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Driving home from the set of her latest movie, the faith-based drama Miracles from Heaven, Patricia Riggen was, as usual, caught between laughing and crying.

It had been a topsy-turvy month — for three years she’d been working on a difficult story set in the depths of a Chilean mine; now she found herself “in a bunch of hospitals in Atlanta with people that have a Texas accent,” said Riggen, speaking to me by phone in her lilting Spanish accent. Mexico, America, Chile … she loves the collision, as confusing as it may be: a Mexican woman making movies in (very male) Hollywood.

With three low-budget films under her belt, the 45-year-old Riggen is still flying under the radar in the United States. That is likely to change in November, when her latest directorial effort, The 33, Hollywood’s movie about the Chilean miners who were trapped deep underground for 69 days in 2010, will hit North American theaters. The movie features an international cast that includes familiar faces like Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche. After being overshadowed by countrymen like Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu — winners of the last two Academy Awards for directing — Riggen is now being lauded by veteran producers like Mike Medavoy and studio executives at Sony and Warner Bros. For The 33, she could be the first Mexican woman director to be nominated for an Oscar.

I think she understood the emotional part of what we went through better because she was a woman.

Omar Reygadas, one of the 33 rescued miners

Still, says 5-foot-3 Riggen, “it is hard for me to have people believe in me because of the way I look and sound.” She once told Medavoy, the producer of the $25 million The 33, that she was “like a Chihuahua dog, because I barked really loud, but didn’t bite.” It’s a trouble plaguing all of Hollywood: Among 1,300 top-grossing films from 2002 to 2014, only 4.1 percent were directed by women, according to a study by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. But Riggen is part of a recent trend of women directors who are proving they can direct bigger-budget, “male-driven” films, said Stacy L. Smith, a professor at USC. Last year saw Angelina Jolie directing Unbroken, and Ava DuVernay helming Selma. Riggen is also widely believed to be the only Mexican-born woman directing in Hollywood. Medavoy conceded that in five decades of filmmaking, he had worked with only one other female director — Barbra Streisand — before hiring Riggen.

patricia riggen

Patricia Riggen could be the first Mexican woman to get an Oscar nomination.

Source Gilles Toucas

A film about macho miners seemed destined for a male director, and Medavoy, who has produced such classics as Apocalypse Now, had been considering Chilean-Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar before Riggen came to see him in June 2012. Riggen played to her strengths, pitching Medavoy on a movie focused on the emotional struggle of the miners and their families — rather than solely on the rescuers, as some Hollywood studios had wanted. And her gender may have been an advantage. That’s what Omar Reygadas, one of the 33 rescued miners said: “I think she understood the emotional part of what we went through better because she was a woman.” Emotion served her well in landing the job in the first place; after Medavoy saw her 2007 film La Misma Luna (Under the Same Moon), an affecting tale of a 9-year-old boy’s journey across the Mexican border to find his mother, he became convinced she had “the right emotional connection” The 33 would require.

Riggen is breaking into a movie industry currently obsessed with CGI-heavy sequels, huge-budget remakes and superhero franchises. Her brand of emotive family dramas stands apart, and she includes a dose of magic realism as well. It’s also a rarity to see a story about Chile aiming for the big time in America — but a story about an event that grabbed so much international attention may have more of a shot than anything else.

Raised in Guadalajara by a surgeon father and a poet-playwright mother, Riggen realized early that she wanted to work in the film industry. But the idea of being a director seemed far-fetched. There was no film school in Guadalajara. In college she wrote her thesis on Mexican women directors, and interviewed … all four of them. After a stint in Mexico City, where she worked as a screenwriter and producer, Riggen headed to New York to study film at Columbia. She directed two successful shorts before producing and directing La Misma Luna on a mere $1.5 million.

Once on set for The 33 in Colombia and Chile, Riggen didn’t have a simple, easy ride. During pre-production an electrical fire broke out in a mine. On the first day of production, Riggen sat down in her director’s chair and whack! a stone fell onto her hard hat-covered head. Actors had trouble breathing in the mine and fell sick. One 77-year-old Argentine actor, Federico Luppi, couldn’t hack it; Riggen sent him home the day before filming began. Now that it’s wrapped up, she’s got the audiences to consider. She missed her own world premiere thanks to a gig directing Miracles from Heaven, starring Jennifer Garner. But the one that mattered most to her was her private screening for the miners. As they filed into a Chilean theater in May, Riggen hugged each of them — and handed out tissues. “When we heard the music and saw the opening scene, the memories came flooding back,” Reygadas said, “and then the tears started flowing.”

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