'Dark Waters,' 'Harriet' Teams Talk Telling Stories of Real-Life Heroes

Mark Ruffalo in Dark Waters - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Focus Features

The true tales of strong people fighting powerful organizations were just two of the awards hopefuls highlighted at the 2019 Produced By: New York conference.

Focus Features' environmental thriller Dark Waters was just finished Oct. 21, but the movie is being released roughly a month later as the team behind the film about the real-life corporate lawyer who took on DuPont didn't want to wait any longer to tell a timely whistle-blower story.

"There's no time. People need to know the story," said producer Pamela Koffler at the 2019 Produced By: New York conference.

During a short master class devoted to the film, one of eight that took place during Saturday's daylong event, each devoted to an awards hopeful movie, Koffler, fellow producer Christine Vachon and star/producer Mark Ruffalo spoke about bringing to the screen the 2016 New York Times article about how lawyer Robert Bilott, whom Ruffalo plays in the film, became DuPont's "worst nightmare." 

Ruffalo, who's long been an outspoken activist, read the article and went after the project, ending up in a bidding war with production company Participant before they suggested joining forces after the actor had worked with Participant on Spotlight.

The actor reached out to the real-life Bilott, who's been involved throughout the filmmaking process, to better understand his story.

"I felt like there was something missing from the original story at [Bilott's law firm] Taft. Some sort of conflict that was happening that really wasn't in the article," Ruffalo said, adding that he asked Bilott, "Are you financially sound that you could go to war with Taft if you have to?"

At that his wife jumped in and said, "We'll tell you everything if you get the rights," Ruffalo recalled. "And he did."

When it came time to find a director, Ruffalo said he wanted someone who was "a little bit off-center" and who could "bring something new to the genre," ultimately thinking of Todd Haynes.

"His characters have something similar. There's like this alienation within this kind of oppressive system and this kind of unspoken depth that each of them has that's maybe not so much on the surface but is so deeply lived in them."

While the whistle-blower concept is entrenched in the national consciousness at the moment due to the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, Ruffalo and his fellow producers declined to take the bait when asked about lessons from the film that could be applied to "whistle-blowers on the national stage."

But, Ruffalo argued, individual activists can make a difference.

"What's remarkable about Rob [Bilott] is he's not your typical hero. He's a very modest guy and we really went for that," Ruffalo said. "He's not a hero because we want to be him, he's a hero because we don't."

Another story of an American hero, one who's better known but perhaps not fully understood, is Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet, which was the subject of another master class. (Incidentally, Harriet is also being released by Focus.)

Producer Debra Martin Chase said when she first encountered the project, reading a script by co-writer Greg Howard that he said was "languishing at Disney," her first reaction was, "This is going to be this boring slave movie."

"I read it and I was like, 'Oh my God, she is a historical action heroine,'" Chase said. While Chase and Co. wanted star Cynthia Erivo to play Harriet after seeing her in The Color Purple, the producer said the film didn't have a finished script until writer-director Kasi Lemmons came on board.

When Lemmons was brought on to revise the script and direct, she did intensive historical research and wanted to capture "the her of her and the specific Harriet-ness and the woman…her real motivations and her passion and her love."

Lemmons said she spent seven months just outlining and researching after she read "every book" about Tubman and the Underground Railroad, "slave narratives about the period and just books about the period in general."

As for her own preparation, Erivo says she trained to capture Tubman's physicality and engaged more fully with her own faith to understand Tubman's devotion. And she wanted to do her own stunts, doing all but one, to "take away anything that would remove me from [Tubman], any veil that felt like it was in the way."

The movie was filmed in Virginia, after filmmakers scouted that state, Georgia and New York.

"Virginia made a huge play for us," Lemmons said.

Chase added, "They gave us great tax incentives. The governor gave us money out of his discretionary fund."

Since Tubman's plantation was in Maryland, the topography was similar, Chase said.

During another master class devoted to Sony's Little Women, director Greta Gerwig, who also wrote the latest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's beloved novel, spoke about why she wanted her film to play on the big screen.

"I wanted it to feel like it was taking up a lot of space in a way, to be perfectly honest, that we give boys' stories," Gerwig said. "If it was a male story, I don't think we'd question it. I think we'd allow it to spread out."

Ford v Ferrari director-producer James Mangold, meanwhile, said he connected with the Fox story about race-car drivers commissioned by Ford to compete with Ferrari because of the film's art versus commerce theme.

"I live it — I have very expensive ideas and I bring them to corporate groups and say, 'Please pay for these ideas.' And they say, 'Why? Why should we trust that you're going to pull this off.' If I succeed at pulling it off, I'm a hero, but if I fail, the drivers may die, I just disappear. I don't get to go to the office anymore," Mangold said, adding he feels like the film is ultimately about "the friendships you make.… We struggle through late nights and oppressively hot days and impossible hours and sleeplessness making these movies and you never forget those crazy days."

He said he took it as a challenge to understand the attraction of racing, which he admitted didn't interest him.

"The title is a little deceptive perhaps intentionally so, in the sense of promising a corporate war," Mangold said, later adding. "It wasn't made with corporate cooperation.… They were all terrified of what we were going to do.… No one's a hero.… The companies have flaws, the characters have flaws. I don't think this is some kind of 'rah, rah, go Ford' movie if you see it. You might, from some of the Disney marketing, feel it is, but the film is not that."

Marriage Story writer/director/producer Noah Baumbach outlined his inspirations for the Netflix film, including Ernst Lubitsch, Persona, The Red Shoes and Mike Nichols.

"It had all these genres embedded in the story. They would reveal themselves in different scenes," Baumbach said of Marriage Story. "Sometimes scenes could have more thriller aspects to them. Sometimes it was screwball comedy."

He didn't specifically look at fellow divorce film Kramer v. Kramer and Scenes From a Marriage, he said, because "they're just inside me."

And while Honey Boy helped Shia LaBeouf understand some of his psychological issues, his troubled past was a problem with respect to financing for the indie film acquired by Amazon out of Sundance, producer Daniela Taplin Lundberg said during the Honey Boy masterclass.

"It was a script not many people wanted to finance because of Shia's history," she said. "The real question was Shia and whether he was going to be able to show up for work. I said to [the director and producers,] 'I have to sit with everyone and we have to sit in a room and look each other in the eye, and if I believe that Shia's going to show up, I'm going to do this and we're going to be shooting in three months and I'm going to commit to finding the money.…' He said, 'I promise you I'm going to show up for this. If you make this movie, it's going to save my life.'"

There were additional master classes devoted to documentaries American Factory and One Child Nation.