In AFI FEST 2015 presented by Audi Centerpiece Gala THE 33, Mexican-born director Patricia Riggen tells the true-life story of the 2010 Chilean mine disaster in which a 100-year-old copper and gold mine collapse left 33 miners trapped deep underground for 69 days. As their families watched helplessly and rescuers drill through 2,300 feet of rock to reach them, the miners faced a nearly unimaginable ordeal. Antonio Banderas stars as Mario Sepulveda, the group’s leader whose energy, wit and stamina earned him the nickname “Super Mario.” The international cast also features Juliette Binoche, Lou Diamond Phillips, Rodrigo Santoro, Gabriel Byrne and James Brolin. Based on Hector Tobar’s book DEEP DOWN DARK, as well as interviews with the miners and their families, THE 33 also features one of the final scores by acclaimed Oscar®-winning composer James Horner (BRAVEHEART, TITANIC), who died earlier this year.
AFI: The 2010 rescue of the 33 was a major international media event, drawing an estimated one billion viewers worldwide on live TV. As a filmmaker, were you at all daunted in retelling a story whose outcome was so highly publicized?
Patricia Riggen: I would not say I was daunted. In fact, the main thing that made me want to do the film was to tell a story that had touched so many people. I wanted to explore what it was about this particular story that moved and united so many people in all corners of the world. So I wasn’t daunted — I was inspired.
You interviewed each of the 33 rescued miners while preparing the film. How did those conversations impact your approach to the story?
I learned that every one of those men has a story to tell. Each of them contributed in some way to the group’s survival, whether it was keeping up morale, acting as a leader, offering support to the others, or even making them laugh in those most dire circumstances. I realized I would not be able to tell all of their individual accounts in a two-hour movie, so we tried to spread the central elements of their stories among 10 central characters. But my goal was to do them all justice and show the world how courageous they all were. There was also the determination of the families and their rescuers and it was important to all of us to tell their stories, too.
The film vividly recreates the miners’ claustrophobic conditions while trapped underground. What challenges did the mine scenes, many of which are set in near-total darkness, pose to you as a director?
We filmed the mine scenes in two actual working mines in Colombia. The lighting was very challenging, as you can imagine, but I was lucky to have a brilliant cinematographer, who also happens to be my husband, Checco Varese, collaborating with me to light the mine scenes. We wanted it to look appropriate to the conditions, so the lighting mimicked the limited illumination offered by their helmet lamps and the lighting they actually rigged after the collapse.
However, I would have to say the rewards were equal to the challenges. The tunnels and caves of the real mines provided beautiful textures and colors that made the movie so rich. Working inside the mine really allowed the cast to experience what working deep underground in a mine is like. It added so much to the realism, and to the camaraderie on the set, so it was more than worth the effort to overcome any obstacles.
Legendary film composer James Horner contributed one of his final scores to this film before his tragic death earlier this year. Can you briefly discuss your collaboration with him?
It’s impossible to adequately express my appreciation for what James Horner brought to THE 33. He was not only a genius composer, but he was knowledgeable about Andean music and instruments, which I felt was very important to the film. He not only reflected the culture of the story but also every emotional beat — the fear and the hope, the desperation and the triumph. His soaring score perfectly captures the heart and soul of this story. I will forever be grateful to have worked with one of the greatest composers of all time.
You screened the finished film for the surviving miners and their families in Chile in May. What was that experience like for you?
I admit I was a little nervous. They were, in many ways, the most important audience the film will ever have. It meant so much to me that they loved it. Their response to the film was hugely gratifying, not only for me, but for every single person who contributed their talents to telling their story, including our amazing cast and all the artists behind the scenes. I could not have done it without each and every one of them.
THE 33 screens at AFI FEST 2015 on Monday, November 9. Watch the film’s trailer below.