The director-cinematographer relationship is often compared to a marriage. For Checco Varese, ASC, this definition is sometimes literal. He recently completed work on The 33, directed by his wife, Patricia Riggen. The film, which stars Antonio Banderas, tells the story of the 33 miners who were trapped underground in Chile for 69 days in 2010.
Riggen is known for La Misma Luna (Under the Same Moon), Girl in Progress and a segment of the omnibus film Revolución, among other projects. Like Checco, her background includes journalism and documentaries. “When Patricia told me about The 33, she said first of all that it was a fantastic story,” Checco recalls. “She mentioned the realistic sense that she wanted to imprint on the film. The second thing she said was, ‘You’d better make it right, because it’s a great opportunity for a cinematographer.’ So that was a challenge! And she was right.”
Checco’s first instinct was to shoot in a real mine for authenticity. He jokes that recreating the mine on stages would have been much more expensive, with the main advantage being easier access to toilets. But when he realized that the choice would put him and his wife underground for long periods, he checked to make sure that his will and his life insurance were in order. “We have a 7-year-old daughter,” he says. “Mines have a tendency to collapse. But after a few days of shooting, that is off your mind.”
As part of his preparation, Checco went deep inside the mine alone, 2½ miles down, with a couple of small lights. He wanted to understand how various types of light felt in that environment. After experimenting with the different lamps for a while, he turned them all off and spent a harrowing hour or so in the dark. “In the 1980s, I covered many wars with my camera, but this was more terrifying,” he says. “You hear a little cracking here and there, and a stone falls. The big mountain is alive. I began to panic. I almost started smoking again after that!
“And Patricia was very angry with me — not as my director, but as my wife. She said, ‘You must never do that again!” Then, without missing a beat, she said, “And by the way, how did it look?’”
Working with his wife on The 33 gave Checco a feeling of pride and joy. He says that a female sensibility gave the male-dominated story a tenderness and humanity it might have otherwise lacked. “I come from a very matriarchal family, and I always had the impression women are smarter and more productive than men. And I married one that proves it every moment. Patricia is very good at what she does.”
The 33 was their fourth collaboration; they previously made a short film and three other features together. Despite this, Checco says they have the discipline not to discuss work on days off. When he sees her working too hard at home on her day off, his protective nature takes over, and he tries to focus on being helpful with everyday chores. “If you are married, you know that you must try to make sure that your wife is happy, content and in some kind of balance with what she does in life,” says Checco. “When we work together, I do the same, but I get paid for it. Jokes aside, she and I met working, so working together feels like an extension of our daily life. We enjoy what we do together. She’s the director who has given me the best opportunities for beautiful cinematography, and I’m very grateful for that. We all have an ego, and when you’re the general of a small army, you must believe in yourself. With Patricia, I don’t let my ego interfere. You could say that my ego is fed by seeing her grow as a filmmaker. I have the luxury and the pleasure of working with her. And, of course, I’m involved in her projects much earlier than is normal for a cinematographer.”
Checco notes that women directors comprise just 7 percent of the DGA, and fewer than one-third of them are actually working — “and this is a country where the advancement of women in the workplace has been better than in some other countries.” Noting that roughly half his fictional projects were directed by women, he adds, “I’m fortunate to have worked for talented and extraordinarily passionate and creative female directors. But the reality is that it’s a business that believes it’s a male business. I think the only way to break that is to keep working, to concentrate on the work. Creativity doesn’t come from a place of conflict; it comes from a place of happiness.”
Here is the international trailer for The 33, which will be released in U.S. theaters this fall: