Mexican director Patricia Riggen’s drama The 33 tells the story of the 33 men trapped 2,300 feet underground for 69 days in 2010 following a cave-in at the gold mine they were working in the Atacama Desert near Copiapó, Chile.
The men survived for 17 days on nearly non-existent food rations before being found by a surface drill, but then had to wait another 52 days before being rescued.
The film stars Antonio Banderas as Mario “Super Mario” Sepúlveda, the charismatic miner who became a news star during the live coverage of the months-long rescue process. It also features Lou Diamond Phillips and Oscar Nunez (The Office) as two of his fellow survivors; Juliette Binoche as María Segovia, the sister of one of the miners (Juan Pablo Raba) and a headstrong force in getting the Chilean government to try to find and rescue the miners when the mining company would not; Rodrigo Santoro (Love Actually, 300) as a conscientious government minister; and Gabriel Byrne and James Brolin as two of the engineers working to free the men.
Another writer and I sat down with Riggen last month during the Chicago International Film Festival to talk about the challenges of shooting the film, including working for a month inside a real mine, and telling a story where everyone knows the outcome.
The 33 opens everywhere this Friday, November 13.
Patricia Riggen: The biggest challenge is everyone knows the ending. The first thing was to try to give the audience a glimpse into what they didn’t know. The beauty of it was that the real miners were part of the project. In the past there were movies and books that never included them, so they never benefited from their experience.
This time the producers signed a rights deal with them. They were with us, and I sat with each of them privately behind closed doors, and they poured their hearts out and told me things that probably they had never told anyone. In order to get the real story, the untold story that was not reported because they didn’t share the conflicts and the things they were ashamed of with the news reporters. The news put forward their best face.
Then I made two decisions about how to proceed. Underground, shooting in a dark cave with 33 guys, how do I make it artistic? So my director of photography found Caravaggio as a reference. I knew his paintings, but when I saw them as a reference for us, I thought, “you don’t need anything to make a beautiful movie” These men are semi-naked, with beards, thin, worn, against a black background—it was beautiful.
I knew as an independent movie we weren’t going to be able to afford repeated takes—you can’t bring the drills in again and again. That’s impossible on a film this size. We were working under harsh desert conditions, so I decided to shoot it very news documentary style, hand-held, very immediate. Just grabbing what’s happening. Really following the action. We’d get on the radio and say, “The drills are coming!” and we’d set the cameras and tell the actors, “Okay, you have to grab it when it breaks through the rock because it’s only happening once.”
Riggen: There are a couple of things that come to mind. For instance, the handling of the food box is something that they didn’t ever talk about before. There was a sense of shame around the behavior of some of them down there in those early moments. I had to conduct a little bit of a private investigation because they were worried about what the others might say. That was a very traumatic incident down there, how they mishandled the food rationing at first.
And then there were the problems later on with Mario, when he got really famous and suddenly there are book rights. Mario was strong and charismatic personality—he became famous on the news, and was getting offered financial things that he wasn’t telling them all about. For the first 17 days they thought they were going to die, but suddenly the world comes in, and the promises of fame and fortune broke them apart while they were still trapped. The impact of the world’s attention on these guys who were still going to be down there for 50 days. They were fighting, they expelled Mario from the group, but then they came back together and solved their differences. These kinds of things weren’t in the news at the time.
Riggen: From the beginning, we wanted to be as faithful and truthful to the real event and the real characters as possible. We didn’t want to take this event and use it as inspiration to tell some other story. We really wanted to tell this real story. Every step of the way I really considered, “is this truthful or not?” So within that reality, Chilean are the most nationalistic people on earth. They used the flag a lot, and so it factored into the iconography of the mine event. They do their football chants. I kept it realistic and didn’t over-do it, but it’s there, it’s part of their identities.
This a much larger and more challenging undertaking than your past films.
Riggen: Below ground, I had a cast of 33 men at all times inside a mine, and then above ground I had hundreds of extras every day, with 10 principles below and 10 principles above. There were two completely different crews in two different countries, so it was like shooting two movies completely separately, since the miners only interact with their families on the first and last day. So I shot two movies.
Riggen: I shot in two salt mines in Columbia. We looked at Chile, but Chilean mines are very dangerous and very deep, so it would have been impossible to shoot in those. So we started considering a stage. But we are an independent movie with a very tight budget. With a set we would have only had about 200 feet of mine, so we would have had to shoot everything, all the action, in just two rooms. So we looked elsewhere and got very lucky because Columbia has these two fantastic salt mines. They were horizontal, so you’re still under a mountain, but you don’t go down, you go in. We were a few miles in, but at least we weren’t down.
So I decided to take on the danger of shooting in a mine. Mines are real, they’re alive, and they tend to collapse. But it gave us amazing production value. We could drive vehicles for miles and miles. We had to bring in cable from other countries into Columbia to accommodate us in there—we couldn’t bring a generator, so we had to run in miles of cable. It was like lighting a city.
The whole atmosphere inside a mine is very particular—you can’t eat anything, no fires, you can’t touch this or that. We had the head of the mine with us, looking after our safety. At times he would say, “Everyone move away,” and they would bring in ladders and tools to deal with a rock that was going to fall on our heads. That was the reality of our experience.
We shot in a very different style than above ground. Above ground, we shot in Chile, in the Atacama Desert, just a few miles from the original mine collapse. It was beautiful—there was nothing there, so we built everything above-ground scenes from scratch.
How did the 33 actors playing the miners react to the conditions of shooting the film in an actual mine? Could they come and go to the surface during the day?
Riggen: Oh no, no. We shot 35 days, 6 day weeks, 14 hour days inside the mine. We went in in the morning and left at the end of the day. It was tough for everyone, but really hard for the actors and crew. But I think it really informed them of what a miner goes through. There’s no sunlight, no day or night down there.Time stops when you’re in a mine. It’s dangerous and you feel the fear. But at the end of the day it was enriching for all of us, but especially for the cast to feel both what being a miner is like, but also the sense of community they formed.
We were trapped in our own way—we had to do this movie. The actors were always covered in full body make-up every day–oil and dirt–and while the real Chilean miners were always hot, our mines were cold. We had to spray them with water the whole time—the salt mine sucked all the humidity out of the air. They couldn’t eat, they were all dieting. It was hard.
In addition to the central story of the trapped men, there are also a number of other issues involved here, including the role of the government, the mining company, the safety issues, the questions of he workers’ rights, and compensation and responsibility.
Riggen: It was very difficult to figure out what story to tell. The point of view would change everything. This story could have been told from so many different angles. It could have just been about the technical rescue with the drills and the equipment failures, or it could have been about political or social issues surrounding the injustices miners suffer.
I ended up putting in a little bit of everything, but one of the things I told the producers early on was that the most important point of view was inside—those guys were the ones who endured the worst, so they have to be our first point of view—we have to experience it through them. So they would be the basis of how we see the movie, not through the government or the rescuers.
But then I didn’t want to leave out the families. Maybe because I’m a woman, people say I gave the wives and mothers that space in the story, but the truth is the women were the force behind this rescue. If they hadn’t been so strong and determined—they never gave up, they were in the government’s face the whole time. They really forced the government to act.
I did want to give some attention to the rescue, because the government did do the right thing. In other countries, like Mexico, China, Russia, and Bolivia, trapped miners are sometimes abandoned, but the Chilean government did the right thing, so it was important to show that.
Finally, what the movie is about in many ways is the power of everyone coming together with the same goal and really do the impossible.