Interview: Patricia Riggen, Director Of 'The 33' Before making the film, Patricia Riggen met with the real miners and heard their stories. She says she aimed to "portray the heart of these guys and what they went through emotionally."

Indie Filmmaker Brings Story Of Chile's '33' Miners To The Big Screen

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And I'm Linda Wertheimer. It was five years ago that the world watched frantic efforts to save 33 miners trapped deep underground in Chile. For 69 days it was never clear that the men could survive the collapse of the gold and copper mine. Then a miraculous ending - all the miners were carried to safety in a tiny capsule called the Phoenix. That real-life drama is now a movie. Renee Montagne sat down with the director of "The 33."

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: The director of this intense, action-packed movie is a woman - Patricia Riggen. And her previous films were small - a documentary, a couple of intimate features. Most notably, "Under The Same Moon," a film that follows a boy's journey from Mexico to America in search of his mom. In this movie, "The 33," the emotions are on a grand scale. Here Antonio Banderas, as the miner Mario Sepulveda, refuses to accept another miner's prediction that they won't be rescued.


ANTONIO BANDERAS: (As Mario Sepulveda) No, no, no, I don't believe that. They'll dig us out. And if they don't, our families will with their bare hands, if it's necessary.

MONTAGNE: The real miners were the starting point for Patricia Riggen. In fact, the first thing she did was to fly down to Chile to get their stories.

PATRICIA RIGGEN: You know, I spent a lot of time with them. I met with each of them privately to really hear their experiences - not in front of all the others but just with me. I can tell you that 90, 95 percent of what we see in the movie is real.

MONTAGNE: There are plenty of adventure movies out there that have cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But actually in your case, you were a veteran, or you were known for, small movies. What was the leap for you when it came to this movie?

RIGGEN: Well, you know what? Let's say my experience making little independent movies came in very handy. We didn't have a studio when we were making it. Nobody wanted to make this movie because it's a drama about 33 Latin men. And that doesn't get made anymore. It took, you know, a real effort. And we ended up shooting 35 days, six days a week, 14 hours every day in the mine.

MONTAGNE: So you really got the sense of how claustrophobic a mine is because you get it in the movie as they go down, down, down. It seems to never end.

RIGGEN: Well, it's, you know, we shot in two real mines in Colombia. And we went to Colombia because their mines are - they're not as deep and as dangerous as the Chilean mines. Every single moment we had the head of the mine with us looking after our heads, basically. So sometimes he would come in and say, everyone step away. And they would put up a ladder, and they would detach a big rock that was going to fall. And it would fall. They would clean it up, and then we would continue shooting.

MONTAGNE: Well, I want to get back to "The 33." But I'd like to talk to you about yourself. You're from Guadalajara, Mexico. When you were growing up, how much time did you spend thinking you might make movies?

RIGGEN: You know what? It never crossed my mind to be a director. And I'll tell you why - because I'm a woman. It just didn't occur to me, but I knew I had to be in film. I finally, you know, moved to Mexico City where the film industry is. I started working there as a producer, which is a very, very valid thing for women to do because we always produce for men, right? I was pretty successful, but I was really unhappy. So I thought, I'm going to go back to school. I'm going to pay for a Master's degree. So I went to New York City, to Columbia University, and with the first directing exercise I knew I was a director. I wish I had seen some women directing before. That would've given me the idea of who I was. I just never saw one.

MONTAGNE: Partly because you don't even have to be that old not to have been able to have a role model.

RIGGEN: Yeah, you know what's unfortunate? That, you know, in Mexico there's very few female directors. But it's the same percentage as in the U.S., which makes you guys look really bad, I have to say.

MONTAGNE: Well, I wonder - even though there are directors now - quite well known and Oscar-winning Kathryn Bigelow - making action movies, were people shocked when it was announced that you, a young woman who hadn't done this sort of thing before, would be making this movie about 33 men trapped underground?

RIGGEN: Shocked every single day, you know, they can't believe I did this. They see the collapse sequence and it's, like, how did you do this? You're a woman. And I have to tell, you the best take of what the story was is not making an action movie, but really being able to portray the heart of these guys and what they went through emotionally. And that's what I brought to the movie besides the big action sequences.

MONTAGNE: Yes, there is a scene - it's a fantastical scene towards the end when the men are - they're just about lost hope. Suddenly you see them experiencing what is magical realism. All of the men end up at a long table groaning with food, each being served by their beautiful wives.

RIGGEN: Their loved ones.

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: Their loved ones, yeah.

PATRICIA RIGGEN: I can tell you how that happened. I have a scene in which they come down to their last tuna can. So it's the end. It's one tuna can, there's 33 of them. And they're going to say their goodbyes, and they decide to share it together in a Last Supper scene. And then the magic realism happened because I asked them one day, how did you guys survive hunger? And they answered, we ate. We ate all the time, Patricia. We talked about food - a giant empanada. The other guy brought the quinoa. We did a roast. And I thought, this is incredible, you know, because normally men in these circumstances don't survive. But they came back to tell us. So I thought this is me, this is Mexico. This is magic realism. I'm going for it.

MONTAGNE: And everybody's happy.

RIGGEN: Yeah, and then they go back to the reality of their little tuna can.

MONTAGNE: Well, at the end you see footage of the real miners on the beach as they are today. And it's very touching to me, as a viewer.

RIGGEN: At the end, I wanted to have them in the movie. So I called them up, and say you got to show up. It's a Sunday. And I got a place on the beach. And they all came. They sat in a big table...

MONTAGNE: It was like a big picnic out on the beach.

RIGGEN: ...And they ate, all of them together, and laughed. And you can see those faces of really hard-working men that have suffered so much. They are not doing well, Renee. They have PTSD. They didn't get compensated by the mine owners - nothing. So, you know, we're all working really hard to be able to give them something back. They deserve it.

MONTAGNE: Patricia Riggen directed the new movie "The 33."

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