Interview: Director Patricia Riggen is Counting on ‘The 33’

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CHICAGO – When a disaster strikes, often the most unlikely people will become the primary responders. This is the premise for “The 33,” a new feature film about the Chilean mining collapse in 2010, which trapped 33 men for 69 days. The film goes deep inside the event, and is directed with due respect by Patricia Riggen.

Ms. Riggen was born in Mexico, and initially studied journalism, until completing her Masters degree in directing and screenwriting at Columbia University in New York City. While in school, she completed two short documentaries, “The Cornfield” (2002) and the film-festival-award-winning “Family Portrait” (2004). Her narrative film debut was the popular “Under the Same Moon” (2007), featuring America Ferrara. She directed “Lemonade Mouth” in 2011 for the Disney Channel, and “Girl in Progress” (2012) before landing the assignment for “The 33.”

Patricia Riggen
Patricia Riggen at the 51st Chicago International Film Fesitval
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for

Patricia Riggen spoke with regarding her new film, right before her presentation of “The 33” at the 51st Chicago International Film Festival. The interview was with another journalist, with their inquiries marked “QUESTION.” You worked with a real event in which the outcome was known. How did you and the screenwriters formulate the flow of the story to put a different spin on it artistically?

Patricia Riggen: Biggest challenge…everyone knows the ending. The first thing was to give the audience a glimpse into what they didn’t know. The real miners were part of the project, and the producers signed a rights deal with them. I sat with each of them behind closed doors, and they told me things that probably they had never told anyone. In order to get the real story, the untold story, we had to get behind the news reports.

And after that, I made two decisions. To create the look of the underground world they were trapped in, my Director of Photography and I turned to the paintings of Italian painter Caravaggio. The beauty of the paintings were similar to the lighting conditions and backgrounds in the mines. For the above ground scenes, I knew we weren’t going to get repeated takes, or get the use of the drilling equipment for a long time. So I shot those settings in a very documentary, or news-like, style. Lots of hand held shots, and very immediate. I liked the way you broke up some of tense scenes with a simple song from the above ground camp…

Riggen: That song is ‘the song’ of Latin America, equivalent to ‘Let it Be’ in the English speaking world. And it was composed by a Chilean woman, and I brought in a Chilean actress to sing it.

QUESTION: Since this was your first major film, there are many more obstacles to conquer, and twenty people coming at you at several points in the day. How was this film a different experience from your other ones?

Riggen: It was more like 200 people. [laughs] Below ground, I had the cast of 33 men, and above ground there were additional cast, hundreds of extras and large drilling equipment to coordinate. There were two crews in two countries, so it was like shooting two films. I shot two films.

QUESTION: Where were your locations?

Riggen: We shot in two mines in Columbia [South America]. The mines in Chile weren’t set up for filming, and we thought about building a stage. But because of the budget that didn’t work, and we got lucky because Columbia has these two fantastic salt mines. These mines were horizontal, so instead of going down, we went in. There were real dangers, because mines are a living thing, but it gave us a realistic production value. Above ground, we shot in Chile, the desert setting that was a few miles from the original mine collapse. It was a beautiful location, and we built all the above-ground scenes from scratch. You spoke about talking to each of the miners privately about being trapped inside. Without giving anything away, which of their stories were you able to incorporate into the finished film?

Riggen: There are a couple of things that come to mind. First, it was about the food box, and how they used their rations. They had never talked about that before. There was a sense of shame regarding how they acted during those moments. I had to connect some of what they were telling me, because I could tell they were worried about what everyone else was saying.

Also the miner Mario, who became the leader, he also got the most fame from the incident. Because of his charisma, he was getting the deals for books and rights, but wasn’t telling any of the others while they were underground. The brotherhood that they had formed in the 17 days where they thought they were going to die, was broken when the outside world came in. The impact of that outside world really affected their next 50 days underground. It caused in-fighting and exile, but they did come together again.

The 33
‘The 33,’ Directed by Patricia Riggen
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

QUESTION: There was a lot of Chilean culture on display, because those were the miners. How much of the Chilean nationalism played into the last act of the film?

Riggen: We wanted to be as truthful to the real event and the real people as possible. Every step of the way was about the truth, and staying close to the actual story. So within that reality, Chile is one of the most nationalistic countries in South America. They used their flags a lot during the days of the digging, and of course their sports chant. It was part of their identity.

QUESTION: As was mentioned before, we knew the outcome of this situation. How did you and the screenwriter rein in the side stories surrounding the events, and what decisions did you make as far as what to include?

Riggen: It was difficult to figure out what story to tell. The point of view changes everything. It could have just been about the technical rescue, or it could have been about political or social issues. But one of the things I told the producers early on was about being inside with the trapped miners. They have to be our first point of view, so they were the basis on how we would experience the film.

And next were the families waiting above ground, because they were the force behind the rescue. Their determination was part of the emotional story. And finally, the government did the right thing by working to rescue the men, and I wanted to give their credit. It really was about everyone coming together, and how they could accomplish the impossible by sticking together.

QUESTION: How did the 33 actors playing the miners react to the conditions of shooting the film in a actual mine?

Riggen: It was very difficult, but it really informed them about what the real miners went through. There is no day or night, only darkness, and it was dangerous. They felt that fear, and it was enriching for the performances. The actors had to be in full body make-up every day – oil and dirt – and while the Chilean miners were always hot, our mines were cold. So they had opposite conditions as their setting. That was hard.

The salt mines we shot in also took all the humidity out, so we had to constantly create sweat on their bodies, and they were all not eating to simulate that part of it. We formed a similar community down there, because we had to complete the story, and that is what bonded us. Your next film is ‘Miracles from Heaven,’ a faith-based film. You had overt expressions of faith in ‘The 33’ as well. How do you approach creating an atmosphere of faith when directly dealing with it in a film?

Riggen: It’s all about being truthful to the real events, and not pushing any agenda. Religion was part of the story, one of the things that kept the men alive was their faith – faith in God and their families. In being truthful to the real events, that’s what they did. I was raised Catholic, and I do understand the culture of faith. There were organic moments in the story, like the ‘Last Supper’ scene. Well, you know what they say. There are no atheists in foxholes…or trapped mines.

Riggen: [Laughs] That is very true.

“The 33” opens everywhere on November 13th. Featuring Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips, Juliette Binoche, James Brolin and Gabriel Byrne. Screenplay by Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas. Directed by Patricia Riggen. Rated “PG-13” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2015 Patrick McDonald,

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