Exclusive interview: Showrunner Dana Ledoux Miller talks ‘Thai Cave Rescue’

thai cave rescue
via Netflix

Having risen up the television ranks through various roles in a number of hit shows including The Newsroom, Narcos, Designated Survivor, Lodge 49, and Kevin Can F**k Himself, filmmaker Dana Ledoux Miller steps up to the role of co-creator and co-showrunner of true-life Netflix limited series Thai Cave Rescue, which premieres on the streaming service this coming Thursday, September 22.

Developed alongside Designated Survivor collaborator and fellow small screen veteran Michael Russell Gunn, with prolific episodic director Kevin Tancharoen and Crazy Rich Asians‘ Jon M. Chu listed among the executive producers, the six-episode event revolves around the rescue of the Wild Boars soccer team from the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system, a story that had the entire world on tenterhooks in the summer of 2018.

The only production granted access to the members of the team themselves, Netflix has billed Thai Cave Rescue as “the most authentic and expansive retelling yet”, diving deep into the perspective of the boys to tell a story everyone knows from perspectives and viewpoints that not a lot of people will be aware of.

Ahead of the show’s release, We Got This Covered had the chance to speak to Ledoux Miller about Thai Cave Rescue, the pressures and obstacles of heading up a large-scale production, the difficulties of putting a fresh spin on a modern historical event that’s already been recounted several times in different forms of media, the desire to continue blazing a trail as a Pacific Islander creative in Hollywood, upcoming projects, and much more, which you can check out below.

dana ledoux miller
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Hawai’i International Film Festival

On a personal and professional level, how are you feeling right before the release of Thai Cave Rescue?

I’m really excited. You know, I’m excited to finally get it out in the world. You work on a show for so long, and start to forget that people are actually going to watch it! And then once it gets close, like, I’m ready for it to be out there, then we can move on with our lives!

Thai Cave Rescue is completely different to anything you’ve worked on before as a writer or producer, which have been these sort of bigger, broader, fictional genre shows. Obviously, that would have been a part of the appeal, but how did you initially get involved in the project?

Well, the project predated me. John M. Chu, SK Global, and Netflix, got the rights to the boys’ lives before I had hopped on. And then Michael [Russell Gunn], who I co-ran it with, had been talking to Jon and Jon’s company about the project, and expressed interest in it, and then he came to. We’ve never created a show together. This is our first time, but we’ve been friends for a long time, and we’ve worked together before.

And once he brought it up to me, it just seemed like the perfect marriage of our skill sets. He’s really into these kind of gripping, action, big rescue kind of stories, and I’m really drawn to human stories, and the character-driven stuff. And so, once we started talking about it, we started realizing that this story has both of those, and so we pitched our idea to Netflix and they bought it in the room, which is the best thing that could possibly happen.

It’s a story that everyone knows, but not a lot of people are too familiar with the actual specifics. It’s an event the entire world was obsessed with but doesn’t know a great deal about in a general sense, so was telling it from the perspective of the boys as opposed to the rescuers always your way in creatively?

I think so. I mean, being able to speak with the real boys and their parents, and the governor and the divers – the Australian divers specifically. I really thought that I knew what had happened. I followed it, you know, like you said, everyone was obsessed, I followed it on the news like everyone else.

And then really taking the time to hear about their experiences, and really start to understand the toll it took on them. But also these inspiring moments, the unexpected hope that they experienced inside the cave, and it really opened up so much for me. And we really tried to let the reality that we were learning from these interviews to the shape where we took the story, and I’m so grateful for that.

Image via Netflix

There have been several versions of the rescue told already through books, feature films and documentaries in the last couple of year alone, but having the backing of Netflix who’ve billed it as “the most authentic and expansive retelling yet” would have presumably alleviated any concerns anyone may have had about so many similar projects arriving in such a short space of time.

I definitely feel like our project had that advantage. I mean, there were so many people involved, that there are a lot of different perspectives to tell. And you know, I think the other projects have done a really great job from their point of views. But yeah, having Netflix get in there and really carve out some space for us to tell stories, like you said, that hadn’t hadn’t been told before was pivotal. And I can’t imagine doing it any other way at this point.

