There's something that happens when award-winning filmmaker Patricia Riggen enters the room or, in this case, the tent that Indy's own Heartland Film Festival had set aside for hospitality, post-premiere events and all-around goodwill. Riggen arrived in town only hours before the sold-out screening of her new film, The 33, at the 2015 Heartland Film Festival where it also picked up Heartland Film's coveted Truly Moving Picture Award. With the film's nationwide release set for November 13th, Riggen arrived in Indy for the film's first public screening and set aside time to meet with local media.
If you've followed Riggen's career, then you already know that The 33 is nearly a perfect film for the talented filmmaker to tackle. From her short films while a student in the M.F.A. program at Columbia University, La milpa and Family Portrait, through to her Hollywood breakthrough with 2007's La Misma Luna ("Under the Same Moon") and the Disney television movie Lemon Mouth, Riggen has shown an unquestionable gift for weaving together elements of family and faith into genuinely entertaining and heartfelt stories. Few stories have inspired the world as much as the 2010 story of thirty-three Chilean miners trapped 2,300 feet underground and nearly three miles from the mouth of the over 120-year-old mine located in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile'. When reflecting on the tackling of a story a mere five-years-old and followed worldwide at the time, Riggen noted "“What was reported in the news was filtered. The miners didn’t really say what was going on down there. They kept all the bad stuff to themselves. They’re men who have a great, big sense of dignity. They didn’t want to show the world that they had conflicts or the problems that they endured ... the fear, the tears and everything that happened when they were down there for 69 days. They said "We won't tell anyone anything until we have the right people. Then, we'll tell them everything."
“The first thing you realize is that you don’t know anything,” said Riggen laughing as she looked back on the beginning of her three-year journey making the film. "I was fortunate enough to sit with each of them in a group and then privately and then to get down to the most painful experiences of what they endured. It is kind of a story that has never been told."
Filmed on an estimated $25 million production budget, modest by Hollywood's current standards, The 33 has already snagged nearly $12 million in worldwide receipts since opening in Chile on August 6th with subsequent openings in Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Argentina. Picked up by Warner Brothers for its U.S. distribution, The 33 is initially scheduled to open in over 2,000 theaters nationwide and Riggen is already getting Oscar buzz for tackling a film that takes place in and was largely shot in an actual salt mine in Colombia. Since the first Academy Awards in 1927/28, only four female directors have been nominated for Best Director with only Kathryn Bigelow, for The Hurt Locker, taking home the prize. "I'm just thrilled that things are changing for all the women who are coming around me and behind me. I hope that it gets easier everyday," Riggen replied.
"Very rarely do we encounter people who went to Hell and came back to tell us about it,” Riggen said. “These guys basically experienced what being dead is like, and they came back. So, this is really precious information that we have.” Given Hollywood's well deserved reputation for changing facts to achieve maximum dramatic impact, Riggen replied with a sense of pride to the question "How much of the story that we see is true?" with a bold statement of "95%." To ensure the film's accuracy, Riggen met with each of the thirty-three miners both collectively and individually before filming began, an effort to discover the truth far beyond what the media had shown the world. "The underground was shot in Colombia," explained Riggen. "So, I basically have a separate crew and a separate cast. The above ground was shot in Chile very close to where the events actually happened. It was basically like shooting two movies. It was really interesting shooting two movies and never really knowing how they were going to connect with each other. There was a lot of exploration going on in the editing room creating the connection that would bring together the darkest place in the world and the lightest place in the world," explained Riggen.
While the story of The 33 may seem like a no-brainer in terms of its cinematic potential and, indeed, a core thread in the film deals with the character of Mario, played by Antonio Banderas, receiving a substantial book offer even before he's been rescued, Riggen explained that it was a tough production to put together. "This was a tough movie to get off the ground. We were trying to make it in Chile, but it just didn't happen. It was so expensive. We couldn't find the right mines, because mines in Chile are so scary. They're very deep and dangerous. Then, we found out about these two amazing mines in Colombia. It wasn't only the tax incentive, but the fact that they have salt mines that are horizontal. They're not going deep. So, we were miles into the mine and it would take us 15-20 minutes to get out of there if necessary. That allowed us to think about shooting the entire movie not on a soundstage, but in a real mine."
It goes without saying that the choice to shoot in a real salt mine added lots of challenges to an already challenging film. "One of the most challenging things for sure was talking about real characters. Everyone's alive and having so many of them. There's 33 of them plus everyone above ground. Let's say there were 100 more above ground with rescuers and family and government. Being able to compress those into a reduced number so that it would be understandable and clear when you watch the movie or you would be completely lost was very challenging. The other thing was we always wanted to be truthful and faithful and respectful to the real characters. Every single choice we made was considering "Is this true? Is this real?" Did this really happen? I can tell you that 90-95% of what you see in the movie is true."
Riggen explained "If we had shot on a soundstage, and we were a small movie compared to a studio movie, I would have had a hundred feet for building a set. When you're working in a real mine, you have endless set. You have a real tunnel and all kinds of different areas to shoot in. It was really a creative decision. The movie was going to be so much richer if we were able to get into a real mine."
"What I went through in this movie is beyond words and it made me very strong. That's what I feel right now. After handling 33 men for 35 days, six days a week, fourteen hours a day and down inside a mine that is dangerous and has no bathroom ... they're basically semi-naked and covered in dirt and sweat ... everyone's so uncomfortable and they're dieting because they had to be thin ... everyone is cranky. There were all these Latin men on top of everything. I moved to the U.S. for a reason, right? To avoid Latin men! Suddenly, I'm faced with 33. It was very hard, but I feel I'm very strong now. I feel like anything is easy after this movie."
The 33 opens nationwide in the United States on November 13th and during the film's post-screening Q&A she also let audiences know that the miners, who were never compensated for their experiences, were not only supportive of and involved in the filming of The 33 but will also benefit from its continued success. Riggen recalled the experience of meeting the Chilean President and pushing for AND receiving a commitment to at least provide the miners with a pension, a powerful reminder of the mission that is at the heart of the Heartland Film Festival - cinema really can change the world and make it a better place for everyone.
For more information on the film, visit The 33's official website. You can also find the film on Facebook and on Twitter at @the33film. The 33 stars Antonio Banderas, Juliette Binoche, Rodrigo Santoro, James Brolin, and Lou Diamond Phillips and also features the final original score from the late James Horner.
by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic