“We all use fossil fuels and petroleum. Even if we drive a hybrid, we use fossil fuels. Yet we know very little about how we get our fuels. This movie is a chance to bring audiences inside these gigantic rigs that are so technologically amazing, to show the people working on them who are so highly skilled and dedicated, and to reveal that even though we never see these men and women, or their sacrifices, they really are closely connected to our lives.”
On April 20th, 2010, one of the world’s largest man-made disasters occurred on the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. Now filmmaker Peter Berg brings that story to the big screen with Deepwater Horizon, a gripping glimpse into the unseen world behind the global disaster that took the lives of 11 workers, sharing an untold story of men & women, real life heroes, who faced extraordinary consequences with extreme bravery.
The screenplay was written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, based upon an article by David Barstow, David Rohde, and Stephanie Saul published in The New York Times.
The ultra deep-water drilling rig off the Louisiana coast — the Deepwater Horizon – riveted the world as it experienced a devastating blowout, fire and nearly unstoppable ocean floor oil leak. For 87 days millions watched, hearts in mouths, as more than 50,000 barrels of oil a day gushed from the sea floor into the Gulf of Mexico. It would become the largest accidental ocean oil spill in human history. A fragile marine system hung in the balance, livelihoods were left in limbo, and red flags were raised about the true costs and dangers of drilling for oil in deep water conditions.
Deepwater Horizon follows a vital story that many have not seen: the story of the 126 crew members working aboard the Deepwater Horizon that day, caught in the most harrowing circumstances imaginable. They were skilled working men and women putting in a grueling shift in the hopes of getting back soon to families and lives ashore. In an instant, they were faced with their darkest hour, pushed to summon the courage to battle an unstoppable inferno blaze in the middle of the ocean, and when all seemed lost, to save one another.
Mark Wahlberg once again collaborates with Berg — the pair previously explored a Navy SEAL team mission gone wrong in Lone Survivor, and the duo is set to release Patriot’s Day, the story inside the dramatic events leading up to and after the Boston Marathon bombing later this year.
in Deepwater Horizon, Wahlberg takes on the role of real-life Transocean chief electronics technician Mike Williams, a devoted family man who was overseeing the rig’s computers and electrical systems on April 20th, when everything he imagined could go wrong … did.
The real Mike Williams, who consulted on the film, says the commitment of Wahlberg and the filmmakers to the reality of what he went through was gratifying: “The cast and crew captured all the elements of what happened that were important to me, other survivors, and the widows of the deceased. My biggest goal and ultimate drive that made me want to be part of this project is that we honor these eleven men and what they did every day.
For Berg, the story’s themes were vivid and a chance to shed light on an event most often talked about in terms of the environmental, rather than human, impact compelled him, “I’m drawn to tales of human courage and of the human spirit trying to triumph over real adversity — and those elements are the heart of this story,” says Berg. “The men and women aboard the Deepwater Horizon were extremely intelligent and capable and they tried everything they could to prevent the blowout. It’s important to remember that 11 people lost their lives on the rig, and more were injured. In the middle of all the deserved attention for the oil spill, that heroism has almost been lost. This film is a chance to tell that story.”
Meeting with the survivors and the families of those lost on the Deepwater Horizon struck Berg with a deep mix of loss, humility and awe, all of which he wanted to infuse into the production. “It was an incredible experience to get to meet these people and hear their stories and see the power of their spirits and, how people find the strength and the resiliency to move on. As an artist and a person, I find that to be very inspirational and life-affirming.”
To dig into the lives and hearts of the men and women for whom the Deepwater Horizon was at once home, workplace and a perilous trap after the blowout would require intensive research. The events were complicated, contested at times, and involved highly specialized machinery and jargon. All of that became background in the screenplay by Matthew Carnahan and Matthew Sand, which instead put the life-and-death experiences and in-the-moment emotions of the crewmembers front and center.
The foundation for the screenplay was a seminal New York Times article: “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours,” written by David Barstow, David Rohde and Stephanie Saul, which was in turn the result of probing interviews with 21 survivors, as well as sworn testimony and written statements from others, creating the most detailed insiders’ account of what they saw happening, second-by-second, on the rig.
Sand recalls reading the article on the edge of his seat, but he wasn’t sure at first if he saw the heart and soul of the kind of movie he aspires to in it. Then he saw an interview with Mike Williams.“Mike was talking about the moment on the rig when he saw the rescue boats were only half full and he made the decision to go back into extreme danger to help his brothers and sisters back to safety,” Sand remembers. “That was a profoundly cinematic moment right out of real life. I love movies about heroes who meet big moments with deep courage. I met Mike and saw he was the real deal. Then I knew we had a movie.”
Carnahan then went further, conducting and distilling his own interviews, focusing in on the emotions, connects and love of life that drive a person to find the heights of skill, bravery and compassion in the midst of disaster. The result became a moving exploration of how ordinary people commit extraordinary acts when it matters most.
When that tension meets the power of geological forces, the results are shocking. Carnahan says he also felt an especially fierce responsibility to be true to what the men and women on the Deepwater Horizon went through that night. ”I tried to do the very best I could to honor the fact that 11 people lost their lives that night. I’ve never worked on a movie before with that kind of reality,” notes the screenwriter. “The people who lost their lives were always omnipresent in my mind while I was writing.”
Sand was enthralled by what Carnahan brought to the script, and even more thrilled when Peter Berg came aboard. Sand concludes. “In a way this movie is the last of a classic breed – a story of courage with the tremendous scope of the most exciting adventure thriller.”
