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The art of the ordeal

A TV movie on the rescued Pennsylvania miners shows a network's dizzying pursuit of 'reality.'

November 24, 2002|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

Somerset, Pa. — The September air in the Rhoads Farm cornfield was cold, and as midnight approached freezing rain started to spit down. That brought a close to the evening's shooting on ABC's "The Pennsylvania Miners' Story," which recounts the ordeal and rescue of nine trapped miners, a news story that mesmerized the nation for three days in July.

Before the weather sent everyone home, it was hard to tell the actors from the locals among the dozens of hard-hatted, big-muscled, somber-faced men swarming around. Bob Long was there. The civil engineer was warily watching a man, wearing Long's own gold chain, reenact a tense scene from the real rescue, when Long used GPS technology to pinpoint the location where a drill would dig toward the nine miners trapped 240 feet below ground. Long's real-life colleague from that night was there too, but he was getting ready for his role as an extra helping on the rescue.

The melding of reality and fiction in Somerset was dizzying.

Long couldn't lend the shirt he wore the night of the real rescue: It had already been snatched up by the Windber Coal Heritage Center, which had its own filmmaker on the movie set, making a documentary about the making of the movie. That project will become part of the museum's exhibit on the rescue, as integral to the story as the rescue itself.

Getting the details right was important to the Walt Disney Co., ABC's parent and the movie's producer, which spent an unusually high $8.5 million to shoot the TV film, in part, at the real Quecreek mine entrance; at the real clapboard Sipesville volunteer fire hall where family members sat on folding chairs and waited days for news; and at Somerset General Hospital, where the miners were treated. The real 30-inch drill even roared to life to re-create parts of the rescue. Doug Custer, one of the so-called Forgotten 9 who escaped the mine before it flooded -- trapping nine others inside -- has a speaking part in the movie. If real players from the drama weren't on set as extras, their children or relatives were; the actors wore their real counterparts' T-shirts, as well as their jewelry, and got their hair cut by their real counterpart's barber. "The Pennsylvania Miners' Story" airs tonight at 9 on ABC.

As for the actors, the producers chose mostly unknown faces -- with the exception of "Cheers" alum John Ratzenberger -- to add to the project's verisimilitude.

"It's the closest blurring of fact and movie I've ever seen," says executive producer Larry Sanitsky, whose credits include such TV movies as "The Last Don" and "Tommyknockers," as well as fact-based TV films about the Titanic and Aristotle Onassis.

Disney, which paid a record $1.5 million to the miners and Long for the rights to the story (up from a usual $25,000), went to great lengths to protect its property by shutting out fact-based accounts of the ordeal in the news media.

On July 28, as the nation followed closely on TV news, the miners were pulled up one-by-one in a yellow steel hoist. Disney and ABC quickly went into high gear. By Aug. 1, the deal had been struck for the movie and a book recounting the experience, with exclusivity on the story written into the contract. (The book, "Our Story" by the Quecreek miners, as told to Jeff Goodell, was just released.)

Before the deal was made, only a very few national media outlets got their questions in: One miner appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America," on July 29; all nine sat for a July 30 talk with NBC's "Dateline." Miner Blaine Mayhugh appeared on CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman." People magazine did a news story, but there was no "Oprah," at least not then.

"When we bought the rights ... we did put a small fence around them," says Quinn Taylor, ABC's executive overseeing movies. "We wanted to limit for the immediate future, until we got the right script and could get going, who they talked to and what they talked about."

Made-for-TV movies have already been in decline at the networks, which have greatly cut back on them in favor of more easily promoted series that also have a better financial afterlife. The problem with true-story movies in particular, Taylor says, is the proliferation of prime-time newsmagazines, one or more nearly every night of the week, and the " 'Extras,' 'ETs,' 'Accesses' and all that. By the time the movie hits the air, there's nothing new, and why invest millions when you can't introduce something new?"

Reality: a hot commodity

The isolation strategy worked. "They were pretty virgin," the movie's writer Elwood Reid says of the miners. When Reid, Sanitsky and Goodell sat down just weeks later to debrief their subjects, many were telling intimate details of their 77 hours underground for the first time. "No one knew what happened down there," says Taylor.

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