Deepwater Horizon director faced much obstruction when making the movie about BP oil spill

Mark Wahlberg plays chief electronics technician Mike Williams in Deepwater Horizon.
Mark Wahlberg plays chief electronics technician Mike Williams in Deepwater Horizon.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE
Peter Berg (right) and Mark Wahlberg (left).
Peter Berg (right) and Mark Wahlberg (left).PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In making films based on real-life events, such as Deepwater Horizon, director Peter Berg wants to be able to proudly show them to the people involved

Director Peter Berg says his movie Deepwater Horizon faced a lot of obstruction because people and businesses in Louisiana were worried about its negative portrayal of the oil company BP.

The film, which opens in Singapore tomorrow and stars Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell, tells the story behind the 2010 BP oil-rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that led to the biggest oil spill in American history.

Berg tells The Straits Times that because the Louisiana economy still does a lot of business with BP, his production faced hostility from locals fearful of being punished for helping the film, which suggests that executives of the company - which was fined billions of dollars for the incident - put profits before safety.

"We had many contracts to work with different individuals and with boat and helicopter and production crews, but because the economy of Louisiana is very connected to oil, a lot of times they would say 'yes', then at the last minute just not show up," he says.

When I'm making a movie like this, I have that inspiration of knowing I'm going to show the movie to the family of the people who were involved and look into their eyes and they're gonna let me know whether we got it right.

''DIRECTOR PETER BERG, with actor Mark Wahlberg and the character he plays in Deepwater Horizon, chief electronics technician Mike Williams

"People would just say, 'We can't come, we have a problem with some other companies,'" says the 52-year-old, who directed the 2013 war movie Lone Survivor, also starring Wahlberg, 45. "Some were like, 'Get out of here', because they were scared that if they cooperated at all, BP would not hire them."

The film-makers were apprehensive too, he admits. "We're still scared - I've never had to make a movie where I had to deal with so many lawyers. They would be in the edit room and would argue with me about scenes and the script and the final cut. I had very contentious conversations with them."

In the film, John Malkovich portrays a BP executive who is shown pressuring the head of the oil rig crew, Jimmy Harrell (played by Russell), and rig engineer Mike Williams (Wahlberg) to ignore the results of a safety test.

"We're still limited with how we can sell the movie because they're scared that if we show John Malkovich being too villainous, their lawyers are gonna sue us."

But Berg and Russell - who were speaking to the press at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month - insist they are not out to demonise the oil company. Rather, both they and the film recognise that the real issue is the world's dependence on fossil fuels.

Russell (The Hateful Eight, 2015) says: "One of the things this movie does address is that while we keep striving for a perfect world where they are no tragedies like this, this is an inherently dangerous business - things can go horribly wrong.

"But if you want to fly from Toronto to Los Angeles for something like US$50,000 a trip, they're going to keep punching holes in the ground and doing as best they can," says the 65-year-old.

"If you stop drilling for oil, you will find your production of all things in the world comes to a halt. Well, that's not going to happen, so you have to do the best you can.

"This movie says we have a tendency, because we don't examine such incidents publicly, to think that it's just wanton negligence that something went wrong.

"Then you look into it and realise there was a lot of confusion on that day on that rig. And it's still a business that is performed by human beings who make decisions and we are not faultless things."

The US$110-million (S$150-million) disaster movie went to great lengths for accuracy as it charts the final hours leading up to the pipeline rupture on the rig, which killed 11 crew members and sent 206 million gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

In an abandoned amusement park in Louisiana, the crew used more than 1.36 million kg of steel to construct an enormous, 85 per cent scale replica of the rig that was strong enough to even land a helicopter on.

Berg also took pains to explain the complex science behind deepsea drilling, which is poorly understood by the public despite their dependence on oil.

"Everyone wants to criticise BP, but I'm not even that mad at BP - I understand what they did on their side of it and why they didn't go to prison. They're a business that we all use. So it's a complex story."

The science of plumbing those depths for oil, however, exemplifies "the hubris of man and what we think we can do", he says.

"Deepwater Horizon was the deepest rig ever, the deepest mankind has gone into the centre of Earth, and deepwater oil exploration is often compared to the space programme - instead of going up, they're going down.

"So these are really smart engineers and scientists from MIT and Stanford who have to figure out how to find this oil - how to go down that deep, tap into a power that is like a nuclear bomb and stabilise it. There were all these really smart men disagreeing about what was happening that day. And as a result of these disagreements, this horrible disaster happened.

"But nobody wanted this to happen," he concludes, explaining that this is why there were no successful criminal prosecutions of executives at the company, which a United States court found to be primarily responsible for the spill, ordering it to pay billions of dollars in fines and settlements as well as foot the bill for the clean-up.

"Nobody intended for there to be a blowout or death and injury," says Berg. "What BP did was push them to go faster and faster - they didn't push them to die. So if you really put it in front of a jury and try it, you really can't make the link between the deaths and the behaviour."

He reiterates that anyone dependent on the fossil fuel-hungry economy is complicit, too.

"Even if oil is bad, we're all addicted to it. It's like if you eat meat and sausage - how many people really have the courage to go look at how we get them. If they looked, they wouldn't eat them."

The movie is also about honouring the 11 men who died on the rig, he adds. "The families of 10 of the 11 came to visit the set and we've shown the movie to them and that went very well. It wasn't fun for them, but I think they thought the film was respectful and were glad it was made."

Berg says knowing he would have to look these relatives in the face kept him going through the difficult shoot and continues to inspire him as a film-maker.

"Making movies is not easy - it's long hours and a million different things can go wrong every day. So you look for inspiration - what gets me up at 5am and makes me want to work for 16 hours a day?

"And for me, it's movies that are generally, now, real stories, where I can meet the people who were really involved.

"So when I'm making a movie like this, I have that inspiration of knowing I'm going to show the movie to the family of the people who were involved and look into their eyes and they're gonna let me know whether we got it right. And that gets me going."

•Deepwater Horizon opens in Singapore tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2016, with the headline 'Getting real stories right'. Print Edition | Subscribe