Hollywood’s take on BP’s epic oil-spill disaster hits theaters this month. But will ‘Deepwater Horizon,’ controversial in Houston, tell the whole truth? By Dan Oko
On Dec. 25, 2010, The New York Times published a stirring, gut-wrenching article by a team of reporters, including Pulitzer Prize winner David Barstow, on the fate of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform. It was a riveting account of the chaotic events on the rig that followed the earlier failure of the Macondo well-blowout preventer, 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana — some 350 miles southeast of Houston, where well operator British Petroleum has its U.S. headquarters. In the end, Barstow and his colleagues performed an autopsy of sorts on what exactly caused the hightech, 25-story offshore derrick to suffer such catastrophic damage.
The original 2010 article was published just eight months after the deadly accident aboard the Deepwater Horizon, which that April killed 11 workers, setting the scene for the worst oil spill in American history. Five million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. BP was fined billions of dollars, and Transocean, the Swiss owner of Deepwater Horizon and the largest operator of offshore rigs on the planet — not to mention the employer of most of the rig workers — paid hundreds of millions in penalties.
But when Hollywood screenwriter Matthew Sand received a copy of the Barstow story from his agent, with a note suggesting it might make a first-rate movie, what captured his attention wasn’t the environmental tragedy or the economic cost. Rather, Sand was initially struck by the heroic efforts that the rig workers undertook to save their own. As the Times reported: “In the most hellish of circumstances, men and women helped one another find a way to live.”
Although many across the Gulf are still coping with the aftermath of the Macondo oil spill, Sand found inspiration in the immediate questions of life and death aboard the rig. “Our story ends where the environmental story begins,” he tells Houston CityBook, in an interview from Los Angeles. “The scene that really first got me was where [electronics technician] Mike Williams goes back into the wreckage. The 11 men who died took a hit for the team. I mean our national team; my car runs on gas that for all I know came from the Gulf and Williams, he undertook this incredible act of bravery to save his brothers.
“When it comes to getting the story right, the laymen might not know it. But it’s a story we in Houston are going to be able to tell.”
“That moment of heroism was the key.” In turn, Sand’s screenplay attracted the attention of actor-turned-director Peter Berg, known to Texas audiences for his work behind the camera for the film Friday Night Lights and as a producer of the television series. It also caught the eye of actor Mark Wahlberg, who worked with Berg on the dramatic 2013 film Lone Survivor. Screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan — his 2007 Jamie Foxx actioner, The Kingdom, was also directed by Berg — was brought in to help with rewrites, and this fall, audiences will finally be able to witness Wahlberg playing Williams in Deepwater Horizon.Co-starring Kate Hudson, Kurt Russell and John Malkovich, the film opens nationally on September 30, six and a half years after the original events.
“It’s just a great story, and from the start, I knew deserved to be a big movie — the kind of thing that Hollywood doesn’t do anymore,” Sand says. “I always saw Peter Berg as the one to direct this. He’s a tough guy who can wear his heart on his sleeve, and when Mark read the script he just loved it. Mike Williams was on the set every day, and I was really impressed. We are all so proud of this in so many ways.”
Still, many Hollywood critics — in particular those with environmental leanings — have their knives sharpened for the upcoming release. There’s fear that too much attention on the heroism of the central characters might undercut the parallel story of the larger disaster, and let Big Oil off too lightly. “If the finished film is anything like the trailer, I suspect it will be one giant (and perhaps unintentional) crisis-management advertisement for the BP oil company,” wrote one wag on the tech-oriented website Gizmodo earlier this year. And The Cheat Sheet, an online lifestyle magazine, offered: “It’s hard to shake the feeling that this is less about honoring the men who lost their lives on that oil rig, and more about glorifying one of the worst ecological disasters in our nation’s history.”
“That’s not a story I would feel comfortable telling,” Sand responds simply. “I mean, this is about a disaster, but certainly if not for the courage of a few men, and one woman named Andrea Fleytas, it could have been a lot worse.” Rather than Erin Brockovich as a model, Sand pointed to inspired-by-real- events features such as Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks as a pirate-besieged ship’s captain, and Zero Dark Thirty about the secret mission to kill Osama bin Laden. BP is not depicted as evil. “Of course, people made mistakes, but I would not say there’s a villain in the movie.”
For its part, BP ignored a request for interviews about Deepwater Horizon.
Beside charges of dodging an opportunity to indict the energy corporation, filmmakers can expect additional criticism — namely that Hollywood won’t get the technical nuances of living and working offshore. Houston energy-industry veteran and author Bob Cavnar, whose book Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout was published in October 2010, two months before the Times article, is not shy about raising the issue. “I think The Perfect Storm is a good analogy,” says Cavnar, referring to another true-life tragedy turned Hollywood blockbuster (which also starred Wahlberg). “[Rig workers] really live a bifurcated life, dividing their time between land and sea. They speak their own language, and anybody who has ever been near a blowout already knows it’s a traumatic event.
“So when it comes to getting the story right, the laymen might not know it,” adds Cavnar, “but [it’s a story] we in Houston are going to be able to tell.”
In any case, Sand said he and the filmmakers were dedicated to telling an honest story, and telling it well. Not content to rely on digital special effects, the team constructed an enormous model of the Deepwater rig at an abandoned Six Flags near New Orleans. And nearby in the “video village” set up to screen daily footage, they installed 11 chairs with the names of those who lost their lives. “We did our very best,” Sand says, “so we would never forget who should have been sitting there with us.”