put someone in water with diving equipment and you tell them to swim into a tunnel and it’s all real, you really don’t have to suspend disbelief.”
Mr. Warny, who had worked with Mr. Brown during the actual rescue, suggested Mr. Waller meet Mr. Brown too.
“He showed me a picture and I said we’ve got to have this guy in the film,” Mr. Waller said. “When you look at him, he looks like Aquaman; he’s got this long hair and he looks like he’s just come out of the water."
The film was shot over 30 days between October, 2018, and January, 2019. Much of the production was done on a set constructed at an abandoned outdoor Olympic-sized swimming pool in Bangkok.
Mr. Brown says while the feeling on set was mostly light and positive, he had some flashbacks when working with the children playing the rescued boys, lying face-first in the water with their feet tied together. “You can see how uncomfortable they are and you just flip over to the real kids and what they must have been thinking at that point.”
Mr. Brown is now working on putting together a non-profit organization that will allow children to learn scuba diving, an expensive sport. He also does some motivational speaking; he spoke on Friday at his alma mater in Langley, D.W. Poppy Secondary School.
For inspiration, he likes to talk about a decision the Thai children made. The doctor on site didn’t want to select who should be rescued first; it was left to the children to choose. “The ones who were nominated to go first were the ones who live farthest away from the cave," Mr. Brown said. “Because they would have the longest bike ride home when they got out.” It’s a testament to the kids, he says. “And human nature, to be honest.”
Mr. Brown is bracing himself for the spotlight again; there was a lot of media interest immediately after the rescue. The film is to be released in Thailand at the end of November and after that, Mr. Brown figures things will quiet down. “This will be the tail end of it,” he said. “And I’m fine with that.”
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