Thailand’s Tham Luang Nang Non — the “Great Cave of the Sleeping Lady” — became a global phenomenon in 2018 when it flooded unexpectedly and a local junior soccer team became trapped inside for over two weeks. People all over the world were glued to their screens, waiting for any and every update on how these 12 boys and their coach could get out of this situation alive. Thanks to tremendous rescue efforts involving more than 10,000 people (from international divers to volunteer cooks and everything in between) the mission was a great success, with each player reunited with their loved ones, safe and sound.
In just a few years, we’ve seen multiple documentary and feature film productions retell this epic saga. On Thursday, Netflix premieres “Thai Cave Rescue,” a unique account of events in the form of a scripted limited series. What sets it apart from other versions is it consistently puts Thai people at the center of its storytelling through tales about the boys, their coach and their families.
“There is no story without these boys,” said co-showrunner Dana Ledoux Miller. “That’s really not the story that often gets told.”
Ledoux Miller is of Samoan descent and the first Pacific Islander (or Pasifika) woman to hold the top-level position on a Hollywood project. Ledoux Miller has been in the business for over a decade, lending her producing and writing talents to critically acclaimed shows such as “The Newsroom,” “Narcos” and “Designated Survivor.” As a Pasifika person, Ledoux Miller knows all too well how important it is to practice collaboration and cultural sensitivity when outsiders are telling another community’s story.
In a conversation with HuffPost, Ledoux Miller spoke candidly about what authentic representation means to her, the ways her perspective as a Samoan woman influenced the narrative of “Thai Cave Rescue,” and her role in kick-starting PEAK (the Pasifika Entertainment Advancement Komiti), a new organization designed to support Pasifika creatives.
Congratulations on bringing this incredible story to life in such a beautiful way and also on this milestone of being the first Pasifika woman showrunner in Hollywood. What does that mean to you?
It’s a huge deal. I can’t believe it hasn’t really happened before me. I’ve been working a really long time to try to get into positions where I can help other Pasifika writers and creators tell stories and get into rooms. It feels like I finally have that opportunity and have more influence in what gets out there. So I hope to use this moment to show people what we’re capable of and how we can really do anything and don’t have to be pigeonholed into just telling Pasifika stories as well. We’re capable of all things just like anyone else.
Your writing resume is so diverse. What attracted you to this particular story?
It’s not a story that I would normally gravitate towards. I remember when this was all going down. I was actually in a writer’s room, and I think it’s what we talked about every single day for the two weeks the boys were trapped. Every day people came in and wanted to know what was going on.
I say it wasn’t a story I would normally be attracted to because initially I envisioned it like this action rescue story, which is not really my thing. But once I started talking to Michael Russell Gunn, who I co-ran and wrote “Thai Cave Rescue” with, and SK Global and Jon M. Chu, I realized that we were all more interested in telling the human stories that were involved in it. That was something that really attracted me because I love getting into the emotional weight of what people experience in difficult times and how faith plays a role in all of those things. I felt fascinated from that perspective and from a global perspective.
It wasn’t until we started getting into research and figuring out what really happened during that time that I realized how crucial this whole story was to the Thai people. I think initially it just felt like this big international story of endurance, hope and survival, and then it wasn’t until one step into it I realized, oh, this is something that means so much to the Thai people but also is emblematic of who they are as a community, so then I got really excited. I hope that they feel that we saw them and we know the sacrifices that they made and tried to honor that.
I’ve watched other iterations of the rescue, and what makes this stand out so much is it centers the Thai people: the boys, their families, the community as a whole. You still acknowledge and honor the role that foreigners played, but it doesn’t turn into a white savior show. I think it gives a level of insight that you don’t get to see anywhere else. What set that in motion?
We were really fortunate in that SK Global and Netflix got the rights to the stories of the boys and their families. So our first step in putting the series together was interviewing everyone: the real boys, the real parents and people within the community. We really had such a huge treasure trove of information about them, and so we started prepping our story around what we were learning and started there. There is no story without these boys, and to hear what their lives were like and how this was just like any other day that went really, really badly, blown into something just so big. That’s really not the story that often gets told, and I feel like, especially in survival stories and rescue stories, the people who are most deeply affected are often overshadowed by the rescuers or the machine that comes in to rescue them.
