Talking to ‘The 33’ director Patricia Riggen on how to succeed in male-dominated Hollywood

The scarcity of female directors in Hollywood is no hyperbole. The number of women directing big budget films is so low — only 7% of the biggest film’s are directed by women — that a Federal investigation is currently underway with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission looking into what action, if any, should be taken to end gender discrimination in the film industry.

In this climate it is particularly noteworthy that The 33, the new film about the 2010 Chilean mining disaster (a film with a predominantly male cast that was filmed underground in a mine), is directed by a woman. Through her film, Mexican director Patricia Riggen tells the story of the 33 men who were trapped underground for 69 days also pointedly including the stories of the women — the wives, daughters, sisters, mothers — of those miners who waited and rallied and picketed above ground until those miners were rescued.

Ms. Riggen spoke with us about her new film and what it means to be not just working as a female director in male-dominated Hollywood, but also what it’s like to be a female director telling a story about 33 men. Because she also happens to be an incredibly wise lady, she dispensed some excellent (and highly inspirational) advice for aspiring female artists.

HelloGiggles (HG): I wanted to begin by asking how you got involved in The 33?

Patricia Riggen (PR): I was sent the script; I thought it would be very challenging to tell a story about so many characters and such a long time, (69 days). [I wanted] to see how to make it all work within two hours, to discover what the movie was really about, and how you tell this story. There are so many ways to tell this story, at least 33 because every one of these guys had a different version of what happened, and for me it was just a great challenge to piece it all together.

HG: Is the process of being hired to direct a film the same for female directors as it is for male directors, especially if women are perceived as being “risky”?

PR: Well it’s all the same for everyone. We all need to go through the same thing. Even the most famous director needs to come in and tell the producer how he sees the movie. Because if the producer owns the project and it’s a ghost story and the [director] comes in and says, “no it’s a love story,” then they have very different ideas of what the movie should be. So it applies to both men and women. Of course, when you’re a woman you just don’t get hired, even if you do a good job. But that’s changing and I think it’s just up to us to be really strong and assertive and have a lot of self confidence and not let anyone tell us otherwise. We just need to believe that we’re super smart and talented.

HG: On a film like this, with a plot centered around on 33 men, was there ever an intimidation factor in tackling what could be perceived as a “masculine” story?

PR: No there wasn’t until I got there. I never thought about it, because at first it was just lines. It was just words on a page. So for me it was no different — characters are characters. Once you get there then, yes, you have to face 33 guys, every day, and they have issues. Men have issues and they are not easy to handle. [laughs]

HG: What kinds of issues?

PR: Your readers know the issues. You know, sometimes they feel insecure, or they want to manipulate you. You just have to be very clear of what your role is the whole time and that you are the ultimate boss and that you are responsible for what’s going to end up on the screen. And you fight for it.

HG: Do you think that there are advantages to being a woman in a director position?

PR: There are many. The coin, it has two sides. Once you turn it around on the good side, it’s great! Everyone adores you because you are a woman . . . But it’s that, dichotomy.

HG: What was the process by which you became a director?

PR: I did other jobs, I was writing, I was producing, but I was never completely happy. I decided to go do a master’s degree and went back to school, because in an environment like that I could try different things and see what was best for me. In the first semester I had my first directing class and it was like lightening struck. I just knew that’s what I had been working towards.

HG: What was your master’s degree for when you enrolled? Was it for directing?

PR: I chose a school that had everything, I went to Columbia University where directing and writing were together — NYU had only directing on one side, writing on the other. So most schools have it separate, but that program had it all together. That was ideal because it just allowed me to try different things and to do different things and to discover which one I was better for and which I liked more.

HG: And when you were still in college and decided to write your undergraduate thesis about female directors even though you weren’t yet directing yourself, why was that of interest to you?

PR: You know, somehow it was always there, right? But there was no film school in my hometown, in my city, so I studied communication sciences which included a little radio a little TV production a little journalism a little photography. Just a little bit of everything.

I interviewed the only four [female directors] that existed in Mexico. I found a way to talk to each of them, conducted really long interviews which I then transcribed and analyzed, so I perfectly understood what being a female director in Mexico was. I analyzed these one-hour interviews very, very methodically. But it still didn’t occur to me for several years that I was a director.

HG: It was like a little seed in your brain. So what did you learn? I mean now there’s a federal investigation in the United States into why there are so few female directors. What did your research do to answer that question?

PR: Basically it’s the same percentage [of female directors] in Mexico and the U.S. which says something about discrimination in the U.S. What did I learn? I learned that women have to fight very hard, they have to work twice as much as men, they have to continually prove themselves to their peers. Prove that they know what they’re doing, that they’re doing the right thing, that their idea is good, that their directing is good. Whatever it is they’re doing they have to always, always prove themselves and be twice as good as anyone else around them. Because if they’re not, and they make a mistake, immediately it’s because they’re a woman. That’s the thing.

HG: Are there women in filmmaking that you particularly admire?

PR: Of course, many. First of all a woman making a movie is something to admire. Period. Because it’s hard. I do admire very much, and I’m very thankful that Kathryn Bigelow made that big action movie [Zero Dark Thirty] that was so well known by everyone because it started breaking the mold of females tackling just a certain kind of subject matter.

HG: When you were in your teens and 20s, was there a piece of literature, a film, a poem that particularly inspired you or affected you?

PR: I used to watch a lot of independent and foreign movies in those years and they were very inspirational because I would see these very interesting female characters. My advice would be to go watch independent and foreign films in festivals and not just stick to the big Hollywood movies, those have nothing for women. There are no female characters, or at least very, very few interesting female characters. I think going into the independent world allows you to see more different expressions of what women are.

HG: Thinking of female characters, in The 33 was Juliette Binoche’s character formed when you got the script? Was she as prominent as she ultimately became in the final cut?

PR: No she didn’t exist. We brought her on. She was not really there. I mean, she was one of many, but I immediately saw that this story of 33 men had its other side that was super powerful. That was the women, the wives and the daughters.

HG: If you were to give advice to young, artistically inclined women, what would that advice be?

PR: We’re in the perfect time, in the perfect moment now for girls to rock, so my advice is to always, always, not look up to the guys but to look up to yourself. Find the career that you want to follow in your life, because if you have that something, you will always have it. Guys will come and leave, guys or no guys, you will always know who you are because you are that thing and not some attachment to a guy who has an incredible career. That, I think, is so important, you’re just going to be happier. If what you’re looking for is love you’re going to find more love, because you won’t be needing it. You will be complete and full as a woman, without needing a man.

HG: That’s really good advice.

PR: It is, for everyone.

HG: I need that advice!

PR: It’s true! It’s something that is yours. It’s no one but yours. It’s so important. That’s the single most important thing for a woman. Not to be dependent emotionally on a guy.

The 33 is in theaters nationwide. 

Interview has been condensed and edited. Images courtesy of Warner Brothers.