Hollywood salivates at Chilean mine rescue story

Hollywood salivates at Chilean mine rescue story

Happy Homecoming: Carlos Mamani, a rescued Bolivian miner, second from left, with family and friends in Copiapo, Chile. NYT

Life has been pleasant to Nando Parrado since he survived a 1972 plane crash along with his rugby team on an Andes mountaintop. He became an author and a successful television producer in Uruguay. Ethan Hawke played him in a movie. And he still attends an annual reunion with the 15 others whose tortuous survival story was depicted in the 1993 film ‘Alive’.

On vacation in Miami last week, he watched the news coverage of the Chilean miner rescue from a penthouse suite at the W Hotel South Beach. Millions around the world watched as 33 miners, trapped underground for two months, were brought out, one by one, into a bright media spotlight.

“If we had had a TV crew, we would have exploded to another galaxy,” he said, betraying a hint of rescue envy. “Nobody helped us. We got out and went to a barbeque.”

It took 21 years for Parrado’s story to be told by Hollywood. For the miners, the speculation about movie rights began while they were still trapped underground. Movieline.com proposed several suitable directors, including Ron Howard, Danny Boyle and Kathryn Bigelow. Whom to star? How about Javier Bardem or Gael Garcia Bernal or Benicio del Toro?

For better or worse, the miners’ story now becomes one of calculation, of who gets paid, and who controls the manipulation of the story in the popular culture. In the last few days, and in the next few weeks, the low end of the media food chain — the magazines and quickie books and cable news — will have its bite. But then, the story passes onto Hollywood, which will try to create art — or at least a summer blockbuster — out of real life.

News reports suggested that the men, even before being rescued, had agreed to share in any possible Hollywood gold, but time away from their cocoon of solidarity will tell. Money and fame have a way of complicating relationships.

“Some might like the exposure, some might not,” said Parrado. “It’s a big group, and everyone will behave differently.” And they are not the only ones who will need to take measure of the situation. Movie producers have their own reputations to protect.

Honouring fellow officers

“I think dealing with Hollywood for any normal person is scary,” said Will Jimeno, a retired police officer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who was buried during 9/11 and whose story was told in the 2006 Oliver Stone film, ‘World Trade Centre’. Jimeno and another officer, Sgt John McLoughlin, received about $2,00,000 each for their stories — not big money by Hollywood standards. He said fidelity to history and honouring fellow officers who died were the reasons he participated in the film.

“Hollywood came to us,” said Jimeno, who said he cried as he watched the miners being rescued. He advised the miners to trust their instincts in choosing whom, among the many that will come their way, to do business with. Of Hollywood, he said: “They’re going to make their money no matter what. It’s a business.” He said the filmmakers used some ‘artistic creativity’ in translating his story onscreen, but overall he praised the treatment he and McLoughlin got from Hollywood.

Charles Randolph, a screenwriter whose credits include ‘The Interpreter’ and ‘The Life of David Gale’, said the big Hollywood studios were likely to wait — perhaps for a definitive book by a big-name author — and not join in the initial rush to tell the story. “The scrum on the ground will not be the major players,” said  Randolph. “Years will go by before there’s a big Hollywood movie.”

Even without cooperation, there is nothing to stop a producer from simply using the story to make a movie. The event was so public that a filmmaker could probably just rip from the headlines and get away with it — in the vein of ‘The Social Network’, the fictionalised creation story of Facebook that is in theatres now and attracting Oscar attention, as well as animosity from its subjects.

But sensitivity to public relations — as well as the desire to look one’s self in the mirror — will probably demand that Hollywood pay the miners something.

“You can make a movie about Mark Zuckerberg, who is worth $6 billion, and not buy his rights,” said Michael Shamberg, a producer of ‘World Trade Centre’. “You can’t make a story about 33 miners and not try to help them.”

Shamberg dashed off an e-mail to a Chilean filmmaker days before the miners were recovered, trying to attach a Latino name to a project that now exists only in his imagination.

“They are the national pride of Chile. If you don’t do right by these people, you’ll have a nation pissed off at you.” He added, “In my opinion, this isn’t a movie that I would want to make without the approval of the real people,” a stance that would put significant leverage in the miners’ laps.

Reality show already on air

There is another problem: the reality TV show has already aired. In the days ahead, their stories will adorn magazines, and quickie books will surely follow. Audiences will be saturated — if they aren’t already.

“This is going to be about finding the story,” said Kris Thykier, a film producer based in London who is behind Madonna’s coming film, ‘WE’. “The difficulty for a producer looking at this is, what is the way in? It’s not about a bunch of guys trapped in a mine. It’s about their personalities and the characters.”

Over time, more details of their individual stories, and their time under the earth — especially during the 17 days without communication from above — will be revealed. This is the material, producers said, that will provide the dramatic detail. Audiences love heroes, and this story provides nearly three dozen of them. But films don’t accommodate 33 main characters, and even if the miners were paid equally, inevitably some would become greater characters, played by bigger actors — ego blows for the lesser characters that could complicate relationships among the miners and their families.

Ben Sherwood, a former producer at ABC News and NBC News who founded thesurvivorsclub.org, a social network and collection of resources for survivors of tragedies and disasters, said the first 17 days of the Chilean episode resembled a classic survival tale with parallels even to the epic story of the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, but then pivoted to something completely new: a high-stakes reality show, in which the miners remained in danger but enjoyed any number of creature comforts and communicated regularly with their families.

“When we find out what really happened down there, I’m confident there will be amazing stories that we can’t even imagine,” said Sherwood.

All the elements are there, for humour in the way men relate to one another, for romantic drama in the story of the miner whose wife and mistress discovered each other, for heartfelt human connection and male bonding. “Death is the villain,” said  Shamberg. “The elements and the circumstances are the villain.”

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