NEMOCON, COLOMBIA – At the bottom of a dank salt mine in Colombia, a 200-strong film crew featuring Spanish actor Antonio Banderas is reconstructing the incredible tale of 33 miners who were buried alive for 69 days in Chile in 2010.
Actors from multiple countries are working in suffocating heat on “The 33,” which traces the unlikely survival of the men after they were trapped deep underground after a collapse at the San Jose copper mine in the Atacama Desert.
“It’s not just about the physical ordeal these 33 men went through — it’s about the emotional one, of wondering if they would live or die, or if they would go crazy waiting to find out,” said Gregg Brilliant, a spokesman for the American film production.
To depict the incredible story that unfolded more than 600 meters underground, the production team chose to film at two sites outside the Colombian capital, Bogota.
Behind a security cordon, curious onlookers try to catch a glimpse of a star, but their Hollywood hopes are repeatedly dashed.
In the salt mines of Nemocon, the humid and musty mine environment combines with the thin mountain air to re-create the oppressive atmosphere at San Jose, located 800 km north of Chile’s capital, Santiago.
The film recounts the story of the mine accident and how all 33 men — 32 Chileans and a Bolivian — eventually escaped in a spectacular rescue operation watched around the world.
Banderas, 53, will play Mario Sepulveda, the charismatic de facto leader of the group.
French actress Juliette Binoche, who replaced Jennifer Lopez in the cast, and Americans Martin Sheen and James Brolin also star in the film.
Under the guidance of Mexican-born American director Patricia Riggen, the actors sweat profusely, keeping make-up artists hard at work before each take.
“The ambiance is real. You don’t have to act so much,” said Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays Luis Urzua, the mining team’s shift leader, nicknamed “Don Lucho,” who organized the men’s severely limited food supply during their ordeal.
Producers relied heavily on a vast trove of data about the incident, including the miners’ medical reports, to make the film as authentic as possible.
Depicting the weight loss of the miners, who survived on tins of tuna and small sips of milk, proved a major obstacle.
The film’s head of make-up, Ana Lozano, said that re-creating the miners’ emaciated look was her most complicated task. Despite dieting, none of the actors was able to lose as much weight as the men they portrayed.
The film crew played with light and shadow effects to mark the outline of the miners’ ribs and experimented with small prosthetic devices to accentuate their eyes.
Latex was used to simulate the redness and peeling of their skin.
After filming wraps in Colombia, the team will head to the Atacama Desert early this year, Brilliant said.
Binoche will make her debut on set in the desert as Dario Segovia’s sister, who organized a makeshift village near the mine where family members and reporters gathered to await news of the miners.
“The film isn’t just about the event itself — it’s about the people, both above and below ground, who held onto their love and their hope to pull them through what seemed like an impossible rescue,” said Brilliant.
The movie, however, will not recount the story’s real-life ending, which is less joyous.
The men’s fame neither lasted nor brought them the fortune for which they had once hoped.
After they were freed, the miners hired an accountant to make sure that income from their celebrity status would be fairly divided. While still trapped, they appointed one of their group as their official biographer and another as their poet.
“We are like a big family — but with each going his own way,” Urzua, the real “Don Lucho,” said from Chile.