Writing a screenplay about the true story of 33 miners buried alive

A potent film about the miracle of life and the power of hope

“Family is all we have,” is what keeps the flame of hope burning in the tense and taut untold true story of The 33, directed by Patricia Riggen from a screenplay by Mikko Alanne, Oscar nominee Craig Borten (Dallas Buyers Club) and Michael Thomas, based on the screen story by Oscar nominee José Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries) and the book Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar.

The 33

In 2010, the eyes of the world turned to Chile, where 33 miners had been buried alive by the catastrophic collapse of a 100-year-old gold and copper mine.

Patricia Riggen

Patricia Riggen is today one of the few Latin American female directors working in Hollywood. Originally from Mexico, she started her career as a screenwriter, producer and film executive at the Mexican Film Institute. She later moved to New York to earn an MFA in directing and screenwriting at Columbia University. Her thesis film, The Cornfield, a period short film set during the Mexican revolution, screened at more than 30 international film festivals and received 20 awards and her 30-minute documentary film Family Portrait, a story about poverty in Harlem, won the Jury Award for Best Short Film at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Riggen made her feature film directorial debut on Under the Same Moon, which she also produced. She went on to direct two features for young audiences, Girl in Progress, and the musical Lemonade Mouth. Riggen most recently wrapped production on the drama Miracles from Heaven

Over the next 69 days, an international team worked night and day in a desperate attempt to rescue the trapped men as their families and friends, as well as millions of people globally, waited and watched anxiously for any sign of hope.

But 200 stories beneath the surface, in the suffocating heat and with tensions rising, provisions—and time—were quickly running out.

A story of resilience, personal transformation and triumph of the human spirit, the film takes us to the Earth’s darkest depths, revealing the psyches of the men trapped in the mine, and depicting the courage of both the miners and their families who refused to give up.

Based on the gripping true story of survival—and filmed with the cooperation of the miners, their families and their rescuers—The 33 is a powerful film that captures the never-before-seen actual events that unfolded, above and below ground, which became nothing less than a worldwide phenomenon. the33movie.net


Mikko Alanne is a screenwriter and documentary filmmaker. The 33 marks his fourth collaboration with producer Mike Medavoy and Phoenix Pictures. Alanne currently has several projects in development at major studios and networks, including with filmmakers Oliver Stone and Angelina Jolie, and with Brad Pitt’s Plan B Productions. His previous documentary films include Terror Strikes Moscow and Voice of Dissent.Prior to his work as a screenwriter, Alanne was a Historical Content Supervisor for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, now the USC Shoah Foundation Institute.

Now, as we pass the five-year anniversary of the historic rescue, the feature film The 33 shows for the first time the ordeal of the miners and their brave battle to survive even when faced with the grim reality that help might never reach them.

It also reveals the hope and resolve of their families, who did not know if their loved ones were even still alive, but would not let them be forgotten, as well as the determination of the rescuers who surmounted every hurdle in bringing them home.

Director Patricia Riggen states, “This movie is about being trapped and alone and facing death, but it is equally about having faith and, in a way, coming back to life.  It’s about rebirth and the strength of the human spirit and so much more.

“One of the first things that drew me to the project,” she continues, “was realizing how many people were touched by this story.  In developing the film, I wanted to explore what it was that moved people around the world.  What made them so invested in the lives of 33 men they would never know?”

Producer Mike Medavoy felt a special connection to the story having lived in Chile for ten of his formative years.  He first met with a group of the Chilean miners when they visited Los Angeles shortly after their rescue.  As they began sharing their personal stories, Medavoy recalls, “The clock turned back to when I was 17.  It reminded me of the generosity of spirit and humor of the Chilean people.  But I knew the film would have to be more than just about their plight.  The film isn’t just the ending everyone saw; it’s the personal stories of the people, both above and below ground, who held onto their love and their faith for an outcome that seemed impossible.”

The 33 (2)Antonio Banderas, who stars as the de facto leader of the miners, Mario Sepúlveda, remembers following the events as they unfolded on television.  Though he portrays one of the men trapped in the mine, he says, “The key for me was that the efforts to rescue the miners were successful because of the families pushing the government to do something.  To fully understand this story, you have to see both the down and the up—what happened in the mine and what happened above.  When you get the whole picture, it says so much about love and the value of individuals.  It’s a celebration of life.”

“This movie is life-affirming,” echoes Lou Diamond Phillips, who stars as miner Luis Urzua.  “There is humanity, there is hope, there is inspiration and an absolute tribute to faith in every frame.  And because it is based on a true story, it can reinforce our belief in the human spirit.  We are not manufacturing heroes in this film; we are simply shining a light on real people who became heroes.”


