Dark Waters – An unbelievable true David vs. Goliath story

Dark Waters sees critically acclaimed filmmaker Todd Haynes venture into new territory to tell a gripping story based on the explosive exposé that uncovered an urgent public health crisis and corruption at the highest levels.

Based on The New York Times Magazine article, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” by Nathaniel Rich, Dark Waters chronicles the one-man crusade that sought justice for a community exposed for decades to toxins in its own backyard. It tells the shocking and heroic story of an attorney (Mark Ruffalo) who risks his career and family to uncover a dark secret hidden by one of the world’s largest corporations and to bring justice to a community dangerously exposed for decades to deadly chemicals.

It all began on January 6, 2016, when The New York Times Magazine published Nathaniel Rich’s riveting chronicle of the work of Cincinnati attorney Rob Bilott.

Employed at the law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, Bilott became an unlikely crusader who bravely uncovered the dangers of a chemical that had been contaminating one rural community for years—and to punish one corporate giant responsible for marketing its uses.

The saga unfolds like a horror story

The Tennants, a family who had farmed the same sprawling property for generations, began losing their cattle in startling ways. The animals, once docile like pets, turned ugly and aggressive. Lesions covered their hides, their eyes were rimmed with red, white slime dripped from their mouths, their teeth blackened. When one black calf died, its eye was electric blue. Convinced that the cause was toxic runoff from the nearby Dry Run Landfill, where the Washington Works factory, owned by DuPont, disposed of its waste, Wilbur Tennant sought answers for years to no avail.

Desperate, he finally turned to Bilott, who had spent time as a child near the Tennants’ farm in Parkersburg, West Virginia. “When we were first approached by the Tennants to try and help them figure out what was going on at this landfill, the world I had dealt with was regulated, listed materials—we thought this could be a fairly straightforward thing,” Bilott says. “We’ll help figure out what should be going into the landfill and look at the permits; we’ll find out what chemicals are actually going in and what might be exceeding their limits.”

After nearly a year, Bilott discovered just what they were dealing with—“an unregulated chemical that didn’t fit into that world. It opened into a much bigger, and much different, project,” the attorney says. The substance in question is perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA, which dates to 1951, almost two decades before the Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the federal rules and statutes that started coming out in the 1970s were primarily focused on new chemicals, things that were being produced and generated after that point in time,” Bilott says. “There wasn’t as much emphasis or review on things that were already out there, chemicals like this that had been used for decades. So now, we’re looking at the consequences of that—never really going back and looking at this entire big group of chemicals that had been used for decades and decades with essentially no review.”

What the attorney learned was shocking. DuPont had long understood that PFOA, could have wide-ranging, even lethal, effects. Yet, according to Rich’s article, by 1990, the company had dumped 7,100 tons of PFOA sludge into Dry Run Landfill. Runoff from that landfill drained onto the land where the Tennants’ cattle grazed. From that point on, Bilott made it his mission to secure justice not just for the Tennants, but also for anyone who had been exposed to PFOA—or “forever chemicals” as they’re called, since they don’t break down and stay in the subject’s system.

For Mark Ruffalo, reading Rich’s article set off personal alarm bells

As both an artist and a globally-minded environmentalist, Ruffalo felt that a film about Bilott’s struggles could represent a convergence of his dedication to his craft and to the environment.

A longtime advocate on climate change and increasing renewable energy, Ruffalo co-founded Water Defense in March 2011 to raise awareness about energy extraction impact on water and the public health; the following year, he helped launch The Solutions Project as part of his mission to share science, business and culture that demonstrates the feasibility of renewable energy.

After some initial email exchanges, Ruffalo phoned Bilott with a pointed inquiry. “I said that I felt like there was a part of the story that wasn’t fully explained in this article,” Ruffalo recalls. “What I wanted to know from Rob was, was it more difficult for you trying to do this inside a corporate defense law firm that only represents chemical companies? Rob said, ‘Listen, I’ll tell you everything.’ That was what I really needed to move forward.”

“I just think to be a hero, you are going to face a lot of opposition, and from everywhere, sometimes,” Ruffalo continues. “That is a real hero’s journey. Plus, it is just great storytelling. The more you can layer in those complexities, just the better story it is, and the greater achievement it is when our hero does what he set out to do.”

