How Mike Medavoy Nabbed the Rights to ‘The 33’ Chilean Miners

The legendary producer, who lived in Chile for 10 years, connected with a group of the miners when they were visiting L.A.

Last Updated: July 27, 2011 @ 2:00 PM

When 33 Chilean miners were rescued from months-long entombment in a collapsed mine in October 2010, it was the biggest story on or below the surface of the earth.

So how did producer Mike Medavoy get the rights to tell the tale, in a deal that was finalized this week?

"It was two things. The fact that I lived in Chile had something to do with it. And the fact that 'Black Swan' and 'Shutter Island' happened last year, that we’re shooting a movie now — I have had a pretty good career," acknowledged Medavoy in an interview with TheWrap.

That he has. The legendary producer and film executive ("Black Swan," "Zodiac,") lived in Chile for 10 years, from age seven to 17. He speaks Spanish fluently and understands the culture intimately.

When he sat down with a group of the miners, who had come to Los Angeles on a religious mission, it is not that surprising that they connected.

“The clock could’ve been turned back in my life to the time I was 17 years old and all the Chileans that were part of my life,” he told TheWrap. “It reminded me of the kind of generosity of spirit and humor that Chileans have. It showed up again. There it was — generous, funny, enjoyable, knowledgeable.”

But as much as he wanted to make the movie, that lunch showed him that it would be complicated.

“As I got into the story deeper and deeper, I realized it was much more than we initially thought,” he said. “It’s a big story. I really had to figure out, where’s the movie?” 

The 33 miners were trapped underground in a collapsed mine for 69 days as the Chilean nation — and then the rest of the world — watched, riveted by the spectacle. The Chilean president Sebastian Piñera more or less declared that the miners would not be abandoned.

Engineers worked for days on end to dig their way to the miners. The world tuned in as they miraculously were drawn from the ground, one by one, in a televised rescue. About 8.5 million viewers in this country alone watched coverage. 

Medavoy, who also watched the live rescue, said that the story encompasses the miners, their families and their country. He described the story as a combination of “Apollo 13” and “How Green Was My Valley.”

“It’s a triumph of survival,” he said. “How do you survive under those conditions? There was a whole people trying to pull out these guys.”

Below the ground, the miners were wondering if they’d ever see their children again. They prayed a lot. 

Above ground, “one of the wives worried about — how would they come back?” Medavoy said. “In boxes, or some form other than that?”

The government of Chile, however, decided the miners would emerge alive.

In order to make the story work, Medavoy and screenwriter Jose Rivera ("The Motorcycle Diaries") agreed, the movie has to focus on just a few of the miners. (Nonetheless, the working title of the project is "The 33.")

“We can’t do a story of 33 guys,” Medavoy said. “We’re going to get into the most interesting ones.”

That means the miners below ground and their families above; it would surprise no one if Sean Penn, a friend of Medavoy's who has been in other films he has produced, including "All the King's Men," were offered a role.

In the meantime, a script has been fast-tracked, with a book by Hector Tobar racing along in parallel. 

Medavoy hopes to be shooting by next year. He is also busy with other projects, having just started shooting on another project with a sprawling, multi-star cast, Lionsgate’s upcoming comedy “What to Expect When You’re Expecting."

Joshua L. Weinstein contributed to this report.