‘Deepwater Horizon’ director Peter Berg aims for authenticity in what he describes as a tale of heroism

By Mike Scott

In all, there are 11 of them — 11 photos hanging solemnly on the wall. Beneath each is a name: Jason Anderson, Aaron Dale “Bubba” Burkeen, Donald Clark, Stephen Ray Curtis …

Some of the men in the pictures are smiling. Some stare intently back at the camera.

Director Peter Berg stands next to a model of an oil rig that crews will build for his forthcoming film about the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The Summit Entertainment drama, which is set to start shooting in May in eastern New Orleans and Chalmette, will focus on what Berg describes as the multiple stories of heroism that took place on the rig after it blew out in April 2010. (Mark Russell / Summit Entertainment)

All are dead now.

They are the 11 men who perished aboard the mammoth Deepwater Horizon oil rig when it violently blew out in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, before listing to port and, still aflame, slipping beneath the Gulf waters. And there is a good reason why filmmaker Peter Berg has their photographs hanging in the Chalmette production office for his forthcoming feature film about that deadly day.

“That’s it,” Berg said this week when asked about the photos, turning as if to look into the eyes of the 11 men on his wall. “That’s the heart and soul of this film. I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of people are going to move through this office by the time it’s done, and it’s very, very important to all of us — and me — very important that we never forget that this is a human story.

“You always ask, ‘Why? Why make this film?’ It’s a lot of work, and I think there’s never a single answer to that question. But if we cannot provide a human experience for an audience, there’s no reason to make this film.”

When it was first announced in summer 2012 that Lionsgate’s Summit Entertainment shingle and Participant Media were planning a feature film based on the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, which sparked the historic BP oil spill, it was met with a certain amount of skepticism. That was particularly true in the Mississippi and southern Louisiana communities where so many of the Deepwater Horizon 11 had built their lives.

That’s because the events of that April 20 were, in no uncertain terms, a tragedy, and one of epic proportions. In addition to the 11 men who perished aboard the rig, another 17 were injured. An estimated 3.19 million barrels of oil — or about 133.9 million gallons — gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, to befoul fisheries, choke wildlife, and spoil miles upon miles of wetlands and beaches.

Director Peter Berg, left, talks with cast members, from left, Jeremy Sande, Dylan OíBrien and Mark Wahlberg on the New Orleans set of the disaster drama ‘Deepwater Horizon.’ (Photo by David Lee/Summit)

Fireboats try to extinguish the blaze on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig south of Venice after the rig exploded, leading to one of the worst maritime oil spill in history, on April 21, 2010. (Michael DeMocker / The Times-Picayune) 

Even now, that skepticism about the film lingers. Berg has experienced it first-hand.

He and his crew are busy building impressive sets, work that will continue for the next two months, right up until the film’s three-month shoot is scheduled to begin in May. That includes erecting an 85-percent-scale replica of a massive portion of the rig, which will be built in an even bigger water tank constructed in eastern New Orleans. (“You know, BP’s not real keen to give us an oil rig to film on right now,” the filmmaker noted.)

Another set will re-create the rig’s drill shack — “ground zero” for the blowout, as Berg describes it. Yet another, which is already far along in a Chalmette warehouse-turned-production-facility, will stand in as an eerily accurate facsimile of the bridge of the Damon B. Bankston, the supply vessel that came to the rescue of some of the disaster’s 100-plus survivors.

In the meantime, Berg has been talking to locals about the project.

Or, more accurately, they’ve been talking to him. Louisianians aren’t generally given to shyness in the first place, but that appears to be particularly true when it comes to their fears about the Hollywood-ization of one of the defining disasters of the region’s recent history.

For their parts, Berg and Lionsgate are eager to calm any fears of exploitation.

“I’ve had people come up to me in restaurants,” Berg said. “I go to the New Orleans Boxing Club every day; I’ve had guys come up to me there. I go to Whole Foods right across the street from it; I had two people come up to me today. And people seem to want to know.

“I think it is our responsibility to have as transparent and clear a dialogue with the community (as possible). And anybody that was touched by this tragedy, we want to make sure that they understand who we are and what we’re doing.”

