DARK WATERS Director Todd Haynes On ‘Atypical Heroes’

Throughout virtually his entire career, director Todd Haynes has never told stories in a direct or easy way. 1987’s Superstar became a cult classic after Richard Carpenter refused to grant Haynes the rights to the Carpenters’ music for a biography of Richard’s sister Karen told with Barbie dolls. Velvet Goldmine worked around the music of David Bowie for its mythic fable about a chameleonic British rock star who looked and acted quite a bit like the very real chameleonic British rock star. And I’m Not There forewent any singular depiction of Bob Dylan in favor of seven different actors playing the iconic folk musician at different stages of his life and career.

But when time came to chronicle attorney Rob Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo) and his two-decade crusade to force accountability on the DuPont corporation after their invention of Teflon quite literally permeated and poisoned 99 percent of all living creatures on planet Earth, Haynes insisted on tackling Bilott’s efforts as straightforwardly and honestly as possible. Dark Waters tells an incredible true story that audiences should already know, but don’t, and it’s that gap between shock and complacency Haynes hopes to target, and fill, with his chilling, dense account.

Mark Ruffalo stars as 'Robert Bilott' in director Todd Haynes' DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release.

Focus Features

Nerdist recently spoke with Haynes about Dark Waters, set to open in wide release November 29. In addition to talking about the film’s inadvertently perfect timing—it’s a whistleblower story arriving in a year of them—Haynes explored what drove him to make what for him seems like a uniquely uncomplicated film, and how he seeded it with nuance and complexity outside and beyond the legal maneuvering between Bilott and DuPont. Additionally, Haynes discussed his own journey as a filmmaker and reflected on the changes he’s witnessed in Hollywood since his career began more than 30 years ago.

This has been a big year for whistleblowers, both onscreen and in real life. Have you found often in your career that ideas or stories that you want to tell end up sort of aligning or percolating in the zeitgeist like this seems to?

I do. Mark Ruffalo has been saying in some of our Q&As that movies come into being not completely outside a kind of social consensus or urgency or demand that they be made. And certain topics rise up kind of when they’re needed to; I was just talking to a journalist just now about the movie The China Syndrome, which was about a meltdown at a nuclear power plant. And it’s a whistleblower film that wasn’t based on a true story—until the film was released, and two weeks later the Three Mile Island meltdown happened. It was the worst meltdown in US nuclear power plant history, and made the movie a true story after the fact. So I think obviously this story has a kind of burning relevance, even beyond the whistleblower theme in its themes of regulation and the environment and contamination et cetera in our water system that really unite all of us.

Suffice it to say that DuPont’s negligence desperately needs to be spotlighted. But this feels to me like an uncharacteristically straightforward kind of story for you to tell; what was this story about for you and what drew you to it initially?

I was certainly drawn to what a Rob Bilott discovers about DuPont and how horrifying and persistent a campaign that was within the history of corporate America. But I think the reason why I responded to it is because I love these kind of movies when they have complexity, when they have ambiguity, when they are filled with a sense of encroaching isolation on the part of the whistleblower, the psychic and physical danger that they are often put through when they stand up to corruption. And I have always loved some of the great examples of these films, like the [Alan] Pakula paranoia films of the ‘70s. The Insider is a magnificent film, I find Silkwood to be an incredibly poignant. But those films, and this one, none of them have a sort of silver-bullet solution. They leave you feeling like the fight goes on and systems of power are never going to back down. They’re always gonna push back. And individuals like Rob Bilott played by Mark or Wilbur Tennant played by Bill Camp are gonna have to keep on fighting. And it sort of asks all of us to look at our own relationship to the world with knowledge and with our eyes having been opened by these stories, now what do we do? And what kind of roles do we play in our lives? And so I liked that about them. They don’t offer a simple or easy solution. They don’t close down the issues, they open up, and sort of put it back into our hands.

Bill Camp (left) as 'Wilbur Tennant' and Mark Ruffalo (right) as 'Robert Bilott' in director Todd Haynes' DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release.

Focus Features

The film seems surprisingly compassionate about the lines drawn between the true cost of seeking justice and the principle of it. How much did you want to foreground that idea in this story? I think our natural inclination is to think of the principle and not the realities of cost and logistics and inconvenience.

When I first met with Rob Bilott with Mario Correa, one of the writers on this, he said this has been one of the loneliest, most isolating experiences of his life. And it was really only when Nathaniel Rich’s piece in the New York Times came out in 2016 that Rob said, “well now at least they can’t kill me.” And this is on top of the physical manifestations of his illness that was never adequately diagnosed, and events that were really true, like where he deposed the CEO of DuPont in Wilmington, and he spoke to his mom on the phone that day and she said, “Rob, does anybody know you’re there?” And he said no. And he walked back to his car in the parking garage and put the key in the ignition and literally wondered [if the car was going to explode]. And so these aren’t just tropes of thrillers or other movies like this. These all come from the real lived experience that you’re looking at in the eye of these subjects like Rob, these remarkable people—sort of atypical heroic figures. He was a defender of industry and he believed in a balance between regulation and profit making. He worked in superfund legislation defending corporations. And that brought a great deal of income to the environmental practice group at Taft Law. He believed that this could be figured out and there must’ve been a mistake—and he knew the DuPont guys. Their eyes were completely opened, and Tom Terp described it to us as a Holy war when they fully realized the depths of this kind of exercise of power for so many decades against the powerless that DuPont was partaking in.

You have been a consistent champion of strong, dimensionalized female roles over the years. What do you tell Anne Hathaway about a character like Sarah Bilott to reassure her that she’s not stepping into a potentially thankless role as the wife in a man’s story?

