'Dark Waters' Director Todd Haynes On Finding Humanity In A Murky True Story [Interview]

Todd Haynes refuses to give the audience what they want. There are no easy answers or satisfying catharsis in Dark Waters, the Carol director's true-life legal thriller about a lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) who unearths a decades-long chemical cover-up by one of the world's largest and most powerful corporations. Instead Dark Waters offers something much more challenging and complex: the drive to keep fighting.Dark Waters is based on the true story of Robert Bilott, a corporate environmental defense attorney whose firm represented the very chemical company that he would end up waging an 18-year legal battle against. Based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine article "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare," it sounds like a cut-and-dry legal drama: one that ends with the hero taking down the big corporation, and "the world itself has been solved," Haynes said, remarking on what we all thought Dark Waters would be when we saw the trailer. But Haynes bucks the expectations that come with the inspirational true-life story and draws more heavily from the paranoid thriller genre — citing films like Silkwood, The Insider, and The Parallax view as inspirations for Dark Waters.

"What I really love about films...[is] they retain that sense of complexity, of an ambiguous process where there is not a single way forward," Haynes said in an interview with /Film ahead of the release of Dark Waters.

But Ruffalo's Rob Bilott does move forward. And that is what Haynes found so humanizing about this environmental film about the wide-reaching catastrophic consequences of a corporation whose disposal of toxic chemicals went unregulated for years (and is still unregulated).

"The more the walls of your world start to close in, the more fearful one becomes, the more destabilized, the more cut off from those communities...the sort of psychic cost that all of the subjects go through, I find to be so human," Haynes said. "And to me that is ultimately more inspiring because that speaks to the complexity of real life."

How did Mark Ruffalo approach you to direct Dark Waters? Because I know when he first received the initial script from the screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, it was very different from the finished product.

It was Matthew's first draft. Mario had not come on the job at that point. But it was to their credit for all the best reasons in the world why they wanted to get this thing out. They felt that this was intensely relevant to what was happening in the world. Every day feels like a week of political events, of the unraveling of our divided government and issues with political leaders in this country. So one can't not feel a kind of desire to get in there and put a story like this out. You don't see as many serious, dramatic true-life stories like this, these days. There are a lot of escapist films coming out — all fine, and they all have their audiences — but this one felt like there was a serious audience in need of it.

So Mark read that expose in The New York Times that came out in 2016, he came to me the very next year and there was already a first draft. Initially, it was a little tricky for my schedule to make any commitment to it, but the story, the idea, and the people behind it stayed with me, and I couldn't really shake it off. I had to deal with other things that I was developing at the time, and when I felt I could step away from them, he came back to me with it. And at that point, Matthew was no longer available, he was directing a movie of his own, so it was time to bring on another writer. So that ushered in a sort of second tier of the process, with me and Mario going to Cincinnati, Ohio, and Parkersburg, West Virginia, and meeting all those people firsthand, getting that fresh research process together. And that process is what generated the script that is pretty well reflected by this film.

I heard when Mark Ruffalo first approached you, the script looked more akin to a legal thriller. Did you go in and make any changes yourself or was it something that evolved as you all collaborated?

Mario and I we started the trip with Mark but we spent most of the trip [just the two of us]. And we just kept a kind of relationship going during this process, of sort of fresh research, and talked about every aspect of the movie so I feel like that came out of a close but fast process with Mario and myself. I wouldn't characterize the [the original script] as a legal thriller, I think there were areas where we could penetrate more deeply from a psychological standpoint and emotional standpoint. And some of the painful aspects of what he went through, we felt like it deserved attention, and I think that was reflected a lot in the final result.

You mentioned before the proliferation of escapist films, and I think even in whistleblower dramas like this today, you see something that's a little more hopeful or inspirational. And I know that you took inspiration from paranoid conspiracy thrillers like The Parallax View Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and All the President's Men, which don't really offer that sort of clean ending. How did you settle on this tone, and why do you think it was necessary for the story?

What I really love about films like those you've mentioned as well as The Insider, as well as Silkwood, is they all are not like other whistleblower films, which are based on real life, they retain that sense of complexity, of an ambiguous process where there is not a single way forward. Where as the closer you get to uncovering the story, the powers that be push back. The more the walls of your world start to close in, the more fearful one becomes, the more destabilized, the more cut off from those communities...the sort of psychic cost that all of the subjects go through, I find to be so human. And to me that is ultimately more inspiring because that speaks to the complexity of real life.

[When a movie is] all wrapped up...and you feel like, "Wow, that hero went to the top and took down the system," it leaves you feeling as if the world itself has been solved, the problems have been solved by the movie. And [Dark Waters] and the kinds I've mentioned, are the ones I think put it back into our hands and make us have to consider how we live our lives, how we deal with complexity, contradiction, some success and a lot of setbacks, and systems of power that are relentless in continuing to connive and push back and obfuscate. And that's exactly what happened with Rob Bilott. And he also in the end, he really took down the good name of DuPont. He absolutely took down the good name of Teflon and changed the way people will consider one of the most heralded American products, and brought the truth out, which is what Wilbur Tennant and the farmers' ultimate wish was.

Was that change to dig into that complexity and that ambiguity what drew you to doing a movie that's not very like the rest of your film catalog? At surface-level, you could say it's the most accessible of the films you've directed because it's easily characterized as a corporate thriller.