… Gordon Jones, Roy Wyatt Kemp, Karl Kleppinger Jr. …

What Lionsgate and Berg insist they are not doing is trying to assign culpability for the events leading up to the blowout. Likewise, they’re not chronicling the environmental disaster resulting from the BP oil spill, the fallout from which lingers today.

Those might make for fine films one day, but that’s all been exceedingly well established in the public record, as producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura points out. “There is a government report, which is exhaustive,” di Bonaventura says. “There is a judge’s ruling, which is quite exhaustive. There are the Coast Guard interviews with everybody on that boat.”

Rather, their film, as they envision it, will be narrowly — but intensely — focused on what happened aboard the rig that fateful day. It will introduce moviegoers to what life is like aboard a rig the size of the Horizon and the singular culture surrounding it. It will shine a light on the kinds of personalities that are drawn to wrenching on a rig miles from the nearest dry land.

And it will document what Berg and di Bonaventura describe as the many instances of heroism displayed aboard the rig before it finally, horrifyingly collapsed into the Gulf.

“From our point of view, you look at the people who died, everyone there was doing their job,” di Bonaventura says. “Many of them stood in harm’s way to try and prevent it from getting worse. They are an incredible group of people.”

Regardless, those stories of bravery and heroism have been largely overlooked, Berg says — despite the fact that the character and personal fortitude of the Horizon crew are what he sees as among the most fascinating aspects of the whole affair.

“I want to make a film about people,” Berg says. “… Everybody knows that there was a horrible environmental disaster. Everybody knows that a lot of animals were killed. But what people don’t know is 11 men were killed and many more were injured and there were some real heroes on that rig. That was a very compelling human story — and that’s the story we all want to tell.”

Berg wasn’t the first director attached to the film, which, though often referred to as “Deepwater Horizon,” is shooting under the working title “The Long Night.” (And which might be called something else entirely when it arrives in theaters in September 2016.)

Initially, “All is Lost” helmer J.C. Chandor was brought on board to helm. Then, in January, it was announced that Chandor was departing the project, with the traditional but ever-vague “creative differences” cited as the reason for his departure. That left the film’s producers scrambling to find a replacement.

That’s when they turned to Berg, who — drawn to the story since seeing a “60 Minutes” piece a few years ago about the men and women aboard the rig — seems a natural fit for the material.

Although he has dabbled in the blockbuster game, with such big-budget films as 2008’s “Hancock” and 2012’s Baton Rouge-shot “Battleship” under his belt, he seems to hit his stride most effectively with fact-based dramas such as 2004’s “Friday Night Lights” and 2007’s “The Kingdom.”

Mark Wahlberg stars in director Peter Berg’s disaster drama ‘Deepwater Horizon,’ based on the events leading up to the BP oil spill in 2010. (David Lee/Summit Entertainment)

Director Peter Berg, left, and actor Mark Wahlberg discuss a scene on the set of 2013’s ‘Lone Survivor.’ Like Berg’s forthcoming film about the Deepwater Horizon disaster, that film was based on real events and told the story of a group of people struggling to beat impossibly long odds. (Universal Pictures)

His most recent film, 2013’s critically acclaimed “Lone Survivor” — which starred “Deepwater Horizon” lead actor Mark Wahlberg — recounted the experiences of a squad of Navy SEALs and the ill-fated 2005 counter-insurgence operation that claimed most of their lives. It’s a film that bears striking similarities to the story behind “Deepwater Horizon.”

One is set in the mountains of Afghanistan and the other is set in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but both films are about smart, hard-working people who find themselves in mortal danger and fighting impossible odds — and who must dig deep to try to find a way out.

“Obviously, nobody showed up for work that day thinking this was going to happen,” Berg says of the Horizon disaster. “Nobody wanted this to happen. That doesn’t mean there weren’t people that did things that were wrong, (but) this film is not about that. We’re not a giant finger that’s going to be pointed at anyone. We are really going to look at what I believe were the salt-of-the-earth, working-class American heroes who got caught in a very dangerous and violent and horrific situation, and tried to get out of it.”

… Keith Blair Manuel, Dewey A. Revette, Shane M. Roshto, Adam Weise …

Logistically, the “Deepwater Horizon” shoot promises to be a challenging one. Aside from the open-water shoots — which are notoriously unpredictable, and therefore difficult — some 2 million pounds of steel will go into its sets, with more than 100 welders, including many from the oil fields, tacking it all together.

