How 'The 33' Editor Built Suspense for Chilean Miners' Tale

Behind the Screen The True story of 33 miners Collage - H 2015
Images Courtesy of Waner Bros. Pictures/Half Circle

This story first appeared in the Nov. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

It was just five years ago that more than 1 billion worldwide viewers, glued to their TV sets, watched the daring rescue of 33 miners who spent 69 days trapped in the San Jose Mine in Chile. And that posed a problem for The 33, the $26 million production from Phoenix Pictures and Alcon Entertainment that Warner Bros. released Nov. 13, because for all the story's inherent drama, it also meant millions of potential moviegoers would know the film's ending, undercutting whatever suspense the filmmakers hoped to generate.

"The challenge was to get the audience invested in the characters and lose themselves in the story — to create conflict, to create suspense, to get into what the government had to do to accomplish the rescue and what the miners had to do to stay alive," says the film's editor, Michael Tronick, whose credits range from Scent of a Women to the recent Straight Outta Compton.

Director Patricia Riggen turned to the veteran Tronick to piece together the story, an assignment akin to assembling a complex jigsaw puzzle. "We needed a really experienced editor," she says. "We shot so much, and there were so many characters and three storylines" — the simultaneously unfolding stories of the miners, the government's effort to find them and the plight of their families. "We went off script," she adds. "This movie was explored and found in the editing room. We moved around scenes, created moments. We had a lot of material to work with. There was a lot of wonderful discovery in the editing room."

As Tronick assembled the movie, he says, he kept asking key questions: "How did they make it? How did they live for the 69 days? That allowed the audience to connect with the basic humanity of the men and their plight and that of the families — the motivation not to give up." Deciding that "the most compelling part of the movie is with the miners," he and Riggen decided to cut away a lot of the above ground action, keeping it "to the absolute minimum to still push the story forward." Among the scenes that were eliminated was one in which an assistant to Chile's president visited the families in the area dubbed Camp Hope.

But even with that plan of attack, Tronick knew he couldn't tell 33 stories and that some of the miners' individual tales would have to take precedent over others. "We were constantly adding and subtracting. We had a huge board in the cutting room with 3-by-5-inch cards of every scene. And we also were facing the challenge of running time," he says of the movie, which ultimately clocks in at 127 minutes. "A lot of subplots and character beats had to be jettisoned in favor of sticking to the core heroes whom the audience would have the most invested in."

Riggen also had to find ways to compress time, for, as she adds, "After the miners were discovered, we had another 50 days to go before the rescue. So we created a sequence of newscasters to show the passage of time."

It wasn't just about what to cut from the film, either. Tronick also had to think about how to make connections among the miners, trapped below ground, and the human drama taking place on the surface. "It was like moving pieces on a chess board," he says. "If there was a scene belowground that centered on Antonio Banderas' character, when we went above­ground, we'd connect his wife and daughter so there would always be a through line."