Craig Borten earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay for the acclaimed 2013 fact-based drama Dallas Buyers Club, and also received a Writers Guild of America Award nomination for his work on the film. Borten grew up in Pennsylvania and attended Syracuse University in New York. He subsequently moved to Los Angeles to pursue his filmmaking career. His next project is the screenplay for Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, a biopic about John D. Rockefeller, with Lasse Hallström attached to direct.

When the 33 men descended into the mine that typical August day, they were anonymous.  Sixty-nine days later, they emerged as celebrities, but there were drawbacks to their unexpected fame.  Producer Robert Katz observes, “All of a sudden, 33 unknown, hardworking men were turned into a global phenomenon.  These ordinary guys were being hailed by the entire world, which played into their emotional states and interpersonal relationships.”

However, the men, having already been told of the fame that awaited them above, had formed a united front, agreeing to collectively tell their story to a single writer.  They chose Pulitzer Prize-winning author Hector Tobar, whose resulting book, Deep Down Dark, became a critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller.  It also became part of the basis of the screenplay for “The 33,” written by Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas, from a screen story by José Rivera.

 Crafting the screenplay

There were 33 miners who became stranded in the San José Mine, and though each had an interesting story to tell, the filmmakers knew it would be impossible to give them all equal time in a two-hour movie.  Medavoy attests, “There are many accounts of what took place below ground over the course of 69 days, so there’s a lot we couldn’t show.  But we interlaced parts that most people never knew.  How did they all work together?  What part did fate play in their survival?  That’s what’s interesting about it.  And one of the most important things is to make it all feel authentic, and good actors can do that for you.”


Michael Thomas is a native of Australia and began writing as a teen in Sydney. Moving to the United States, he spent ten years writing for a number of prolific publications, including Life, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Playboy, Penthouse, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone as its Caribbean editor. Thomas’s distinguished screenwriting career includes such films as Tony Scott’s The Hunger; Richard Donner’s Ladyhawke; Michael Caton-Jones’ Scandal; lain Softley’s Backbeat; Michael Radford’s B. Monkey; Paul Goldman’s The Night We Called It a Day; and Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double. He has recently re-teamed with Lee Tamahori and producer Paul Breuls on the period thriller The Emperor. He is currently working on a number of projects, including When I Fall, an original South African-set thriller directed by Colin Bucksey; Gagarin, with Asger Leth attached to direct, and a longform television project entitled Knobhead. Other upcoming projects include a film with Timur Betmambetov.

As is often the case with films based on true stories, the filmmakers composited characters and events, “giving names and individual storylines to only ten of them,” says Riggen.  “But we tried to incorporate as many of the different experiences they all shared among those ten.”

Alanne notes, “There were several challenges we had to solve in crafting the screenplay: how to divide 69 days in a two-hour film; which of the miners to focus on while still representing all 33; and, of course, how to maintain the dramatic tension when the ending is so well-known.”

Thomas offers, “I was watching TV when the miners came up the shaft.  We all were…we all wept.  These were strong men who beat the deep, and it was a miracle they survived.  We know how it ends, but by showing audiences what happened leading up to that, we hope they will get that same feeling again—of witnessing a miracle.”

“We did extensive interviews with the miners and their families, who generously shared some truly harrowing times during their long ordeal, and we all felt it was a privilege to help tell their stories,” Alanne adds.  “Patricia and I worked closely in charting out the structure and the different character arcs; she is just a tremendous artist and had such a clear vision for the film she wanted to make.”

“Patricia was the perfect choice to direct this film,” Medavoy concurs.  “She is one of a few women directors working today and, being from Latin America, she had such a heart for the material.  She totally captured the layers of fear, hope, desperation, faith, anger and joy that ebb and flow throughout the film.”

Riggen reveals that one of the primary things on which she focused in constructing the film was balance.  “I knew I had to deal with three worlds, completely different from one another and yet intersecting the whole time.  There were the miners, who were totally cut off and on their own for weeks; the families, who focused on keeping the faith and pushing the rescue efforts; and the rescuers, who wondered if they were fighting a lost cause.  Achieving the balance between them was very delicate.”


José Rivera (Screen Story) earned Oscar and Writers Guild of America Award nominations in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on Walter Salles’ 2004 feature The Motorcycle Diaries and also won Argentinean Film Critics and Spain’s Cinema Writers Circle Awards for the film. His additional film credits include the screenplays for On the Road, Letters to Juliet and Trade, as well as the short films The Winged Man and The Tape Recorder, the latter of which he also directed. For more than 30 years, Rivera has also enjoyed success in the television arena. He is currently writing a Latino Roots limited series for HBO, as well as another series for the network, which he is penning with Tom Hanks. He created and produced the series “Eerie, Indiana,” also writing almost every episode.Rivera is a two-time Obie-winning playwright, whose latest play, Another Word for Beauty, enjoyed its world premiere in January at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

To maintain that balance, Riggen constantly shifts the focus from the mine to the desert above; from the miners, doing whatever it takes to survive, to their loved ones, doing whatever it takes to reach them.

