Chilean miners' story to be explored on the silver screen

After an unusually long wait in Hollywood terms, the movie rights to the Chilean miners' story have been acquired.
The miner Mario Sepulveda, right, is hugged by an unidentified relative after being rescued from the collapsed San José gold and copper mine last year near Copiapó, Chile.
The miner Mario Sepulveda, right, is hugged by an unidentified relative after being rescued from the collapsed San José gold and copper mine last year near Copiapó, Chile.

This week marked a year since the cave-in at the San José copper-gold mine in Chile's harsh Atacama desert and 10 months since "Los 33" emerged blinking into the sunlight after 69 days of being trapped underground.

The first anniversary of the collapse of the mine was hailed with the opening of a multimedia exhibition on the rescue operation at the Smithsonian National Museum of National History in Washington. And finally, after an unusually long wait in Hollywood terms, the movie rights have been acquired.

Last month, Mike Medavoy, the producer behind movies such as Black Swan and Shutter Island,has agreed to terms with representatives of the 33 miners, and Jose Rivera, the Puerto Rican writer behind The Motorcycle Diaries, is putting together the screenplay.

"At its heart, this is a story about the triumph of the human spirit and a testament to the courage and perseverance of the Chilean people," Medavoy said in a press release.

A cinematic makeover was being discussed even before the first rescue capsule reached the surface (one rumour suggested that Brad Pitt's production company had made a bid), but how the actual film will pan out is still clouded with uncertainty.

After all, the 70 days the miners spent underground weren't - by any stretch of the imagination - a roller-coaster ride of edge-of-the-seat excitement. The videos sent up by the group once contact was made revealed little beyond a great deal of sweating and waiting, hardly stellar material to work with. Lighting could prove something of a problem, too.

But there's almost certainly a story of bravery and humanity to tell. Some of the key individuals alone are perfect film protagonist figures. There's Luis Urzúe, the shift foreman whose levelheadedness and organisation of the miners is believed to have kept them focused. And Mario Sepulveda, dubbed "Super Mario" for his energetic and humorous hosting of the videos. Edison Peña, the man who did Elvis Presley impressions and ran through the tunnels, is another.

If anything, the activity above the surface could provide the bigger storyboard, with family, friends and media descending on what quickly became known as Campamento Esperanzo (Camp Hope), a sprawling city of tents, Winnebagos and satellite dishes in the desert. One of the miners, Mario Gomez, proposed to his girlfriend while underground. Yonni Barrios, who became the group medic, had both his wife and mistress jostling for attention at the top.

But it's the post-rescue story that could give the film its most emotional element. Instantly labelled heroes, the men were showered with fame on emerging from the rescue shaft. They were flown around the world, to be filmed by CNN in Los Angeles; to watch Manchester United play at Old Trafford; to Disneyland with their families, and more. They were presented with gifts, such as motorbikes, by companies perhaps looking to piggyback on their fame.

The dust has now settled, the headlines are elsewhere and the fame and supposed fortune has come and gone. But the lives of the miners and their families are not the same. Barrios ended up with his mistress. Gomez has still not fulfilled his promise of marriage. Peña is trying to capitalise on his 15 minutes with performances of Blue Suede Shoes on German and Italian TV. Most are back in Chile, faced with reality and wondering what to do next now that the money has run dry. One, Ariel Ticona - whose daughter was born while he was trapped and named "Esperanza" (Hope) by the men - has, incredibly, returned to work as a miner. Many of the wives, whose determination helped highlight the incident and stir the Chilean government into activity, have found that the men who came back up are not the same ones who went down.

In film terms, it could almost be a more dramatic version of Castaway, the Tom Hanks epic that saw him stranded on an uninhibited island before rejoining civilisation. What it shouldn't be, however, is a star-studded all-action blockbuster. The British comedy show The Comic Strip dramatised the miner's strike of the early 1980s, with Al Pacino playing the union leader Arthur Scargill. It was intended as an over-the-top farce.

With filming not due to start until 2012, we've got a while to wait to see how Rivera will tell the story of Los 33. However it plays out, it's almost destined to be a commercial success. Given that an estimated one billion people watched the live rescue, the film, to be a success, needs only a small percentage of those to head to their local cinema. Let's just hope the arrangement made with Medavoy ensures the miners and their families take home a share of the spoils as well.

Published: August 23, 2011 04:00 AM


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