After hearing their stories and also just seeing how well adjusted and normal the kids are now after going through such a harrowing experience, Michael and I realized we just wanted to dig deeper into that. It’s their story, and nobody has paid any attention to them, and they’re just remarkable, awesome, funny kids who in spite of being in mortal peril, were still playing pranks on each other and singing and taking care of each other, and I think we could all use a little more of that in our lives.
I love that they were able to find levity in this horrific situation.
You have to laugh even when you wanna cry. That’s fundamental to the human experience.
As Pasifika people, we’re so used to seeing our representation and our stories butchered by Hollywood. How did that impact your approach to this project?
I am particularly sensitive to making sure that the people who know best are listened to. I feel really fortunate because everyone involved in this project was protective of it from a cultural perspective and wanted to do right by the Thai people. Oftentimes when we come into the story from the outside of a culture or a perspective, there is a tendency to want to infuse our own narratives, take our own narratives and then try take the culture and wedge it in so that it makes sense with the story that we’re trying to tell.
What we aspired to do in talking to our many consultants and the people who actually lived and experienced this, is we listened. We told them this is what we’re thinking and this is the approach we want to take, and if they told us, “This would never have happened,” we actually listened and tried to adapt to make it more authentic. That’s not always easy because we are trying to tell a very big story in six hours, and we do have pieces of the plot that we really need to hit, so we had to slow down with it and we had to reevaluate what we were trying to say.
We had multiple dialects of Thai, and I was really protective of that, not to say other people weren’t, but there’s moments where I felt I probably annoyed people because I was like, “No, we have to listen, we have to get this right,” and “If someone’s telling us that this isn’t right, we have to get a second opinion and a third opinion until we can come to a conclusion that we can all be happy with.” So it felt a little bit like being a watchdog, but I would hope that somebody trying to tell a story about Samoa or the Pacific that wasn’t part of the community would be as diligent in trying to protect our stories. So it felt like a big honor but also a very big responsibility.
For any outsiders, consultation and collaboration is necessary and the key to that is trust. What is it that helped you gain that trust?
I definitely felt a shift as time went on as we were bringing in more and more people. There was definitely caution from certain parties, like, “Oh, this big Netflix Hollywood production is coming in,” and I think the Thai community rightly was hesitant because a lot of the shows coming out about Thailand tend to be about more nefarious things or stereotypical and don’t really dig deep.
I think it came down to communication; Baz [Nattawut “Baz” Poonpiriya], our Thai director, played a really huge role in that. He was on the project before I was even, so he’s been more of a guardian of it than even I could be. And we kept telling him, “Oh, we really are centering the Thai people; we really do wanna tell their story and make this about them,” and he was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And it wasn’t until he started reading the first scripts that I think he understood that we were genuine. When he came back to us and was giving us feedback, he actually did the first translations of all the scripts, and so once he kinda saw that our intentions were good, he helped us build the community of more people who were going to help us get it right. But I think showing a willingness to make changes, to make adjustments, goes a long way. People want to be heard and they want to be respected, and we tried to lead with that.
Acting requires a lot of trust, too, and I was so impressed by the coach, the boys and the families. They killed it.
I can tell you, two people were integral in that. Pui [Supakarn “Pui” Yindee], our Thai casting director, who went into Northern Thailand and met every soccer team up there and found boys willing to audition. We saw dozens and dozens and dozens. She was a big influence. She was on the ground; we were here in Los Angeles because it was in the midst of COVID and we couldn’t get into Thailand, and so her instincts for who’s capable of this was a huge factor of that, but also she shepherded them through the entire process. She was there every single day, and was like their mother hen on set, which created a really safe place for them.
Then our acting coach Kookai [Rangsima “Kookai” Ittipornwanich]. Kookai is the most incredible acting coach I’ve ever worked with. She’s really in demand in Thailand and she was there every day with those boys. She worked with them ahead of time, creating an acting camp for them. They were all sequestered at the same hotel throughout shooting and they became this family. I can’t overstate how talented she is but also what an incredible person she is and how much she cared about the project. Both of them actually. Kookai, all the way through post-production, was helping us with cultural points and translation and ADR [additional dialogue replacement] and just really felt strongly about this project. I mean, they’re nonactors. I think all but one of the boys hadn’t been in a production of any kind before, and so I credit her fully.
And also Beam [Papangkorn Lerkchaleampote], who plays the coach, is so incredibly talented, and when we first met him we told him: “You’re gonna have to be the coach to these boys. When we get on set, they’ve never been on set before, they’ll look to you the same way they’d look to a coach. You’re gonna be their role model.” And he took that really seriously.
We saw him become that big brother they looked to for guidance, and I think because he was so open and generous with his time and with his relationships with them, they actually built the kinds of bonds you feel on the screen. They felt like kids that know each other and care about each other and wanna get through it together. I think it was because they were experiencing this big thing together for the first time and had really strong support systems.
Beam’s death is so sad. (The Thai actor died in his sleep in March. He was 25.) I can imagine it’s such a time to celebrate but also quite heavy for everyone.
It was such a surprise and a shock, and I think we’re all still reeling from it. It’s hard to watch him give such a powerful performance. We were in the midst of editing Episode 2 when he passed. It’s his episode where he’s on the brink of not making it and cares so much about these boys and that was the hardest to deal with. Michael and I, our first instincts were, “How are our actor boys?” because we knew he had become such an important part of their lives. It’s a big hole in the cast and in the family that came about because of this show. But I’m really excited for people to see his performance because it really is incredible, and I’m glad that this can be his last and hopefully his legacy. He is so talented and a really, genuinely kind, generous person.
He really shined throughout the show. One of my favorite scenes is when he guides the boys through meditation. There was such a strong presence of spirituality in the story. What was your influence in that?
I always want to write about faith. I think it creeps into everything that I write. I’m fascinated by why people believe what they believe and how that belief influences the decisions they make, the choices they make, the questions that they ask. I grew up in a Baptist church so there’s that, and I am Samoan.
Christianity is now so intertwined with culture and every aspect of life. I think that’s where that interest comes from, but I was really profoundly moved by the faith I saw in the Thai people. It’s one of the most Buddhist countries in the world but also up in Northern Thailand, there’s Animism and so many different ethnic groups that have come together in the Golden Triangle. So it is this big melting pot of faiths and beliefs. We shot at the real cave; the real shrines that are at the cave are the ones that we used, and to see our crew come in and so many of them take a moment to pray or honor the Princess and see how faith plays out in everyday lives, I’ve always found really interesting.
The opportunity to explore that and how it affected people on the ground was never something I was gonna shy away from. It’s really universal and something really powerful coming from a Christian background, coming from the United States where religion is a political talking point these days. I felt a lot of responsibility to respect and honor the Buddhist faith in a way that I don’t think you see that often on American television.
You definitely created something special with this show. I think it’s a testament to you as a human being and speaks to your integrity and your generous spirit. I see it in your commitment to the Pasifika community, too, where you spend a lot of time and energy giving back, mentoring writers and just uplifting our creatives. You spoke about how this milestone is an opportunity for you to push for more. What would you like to see moving forward?
When I started in this business awhile back, especially when I moved to LA and started to write and hopefully direct one day [laughs], there weren’t any Pasifika people that I knew personally who I could reach out to and ask questions and talk to. I was fortunate to go to the University of Hawai’i Film School, ACM, so there were some resources there that I could lean on because I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know how to get an agent; I didn’t know how to get a script read, and I realized that so much of this business is who you know, and so it’s really important to me that we build a community here.
There are a lot of Pasifika people here in Los Angeles, a lot of really amazing creatives trying to get stuff done, and I would like to see us come together. It’s why I’m helping start a group called PEAK ― the Pasifika Entertainment Advancement Komiti. Our goal is to really support Pasifika people in Hollywood. To uplift them but also to help create better, more accurate, more authentic representation. That’s really important to me because there’s power in numbers, but also I just really want to see our stories told and I want to see more of us. I want the world to know that Pasifika people are not a monolith. We’re often overlooked in AAPI conversations. Even though the PI means Pacific Islander, there’s very little conversation around who we are and where we come from, and I want the world to know that we’re more than football players and wrestlers and bouncers. We can play more roles than that.
We’re just as complicated and complex and come from very specific points of view that haven’t been seen on television before. I want to help foster that and uplift that and I want community. It’s worth it.