FILM / Alive and well after all these years: Bringing the story of the 'miracle of the Andes' to the screen was an adventure in itself. Piers Paul Read reports on the making of Alive

Piers Paul Read
Saturday 17 April 1993 23:02 BST

ON FRIDAY 13 October 1972, a Fairchild aircraft of the Uruguayan air force, chartered by an amateur rugby team from Montevideo to play a match in Chile, disappeared as it flew over the Andes. After eight days, the search for survivors was abandoned. It was assumed that even if any of the 45 passengers and crew had survived the crash, they would surely by now have died from hunger and cold.

Ten weeks later a Chilean peasant in a valley deep in the Andes saw the figures of two men. These were two of the 16 survivors. Helicopters rescued the rest and flew them to Santiago. The news leaked out that they had survived the ordeal by eating the flesh of their companions. The 16 returned to Montevideo to find newspapers and publishers eager to sign them up to tell their story. The company eventually selected was the North American publisher J B Lippinkott. The author chosen was me.

There were both hopes and fears for a film of Alive even before the book was written. The survivors of 'the miracle of the Andes' found it easier to envisage themselves on the screen than in print; they were mostly outdoor types, keen on riding, swimming and above all rugby. Roberto Canessa, a medical student and one of the two 'expeditionaries' who walked out of the Andes to find help, said the manuscript of Alive was 'too fat'. A novel of mine was worse. 'How can you expect anyone to read it? Three hundred pages, and it isn't even true]'

Nando Parrado, the other expeditionary, applied himself to the idea of a movie with the same energy and determination he had shown on the mountain. Quite unembarrassed by the cannibalism ('it was the only way to survive'), he was eager to play himself in the film.

The others were more circumspect. Not all had been as heroic as Parrado and Canessa. Roy Harley had wept as he struggled to get back from an expedition to find the tail of the aircraft; Bobby Francois had remained passive throughout the ordeal; Pancho Delgado was suspected of stealing toothpaste and cigarettes from the meagre stores. All were afraid that they might appear in a gory, Hammer-style horror film; and so they insisted on a clause in the contract with the publisher giving them the right to veto the sale of the film rights to the book.

But they were as eager as I was to make some money, and when an approach was made to buy the film rights, the survivors agreed - on certain conditions. The producer had to guarantee that 'nothing in the film based on the work will subject the characters presented, whether living or dead, to mockery, ridicule or contempt, such as is understood in contemporary terms'. He had to guarantee that 'all parts of the film that have to do with the consumption of human flesh for the purpose of survival will be treated with careful consideration for the persons represented and for their families'.

The first offer fell through, but in 1974, after the publication of the book, the rights were bought by a company called Palomar Pictures in conjunction with United Artists. Then there was silence. Presumably the producers wanted to exploit their property without the help of anyone who might think they knew better. There were rumours that Harold Pinter had been asked to write the script, that William Goldman had actually written a draft, that United Artists were planning to build a town in the Andes to house the technicians which would then be sold to the Chilean government as a ski resort.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, an enterprising company made a film of a book on the same subject, based on cuttings and other sources in the public domain. It was called Survive], and had been published before Alive. Paramount bought the distribution rights to the Mexican movie, dubbed it into English, and released it successfully throughout the world. I went to see it with Gustavo Zerbino, one of the survivors, who was passing through London at the time. Now and then he would jump up and shout: 'No, it wasn't like that, that's not how it happened.'

The success of Survive] led United Artists to abandon their plans for Alive. Subsequently, I was told that Paramount, for fear of what United Artists might do in revenge for the sabotage of their film, had bought the rights to Alive from the profits of Survive]. From time to time, Nando Parrado would ring up from Montevideo, Rio, Marbella or New York - he had become something of a celebrity as a result of the book - asking if I had news of the movie. I had none and as the years passed it seemed less and less likely that it would ever be made.

