From director Todd Haynes, the drama Dark Waters tells the story of corporate environmental defense attorney Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo, who’s also a producer on the film), who risked his career and family to expose the actions of DuPont and their dumping of toxic waste in an area landfill in West Virginia and the affects of that, in a community that was dangerously exposed to deadly chemicals for decades. In an epic 15-year fight that tested him beyond measure, the truth drove Bilott in his unwavering conviction to fight for a community victimized by a corporation driven by greed.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Todd Haynes talked about what it was like to have Mark Ruffalo seek him out to helm Dark Waters, what most interested him in this real-life story, keeping the story grounded in the human component, spending time in the real locations and with some of the real people who were involved, and the give and take process of editing. He also talked about his upcoming documentary on The Velvet Underground and what he was looking to focus on with that film.
TODD HAYNES: Well, it’s always a bit humbling and means a tremendous amount to me, to know that Mark Ruffalo sought me out for something like this. He’s an actor that I’ve been admiring and loving the idea of working with, from the very person stuff that I’ve seen them do on film. It came with such a great and thrilling sense of urgency because of the content of the story and a determination on the part of Participant Media that we tried to get it into production, as quickly as possible. We all felt that the script could use some more thought and some deeper investigation, and so, when I finally figured out a way to get my schedule to link up with Mark’s, I brought the writer Mario Correa onto the job, and Mario and I and Mark all met in Cincinnati. That was the first time that I was able to meet Rob Bilott and his family and his colleagues at Taft. And then, Mark had to leave, and Mario and I went on, with Rob, to Parkersburg, West Virginia, and continued to meet this incredible network of people. We went to Wilbur’s farm, where his brother, Jim Tennant, gave us a tour and talked to us about his experiences and memories of Wilbur. The whole thing was remarkable and a challenge, and a way to work as closely as possible with these real people who are still there.
With a story like this, you have this big company who’s clearly doing these evil things that they know they’re doing, but then you also have the very human side of it and the human stories. What was it the most interested you in this story? Was it that human aspect of it?
HAYNES: Yeah. This kind of genre of film, the whistleblower film, some of my favorite examples of them share something. They’re almost always based on true stories, and whether it’s from a journalistic standpoint, like with a movie like All The President’s Men or The Insider, or it’s about real life people working in a nuclear power plant, like with Silkwood, or they’re legal dramas, like some of Sidney Lumet’s fantastic films, there are always unlikely people at the center of the story, who don’t know what they’re about to uncover. They’re in the dark, and we’re with them, watching things unfold and the story starts to emerge, with the audacity of these stories, the shocking elements of these stories, and the immensity of the corruption in these stores begins to make itself visible by the dedication of these individuals. And then, they start to figure out what to do about it and almost invariably, there’s this chilling effect, where they start to feel alienated from their communities, or their families, or the people in their workplaces. It’s no easy task to take on the status quo, and that was true in this story. It was remarkable, having felt the connection to this kind of movie, to actually hear it coming out of the words of these real people that we were meeting, and feeling that drama and that implicit sense of risk that they all underwent, coming out of their real lived experiences, and that having that be our material to work with. That part of it was remarkable to me.
With a film like this, obviously it’s important to be as accurate as possible, but you’re also making a movie. Were there things that had to change because they just wouldn’t have worked in a film?
HAYNES: Of course, in a dramatic interpretation of any story, there are liberties that you have to take, particularly for something that went on for this many years and was this complicated, and for a story like this, where there really was no roadmap, legally, because this company operates outside of regulatory oversight, Rob had to write the book before he threw it at them and figure out a strategy that meant he was reliant on a network of people, including everyone from Wilbur Tennant in Parkersburg and Joe and Darlene Kiger, who became the lead plaintiffs in the big class action case, all the way to his corporate law firm, Taft, and the stewardship and the decision on the part of Tom Terp, his superior, who ultimately became managing partner of the entire firm, to stay on this, to risk the firm’s reputation and to risk future clients who might come their way, or current clients they represented, who were a part of the chemical industry. One still has to keep it grounded in the human component, and that took a lot of narrative and dramatic decision-making that all began with me and Mario Correa, in the script stage.
