In 2010, a billion people around the world were transfixed by the story of 33 miners, buried alive by a catastrophic collapse of a 100-year old gold and copper mine, for 69 days, as an international team worked night and day in a desperate attempt to rescue the trapped men. In the newly released movie, “The 33” presents the full drama of what was unfolding above the ground, as the families frantically pressed officials not to do what had been done over and over again, just abandon the men, and below the ground, as the men faced starvation and death in a living grave.
It is a masterful work which touches you on so many levels – the personal stories, the societal and political implications. Most stunning, is that even though the outcome is known, “The 33” is tremendously suspenseful, a powerful story of how these men survived.
That is all due to the director, Patricia Riggen, who was recently honored with a “Woman of Influence Award” by the Gold Coast International Film Festival.
Riggen elicits outstanding performances by an international cast led by Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche (The English Patient), James Brolin, and Lou Diamond Phillips.
Lou Diamond Phillips presented Riggen with her “Woman of Influence” award at the Gold Coast International Film Festival/Gold Coast Arts Center gala on October 28, describing the experience of a woman directing “33 half-naked men.”
“This was a historical event; it needed someone with intelligence who could understand the heart and soul of what it was about. This was not just about the men, but the families and their unshakeable hope that they would be saved. Instead of clichéd characters, it fleshes them out. Patricia [had the bigger cajones], the vision, and drive to stand up to everyone in front and behind the camera, with grace, tenderness, and love. But always got what she wanted. This was one of best performances of my career.”
Visibly touched and clutching the award in her hand, Riggen said, “I was born in Mexico. I was not happy there. I came to [film school in] New York and discovered in the first exercise I was a director. School here is very democratic. Teachers believed in me. I’ve worked nonstop as a director ever since I came.
“The 33 is my fourth film – I’ve just finished the fifth. For a woman, that’s a world record – a movie every 2 years. I admire American women. They are brave – there is a class law suit [by women] against the film industry. If girls see that, they will be inspired.
“‘The 33’ started as independent film. It’s hard to make movies that are emotional, exciting drama about human beings with beautiful values.
“We shot it in a real mine – not a stage. I took a risk in going to a real mine. Mines are alive, dangerous, and tend to collapse.
“We worked 14 hours a day, six days a week. I spent 35 days in the mine, with 32 Latin men [and Lou David Phillips].” As if to say, “Did I mention?”, she adds, “I moved to this country for a reason.
“One guy who doesn’t speak Spanish – Lou David. In the difficult days, I was questioned by those guys more powerful than me. But one guy stood by me the whole time. I can’t describe how difficult it was. He made it clear that I was boss, the Director. I will always be grateful. He gave a performance of a career.
The next evening, Patricia Riggen graciously screened “The 33” at the Soundview Cinema in Port Washington, Long Island, a preview to the Gold Coast International Film Festival, in advance of the film’s official release. She sat with Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor of “Women and Hollywood” and author of “In Her Voice: Women Directors Talk Directing,” discussing making “The 33” and why it is important to have more women directors.
The 33 was filmed on location in Chile’s harshly remote yet stunningly beautiful Atacama desert just kilometers away from where the event took place, and deep within two mines located in central Colombia.
The film opens with a simple statement: 12,000 miners die each year.
Within the first few minutes, it seems, Riggen establishes who the characters are, and in a scene that foreshadows what will happen, the miner in charge of safety (Phillips character) warns the foreman of safety issues in the 100-year old mine. You follow the men down, down, down into the depths of the mine. Within minutes of the start of the film, you see the extraordinary explosion. How that is captured is just phenomenal. And it’s not the sort of subject that you would imagine from a woman director.
Then you see the men for the first 17 days – when they only had enough food and water to last three days – before they are discovered alive, and you marvel at how emaciated they look. it takes more than 50 days before they are rescued.
Silverstein begins: “Women don’t get to make movies about men. Women don’t get large screen releases from major studios.”
Riggen: “We shot for 60 days, of which 35 days were in a mine. 14 hours a day, six days a week. It took three days to shoot the explosion scene.
“It was very important to shoot in a real mine. With the budget I had, I would only have been able to build a set the size of two theaters. What I got (in a real mine) was miles of tunnels.”
She said she shot the scenes of the trapped miners in two salt mines in Colombia.
“They are more horizontal, so are not so deep, but we went a few miles in. It took 20 minutes to drive in – no bathrooms, no food allowed inside.
“We had three tricky moments: a fire in pre-production, that chased people out. The first day, I sat in the Director’s chair and a stone falls on my head – big enough to let me know. It was a sign that the mine was with us. I took it as a good sign.
[More likely, it showed the men that she wasn’t afraid].
“We used two mines. We had good air in one of them. The one where we shot the scenes with the vehicles did not have good ventilation. The day we shot the collapse with the vehicles, we had to take people to hospital all day long.
“A mine is a very different space.”
What drew you to this movie?
“My first movie was $1.5 million. A guy would get $100 million for his second movie. Never in a thousand years would a woman.
One billion people saw this event. We all know the story. Something really powerful.
It was most important to get the truth – a real event, real characters. I didn’t want a movie to be ‘inspired’ by event.
