You will find yourself gripping the armrest in the theater as you descend two miles underground into the dark mine. The miners’ point-of-view is your point-of-view, and the only light in the theater is the light from the miners’ headlamps as the ceiling of the mine shaft is mere inches from your face.
The movie tagline says it all: “9 Miners. 2 Miles Underground. 1 Hour of Oxygen.”
You have never seen a movie quite like Mine 9 before. From the subject matter to the method of filming, it is one of a kind. You live this movie right alongside the characters for the one hour and 23 minutes it is on screen.
Mine 9 opened in select cities across Appalachia last week, and will be released nationwide this week.
It takes place in anywhere, small-town Appalachia, where coal mining is one of the only options for a good-paying job that puts food on the table. But film writer/director Eddie Mensore is not just from anywhere — he grew up right down the river from Wheeling in New Martinsville, West Virginia.
“I had a normal New Martinsville upbringing,” he said. “In undergrad at West Virginia University, I had an advertising professor tell me I was writing short films, rather than advertisements.” And that’s how he got into the business of making movies.
A few years later, he received his Master’s of Fine Arts degree in film/video production from Savannah College of Art and Design. It was there he met retired producer Hank Moonjean (producer of many movies including Dangerous Liaisons and associate producer on the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby) who helped him get a job at Walt Disney Productions in Burbank, California.
It took Eddie 12 years to get Mine 9 made. When he would pitch his idea, he was turned down simply because many could not see how he was going to pull it off. He wanted to use an actual coal mine for some of his scenes, which turned out to be a very difficult request. He was finally granted permission to film some of the movie at the Calico Mine in Buchanan County, Virginia, giving the movie bragging rights of being one of only a handful of movies to ever show the inside of a coal mine.
And the resulting claustrophobia the location gives the audience, Eddie experienced himself in real life during the filming of his movie.
“I barely went underground. I actually made it once, and then I’d say about six times I had to get up and leave.”
The running joke on the set was how the only one who couldn’t make it underground was the guy who wrote the movie.
Mine 9 is an edge-of-your-seat thriller, but it also shows the life of a coal miner, working a dangerous, claustrophobic job where the stakes are more than high.
The plot of the movie is a story all too familiar in the state of West Virginia. The worst mine disaster in the history of the country took place in Monongah, West Virginia, in 1907, where 362 miners perished. The 21st century saw its share of terrible disasters with the Sago Mine explosion in 2006 in Tallmansville, West Virginia, killing 12, and the Upper Big Branch explosion in 2010, killing 29.
The wounds these disasters caused in West Virginia have still not healed years later, which is why Mine 9 will resonate with many West Virginians today.
But Eddie’s intentions with this movie is not to dwell so much on how these disasters happened, but instead, he wants his movie to “hopefully honor miners for what these brave men and women provide us.” And from the beginning, Eddie made sure his actors met real coal miners and spent a lot of time with them above and below ground before filming began.
“After I cast everybody, I told them, ‘if you’re going to be in this movie, you’re going to come to the coal mine with me, and you’re going to go underground.’ These are the people who talked to our actors and gave them a little bit of perspective on who they were portraying.”
In the movie, the coal miners are going underground for a normal shift, but this night just happens to be an 18-year-old’s first night on the job. The 18-year-old is terrified to go underground and is overwhelmed by all he is being taught, and even goes through a hazing of sorts by the elder coal miners who joke about past younger miners dying. This young boy is seen as a reflection of what the audience is going through as an outsider to this unknown world. The audience is just as stunned as he is at how the others are able to do this, night after night, in four feet of space with the constant threat of danger all around them.
And danger does arrive. The men have to work together as a team in order to survive, and you will feel the panic they feel, whether they are racing the clock to block out methane gas so they can breathe, or trying to find a way to make contact with anyone above ground.
Eddie put a lot of thought into Mine 9’s soundtrack to get the right Appalachian feel for his movie. There is a Roger White song titled “West Virginia Coal Miner” featured as sort of a theme song in the movie with the chorus repeating, “Coal Miner, Coal Miner, shining your light, working in a mine shaft dark as the night. What you gonna do before you go back in? Gonna ask the lord to let me come out again.” Roger White’s version is an upbeat, poppy song, and Eddie knew he was looking for a darker rendition.
“I wanted to find my Nimrod Workman,” Eddie explains of the sound he was looking for.
Nimrod Workman was a Kentucky coal miner who began working in the mines at a very young age. Nimrod began singing to himself while working to keep from being scared. Nimrod can be seen in the 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA, a film covering a coal miner strike in Harlan County, Kentucky. Nimrod sings a ballad in this documentary, but he didn’t record an actual album until he was in his 80s. He was the inspiration for some of the music performances in the wildly popular movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
Eddie found the voice and talent he was looking for in 25-year-old musician Max Godfrey. Max took the “West Virginia Coal Miner” song and gave it a much darker, eerier feel that will stick with you long after the movie is over.
Eddie wasn’t sure how his movie would be received, but so far the response has been very positive.
“We premiered at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, California. And, we won the whole festival. I didn’t know what to expect, but we won, and they loved it because they thought they were watching a foreign film. This is something where they had never thought about what happens in a coal mine. All I heard was how much respect they have for coal miners, so that was it for me. That was the goal. Even myself being from West Virginia, I didn’t really know what they did under there, and so many people helped me and gave me information to see what they go through for us — that’s why we turn on a light.”
Mine 9 received best feature film in the dramatic category at the festival. And, fittingly, Eddie went back to West Virginia to attend premieres in two cities. One premiere was in Princeton, West Virginia, and one in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where he had two actors from the film with him for a question-and-answer discussion afterward. The opening weekend saw showings in Logan, Beckley, Charleston and Wheeling, among others. The Marquee Cinema at The Highlands had the fourth highest attendance for the opening weekend, and the Marquee Cinema has since picked the movie up for a second week.
When asked what he is most proud of in Mine 9, Eddie does not hesitate. It is the interviews at the end of the movie with real coal miners from the Calico Mine, he says. While the end credits roll, the audience is treated to confessionals from coal miners about what their life is really like. The word “family” is used a lot by the miners to explain working underground for most of their lives with people who would do anything for them at a moment’s notice — either on the job or outside of the job.
Eddie describes the interviews at the end as “the icing on the cake. It’s the moment the real heroes of the movie speak.”
Eddie already has his next screenplay written, and, again, he’s tackling a subject matter not often seen in film — a fictional story based on the Battle of Blair Mountain, the 1921 labor uprising of coal miners against mine management. He hopes to start casting for the movie in the very near future.
In today’s film business that is full of seemingly endless fictional heroes with superhuman powers, Mine 9 is breaking the mold by showing how an action movie dealing with real heroes in a real situation is worth your time. Eddie is putting a spotlight on the dangerous profession that is coal mining and giving these men and women their time to shine.
• Kelly Strautmann lives out in the country of Cameron, W.Va., and proofreads in the city of Wheeling. She has a supportive and talented husband and two ridiculous daughters who keep her busy and full of love.