Juliette Binoche, who plays Maria Segovia, the sister of one of the miners and the most vocal representative of the families, offers, “To me, this story demonstrates that people have power—more power than they think.  When there’s a cause, you have to express yourself in order to change things, because nothing is going to change unless somebody is willing to step forward and act.”

Banderas, Phillips and Binoche are just three in an international ensemble cast that also includes Rodrigo Santoro, James Brolin, Bob Gunton, Gabriel Byrne, Mario Casas, Jacob Vargas, Juan Pablo Raba, Oscar Nuñez, Tenoch Huerta, Marco Treviño, Adriana Barraza, Kate Del Castillo, Cote de Pablo, Elizabeth De Razzo and Naomi Scott.

“We really looked for the perfect person for each role—it didn’t matter what country they came from—and that resulted in a truly international cast,” says Riggen.  “But it’s a Latin American story, so a number of Latin American countries are represented in our actors.  It makes it very special because the film has a Latin American sensibility and heart.”

The cast and filmmakers were also honored to have on set the miners who actually experienced the drama they were re-creating.

Producer Edward McGurn says, “We literally had every one of the miners visit with us during filming.  In fact, many of them worked with us in different capacities on location.  It was terrific having them involved.  To have them on set reminded us all of why we were there and led to some really beautiful and poignant moments.”

Hector Tobar (c) Doug Knutson

Hector Tobar (Author) is a Los Angeles-based author and journalist, whose work examines the evolving and interdependent relationship between Latin America and the United States. The son of Guatemalan immigrants, Tobar has had a long career in journalism, including work for the New Yorker, LA Weekly, and several staff positions for the Los Angeles Times. In 1992, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his work as part of the team covering the L.A. riots. During the 2010 Copiapó mining accident, while still trapped in the mine, the 33 miners chose to collectively contract with a single author to write an official history so that none of the 33 could individually profit from the experiences of others. The miners chose Tobar ,who had exclusive access to the miners’ stories. In October 2014, he published an official account titled Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free. The critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award. Tobar authored The Tattooed Soldier, a novel set in the impoverished immigrant neighborhoods of Los Angeles in the weeks before the riots, and in Guatemala during the years of military dictatorship there. His non-fiction Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States is a cross-country journey with stops in many of the new places where Latin American immigrants are settling. His third book, The Barbarian Nurseries, is a sweeping novel about class and ethnic conflict in modern Southern California, which was named a New York Times Notable Book for 2011 and won the 2012 California Book Award gold medal for fiction. In 2006, Tobar was named one of the 100 Most Influential Hispanics in the United States by Hispanic Business magazine. He is a graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of California, Irvine. He has been an adjunct professor at Loyola Marymount University and Pomona College and is currently an assistant professor at the University of Oregon’s school of journalism and communication.

Among those who came to the set was Mario Sepúlveda, who was dubbed “Super Mario” by the press due to his infectious energy, wit and humor.

“I was really surprised by the professionalism and seriousness with which they are telling our story,” Sepúlveda says.  “Walking on the set felt like a dream.  Everyone was very warm and welcoming, and it was emotional to see all the things done behind the scenes to make this movie.  My personal hope is that people who see it will realize there are no obstacles that can’t be overcome and that there’s nothing more beautiful than being alive and being close to those one loves.”

Getting direct input from the people whose lives they were portraying added to the realism for the entire company.  The miners also offered some advice to the actors playing them about laboring inside a mine, as the underground sequences were shot in two actual operational mines outside of Bogota, Colombia.

“Working within those mines showed the cast, crew, all of us, what it’s really like,” Riggen remarks.

“We all got a dose of reality, a little taste that definitely informed the performances in a positive way.  We survived claustrophobia, heat and started experiencing maybe a tiny bit of what the miners must have gone through.  We would either end up killing each other,” she teases, “or learn to work together and make a movie.”

Filming also took place against the backdrop of Chile’s Atacama Desert, just a few miles from what became known as Camp Esperanza (Hope), where the families held vigil, waiting to learn the fate of their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.

Riggen states, “It was incredible to shoot the Camp Hope sequences in the same region where the actual events occurred.  We not only had the miners and their families visiting us, but many of the background extras who populated our Camp Hope were there at the real thing five years ago.  I’ve never seen so many tears mixed with such joy as we re-created that long wait…and, finally, the rescue.”

The director concludes, “Having the opportunity to tell this story was so special to me and everyone else involved.  Our primary goal in making this film was to remind audiences of the courage and grit of the miners, the unwavering faith of their loved ones, and the tenacity of experts and workers who came from all over to rescue the 33.  Five years ago, their story inspired and united millions in every corner of the globe, and that feeling of hope deserves to be remembered…now and always.”