A lot of this is about a guy going through hundreds of thousands of pages of discovery, and that is not an inherently dramatic prospect. You’ve got to figure out ways of feeling the enormity of that task and watching the guy get buried alive, as he committed himself to it. Part of that is to drift away from Rob, a little bit, and watch him get engulfed, but then we have to find the moment to come back, when he’s ready to deliver the results of what his findings are. That was beautifully conceived from the script stand point, that central discovery montage, when Rob starts to tell his wife, around that table, what he has found out and what this astonishing hidden history about DuPont is. And then, he tells it to Tom Terp in his office, and then he tells it to the lawyer for DuPont in the conference room, and you’re inner weaving back to the process that he underwent to find this story. You want all of that stuff to feel like it’s being fair to the narrative, but you also want to feel like there’s something drawing the audience in. And really, ultimately, the challenge was to stay connected emotionally, to the human cost involved in an undertaking like this and the people who he’s fighting for because they’re not always in the front and center of this story. It’s really through his experience that we’re telling this.
Did spending so much time working on developing this, in the script stage, help as far as the editing stage, later on, or was it still difficult to edit this down to what we see now?
HAYNES: It’s a great question. It was a give and take. We really had no time. All of this was happening so fast. Mario turned around a draft, based on our conversations and our research that we’d done, literally within a couple of months of our visit to Parkersburg and Cincinnati, in the summer of 2018, and we were in pre-production on this movie by the fall 2018. That’s how quickly all of this was barrelling forward. We started shooting it in January of 2019, and then had a pretty rapid post-production, so that we could release it. There was a little bit more of everything, even stuff that we shot, and certainly more at the script stage that we trimmed. And then, there was some extra information and scenes that we had shot. You’re trying to shape it and see how it plays with a certain duration, that it keeps the audience engaged and connected to the core people, and that’s a give and take process. We found, with an early test screening, when the film ran about two hours and 20 minutes, even at a longer length, audiences surprisingly seemed to be emotionally connected to the story and found it very engaging, and that was incredibly encouraging. We knew we wanted to trim it, but we knew that it was working at a basic level. It really was working, and that was great to learn.
Where do you go from here? After you work on something like this, that seems very all-encompassing, how do you decide what’s next for you? How do you pick the next thing?
HAYNES: I go back to the things that I had been developing before this one, that are eagerly awaiting the return of my attention. As you’re developing a couple projects, or different kinds of projects, you say, “Oh, I actually maybe have time to do this,” and then, of course, another one takes over and postpones the other stuff. So, currently, I’m engaged in a pretty exciting, very different kind of project, which is my first documentary, and it’s about the band, The Velvet Underground. We filmed all of the interviews in 2018, before I even made it to Cincinnati for [Dark Waters], and we’ve been collecting an incredible database of archive material to flesh this story out. So, we’ve had an editor to working on it, who’s a partner of my main editor on this movie, Affonso Gonçalves, and was a co-editor on Jim Jarmusch’s documentary about The Stooges. I just watched a cut of where that’s at, and it’s so exciting, so juicy and so rich. I’m very excited to get my head and heart back into that.
Were you, personally, a big fan of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground? Is that what made you want to do the film?
HAYNES: Oh, my god, yes! Of course! They’re life changing. They altered the way you see and hear things and, of course, affected music and generations of artists, ever since they first appeared. You can’t overstate their influence. But my goal is really to focus on the time and place, in New York in the avant garde era and the really rich, thriving period where music and art and performance and happenings were all co-mingling and mutually informing each other. There was a great sense of discovery and experimentation going on. So, my goal was really to interview people and focus on the people who were there and present, as real direct witnesses to it. That was where we started with the people we interviewed for it.
Are you still looking to do a film about Peggy Lee, as well?
HAYNES: Because there are so many other things happening, that project has been waylaid for a little while. There’s just been too much other stuff going on. And there was a real urgency with the political relevance of the story of Dark Waters. The fact that we’re heading into this election year and there’s so much at stake with our environment, our government, our regulatory culture, and our leadership that there was so many important reasons to really make this our concentration, and that’s what we all did.
Dark Waters is now playing in theaters.