At a time when many studios refuse to give female directors the opportunity to make movies with special effects or predominantly male casts, director Patricia Riggen has done both. Her new film, The 33, tells the true story of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped for underground for 69 days after the mine they were working in collapsed. Though one billion people watched their rescue, Riggen reveals what happened while they were stuck—both the brave and the ugly moments. Riggen sat down with TIME to talk about why she decided to film in a live mine without food, bathroom access or heat, and why she has become “exhausted” by Hollywood’s sexism.
You chose to actually film in a functioning mine. Why was that important to you?
We started out as an independent movie. We had limited resources and a big, big, story to tell. How can I tell this story of a boulder that’s twice the size of the Empire State Building falling over their heads on a small stage? So we gave up the safety of a stage and the comforts of air conditioning and a bathroom and food, and we decided to go and be miners.
Thirty-five days, 14 hours every day, six days a week we walked into a mine with hardhats and boots. No food allowed, no bathrooms. Sometimes the head of the mine who was always walking around with us would say, “Everyone step away.” And they would bring in ladders and tools and detach a rock that was about to fall and clear it. Sometimes the air was unbreathable. We had many people from the crew have to go to the hospital. It was just enduring a very difficult environment to achieve the production value that the movie now has. It was good for that, and I think it was very good also for the cast. It really informed them of what it must be like to be a miner.
And filming in a dark mine gives the film a very specific look.
One thing I worked on very specifically with my cinematographer was how to shoot inside a dark mine. And he brought up to me Caravaggio and those portraits with very deep black backgrounds and men, semi-nude, skinny with beards. And how beautiful these portraits were convinced me we could do it, we could shoot inside a mine with 33 bearded, skinny men and still make a beautiful thing. So that was the inspiration for the aesthetic.
After the mine collapsed, all the light source was headlamps. My [director of photography] rigged all the headlamps with old-style lights and different intensities, and he basically choreographed the actors to light each other in different moments. So Antonio would look at one man so that he would have light to be able to deliver his lines, and then he would turn around and light this other guy. So all those scenes in that part of the story are basically choreographed and lit by our own actors with the headlamps.
The 33 miners decided to keep certain details from journalists in order to save them for this film. What surprised you about their experience that you didn’t know before?
Many things. For instance, there was a box that had the food down there. After the collapse that box became the biggest treasure. It had a few cookies. It had a few tuna cans. And there was a raid inside the mine, some of the miners took it, forcibly opened it and started stealing and eating the food. And the other miners came in to stop it, and that’s how the power shifted inside the mine. Basically a low level miner stepped up and took over the leadership. Mario (Antonio Banderas) was the lowest level miner in a very vertical, strict work structure, like the military. He had to fight to survive all his life with no education. So when all of the sudden he finds himself in a dark hole, of course he is going to come up with everything he has learned in his life to survive. His wife used to say if he needs to feed them stones, he’ll feed them stones.
Obviously Antonio is a movie star in the truest sense. How do you make sure he doesn’t completely dominate a film that’s also about 32 other men?
Antonio also established this camaraderie. He was alway so warm and respectful with everyone that he really created a sense of brotherhood down there. He set an example for them because it’s not easy to have 33 men in those circumstances sitting down there 14 hours a day dieting and losing weight and cranky and covered in makeup and very cold. We shot in a very cold mine and had to pretend as if it was a very hot mine. So they had to be only in their trousers. So they were cold the whole time, hungry the whole time, dirty the whole time.
The federal government has begun investigating whether Hollywood studios discriminate against female directors. Have you felt like sexism has been a problem in your career?
I am grateful that I’m working, but I also have to say I’ve worked really, really hard and had to fight a lot. And I am tired of fighting. I do hope things get a little easier because [it’s] exhausting and boring to always have to fight to be heard. Every single line, every single thing has to be fought over. There’s kind of like an intrinsic doubt from absolutely everyone in my crew, my producer, everyone. It’s not just the film industry, it’s a worldwide thing. It’s the culture of the world to doubt women. And that has to be changed.
I am so happy that this is happening right now and so supportive of these brave American women that I so admire. The statistics are alarming. For films, just 7% of women are directors. And they always claim that they don’t hire women because they don’t have enough experience, but then they did a new study about first-time directors in television, and just 18% were women. So it doesn’t matter if you’re both just coming out of school. If you’re a man you just have a better chance.
There’s a large special effects aspect to this film, and when they’ve done investigations into why women aren’t hired on films, it’s often because studios claim “women can’t do special effects.” Was that an issue at all on this film?
I was very fortunate that it never occurred to the producers that a woman would be different, and I am grateful for that. But it’s so rare. I love the Kathryn Bigelow example: she didn’t just do war movies, she did them better than other directors. We just need to break that mold.
In the past, before the three Mexican directors [Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron] came to town, Latin directors were barred from doing non-Latin movies. And those three directors changed that. They did Harry Potter and space movies and monster movies and movies about American frontiersman. That’s gone. That’s no longer something that we have to fight with. Now is the time for women to do the same, to break that mold.