In the spring of 1991, however, the project was suddenly revived. Some of the executives who had been at United Artists in the Seventies were now at Disney and remembered Alive. A script was commissioned from Monte Merrick, who had written the screenplay for Memphis Belle, and it was offered by Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of Disney, to Frank Marshall, the director of Arachnophobia, a thriller about poisonous spiders.

Marshall and his wife, Kathleen Kennedy, belonged to the inner circle of Hollywood film-makers. Both were founding partners in Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and had worked as producers on ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Back to the Future. Marshall, who wanted to develop his career as a director, agreed to make Alive. Kennedy brought in an Englishman, Robert Watts, as co-producer. Dissatisfied with Merrick's script, they commissioned another from Paul Attanasio, a former film critic of the Washington Post. In the meantime, Disney discovered that it did not own the rights to Alive. They rested with Paramount, who had bought them from United Artists all those years ago. To solve the problem, a co-production deal was done - a rare thing between studios - with both companies contributing towards the estimated dollars 20m budget, and with Disney distributing the film in the US and Paramount throughout the rest of the world.

In November 1991, the production team flew to Uruguay to meet the survivors. Marshall had been to South America before, filming in the jungles of Venezuela for Arachnophobia. Uruguay was different, and he found in the survivors, as I had done 19 years earlier, a group of warm, colourful and occasionally impossible people. They were now middle-aged men, some with grown-up children; he came away with a sense of grave responsibility towards the story of their struggle to survive.

At this stage, it was envisaged that part of the film would show the plane's departure from Uruguay. The production designer, Norman Reynolds, found four planes of the correct type - Fairchild F-227 twin-engined turboprops - which were bought for use in the film. Nando, now too old to play himself, was taken on as technical adviser, and the Australian director Jill Fullerton-Smith was commissioned to make a documentary about the making of Alive and the lives of the survivors.

Rejecting the second script, Marshall and Kennedy commissioned a third version from John Patrick Shanley, who had won an Academy Award for Moonstruck. In this the drama focused on what happened in the plane and on the mountain. Scenes of the parents' search for their children were cut out, and the 10-day walk through the mountains by Parrado and Canessa limited to a few frames towards the end. Apart from two cliffhanging scenes (one literally a cliffhanger, the other a close encounter with a crevasse), nothing was in the film that was not in the book. Special effects were put to good use in filming the crash itself. Marshall was determined to make it as terrifying and realistic as he could. Otherwise, he concentrated on replicating the conditions which the survivors endured in their 70 days on the mountain.

Filming at 3,000m on the Delphine glacier in British Columbia, they not only matched the conditions but also, in casting, the appearance of many of the young Uruguayans so exactly that I was able to recognise who they were playing without being told. Originally intending to use unknown actors from Mexico, Argentina and Spain, they ended up with North American actors such as Ethan Hawke, Josh Hamilton and Vincent Spano playing the young survivors, and John Malkovich as the adult Carlitos Paez. Enormous trouble was taken, on Parrado's advice, to 'make the costumes as varied and filthy as they had been in the Andes'. The actors were put on a diet: Ethan Hawke lost more than 20lb while making the film.

Large parts of the story, and many important characters, had to be sacrificed to fit the dimensions of a two- hour film. Some of the survivors felt angry that they had been excluded, and that the film was just the 'Fernando Parrado story'; while others who had played less than heroic roles would have preferred not have been in the film at all.

Overall, however, the survivors have been well served. Avoiding both pretentiousness and sensationalism, Marshall's film of Alive treats the cannibalism with great delicacy, and elicits from the actors exactly the right blend of childishness, heroism and religious faith. It shows the audience in painstaking detail just what these Uruguayans endured.

'Alive' is released on 30 April. Jill Fullerton-Smith's film, 'Alive 20 Years On', is on BBC1 tonight at 10.25pm. Piers Paul Read's book is available as a Mandarin paperback ( pounds 4.99).

(Photograph omitted)

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