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Bringing ‘The 33’ to the Big Screen

Director Patricia Riggen and stars Antonio Banderas and Lou Diamond Phillips discuss the challenges they faced in bringing the story of The 33 to life on the big screen. 

Antonio Banderas and Lou Diamond Phillips star in The 33
Credit: 2014 Half Circle LLC. The 33. All rights reserved.

In August 2010, the world turned its eyes to a small mining community in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile when a 121-year-old mine caved in, trapping 33 miners 2,300 feet underground for 69 days.  The new film, The 33, tells the inspiring story of those men who miraculously survived the accident and experienced the most documented rescue effort of the 21st century.

“Faith was absolutely fundamental [to our survival],” miner Ariel Ticona tells Guideposts.org in Spanish. “Without the help of God it wouldn’t have been possible,” he says.

Though The 33 director Patricia Riggen wasn’t among the one billion people worldwide who watched their daring rescue live, she became intimate with the details of the miners’ survival story and made sure their faith was central to the story she told on screen.

Riggen weaves their faith story into the intricate details of the film, using subtle imagery and symbolism– a last supper scene proves to be the most memorable and beautifully shot of the entire movie – in order to do justice to the beliefs that helped these brave men survive.

“They’re very clear about the role God played in their survival,” Riggen says. “It was important to show that in the movie, to have that [faith] be a character in a way. They always say, ‘We were 34–33 and God.’”

Miner Mario Sepúlveda also played a role in helping his fellow survivors stay organized, encouraged and alive while underground. Antonio Banderas, who plays Sepúlveda in The 33, shares Riggen’s passion for portraying the miners’ story in the most authentic light.

Director Patricia Riggen on set of The 33.

Banderas and the other actors and crew spent 35 days shooting in a working mine in Colombia and experienced first-hand the treacherous conditions mine workers still endure—polluted air, little food and no bathrooms. It’s the humanity, the dignity under distress and the perseverance of these miners that Banderas hopes The 33 captures.

“One of the things [the miners] all say to you is that they are not heroes,” Banderas says. “That’s very important in the movie. What we see are human beings that make mistakes. [Sepúlveda] was a survivor from the very early stages of his life. This was a kid that suffered, who had to learn to survive in a rough way. [It’s] incredible that life gave him an opportunity to learn all of those skills that gave him some order and discipline down there that helped save them.”

What also helped to save them were the women—the wives, mothers and daughters–above ground who set up camp, prayed and fought to bring national attention to the miners’ plight. By also telling the story of the women, The 33 shows how much was at stake had the miners not made it home.

The women are why Hector Tobar, who penned the book that The 33 was based upon and consulted on the film, tells Guideposts.org that ultimately, the miners’ story is one of love.

“I spent three years working on this book, interviewing the men and getting to know them,” Tobar says. “Essentially this is a love story. It’s about these women who love these knuckleheads – guys who drink too much, who work too hard – and they want them home.” Though the miners emerged from the earth triumphant after 69 days under dirt, rock and debris—Sepúlveda famously chanted “Viva Chile!” as he was being pulled from the rubble—not all is well for the survivors.

“They’re in a tough place still,” Riggen admits.

None of the 33 received restitution from the San José mine where the accident took place. While the older miners are now retired, a majority of the men who want to work can’t because of medical reasons – quite a few suffer from PTSD – or because they’re “too famous” to be hired. Mine owners don’t want to hire them to avoid the media attention that might come should one of the 33 be involved in an accident in their mines.

Riggen employed many of the miners to help with the film – recruiting them as extras, having them drive vehicles or even direct people on set.

She and the rest of her cast, including star Lou Diamond Phillips, hope that by bringing attention to the stories of these men again, they can do their part to help them recover some of what they lost.

“We were all in Santiago de Chile for the world premiere,” Phillips says. “Thirty-two of the 33 miners were there and it’s probably the proudest moment I’m going to have throughout this entire process when that full house all stood up and gave these men a standing ovation. For them, this has been a part of the healing process.” 

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