How a Thai folk tune helped inform the music of Thirteen Lives

Composer Benjamin Wallfisch has extensive experience with film music, from “Hidden Figures” and “Blade Runner 2049” to “It” and “The Invisible Man”. But nothing had prepared him to score “Thirteen Lives,” the true story of the rescue of a dozen boys and their trainer from a flooded cave in northern Thailand in 2018.

“It turned out to be one of the most difficult scores I’ve ever worked on,” says Wallfisch. “Everything you thought could work just didn’t work.” Additionally, COVID restrictions prevented him from traveling to Thailand to research the music. So he flew to London instead and worked closely with director Ron Howard for more than three months to develop the film’s unusual soundscape.

Howard hired Wallfisch in part on the recommendation of Hans Zimmer (with whom the director had made nine films, including The DaVinci Code and Rush). “I felt like music could help define the culture,” says Howard. “I knew we didn’t want traditional bombastic action music. I wanted to make sure the film was chilled, exciting, and scary, but it also had to be subtle, cool, and interesting.”

Wallfisch comments: “The music really had to be something completely new. It’s a tale of unimaginable heroism, but I couldn’t write heroic music, and we didn’t want any of the tropes of a suspense-and-tension score. Everything had to be weighed very carefully.”

He was drawn to the idea that the Tham Luang Caves were in a mountain range named after Princess Nang Non and the silhouette of the mountains looked like a sleeping woman. The locals believed that the princess was angry and the rain that flooded the caves and held the young people captive were her tears.

The composer first contacted Thai musicologist and singer Natt Buntita, who discovered a traditional song (“Soh Long Nan”) from Chiang Rai province, where the Tham Luang Caves are located. “It is hundreds of years old,” Wallfisch notes, “that the flow of a river is similar to the flow of life and always goes in one direction.”

Wallfisch added “little echoes” of this song “just to connect us with this idea that the mountain has a voice”. Buntita sings it under the end titles.

In addition, the composer managed to arrange three other Thai soloists to perform and improvise on traditional instruments in a studio in Bangkok: the two-string saw duang, the national instrument of Thailand; the khlui, a bamboo flute; the phin, a lute; and the khaen, a harmonica.

“I was very concerned about making the film too sentimental,” says Howard. “I didn’t want it to be cloying or manipulative in any way. I wanted an urgent sense of kinetic drive, a bit chaotic.”

So, according to Wallfisch, “the score has to be quite experimental. Much of the film takes place underwater. So what would it sound like if these Thai instruments and voices were distorted, slowed down, inverted and sounded in some sort of underwater texture?”

He also obtained oxygen canisters, scraped them off, tapped them, and recorded the sounds of air escaping from the valves. “All of these things were built into the rhythmic parts of the score,” he says. Howard adds, “The more abstract it was, the more unsettling it was for us, almost like an artifact of the cave.”

Another element of the story that intrigued Wallfisch was the presence of two British divers, Richard Stanton and John Volanthen (played by Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell), whose daring and creative thinking helped save the boys. So he integrated English piano and cello soloists along with the strings of the Chamber Orchestra of London, giving the score the most traditional sounds.

Wallfisch says he “was trying to capture people’s spirituality. There’s something incredibly beautiful about the place, a serenity and a contemplative feeling.” Howard says, “It was a process of discovery. Ben’s creative stamina was remarkable.” How a Thai folk tune helped inform the music of Thirteen Lives

Charles Jones

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