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Miners' miracle story lands on ABC

Sunday, November 24, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

SOMERSET -- From reality to filmed entertainment in just four months, ABC's "The Pennsylvania Miners' Story" belongs in a new genre: Whiplash TV.

(Post-Gazette photo by Matt Freed)


"The Pennsylvania Miners' Story"

When: 9 tonight on ABC.

Starring: John Ratzenberger, J.D. Souther.

Based on the summer rescue of the nine trapped Quecreek miners, the film was written and put into production less than two months after the incident on which it's based. But executive producer Larry Sanitsky said it's not a cheap, quick Hollywood production.

With a budget that could soar as high as $9 million, more than double the cost of many films made for television, "Miners' Story" filmed on location for almost two weeks, using many of the same sites that became familiar during the mine rescue operation. Those locations included the entrance to the Quecreek mine, the "shower shack" above the mine entrance where miners begin and end their day and the Sipesville volunteer fire hall where families of the miners waited for news.

"It's not the rescue story, which is a great story," Sanitsky said while in Somerset, "but we only have two hours, so we're limiting it to the point of view of the miners and their families."

A set was built in a tank on a Los Angeles soundstage to film the underground mine scenes. Sanitsky said scenes filmed there offer viewers a new perspective on the miners' experience.

Novelist and screenwriter Elwood Reid wrote the script about the miners' story in just two weeks and continued to rewrite it throughout production. The development process, in which executives make copious suggestions, simply didn't exist.

"Quite frankly, that was real attractive to me because that's the bull---- I hate," Reid said, standing up the hill from the Quecreek mine entrance. "Miners' Story" will be Reid's first screenplay to actually get produced. He grew up near Cleveland and has family in Washington, Pa. Going into the project, he expected one focus, but talking to the miners changed the film's direction.

"We thought a lot of the story would be with the wives and rescue workers up top," Reid said. "But the real story was down in the mine. Yes, the rescue effort was successful, but what they did down there mentally and physically made them survive."

Reid said the real miners have reacted positively to scenes they've watched film. They told Reid the film would be more realistic if it had "a lot more profanity," but ABC's standards and practices department nixed that.

Director David Frankel ("Band of Brothers," "Grapevine") said he was drawn to the film, in part, by his wife's rapt attention to the mine rescue as it played out on cable news channels.

"The subjects are the celebrities," he said. "You can see people just want to touch them. You've seen what they've been through and survived."

The biggest "name" cast in the film is John Ratzenberger (Cliff Clavin on "Cheers"), who plays Thomas "Tuck" Foy. Sanitsky said it was a conscious decision to cast character actors instead of brand-name stars.

"Every miner is featured, every miner's family is featured," he said. "We didn't want to throw off the balance with one or two names."

Preparing to film a scene in the Quecreek mine's "lamp room," where the lights for the miners' helmets are stored, Ratzenberger said he learned more about Foy from others who knew him.

"I went to his town, I went to his barber and had his barber give me the same hair cut," Ratzenberger said. "I was talking to people in the barbershop, and what came out of that was they said if they were in a mine cave-in, the one person they'd want to have with them is Tom Foy. He's an improviser. He kept active down there, finding ways to be more comfortable. He was very needed down there."

Ratzenberger characterized the film as a study in faith.

"God played a big part in it, God with a capital G," he said. "People went in there as nonbelievers and they came out believing in God, and that's what I hope comes through."

The rescue also boosted Americans' spirits, Ratzenberger said.

"At the time, America needed this kind of a miracle. The media make us think we're a nation of whiners and we should be worrying why everybody hates us, but something like this reminds us this is what we do," he said. "What we do better than anybody else on Earth is we solve problems. If we're faced with a seemingly insurmountable situation, our ingenuity will tackle it, figure it out and solve it."

During the shoot in Somerset, most of the real miners dropped by to watch production, a new experience to see actors playing them.

"I don't see why they have to do [scenes] over and over again," said miner Dennis "Harpo" Hall, who is played by J.D. Souther in the film. A Cheshire cat grin crept across his face as he contemplated the number of times the actors filmed the scene. "They should have let us play it, show them how to do it."

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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