Drama DARK WATERS is not the type of movie audiences would typically associate with filmmaker Todd Haynes. He has directed several movies about famous musicians, including VELVET GOLDMINE and I'M NOT THERE, as well as multiple music videos. But when producer and star Mark Ruffalo approached him about the project — with the same media company behind the Oscar®-winning SPOTLIGHT — Haynes was in.
"The story reminded me of movies like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and THE PARALLAX VIEW, and you know, SILKWOOD and THE INSIDER — the more brooding, existential variety of the whistleblower film that has a real sense of pain and something troubling about them, even as you watch people taking courageous stands against corruption," Haynes told us in a one-on-one interview.
DARK WATERS is based on a shocking true story of greed and deceit by mega corporation DuPont. Over the course of 20 years, attorney Robert Bilott (Ruffalo) fights for justice on behalf of a rural community after he uncovers evidence that DuPont has knowingly been exposing people to toxic chemicals in their drinking water.
"I think Mark [Ruffalo] and I both felt that artistic anxiety about wanting to protect the quality and the depth and the complexity of the film that we were going to make," Haynes said. So, they went to Parkersburg, West Virginia, where the film is set, and Cincinnati, Ohio, where the real Bilott is based, and they did their own research. Within two months, writer Mario Correa finished the script, and they started to shoot.
The ongoing, practical challenge the team faced was how to tell the story and keep the audience engaged, but also informed. "There’s an element of tedium and there’s a looming sense of futility in these kinds of movies, even in movies that you know how they turn out," Haynes said. Those aspects keep the tension high throughout the entirety of DARK WATERS, and because the story is still unfolding in present day, we don't get to exhale when the underdog wins.
"You're in the dark with Rob," Haynes said. "And he's resistant to what this sounds like or what Wilbur Tennant, the farmer, is telling him. And then, he just starts following one step after the next, and it starts to grow and the story starts to take hold."
Collaborating with the real Robert Bilott was crucial for Haynes to honestly and accurately create DARK WATERS.
"Rob is a reticent figure," Haynes said. "And he’s emotionally guarded. He’s not demonstrative, and he’s cautious. I chose, with my creative team, to maintain a kind of observant distance... I felt that there would be an emotional suspense, that you're waiting for moments of realization and rage — and they come, but you have to wait for them."
You don't have to wait long to see DARK WATERS. Todd Haynes' drama expands to theatres nationwide on December 6.