Not to name names, but there’s obviously another project revolving around the same story that released very recently, but having seen them both, Thai Cave Rescue is completely different and very much its own thing. Do you think it could turn out to be a positive to release so soon after, when the buzz and awareness for that moment in history is riding the crest of a cultural wave once again?

That’s what we’re hoping for. We’re hoping to ride off that awareness, but I’m really… I’m really not worried. I think our our show does take a different tact. I haven’t seen the other project, either. But really, our show is a family drama. And yes, it is a rescue story. And it goes into this incredible, unbelievable rescue.

But I think what our audience is going to tap into is that it’s about all the different kinds of families that exist; the found families, the biological families, and just what it means to be community. And at a time when the world is so fraught for so many different reasons, it’s nice to be able to tell a story that is so rooted in hope. And that’s what I really think sets us apart more than anything.

Thai Cave Rescue was the only production granted access to the members of the Wild Boars, which instantly gives it a layer of authenticity and realism that can’t be replicated. Was that always the number one driving force behind the creative process, even though disclaimers at the start of each episode make it clear that there’s a fictional element?

Absolutely, I think that’s the real challenge with any true story, especially because the people involved in the story are very much still alive. They’re not people that are necessarily in the public sphere. And Michael and I both felt a tremendous responsibility to be as truthful to their experiences possible.

But also, we’re very aware that we have to tell a compelling, entertaining television series. But I feel like, as long as we never lost sight of the truth of the moment, even if the specifics aren’t always exact, then we were doing right by all the people involved, and I really hope they’re proud of seeing represented on the screen.

Image via Netflix

There’s a big cast, different locations, complicated shots, graphics, practical effects, sets, unpredictable weather, and plenty more variables that come with shooting a show like Thai Cave Rescue on location in the middle of a pandemic, was that daunting at all for you to step into as showrunner?

The hardest thing I’ve probably ever done! But we, from the beginning, had an incredible team and beginning with Netflix and Jon, going to SK Global and Nattawut Poonpiriya who directed two of the episodes, all the way down to the on-set PAs that we had in Thailand, like our crew was so passionate, and so dedicated, and really just brought an energy to this experience. They were up for anything, and we really experienced everything during the course.

I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone that worked on it, because it was pretty daunting. But the story means a lot to a lot of people around the world, and it especially means a lot to the people of Thailand. And so to be able to share that with our Thai crew, I really see that they trusted us to help tell their story, and that we could trust them to help us made all of the challenges worth it. And I honestly don’t know that I’ll ever have an experience this emotional and moving again. As a writer, as a producer; it was unparalleled.

Throughout your career you’ve worked as a writer, director, editor, production assistant, cinematographer, producer, and showrunner at various points across film and television, features and shorts, so you’re presumably capable of handling anything any shoot throws at you by this stage?

I sure hope so! I feel that way. I’m ready to take it on.

If 95 percent of the crew had to take a day off, then you’re more than qualified to step in and replace them!

Well, I know that’s on IMDb. But a lot of those credits came from shorts I did in film school. So I don’t think that our cinematographers would appreciate my skill set there! But I did come up in production. I worked as a set PA for a very long time, and I thought I was going to be an assistant director, that was kind of the path I was on until I finally got my break into writing.

And, I do have a very strong love for the crew, and I love being on set. And I love being a part of the daily grind of production. So, I wouldn’t say that I’m capable of stepping into other people’s shoes, but I know what it takes to do their jobs, and I have such an appreciation for it.

So does that make it easier for you in terms of transitioning, given that you’ve been building up experience rising through the ranks, and now you’re in charge of a team so you’ve got a greater understanding of the nuts and bolts of what it takes to bring something like this to life?

I think so. I think, you know, writers so often in television don’t come up through the ranks, as you say, and knowing what it takes to what one day of production is like and what a crew is capable of, and what’s not possible, or really understanding what it takes to have a big stuck day, or the toll it takes on a crew to have a six-day work week. Knowing that intimately, and having experienced that, I think makes me much more empathetic in the planning, and in the property, and even in the writing.

