'Dark Waters' Team on Understanding People at Heart of Environmental Battle

The writer, director and stars of the Mark Ruffalo-led Focus film talk to The Hollywood Reporter about transforming a complicated true story of a corporate attorney taking on DuPont into a character-driven thriller and how they prepared to play the real individuals depicted in the movie.

When Dark Waters writer Mario Correa first read the New York Times magazine article on which the environmental thriller is based, about a crusading lawyer who became DuPont's "worst nightmare," he says his "heart sank."

The lengthy story by Nathaniel Rich features detailed descriptions of chemicals and how they affect living things and the environment, including the results of laboratory studies and EPA reports.

"I was such a terrible student in chemistry. I think I barely passed chemistry in high school and I thought, 'Oh my God, how am I going to possibly be able to put this into something understandable?,'" Correa told The Hollywood Reporter at Dark Waters' New York premiere earlier this month. "But then in talking to [the lawyer who took on DuPont] Rob Bilott, when we got together, he told me that chemistry was his worst subject in high school, and I thought, 'Wow this man has literally devoted his life to this, and it doesn't require technical knowledge, it just requires interest and a passion for it.' So I stepped back and I thought, 'Let's look at the basics. How can I make this story about chemicals a story about people?'"

He added, "There is one chemical formula that comes up and I thought to myself, 'We just need to see that written down. So I thought to myself, 'Rob needs to be sitting in that restaurant, sitting across from this scientific expert, and the scientific expert has to say, 'It's a chain of carbons,' and he has to take a pen out of his pocket and put a napkin in front of him and start doing 'c-c-c-c-c' to show us that chain.' And once we see that we're like, 'Oh, we get it.' I realized that's all the science that we really needed. Everything else is about the people."

In order to better understand the people in the story, Correa, who co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew Michael Carnahan, listened to tapes Rich made of individuals in the community talking about how they got sick.

"I listened to his tapes to hear the voices of those people describe the stories that eventually fed into the article," Correa said. "When you hear the voices of those people telling Nathaniel how it is they got sick and how sick they became.... In one case, this woman talks about going into a lake and swimming in it with her teenage friends and finding a two-headed frog in that lake or body of water and they just kind of laughed at it, thinking, 'This is weird' and only many years later did they realize that the reason why she had seen that was because of the chemical pollution in that water and it just struck me as such a visceral image and I knew that that had to be the opening of the film. Nathaniel also mentions those two-headed frogs in his article, so the combination of his article and listening to those voices, really were all influential."

Director Todd Haynes also struggled with how to capture the character story beyond the science.

"That was the challenge: How to describe a really complicated progression. First, a lawyer ill-prepared for taking on something like this, his own resistances to it, to a point of discovery and investigation and ultimately figuring out a legal battle to take on the powers that be and to do it with such fortitude and stubborn persistence and yet still — and all great whistle-blower movies share this — the pain that that person undergoes under the pressure, and the isolation and the paranoia that ultimately is induced by threats and the way this is true for the Wilbur Tennant character that Bill Camp plays, how he becomes ostracized from his community, and Rob from his legal community, that's the part that I feel is the human component that we can all relate to that sort of shows how human beings figure out ways of standing up. And it's not a perfect process and there's not a slam dunk silver bullet resolution. That's really the complexity of real life," Haynes told THR.

Ruffalo, who produced and stars as Bilott in the film, said audiences understanding a complicated story was "always a concern," but he was reassured by the response to another film he worked on with Dark Waters production company Participant Media, Spotlight, where the actor and Participant "tackled similarly intricate information."

"I knew that, at the end of the day, you really have to care about the people," Ruffalo told THR at the Dark Waters premiere. "And you have to be invested in their journey, and this is just a classic David and Goliath setup. It's something we all love, those stories, and it's a whistle-blower story and it's an investigation and has a little bit of thriller in it, so it's in a vernacular that we all understand and that works. For me, I know for Todd and Mario and Matthew Michael Carnahan, we really wanted to make sure that we were on a journey with people that we cared about. And the rest takes care of itself."

Haynes' film follows Bilott as he sues DuPont and investigates how people were exposed to dangerous amounts of a synthetic chemical, PFOA, linked to six diseases including types of cancer.

For Ruffalo, part of the story was also about how Bilott's firm, Taft Stettinius & Hollister, dealt with him going after a company in the industry they regularly defended, previously saying that he felt like there was more of a conflict than was conveyed by the Times article.

