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All of the films featured in the first panel of EW Fest deal with difficult circumstances: Spotlight follows Boston Globe journalists as they report about sexual abuse in the Catholic church; Concussion charts the path of a forensic pathologist examining the brains of football players and challenging the National Football League in the process; Room tells the story of a mother and child held captive in a tiny shed.

But The 33, the film directed by Patricia Riggen about the 2010 mining disaster that trapped 33 Chilean miners for 69 days, probably contained the toughest working conditions for its actors.

“We were underground for 35 days, six days per week, 14 hours a day,” Riggen said when describing the Colombian salt mines where she filmed The 33. “We never saw the sun. We went to all kinds of pretty dangerous experiences, but at the same time we accomplished something that otherwise we never would have. The cast got to experience what being a miner is — they were not on a soundstage with AC and a bathroom. We had hard hats and were in very, very difficult conditions.”

The directors of all four films spoke with EW senior editor Bill Keith at the Manhattan event, and because each movie deals with sensitive stories — three of them based on true events and Room, partially inspired by a real crime — the conversation naturally addressed the care filmmakers must take when depicting difficult subject matter.

Director Lenny Abrahamson said he’d never thought of telling the type of story told in Room until he read Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name. “By choosing to tell a story from the point of view of the kid and in a particular context where the mother protects her son from any immediate fear or harm, I realized that [Donoghue] told a much more universal story about what it is to be a parent and what it is to grow up,” Abrahamson said. “[It] also says some things about the culture that we all live in, when seen though the eyes of a kid who isn’t used to it.”

The ubiquity of true events also complicates the filmmaking process. “I started noticing this epidemic of strange suicides among football players,” Concussion director Peter Landesman said. “It felt like a strange Agatha Christie novel happening in front of us on the front pages of newspapers.” Added Riggen: “The event of the Chilean miners was seen by more that a billion people in the world. You know exactly what you were doing that day when it happened, when they finally came out.”

Spotlight director Tom McCarthy commented that while his film’s subject matter — a multi-year reporting endeavor covering years of systemic abuse — was tough to condense for the silver screen, he had relatively broad support among Bostonians and “no falling rocks,” an allusion to Riggen’s film. His challenge, instead, was to use a two-hour film to explain why journalists who had been “sitting on the powder keg” of this scandal “didn’t see what was happening in front of their faces.” His solution actually stemmed from the film’s actors — including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and John Slattery — and their respective backgrounds, applied to an ensemble film. “A number of these actors do carry a movie themselves,” he said. “Some egos clash at moments and they have to know when to step up and step down. That provided inherent drama in these scenes without having to overdramatize or oversensationalize it.”

Landesman described the most challenging scene he filmed for Concussion, which shows Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) as presents Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) with some of his findings. He originally wanted to shoot the scene —which he said he fought to keep in the screenplay — in a car outside Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, where the Steelers play, but moved it into a restaurant when temperatures dropped 10 below zero. “If we were outside with warmers and blankets we would’ve died,” he said, adding that the improved conditions allowed Smith to deliver a career performance.

“You could’ve given them helmets!” McCarthy quipped, flashing a grin at Riggen.

Room is out now; The 33 and Spotlight arrive in November; Concussion debuts on Christmas Day.

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2015 movie
  • Movie
  • R
  • 113 minutes
  • Lenny Abrahamson