Five years ago, the world watched as 33 husbands, fathers and sons were lifted to safety after being trapped in a Chilean mine for 69 days. Millions were moved by how the men came together to conquer fear when they had every reason to give up hope. Director Patricia Riggen brings this story to the big screen in her new film "The 33." She and actor Rodrigo Santoro spoke with Townhall about the project and a common denominator that propelled the miners’ to the surface: their faith.
“Upon reading a first draft of the script, I realized it was a story that had some of the elements that I really gravitate toward,” Riggen said. “It’s a story of faith and family. It was not about drills and machines and how to get them out, it was about how the miners kept it together through their faith and through the love of their families.”
Riggen met the actual miners and their families and offered them a private screening of the film. She described the emotions in the room when the end credits started rolling.
“The lights came up and they were very quiet, very few words,” she said. “They are men of few words when it comes to this very tragic event. They just embraced me, they hugged me and the wives hugged me and that was basically the reaction.”
The miners were not supposed to see daylight again. By all accounts, rescue was impossible. They were buried 2,300 feet underground, surpassing the height of the Empire State Building.
After their miraculous rescue, one of the 33, Jimmy Sanchez, said, “There are actually 34 of us, because God has never left us down here.”
“Faith is the single most important element in this story,” Riggen explained. “From the very beginning I think that was ever present in all their anecdotes and everything they told me and that’s why I really wanted to capture it in the movie so I have several instances in the movie where we see how it helped them stay together and stay alive. It’s ever present in the movie."
"It’s faith in God that got them through it," she emphasized.
The miners were able to share a special spiritual experience, despite vastly different backgrounds.
“There were many denominations down there and they figured a way to all pray together as one," Riggen explained. "That’s just a beautiful thing. They still do when you meet them, they all hold hands and stand in a circle and go into prayer and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
Riggen said that her cast, led by A-list movie stars such Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche, had to be as passionate about portraying the characters as she was in directing them.
“They had to be because this is an ensemble movie," she explained. "When you want to get movie stars, you shouldn’t make movies because you get paid a lot of money or because you have a lot of screen time and it’s a great vehicle for them. In this case, we didn’t have either of the two...So they really have to come out of love to the project. Everyone of our cast was just so passionate and committed to the story that it was very easy to work with them because they were just there for the same reason I was.”
Actor Rodrigo Santoro plays Laurence Holborne, the mining minister who had only been on the job for four months before catastrophe struck.
“His position is that he was in the center of a big storm,” Santoro said. “I think when he decided to go there, he didn’t have an idea of the scope and size of the problem. When he gets there, he meets the families. He gets in touch with something that he didn’t expect, which is their pain and their desperation and their strength. From that moment on I think that he starts to relate to it in a very human level."
Yet, Santoro said the miners’ rescue was not limited to the efforts of one individual.
“I believe that he has merit in what he did but I also believe that there’s no one hero here,” Santoro explained. “It really is the combination of all the efforts from every single part. Those families were very, very important. They were saying this is not about rescuing 33 miners. 'This is my brother, this is my family, and I’m not leaving this place until you get them.' Accidents happen all the time. Why has this story captured over a billion people all over the world? I do believe it has universal symbol and archetypes and values and people relate to it. They want to talk about that and to feel that.”
At a pivotal point in the film, Santoro's character is slapped by one of the miners' wives, Maria, who demands more assistance from the government to help her get her husband out alive. It was a real slap.
“It was very memorable for me I won’t forget it," Santoro said. "I’m very proud to be slapped by Juliette Binoche."
Yet, he said it is hard to pick just one favorite scene, because every day of filming required intense concentration.
"There wasn’t a day I was driving to work and thinking, okay this day’s going to be an easier day," he explained. "It was very intense. We were in the middle of the desert with tents and all the conditions, but also the landscape and the atmosphere and the silence and everything around us was very inspiring so it was very memorable, the whole experience – but very challenging as well.”
Riggen, who is currently directing a new film called “Miracles from Heaven,” said the mining rescue confirmed her belief in miracles.
“There was a 1 percent chance in finding them and it was going to take many millions of dollars,” she explained. “Who thought that somebody was going to spend that money on poor miners that could be so quickly forgotten like so many others in the world? Everything about it was just so special. I’m just the voice of what happened.”
"The 33" comes to theaters Nov. 13.