This is a network of people who all became essential players in these years of fighting the fights that Rob Bilott led, and Sarah, her own kind of kind of tenacity, extroversion and expressiveness was the counterpart to Rob’s lack thereof. Sarah is the driving force in their life, and Sarah is the one who runs that house. And she also was a lawyer in her own right and understood what he was taking on as a lawyer from Ohio state, versus the Year 2 lawyers who had law degrees from Harvard and Yale who are most often the partners at a firm like Taft. She was acutely aware of the differences between Rob and [his boss] Tom Terp, for instance.

So none of this could have happened without Sarah. I felt that that was quite clear. And when you meet her, you see that they play these opposing, complementary roles in their lives. And Rob’s mother was a very strong-willed woman there was sort of a conflict between them, and she lived in Dayton, Ohio and the grandmother lived in Parkersburg, so she staked out her territory. This was her world that Rob entered and it was her domain. So I felt that that was an essential part of this story and an essential part of understanding how Rob could survive these years, and that they struggled as a marriage and as a family throughout it.

Anne Hathaway stars as 'Sarah Barlage' in director Todd Haynes' DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release.

Focus Features

One of the things that I really noticed throughout the film was a preponderance of people of color in roles as servants and service people on the periphery of these halls of power. What drove that choice?

Well it reveals all of these fault lines in the cultures that are being depicted where class and race are designated outside of systems of power and privilege. It’s true that at biweekly gatherings of the Queen City club in Cincinnati, it would be an all-black serving staff serving basically an all-white, mostly male attendance of lawyers from Taft. But what I wanted to show was that none of these guys are ideal spokespeople for challenging systems of power. They are embedded in and participants in these very systems. So no one’s hands are clean, and that to me that is a far more nuanced and subtle and interesting progression.

For instance, in Tom Terp, the character that Tim Robbins plays, who is there to represent the interests of the corporate clients that they defend, but who comes to learn things that he never imagined, and extreme practices that he never expected were possible to this degree in DuPont. And there would be associates who were promoted to partnerships of color at Taft Law, and that is represented in Will’s performance as James in the story. But I thought it would be more interesting if he as somebody who was trying to protect the integrity and reputation and traditions of Taft Law, actually ended up standing on the other side of this. So everybody is in an unstable standing morally and ethically. And it just makes the things that they learn and the allegiances that they have with each other, crossing class lines from Wilbur Tennant to Rob Bilott to Tom Terp, essential to the delicate structure of this interdependence of people.

When you make a movie like this, how did the ongoing saga of these events shape where you wanted this story to lead and how it would end on screen given DuPont’s resistance to addressing problems that they’ve created?

I think the obvious final act of the film is this extremely trying waiting period for the massive class action suit and the medical monitoring the science panel that analyzes the blood results of 70,000 participants It was historically the biggest class action study in history, and that it takes seven years to identify the links between PFOA and six illnesses. But what I find so heartbreaking, and there’s no other word for it, is that the good news is such bad news. The victories speak of a global condition where this chemical began in local water districts in the Midwest and spread throughout the United States and now through the entire globe to 99% of all living species.

So that is a daunting and overwhelming outcome with only 60 years in the history of the production of Teflon. But when I first heard that information, I felt like this is almost on a par with something like patriarchy, capitalism, these invasions that occurred without our permission. And then it’s up to each of us to identify, to call out and stand up to them. They’re not going to go away. They’re part of the imperfect system that we live in. So are we going to bury our heads back in the sand and return to the ease of nonstick cookware? No, you take knowledge over ignorance and you live imperfectly moving forward and fighting against the battles that come your way like these guys did. And it’s one small battle after the next, and that’s what we have to do as a society. There’s not a silver bullet to make it all disappear, but this is a primer for how to live imperfectly in this world.

Tim Robbins stars as 'Tom Terp' in director Todd Haynes' DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release.

Focus Features

I won’t ask you your opinions about Marvel movies, but given the op-ed that Martin Scorsese wrote recently, I’m curious about your feelings about the climate of the industry now. Is the industry as open to the stories that you want to tell as it always was? Or are you having to sort of navigate the shifts in distribution and risk averseness to find the right platform or opportunity to tell those same stories?

I think it’s hard right now. The franchise culture which Scorsese has targeted, he contextualizes it in the era in which he came of age as a filmmaker and what cinema meant in that era of discovery and challenge and revisionist genres when film felt like a discovery process, as there was an active, engaged and critically-informed and inspire-able audience that desired these films. But you can’t just cater to what makes the most money. Studios have always had moneymaking franchises from the beginning, but it also paid for the smaller films, the dramatic films, the risk-taking movies, the newer directors that you had to also develop in your industry. It’s the way you invest in the future. And we’re seeing that kind of in reinvestment happening less and less. And the bottom lines are dominating what decisions are being made.

That said, in the world of streaming and small screen entertainment, we are overwhelmed by content. And there’s a lot of risk taking going on. It just happens to be falling into a more expected form of a longer-form limited series or ongoing series seem to be the mode that dominates. And there’s something very exciting about that, because there’s a lot of competition among content creators and producers to keep challenging and pushing the envelope. On the other hand, these series, the ones that hang on start dominating all the available space and all of the creative talent and all of the studios’ post production facilities in every city, and they shut out emerging talents or less predictable formats and ideas.

So it’s a tricky time. And for me, like any filmmaker who’s worked making movies for the big screen, I want to see people go to see movies projected on the screen, but that becomes a much harder goal these days. And certainly I think Scorsese’s talking about the Marvel impact on what big screen entertainment and what that tradition has been suffering under. But I don’t have a solution. I’ve just been very lucky because I’ve continued to make movies for big screen and small screen and, and I’ve been busier than I’ve ever been in the last couple of years. So I’m very fortunate about all that.

Header Image: Focus Features

Top Stories
Trending Topics