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Filmmaker Patricia Riggen: 'It's harder to be a woman than Latina' in Hollywood

Director Patricia Riggen and cinematographer Checco Varese on the set of
Director Patricia Riggen and cinematographer Checco Varese on the set of "The 33."
Beatrice Aguirre Zúñiga
Director Patricia Riggen and cinematographer Checco Varese on the set of
Director Patricia Riggen and cinematographer Checco Varese on the set of "The 33."
Beatrice Aguirre

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Chile gained the attention of the world five years ago with the collapse of the San José Mine near Copiapó. Thirty-three men had been inside the mine when it caved in, with only three days' worth of food. But seventeen days after the accident, responders learned that the men were still alive, trapped deep within the earth.

Relatives built an encampment by the mine site, refusing to leave until the last man was retrieved. They erected shrines, held Mass, and marshaled further support from the government. Finally, after 69 days underground, all of the miners were rescued. 

Now their story has come to the big screen. "The 33," adapted from Hector Tobar's book, "Deep Down Dark," opened in theaters this week.

Patricia Riggen directed the movie, and her husband, Checco Varese, worked as the cinematographer. They spoke to The Frame's John Horn about shooting in a mine and what it's like collaborating on set. The Frame also has a particular interest in covering diversity issues in Hollywood, and we asked about Riggen's experiences as a female director. 


Checco, do you enjoy working with your wife?

Checco Varese: It’s the same as anything else. I say yes and I follow orders. The only difference in any other marriage is I’m getting paid for it. The second thing is, it’s fascinating to work with somebody in as close and creative a relationship as this twenty-four-seven. In a movie, you’re married to the director anyway. 

Patricia Riggen: As a female director, it’s very nice to know that that person is not going to stab you in the back. It’s a very tricky relationship, the cinematographer and the director as a woman.

At what point does the marriage become part of the collaboration?

Riggen: The marriage is never part of the collaboration. Ever. In fact, when we go home, we never talk work. I always have the last word and there’s no question about that in the set. We met working and it makes no difference. The good thing is I know I can count on him no matter what.

Varese: I would be the same for any director. I don’t think there’s a difference between me on a set with Patricia and me on a set with any other director. It’s following the lead of somebody’s vision and trying to make that vision go through. When we go home, we have a daughter, and we talk about home things.

The miners were trapped for a very long time. Your movie is about two hours long. When you were talking to the miners about what to portray in that window, what was important to you, and what was important to the miners?

Riggen: I wanted to be as truthful as possible to their true stories . . . I didn’t want to talk about the bad side of who they are, but the good side. I was interested in this story because it’s an example to the world of what you can accomplish when you all work together, with a goal. These guys were able to stay together under the worst circumstances one can imagine, being trapped and hungry. That’s why they survived. And I admire that. And I think that’s one of the highlights of the movie. So I think they’re fine with the portrayal.

You say these guys — and the miners are all guys. There are some women above-ground. How did you feel your relationship to all of the men — not just the actors but the miners — was affected by being a woman director?

Riggen: At the beginning they were probably suspicious that a woman was coming in to direct. But now I hear interviews where they say, “I think she did a good job because she was a woman. She was able to capture our pain and how we felt about our families and loved ones.” So I think there is a sensibility that I put into the movie . . . In my case, thinking about the family members outside was very important. I believe that those women out there fighting are very much responsible of forcing the government to rescue these men and not forget them. 

We talk a lot about diversity on this show. Do you guys feel that you are offered a variety of stories, or do people steer stories about people who speak Spanish, or immigrant stories, to you? Do you feel pigeon-holed?

Riggen: I think the three Mexican directors that came before me did a very good job in Hollywood because they came in and started directing things like "Harry Potter."

This is Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro Iñárritu.

Riggen: I think we owe them the fact that Hollywood opened up to non-Latino stories for Latinos.

Yes, I do find that it’s easier to get Latino-themed movies . . . but I don’t think there’s that stigma anymore. I think that what’s harder is to be a woman, not to be a Latina.

And what’s hard about that? 

Riggen: People don’t believe, ever. In what I say. It's just the way it is. I have years of saying ideas that are not listened to. Then, weeks after, of producers finding out that I was right when some other guy comes in and says it. Sometimes I just tell my idea to my editor or to some other guy with maybe gray hair to share it, and then it’s brilliant! It’s like that. And it is changing. And we have to make a change very quickly because we’re kind of fed up.

We've heard from other female directors that they have to work harder when they get a job because the crew or others are doubtful that they can pull it off. I’m wondering if you have sensed that yourself on this movie, that you actually have to prove that you’re more competent than a man. Checco is nodding very hard here.

Riggen: I have had to prove that I know what I’m doing from the very first short film I made to the very last movie I wrapped. Every single day to each one of my collaborators. 

And now I think women are being brave to say it. I question myself every day, Why is this job so hard? It makes me wonder many times, is it worth it? Should I just switch and do something else? Because it’s damned hard. 

"The 33" opens in theaters November 13th.

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