"I sensed that to swim upstream in that kind of culture must've been pretty difficult, and there was probably a lot of conflicts in there that I just felt was essential for the storytelling and the wholeness of the story because what makes this movie different than a lot of other movies like this is he's a corporate defense attorney," Ruffalo said. "The DuPont people were people that he worked with and trusted, and he really believed in self-regulation. He really believed that corporations would do the right thing if given the circumstance to do it. This story really challenged that and it was everything he'd been working toward, and he sort of had to leave all of that behind in order to do this more righteous thing."

Tim Robbins, who played Bilott's supervisor at Taft, Tom Terp, said he was encouraged by Terp's willingness to allow Bilott to fight for what's right.

"That Tom allowed [this] to happen at Taft law is a testament to his character," said Robbins, who Skyped with Terp and asked him and other lawyers questions while Dark Waters filmed at the same Taft Cincinnati office where Bilott is based. "We tend to think about things in very stark terms sometimes and good and bad, and when someone in that culture can go against his culture because something is right, because something is morally right, and follow that, and have that kind of compass, I find it inspiring. And the reason I wanted to play the part was because I believe that through storytelling we can inspire others who might be in similar positions to take those kinds of stands. Is it going to be best for your economic bottom line, perhaps not, but it's best for all of us. It's best for our health. It's best for our souls to do the right thing and make sure that companies act responsibly."

Bilott has been intimately involved in the creation and promotion of the film, regularly making himself available to Haynes, Ruffalo and other castmembers as well as attending the premiere and joining Ruffalo for interviews about the project.

As for why he was such a big part of the film, Bilott said, "I've worked with this family, the Tennant family, and that community for 20 years and I really wanted to make sure that things were done to portray them so people can see what they really went through and to make it as accurate and as representative of what really happened as possible. These folks did a fantastic job in that regard, and Todd Haynes, in particular, is so focused on the details and Mark Ruffalo, everyone involved, did a fantastic job in really doing it the right way and making sure the story came out the right way."

Camp and Bill Pullman both cite Bilott as helping them prepare to play their real-life characters, farmer Tennant and personal injury lawyer Harry Dietzler, respectively.

While Tennant is no longer living, Camp spoke to his family members, watched video of him and spoke to Bilott, who knew Tennant as the family friend who first got him involved with the case.

"I got to spend an afternoon, actually, with his brother and his sister-in-law and got to sort of ask them questions obliquely or directly even about him and they were more than happy to [talk]. They would just start and go off on these stories about him, but it was also very helpful. So I got a little bit of a firsthand knowledge of him through his brother and his family, just by hearing the stories about him. And then I got to watch some video because there's video of him and I talked a little with Rob Bilott, who obviously knew him in that context. But it's always, when playing a real person who existed or does exist, still there's a bit of, you know, I couldn't be Wilbur 100 percent. So there's a little bit of leeway I have to give myself, too. But I had a good sense with where to go with choices just because of how the story developed."

Beyond doing "all the research I could get my hands on" about Tennant and working on his dialect, Camp said he was already familiar with farm life from his time on his sister's dairy farm in Vermont, which he visits a few times a year and spent extra time there in the fall and summer prior to filming.

Pullman spoke to his real-life counterpart, who got involved in Bilott's drawn-out legal fight.

"It was great to play a guy who was willing to share his secrets and what went on and his perspective on the story, so I did some of that," he told THR. "There's a Southern accent involved, which is a curious one for Harry because it's a little bit like Baltimore and a little bit Southern, so it's a good one. But what I think was really great was to have Rob as really the center of the story on set all the time, pretty much all of the time and then people like Harry who are willing to weigh in."

Bilott is hopeful that the film will bring the public health issue he uncovered to a wider audience.

"For the last 20 years, I've been trying everything I can to try to get information to the public, to the regulators to the EPA, so people understand what kind of public health [issue] we're dealing with. We're talking about something that's popping up in drinking water all over the world. It's in everybody's blood," he told THR. "Most people know about Flint, Michigan, one water supply, most people haven't heard of this and don't really understand the scope of what we're talking about. I'm just really hopeful that with this movie coming out that finally people will understand what's really going on and can finally make some change." 

Dark Waters is currently playing in select theaters, expanding Nov. 29 ahead of a wide release Dec. 6.