Latin heat

PHOTO: Golden Village Pictures

Five years ago, for 69 days, the world's cameras were trained on an unfolding crisis in a remote corner of Chile, where 33 miners were buried alive in a catastrophic collapse of a 100-year gold and copper mine.

The desperate rescue efforts by an international team were followed on television by millions of people, collectively holding their breath as the miners were all eventually rescued after two gruelling months in the stifling depths of the earth.

The rescue chamber they were holed up in had a broken radio, an empty medical kit, no ladders in the ventilation shaft and very little food.

A drill eventually managed to send down food and clothes, and a communication system was set up to the outside world.

Some of the miners visited Los Angeles shortly after they were rescued, and their stories, including the tenacity of their families who never gave up hope, struck a chord with a Hollywood producer.

Their ordeal is recounted in the new film The 33, starring an international cast led by Antonio Banderas, who plays Mario "Super Mario" Sepulveda, the leader of and public face for the group of miners.

Also featuring Juliette Binoche, Rodrigo Santoro, Lou Diamond Phillips and Gabriel Byrne, The 33 opens here tomorrow.

At the Loews Hotel in Hollywood, Banderas arrives early for our interview, bleary-eyed from travelling but with his matinee idol looks intact.

The 55-year-old Spanish actor tells M: "It's one of those mornings where you wake up and feel like, my god, 200 interviews in five days and my neurons are sleeping today."

But he answers all questions with aplomb despite his fatigue, animatedly revealing the depth of his connection with the story and the real- life heroes who lived to tell the tale.

Were you watching the rescue efforts of the mining disaster on television back in 2010?

The drill coming out with the note attached to it saying "we are alive", that was a crucial moment for me. I think the story took its real dimension from that moment.

Normally the outcome of those incidents are very tragic. So after 20 days of searching for these guys, we thought that it was going to finish with a beautiful ceremony and the condolences of the government to the families, and moving on.

So that moment was the beginning of a story that is more Hollywood than Hollywood. If you write that in fiction, it would be highly criticised because many people would say this is impossible.

What did you learn from the experience of shooting The 33? What touched you most?

We were working in hard conditions... but there are people who work in there for their whole life. And so a tremendous amount of respect for miners who work in extreme conditions, and how forgotten they are, and how irresponsible companies are in terms of security.

I learnt, too, one thing that Mario Sepulveda said to me and that's "I am not Zorro (one of Banderas' movie characters), I am not a hero, I am a human being. You guys have to be honest and you have to portray that in that way".

He was the one who got the most attention.

These guys were miners and suddenly they were superheroes and he was being called Super Mario because the press at the time needed one face and not 33 faces, and he was chosen.

And then he started receiving very interesting offers and money started pouring in, and money divided them. And individualism started coming out and that's what Mario Sepulveda described I think as "weak moments".

And so he was alienated from the group. There is a story of redemption too and of forgiveness and he got to come back and eat all his pride and ask for apologies to put the groups together again.

You shot in two different working mines in Columbia, right?

Yes. One was cold and dry and we had to be faking all the time that it was very hot. The real mine in Chile was almost like a sauna.

The other one was another deal. There was a lot of methane gas there and eventually we had to be evacuated because the methane gas actually produced a very strange effect on you and your stomach...

But again, I shouldn't complain because we were there temporarily, so you just take it like a man.

So it was a difficult and intense shoot, but were there any light moments?

We were in darkness practically all the time and just making jokes with each other. The real miners told us they actually laughed a lot and not everything was dramatic and that helped them survive in a way.

There was also a scene that didn't make it to the screen. When they were really low in calories, they would play a soccer match in the mine. They did a ball with socks and they played a soccer match, and it's crazy.

tnp@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on November 18, 2015.
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