At the outset, Rob really believes that corporations are people and in the concept of their self-governance. He reasons that this must be some simple oversight. What ends up happening is he uncovers this contamination and cover-up, perpetrated by DuPont and spanning 40 years.”

For Bilott, a feature film meant yet another way to communicate the import of the threat to health and safety. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to be able to make people understand the nature and extent of this public health threat,” he says. “But not only that—how does something like this happen in the United States? In what we should be thinking of as the most sophisticated country on earth, how could a massive worldwide contamination problem like this not only occur, but originate here in the United States? This film can convey to people in an understandable way that not only is this happening, but how it happens.”

Soon afterward, Jeff Skoll’s Participant came onboard

Known for socially conscious films such as the Academy Award-winning drama Spotlight—which chronicled the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into systemic child sex abuse in the Catholic Church and which featured Ruffalo in an Academy Award-nominated supporting role as journalist Michael Rezendes—the company was an ideal fit for a movie with an important message about environmental justice.

Screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan on board

Screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan, who had previously penned the gripping real-life drama Deepwater Horizon for Participant, was hired to adapt Bilott’s story for the screen.

Carnahan graduated USC with a degree in Political Science, and went to work at Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco, as a researcher for the pro bono defense team of a man convicted of murder and membership in the Irish Republican Army. That was followed by six years at the Advisory Board Company, a Washington D.C. think tank, where he became a National Spokesperson and Senior Director. During this time, Carnahan began to write the screenplay The Kingdom, which became a movie directed by Peter Berg. He then wrote a play that became the drama Lions for Lambs, directed by Robert Redford, and adapted the BBC mini-series State of Play, as well as the Max Brooks’ novel, World War Z. He reunited with director Peter Berg to write Deepwater Horizon, an account of the infamous BP oil disaster. Most recently, Carnahan wrote and directed Mosul, a film about the Nineveh SWAT Team in Iraq. The film was an official selection of the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival.

Once an early draft was complete, Ruffalo sent the script to filmmaker Haynes in the later part of 2017 to get a sense of his interest in directing the project.

Director Todd Haynes joins the team

Although Ruffalo and Haynes had not previously worked together, each was an admirer of the other’s work. Haynes was perhaps uniquely suited to tell the story, having made beautifully realized films that depicted themes of the outsider in Carol and Far from Heaven and environmental contamination in Safe and Poison that contributed to cultural conversation.

Todd Haynes is an acclaimed American independent film director and screenwriter. Born in Los Angeles, Haynes grew up interested in the arts and attended Brown University, where he received his B.A. in arts and semiotics. After college, Haynes moved to New York City, where he made his controversial short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), using Barbie dolls to portray the life and death of singer Karen Carpenter. Haynes made his directorial feature debut with the provocative 1991 film, Poison, which went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, spearheading what would become known as the New Queer Cinema. In 1995, Haynes’s second feature film, Safe, would be voted, by decade’s end, the best film of the ’90s by the Village Voice’s Critic Poll. Haynes’s next film, Velvet Goldmine, an homage to the glam rock era of the early ’70s, premiered in Official Selection at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, where it received a Special Jury Prize. Haynes’s next film, Far from Heaven (2002), inspired by the ’50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, also starring Julianne Moore, earned both critical and mainstream success, receiving four Academy Award nominations, including one for Haynes’ original screenplay. His 2007 film, I’m Not There, imagined the life and work of Bob Dylan through the guise of seven fictional characters, and once again won him critical acclaim, especially for the cross-gender casting of Cate Blanchett, who received the Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actress. In 2011, Haynes directed and co-wrote “Mildred Pierce,” a five-hour miniseries starring Kate Winslet, which garnered 21 Emmy nominations, winning five of them, in addition to three Golden Globe Awards.He next made 2015’s Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith’s seminal novel The Price of Salt, which received much critical acclaim and many accolades, including six Academy Award nominations, five Golden Globe Award nominations and nine BAFTA Award nominations. It has also been voted the #1 LGBT Film of All Time by BFI.Haynes’s recent Wonderstruck, from the book by Brian Selznick (and adapted for the screen by the author), garnered nominations and acclaim across multiple critics associations and film organizations, including a nomination for Haynes for the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Haynes’ inventive and singular telling of two children’s search for connection across time was his fourth collaboration with Julianne Moore.