Because, thinking as a producer, I’m thinking about my crew. When I’m writing, I’m trying to understand what I can afford to do. And I really don’t think that this is a job that should make people miserable, and beat them into the ground. And I try to prevent that. I try to shepherd my flock, and I try to take care of my crew, and I hope I can only try my best on this. I’m sure there are ways I can be better, but I aspire to do better by them. Always.

Image via Netflix

You’ve enjoyed a rapid ascension given that it’s been less than a decade since The Newsroom, and you’re already showrunning a big Netflix series. All bets are off, then, so where do you see yourself heading after Thai Cave Rescue, or are there new projects already in the pipeline shrouded in secrecy?

There is a little secrecy in my life right now. I’m going to spend some time in the future world, that’s next for me, a feature I’m writing that I can’t talk about yet, but I’m really, really excited about. And I’ve got some television in development. And I really want to have another show. I feel very passionately.

I’m one of, if not the first, Samoan showrunners in Hollywood, and really fostering the Pacific Island writing , community and producing, and directing creative community really in Hollywood is my number one passion. So I’m hopeful to be able to produce some projects from some amazing creatives out of Hawaii and Samoa. And that’s really what I’m working towards right now. So hopefully you’ll be seeing more of that in the next couple of years.

I was going to say, you’re very passionate about that. And you were recently the recipient of the Pacific Islanders in Communications Trailblazer Award at the Hawaii International Film Festival, which must have been a huge honor.

That’s huge. I started in Hawaii. That’s where I went to film school, and my first short film played at the Hawaii International Film Festival. And I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the film community there, for really teaching me and accepting me. You know, I grew up in California, not really super close to my Samoan family, and kind of struggled with my identity as a sort of white-presenting Samoan.

And then I got to Hawaii, and they were like; “We know exactly who you are, and you are worthy of being here, and we’re going to help you tell your stories”. And the community there that gave me the confidence to even pursue this career, and I hope to be able to give back.

Looking back at previous winners, this Taika Waititi guy hasn’t done too bad for himself in the five years since he won it, so you must be excited for what the next half a decade has in store!

I would love to tread a path similar to that. You know, he’s been a real champion of Pacific Islanders as well. We don’t have a lot of women Pacific Islanders out there, I’d like to see more of that. And I hope to help make that happen. I can be their champion. I’m happy to be.

Let’s hope so!

We’ve got Taika, we’ve got Jason Momoa, we’ve got Dwayne Johnson, now we need the ladies, the non-binary someones, we need to get out there, the Pacific Islanders.

Image via Netflix

If you could tackle any project of your choosing without restrictions, someone came to you and said “whatever you want, start tomorrow”, what would it be and why?

Well, you know, that’s actually not that hard. I’m currently developing a television series called Sharks in the Time of Saviors. It’s based on the book by Kawai Strong Washburn, and it is one of the most powerful books about the Pacific I have ever read. It’s a modern story about Hawaii, written by a Hawaiian, and it is my dream to get that up off the ground and to get a Hawaiian Pacific Islander writers’ room going.

I think, you know, there’s a lot of people who come into Hawaii and either just want to tell their own story with the beautiful backgrounds, or don’t take the time to understand what it means to be a Pacific Islander, what it means to live in Hawaii. And I want more than anything for this to be the show that just changes the way Hawaii is perceived. It’s nuanced and authentic. And I want to give an opportunity for local people to tell their own stories. That’s my big dream.

Let’s hope it becomes a reality, then, because working on your dream project already is a great start.

I mean, yeah, we just need to get someone to give us the money! But it’s a beautiful book. And I really, I really think it’ll happen.

I’ll be looking forward to the official announcement so I can say I was the first one to hear that out loud!

I hope so.

Good luck with the show, I’m sure Netflix subscribers will be checking it out in their numbers.

Yes, I’m sure they will. Gotta wait and see what the algorithm has to say!

All six episodes of Thai Cave Rescue premiere Thursday, September 22, on Netflix.