Yeah, it really is the reason. I would say yes, it's exactly those kinds of treatments of these kinds of stories, were the ones that I had — maybe it's overstating it — a somewhat obsessive relationship with, in the kinds of the movies that I loved to watch over and over again. It made me wonder, why do I get such pleasure in watching All the President's Men? Part of it is the way it's shot, the way it's visualized, the rhythms of the film. But I also feel it's something about films about process which give us, as I was saying, a kind of example of how to get through and get to the core of information. But not necessarily have it end with sheer and unending success.

This is an issue that's incredibly complex for the average moviegoer to understand. Was there anything specific that intimidated you about laying down the scientific or policy-specific facts?

Absolutely. I think that was the real practical driving dramatic challenge, from a script-writing standpoint and from a directorial standpoint. And most movies accomplish this and they do it in different ways, but the outcome is for an audience to feel that all of that is coherent and it's moving forward. You're not going to be tested on any particular moment of it, there's something riding over it that is really the human factor, that is what you latch onto. But I think if you don't feel like the information and the intricacies of the legal process as it is in this movie, aren't well articulated and coherent...you sense that it's there, and when it's not there, I think the film starts to waver.

This, I think, has all that going for it, but it took incredible condensing, dramatic lesions, picking our points and picking the moments that are the most effective. There aren't a lot of big, dramatic, epic [moments]. There's no big courtroom face-off scenes in this movie because it's not really part of the story. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie, in my mind, is the deposition of the actual CEO of DuPont. It's also one of the few cases where we get to look the emblems, the symbols of power in the eye, because it's all filtered through Rob Bilott's perspective, and he's cut off from that, as it should be.

One of the scenes that particularly struck me was when we first learned about all of the years of chemical dumpings and cover-ups during the discovery montage which plays like Rob Bilott is going through a paranoid breakdown but then ends up being very informative about the subject, and I think that was very indicative of how you played that balance between information and the characters.

Yeah there had to be a point, because you see a guy being buried alive in discovery, almost in a nasty joke that no man is ever going to be able to get through this stuff. We're going to throw it at you until you're suffocated, you can't get through it. But guess what? This guy actually did. He actually spent that kind of time and had that kind of wherewithal. And he had a firm that would actually support the length and breadth of that endeavor, which would not be true of a plaintiff's agency. But you also find yourself drifting away from him, he's kind of lost to us, and so you need to come back to him, but you need little clues along the way...that he's discovering. There is a building intensity of what he's on to. And then finally you need to tell that story, which is very hard because it's a lot of story to tell. It kind of stops the narrative. You go back in a montage and go back through the process that he went through in the storage room, culling through the papers and the documents.

But the intercutting, that was such a really smart strategy of Mario's, of how to intercut it between that speech to his wife in the kitchen, and the reporting of the events to his boss in his office, and directly to the legal counsel representing DuPont in the conference room, and finally to Wilbur in his farm. So you really feel that collecting of all the objects of the film.

So was the editing as much a part of the script?

In that scene [yes], though everything gets refined and rethought in the editing in the movie. That set-up demanded for a subtle and revolving and quickly progressing period of intercutting of events, and having a sort of voiceover describing what's happening. But again, we don't start showing clips of DuPont, its newsreels or its back histories, we're still anchored to the specificity that Rob himself is looking at. It's all third hand information, and so that was challenging, because you want to keep the audience engaged but you also want them to feel locked into the limits of his own experience. And locked into Rob's own personality, which is full of reticence, full of a kind of resistance, and an emotional barrier which is not the typical stuff of heroes. But I found that to be the reason for all the more dramatic payoff, when it's not someone who's an obvious hero. 

How involved was the real Robert Bilott in the film?

Rob was incredibly involved, incredibly available to us. He was physically present during almost half of our shooting days. His wife made herself available, her clothes, her jewelry, the kids, the house. But this was true for most of the principal surviving people who were the subjects of the movie, including the remarkable Jim Tennant, who is the surviving brother of Wilbur Tennant, and was in Parkersburg with his wife Della and we put him in the movie, but there were a few complications in West Virginia. He's just an incredible force, this guy. 

Do you have an aim with this film? Do you hope to galvanize audiences into action or affect policy, or simply spread awareness? And do you think audiences are more welcoming of this kind of movie, especially with the rise of climate change awareness and ongoing water issues like Flint?

It's my hope, I don't know if it's my aim. I think my aim is to make a move that is dramatically compelling, that describes the story as carefully and sensitively as possible but that makes you remember the emotional cost and makes you remember the people [Rob] is fighting for. Because he's cut off in his law offices, but he's really fighting for all these people who don't have what he has. And the more entrenched we are in this world, it took an effort to keep reminding the audiences of the people he's out there fighting for.

But I do think people are ready for, are hungry for a film of this substance, that describes a real person with flaws who figured out a way to not only learn so much, but [to] change the way he sees the world. That's really what's so interesting, he and [Tim Robbins' character] Tom Terp changed the way we see the world. They come at it from a very different perspective at the beginning of the movie. So that offering of an example of changing the way you see the world, is the way the world may change. Because it's going to take people in corporate culture, it's going to take people in rural America, and it's going to take people everywhere in between to make effective change. And it doesn't happen in one place, in one way. It happens with a lot of people coming together.

Dark Waters opens in theaters on November 22, 2019.