Indeed, the Academy Award-nominated writer-director says he was instantly hooked by Bilott’s story and excited by the prospect of exploring a new genre.

Dark Waters is a little outside the kinds of films I’m mostly associated with, but it just so happens to be a genre film: the whistleblower film for lack of a better definition, which I’ve always loved,” says Haynes, who cites such landmark films as All the President’s Men and The Insider as particular favorites. 

At the time, Haynes was focused on completing post-production on his soul-stirring film Wonderstruck, but when he was ready to seek out his next project, he knew exactly what it would be.

Hayes turned to his long-time producing partners at Killer Films, Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler, who eagerly signed on.

“This is a story that needs to be told,” Vachon says. “To me, what makes the movie work is that it’s a fantastic whistleblower film. What attracted me is looking at what makes somebody willing to do that, because it tends to upend one’s life in ways that are mostly not good. Most people who go into such a situation recognize that and know that they will be going in the face of a lot of the things that give them stability. The psychology, the drama of that really fascinates me.”

Adds Koffler: “What stood out for me was how well the script digested a huge amount of technical information, from chemical, legal and environmental perspectives, how a case works its way through the legal system on a state and federal level, to the health repercussions involved—there are so many sections to the story. Compressing it into a feature-length digestible form with great drama was a big challenge…but very well done, I have to say.”

Screenwriter Mario Correa who came on board for script revisions

To make sure every detail underpinning the drama of the screenplay was as accurate as it could be, Ruffalo and Haynes, along with screenwriter Mario Correa, who came on board for script revisions, traveled to Cincinnati in May of 2018 to speak with figures from Bilott’s professional life, including Thomas Terp, a partner at the firm who was Bilott’s supervisor, as well as Bilott himself.

Mario Correa came to the United States from Santiago, Chile, as a child and worked for years in politics before becoming a playwright and screenwriter. He holds a B.A. from Georgetown University and a Master’s degree from London School of Economics. His stage comedy Tail! Spin! played an acclaimed run Off-Broadway in 2014 and 2015, his play Commander won the Carol Weinberg Award for Best Play and was named Best Production at the 2015 Baltimore Playwrights Festival, and NPR commissioned Correa’s radio play, Santa for President. Correa also has worked in broadcasting. For two years, he co-hosted Entertainment Weekly’s live, three-hour, daily “News & Notes” program on the magazine’s SiriusXM channel, EW Radio. He co-created and co-hosted WNYC’s “RelationShow,” was a contributor to NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday” and WNYC’s “Soundcheck,” and served as Washington correspondent for Public Radio International’s “Fair Game.” He began his career at age 17 as an aide to U.S. Congresswoman Constance A. Morella.

“It was a real privilege to be able to meet and spend time with Mark Ruffalo—he is really one of the nicest, most down-to-earth, genuine people I’ve ever met,” Bilott says. “He was committed to sitting down and trying to understand what transpired over these 20 years—not just the legal aspect, to move these issues along through the court system, but also what was going on at a personal level. He focused on the personal impact, not just for me, but also for my wife, my family, my partners at the firm.”

Haynes and Correa also traveled to Parkersburg, West Virginia, to meet with the other major figures in the saga, with Bilott along for the road trip acting as their tour guide, and saw first-hand the Washington Works property, an enormous facility 35 times larger than the Pentagon. “It was this massive plant spewing smoke and emissions,” Haynes says. “You feel it penetrate your skin, this fog and haze that you’ve entered. Your vision is sort of filtered and tainted by it. It doesn’t really shake off for quite a while after leaving.”

Although Haynes had made numerous films with characters inspired by real-life people, the level of authenticity required for Dark Waters was something new for the filmmaker, and not something he took lightly. “That was the biggest challenge from the get-go—how to be true to the facts, honor the specificity and uniqueness of these characters and their experiences, but make it accessible to an audience, make it something that an audience can follow and be engrossed by the story,” Haynes says.