What was the Deepwater Horizon?
An insatiable demand for fuel has brought oil companies into ocean depths where humans have never before dared to labor, bolstered by new high-tech equipment capable of plunging thousands of feet below sea level, operating where humans can’t go, amid shifting sands and hazardous pockets of explosive gas. It’s a brave new world of exploration for the oil industry, but on April 20, 2010, the dangers of that world became devastatingly clear.
On that day, the Deepwater Horizon, an ultra-deep-water, advanced oil rig owned by the Swiss company Transocean and leased by British Petroleum was drilling deep in a well named Macondo about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. Suddenly, the crew faced the greatest fear of all ocean rig workers: a ferocious blowout, caused by pockets of unstable methane shooting up the pipes with deadly force. Though equipped with a blowout preventer that included an Emergency Disconnect System (EDS), both failed to contain the blowout. The initial blowout killed 11 men who were never found, critically injured others and sparked a bold evacuation of men and women trapped amid roiling mud and fire. After two days of searing flames, the remains of the Deepwater Horizon sank 5000 feet to the ocean floor, leaving the well gushing beyond control, ultimately releasing, according to government estimates, 4.9 million barrels of oil.
Since then, the words Deepwater Horizon have become synonymous with the words “largest marine oil spill in history.” But prior to that, the Deepwater Horizon was seen as a technological marvel. An offshore oil rig is essentially a stationary cruise ship – and the Deepwater Horizon was among the most sophisticated in the fleet. Built in South Korea, the rig featured a deck the size of a football field, a 25-story tall derrick and below-deck living quarters for 146 people, including a gym and movie theater. The mechanical innards of the Deepwater Horizon utilized space-age technology, spanning from electronic drilling monitors to computerized modeling systems and automated shut-off defenses.
But wondrous as the rig was, it was also, at the time of the explosion, 6 weeks behind schedule, and costing a half million dollars a day – pushing management to complete the well as fast as possible. The full consequences of the Deepwater Horizon blowout are still being assessed. After several failed containment attempts, on September 21, 2010, the well was finally declared dead. Today, court cases are ongoing, coastal businesses are recovering and environmentalists are studying damage to marine life. But for the 11 families who lost their loved ones, and the workers who faced mortal danger, the consequences are felt every single day.
Peter Berg takes the helmIt was clear from the start that Deepwater Horizon needed to have a single visionary leader able to commandeer a massive, multi-layered production full of intricate moving parts and visual designs – but one who also could get to the story’s beating heart. It was equally clear that person was Peter Berg.
Berg explains what drives his very distinctive style of filmmaking: “I’m a fan of deeply experiential films. I aspire to allowing audiences to feel they are not just sitting in a theatre but going through these events themselves. I want them to be immersed in both the action and emotions. When the ride is over, I want people to feel like they’ve really been somewhere that had an impact. I don’t want my films to be a spectator sport. I want them to be experienced on a personal level.”
Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura calls out Berg’s connection with actors as key but also says the director pushed himself to a new level. “I call Pete the invisible actor, it’s almost as if he’s acting in the scene as he watches it transpire,” he explains.
“Pete has tremendous confidence in terms of getting performances – and he knows instantly when he’s got what he wants and he can move very quickly because he trusts in that. He’s also skilled with energy and pace and that was important because the film had to be authentically terrifying and tragic – yet also be a dynamic and compelling entertainment. Pete brings a very distinctive energy and style to this film.”
Producer Mark Vahradian says that Berg’s skill with technology and action was a big draw; but the biggest draw of all was his ability to tell moving stories about unsung heroes.
“We all felt that if we got the fire and explosions right, yet somehow failed to convey the hearts of these men who died, and the men who survived and helped each other to survive, then it would not have been worth making the movie,” says Vahradian.
“There are not many directors who can combine spectacle and human drama the way Pete can. There are also not a lot of people able to take on the physical challenges of making a movie like this – shooting in the heat, at night, working with huge, complex sets. He was able to make it all happen and also bring the audience in to feel a part of it. He shows not just the mechanics of what happened, but also the humanity of the workers and the world of this kind of work.”
When real-life survivor Mike Williams – whom Wahlberg portrays in the film – came aboard as a consultant it was a litmus test. Williams admits he had his doubts that a movie could do any justice to what he saw and heard that night. But he was soon exhilarated by Berg’s human-centered approach and interest in immersing audiences in the rarely seen lives of oil rig workers before the blowout ever occurs.
“Once Pete told me ‘this is a story about survivors,’ I agreed to come on board. The oil field is not very well understood by outsiders,” Williams points out. “It’s a very close-knit community, and the things we do out there are more dangerous than we’d like to let on. It’s a dangerous environment no matter what steps we take to mitigate the danger. This is a great opportunity to show the world what these men and women do out there.”
Berg was immediately intrigued by Mike Williams whose real life suddenly became the stuff of cinematic heroics. “What I found so interesting about Mike Williams is that he was a maintenance supervisor – a fix-it guy working with all these big-brained MIT engineer types, yet he was a very streetsmart capable guy who ultimately became the last one off that rig. He was an everyday, blue-collar guy who found himself in the middle of the most terrifying and extraordinary experience,” says the director.
Berg summarizes: “We all use fossil fuels and petroleum. Even if we drive a hybrid, we use fossil fuels. Yet we know very little about how we get our fuels. This movie is a chance to bring audiences inside these gigantic rigs that are so technologically amazing, to show the people working on them who are so highly skilled and dedicated, and to reveal that even though we never see these men and women, or their sacrifices, they really are closely connected to our lives.”