At the outset of this conversation, to create opportunity and parity for female directors in the film/TV industry, I was somewhat surprised and dismayed to learn that many of my peers had never worked with a woman director. (In this specific instance, I refer to ‘peers’ as male actors of my generation.) Upon reflection, I realized how fortunate I am to have worked with female directors throughout my career and with much more frequency in recent years. Though it was simply a matter of course for me, a proposition where talent was the primary criteria and therefore no surprise, I see now that my experience is sadly unique. With that in mind, it makes it difficult to write about just one experience because every single working relationship I’ve had with female directors has been inspirational, educational and fulfilling.
A few names come immediately to mind: Zetna Fuentes who directed a number of episodes of my Netflix series Longmire and who directed a few of my favorite episodes of Ray Donovan; Indie powerhouse Megan Griffiths who wrote and directed the unexpected take on serial killer Richard Ramirez in The Night Stalker and who insured that most of the department heads were female; Anne Marie Cummings who created the bold and innovative one-take series Conversations in LA which she continues to write and direct. All of these amazing artists are emblematic of the women with whom I’ve had the privilege to collaborate, bringing strength, originality and insight to the creative process.
But ultimately I’ve decided to focus on Patricia Riggen who directed the recent feature film The 33, a project that I still feel incredibly honored to have been a part of. It was a privilege to have a front row seat to Patricia’s process over a span of many months and to recognize that her particular skill set helped to shape a compelling and emotionally effective film.
At first glance, The 33, about the mine collapse in Chile in 2010 which trapped 33 miners underground for 69 days, would appear to be a male driven and dominated story. Man against Nature. A tale of strength and survival in the face of insurmountable odds. Had the director’s chair been filled in typical fashion, the story might not have aspired to anything more than an action film.
Patricia Riggen’s influence was immediate and elemental. Instead of focusing simply on the men’s struggle to survive, Patricia brought in a much more expansive world view at the script stage by including the conflict unfolding above ground; the heart wrenching experience of the families who refused to give up hope and who tenaciously sought help from a cynical government. Not only did this provide an opportunity for Juliet Binoche, Kate Del Castillo and Cote De Pablo to turn in brilliant performances, it also gave Ms. Riggen the platform to articulate the global, political and cultural aspects of this ordeal. Patricia’s Mexican heritage was also a valuable asset and insured that cultural accuracy and detail were not overlooked.
From my earliest involvement, I witnessed Patricia endeavoring to improve the script and underline the emotional beats, a philosophy that continued throughout the shoot with Patricia reminding each of us to stay connected to the touchstones of faith and family. A rehearsal period is becoming more and more rare when scheduling shoots but Patricia insisted on it and this is where she was able to bring each actor into her process and tailor each character’s specific needs. Her table reads were the very definition of inclusion and collaboration. It was not necessarily surprising that she brought a nurturing spirit to the table but it was certainly refreshing.
This intense level of preparation and foresight were invaluable when going to camera in what could validly be termed a hostile environment. We shot the interiors of the mine in two actual salt mines outside of Bogota, Colombia, in wintertime. One of the mines was still functional and therefore rife with hazards. Patricia was not daunted. Though many of the cast and crew had to periodically seek relief due to poor air conditions or respiratory concerns, Patricia never left. Her leadership by example was inspirational. She handled the physical challenges and never lost sight of her artistic vision.
Since we are discussing the particular demands and challenges of female directors, it would be remiss of me not to mention a dynamic that still needs remediation within our industry. There were men on the shoot, fortunately a minority but nonetheless vocal, who could just not embrace Ms. Riggen’s authority. Given the specifics of this production, one might attribute this to generational or cultural attitudes but I suspect that it was an obvious incidence of a mind set that is more subtle and insidious on our own domestic sets. Once again, Patricia was not daunted. She handled any disrespect and noncompliance with grace and class where a male counterpart might have simply started firing people.
Like Kathryn Bigelow before her, Patricia Riggen has expanded the boundaries of what is presumed to be suitable subject matter for female directors. In The 33, I believe that Patricia delivered a film that works on every level and that defies categorization. When acknowledging the additional obstacles placed before female directors, I’m reminded of the old quip about Ginger Rogers—She did everything that Fred Astaire did…only backwards and in heels.