“I wanted to stay as truthful as possible – 99%. That meant getting to know them [the real miners], closing the door. I went to meet the 33 as a group and then each one alone, with the door closed. What they really felt. Just to discover.
Do any still work in the mine now?
“A few of them – the younger, healthier ones, are still in mines, but in open mines, out of necessity. Most have PTSD, or won’t be hired because they are too famous. They weren’t compensated [as the movie notes, the mining company was acquitted of responsibility and never compensated the miners at all, even stopping paying them for the time they were stuck in the mine.”
“Leonardo Farkas (depicted in the movie) gave $10,000 to every miner. He came right away. He figured out how much they earn a year. The mine company the miners worked for stopped paying their wages when they were trapped. $10,000 is one year’s salary . That won’t make up for the trauma they suffered. I didn’t make the (Farkas) character up. That’s the way he looks (outrageous).
“I am proud of this movie. Ever since the tragedy, several books and movies came out but none shared [any profit] with the miners. This time, the producers signed miners rights – paid them Hollywood standards. The miners effectively are partners in the film – in its success, they will benefit. I am really hoping for good box office.”
Asked about power source in the mine, she says, that when the mine collapsed, the miners lost electricity, water air. But there were vehicles in the mine. The miners took the battery and lights for vehicles, rigged lights, and used the vehicles to recharge. The miners were discovered [to be alive] by Day 17, when they drilled a hole big enough to send down food and water and supplies. But it took until day 69 to actually get them out of the mine.
How get that performance our of Antonio Banderas?
“It was hard – we were stuck there together like the miners were. Antonio was a real leader to the cast – a big heart, charismatic. He resembles Mario (the character he played, who became the miners’ leader). It was not hard to get that performance.”
There were few women in the crew and she had to direct 33 men, Latin men. How did you establish authority?
“Authority has to be asserted every day. The American actors were very respectful – easy to handle. Everyone was dieting – so they were crankier (they had to lose weight by end of movie – and boy did they).”
How did you do the casting?
“That was hard. When you have a movie star, they want whole screen time. This was 2 months of shooting (I hadn’t told them about the mine), and the leads have to share screen time. If you don’t have big bucks and you can’t give them the whole movie, it had to be a matter of love- love of the project. They gave up months for a small role. We got wonderful actors.”
Regina Gil, Executive Director of the Gold Coast International Film Festival, asks about her decision for music, in particular, a scene with Cote de Pablo, who is from Chile, who sings a song. How make artistic decisions about music?
“I like to put music and song into movies – it’s very organic. It’s a very Latin American thing – particularly in South America – a bon fire and singing at night. The song Cote de Pablo sings, “Gracias a la vita” – Thank You Life, is an emblematic song of Latin America – every country sings it, but it was written by a Chilean. Cote is a fantastic singer and that song goes back to her character (who is pregnant).”
How did you make your shooting choices?
“There are two different styles – in the mine, time stops – there is no day or night – it is more quiet, static. Up above, I used a more documentary style – grabbing the moment – because you already saw that event on the news.
“I had to improvise – the drills arriving were real drills. I had to shoot when they came – there was no Take 2. [I said to the cameraman] ‘Shoot when you can and I’ll figure it out in the editing room.'”
[One scene in particularly – where the starving miners are hallucinating – has such a different look, it shows her versatility and artistry.]
Silverstein notes that of the top 100 grossing films, only two were made by women. “You don’t see women’s vision on screen…. “We need other kinds of role models. We need boys and girls to see women in strong, vital roles. These are our cave paintings. 72c of $1 earned by movies is made outside US – movies are our major export and the culture being exported is the man’s view. It shouldn’t be that women only do women movies and men do men (or men to women’s movies).”
Riggen said, “I have done one movie every 2 years. I pray to be treated with more fairness and justice. I have to fight over everything I say – there is intrinsic doubt with a woman. I want to talk to Catherine Bigelow [who won the Academy Award for ‘Hurt Locker’} to see if things change after an Oscar. The class action law suit will change things.
“I think if this movie had been directed by a guy, the emphasis would have been on the technical rescue and the violence inside the mine.”
And probably the audience would have gone crazy before the miners. She is able to flesh out the more complicated personal dynamics, emotion, concerns.
Patricia Riggen directed The 33 from a screenplay by Mikko Alanne, Oscar nominee Craig Borten (Dallas Buyers Club) and Michael Thomas, based on the screen story by Jose Rivera and the book Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar. The film was produced by Oscar nominee Mike Medavoy (Black Swan), Robert Katz and Edward McGurn. Carlos Eugenio Lavin, Leopoldo Enriquez, Alan Zhang and José Luis Escolar served as executive producers.
The behind-the-scene creative team included cinematographer Checco Varese, production designer Marco Niro, editor Michael Tronick and Oscar-nominated costume designer Paco Delgado (Les Misérables). The Academy Award-winning team of Alex Henning and Ben Grossman (Hugo) supervised the visual effects. The score was composed by Oscar winner James Horner (Titanic).
The 33 is a presentation of Alcon Entertainment and Phoenix Pictures, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company. It opened to wide release, 2500 theaters on November 13.
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