“I always joke that I just want to do a love story with a man and a woman and a bottle of Bordeaux in France on a beach,” Berg cracks. “And (here I am), back with a bunch of people in some form of intense situation. That is what I continue to be drawn to. So I’m happy to be going back to sea.”

But even more daunting, as with any movie based on real events — particularly events that are so well-covered — is making sure to get everything right, out of respect for the victims as much as anything else. It’s a responsibility that Rob Friedman, co-chairman of Lionsgate’s Motion Picture Group, says everyone involved in the project takes seriously.

“We’ve spent, and the filmmakers have spent, a tremendous amount of time poring through all the testimony and the reports to try to be as close to the facts as possible,” Friedman says. “…We’re trying to be as diligent and as accurate as we can be to portray this incident and the heroism and the survival and all of the elements that we believe (make this) an important story not just for America but for the rest of the world.”

Director Peter Berg, left, is joined on stage by, from left, actors Gina Rodriguez, Kurt Russell, Kate Hudson, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura and actor Mark Wahlberg on Monday, Sept. 19, 2016, at the U.S. premiere of the disaster drama ‘Deepwater Horizon’ at the Orpheum Theater in New Orleans. (Mike Scott, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)

Crosses bearing the names of the 11 men who died in the Deepwater Horizon disaster are set up on the beach in Grand Isle for a memorial service on Wednesday, April 20, 2011, the one-year anniversary of the explosion of the massive oil rig. (Rusty Costanza / NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)

Granted, that doesn’t mean some things won’t be altered to accommodate the traditional two-hour feature-film running time. Some dialogue will have to be imagined. Timelines might have to be compressed. Multiple people might be combined into one composite character. That’s how movies work.

But the goal isn’t so much to re-create every second aboard the rig. Rather, it is to achieve a broader truth in depicting the experience of the men and women aboard it.

It’s something to which Berg, di Bonaventura and Friedman are all acutely sensitive. But they’ve also got the experience to know how to pull it off.

In addition to Berg’s experience on “Lone Survivor,” “The Kingdom” and “Friday Night Lights,” di Bonaventura worked on 2000’s “The Perfect Storm,” about another maritime tragedy. Friedman had a hand in 2005’s “World Trade Center,” about the 9/11 attacks.

“In some respect, they all have the same things in common — people just trying to do their jobs,” di Bonaventura says.

Over the past few weeks, Berg says he has personally reached out to a number of the families of the men who died in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, to explain to them his intentions, as well as to offer assurances that their loved ones’ memories will be respected. By the time all is said and done, he said, he fully intends to have contacted members of all 11 families.

Likewise, the production is making further efforts to reach out to Horizon survivors. By the time filming gets going, Friedman said the production would have a full-time staffer on board — with a yet-undetermined number of support staffers — to serve as a liaison between the production and the families.

It’s only right, Berg says — and it’s the only way to do it.

“When I was making (‘Lone Survivor’), in the back of my mind, I wasn’t thinking about releasing it and having critics review it or box office (numbers),” he says. “I knew there would be a screening and all family members of those 19 SEALs that were killed, the lights were going to come up and it was my responsibility to be in that theater — and those people are going to look me in the eye. You know right in that moment, yeah, maybe you condensed the narrative, you moved the facts around, but if you got it right, you can feel it in the eyes of the mothers and widows and the community in general. …

“I was most proud of being able to hold my head up when the lights came up in those theaters. And I aspire, and this crew aspires, for the same result. We will show this film to the family members of the 11 men that were killed, and I want them to feel as though this is something they’re proud of, this is something — a legacy — that they can show to their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren. They can say, ‘Wow, this is what my grandfather did.’ ‘This is what my husband did.’ That is very, very important to me.

“Yes, I want the film to be successful. It’s a big Hollywood production. We need for it hopefully to be popular around the world. But I believe you can’t divorce that from authenticity and capturing the truth of who these men were. That’s critical to me. And if I didn’t think that we were going to be able to do it, I wouldn’t make the film.”

This story was originally published in March 2015 NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.

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