All photos by Julie Cunnah
TODD HAYNES: Thank you so much. It’s great to be at Metrograph, always.
ALIZA MA: And congratulations on an astonishing film. To begin, I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit of background about how the screenplay of Dark Waters first crossed your desk.
TH: It came from Mark [Ruffalo], this was a gift from Mark. Mark got behind it very quickly after the New York Times exposé came out by Nathaniel Rich, in 2016. By 2017, there was a script that had been put together with Mark, and Participant Media, and the first writer. And Mark sent me the script, he thought of me for this project, which was pretty cool and unexpected, you know? I’ve been an admirer of his acting and his work on film, and of course his activism, and his person, from afar, and everything about Mark that we all project onto him is true. He’s just such an incredibly lovely, deep, warm guy. So I was like, ‘Wow, this is an incredible story.’ I felt the script needed some work. And he did, too. I had some other projects I was developing I had to get in place, and then a little time opened up. So I brought a writer on, Mario Correa. Mario and I went with Mark to Cincinnati and met with Rob [Bilott] a lot.
It was sort of like we were starting fresh with research. We met all of the people involved in this remarkable story. When Mark left, Mario and I were left with Rob, and he took us to Parkersburg, West Virginia. We met Jim Tennant, who is Wilbur Tennant’s miraculously surviving brother. We met Larry Winter, his West Virginia counsel, we met Dr. David Brooks who had set up the medical monitoring thing, and all of the people at Taft Law in Cincinnati. And it sort of all started fresh, and Mario produced a script within a couple of months—this was all moving at a speed that I’ve never encountered in my life, and especially with studios too, you know?
So we were literally in pre-production by fall of 2018, shooting in Cincinnati, in many of the real places—the Taft law offices; and the hall of mirrors at the Netherland Plaza Hilton in downtown Cincinnati where they had the big banquet scene; the Queen City Club with all the African American waiters pouring wine for all the white, white shoe lawyer guys, which was all true. It was just an incredible immersion into this very recent, true, and ongoing story.
"there is an emotional and psychic undertow that sets in, once you dare to challenge systems of power, you’re going to feel their incredibly harsh pushback. And it’s going to destabilize you, and alienate you, and isolate you. Rob was so poignant about that."
AM: Can we talk about the archetype of the whistleblower for a minute? I feel like it’s unbelievable, but every single day, there’s not a day that goes by without us hearing about the whistleblower in the daily news, whether it’s the Boeing disasters or the impeachment psychodrama, and this ongoing story... But it’s also an archetype that’s wrought a pretty prolific film genre as well. And you’ve spoken about your love for the film’s like Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976). What was your relationship with the whistleblower film before the making of Dark Waters?
TH: It’s so interesting. I’ve had this fairly constant ongoing preoccupation with this genre of movie, and I can watch All the President’s Men on a weekly basis and learn something about it.
AM: Well, that is the strange, dramatic irony that’s baked into this genre. You pretty much know what’s going to happen. And 100% it is not going to be good.
TH: Yes, but you’re watching something else. You’re watching a process unfold, and you’re watching the process of a person or people first discovering something isn’t quite right with the world. And then they’re in the dark. And whether it’s Karen Silkwood at the plutonium plant in Silkwood (1983) or it’s Jeffery Wigand in The Insider (1999). He, of course, comes as a locked vessel into the story from the beginning, and it’s about prying open that vessel and seeing what’s inside. But very often, it’s really from the start that these stories take place, and that was true for this story—with a certain share of resistance, to getting into this story that might start to destabilize the way we are changed, the way we see things. But then you watch this process unfold, you watch the discovery and the forming of the story, the backstory, and then you watch what the individual in question does about it. And invariably, there is an emotional and psychic undertow that sets in, once you dare to challenge systems of power, you’re going to feel their incredibly harsh pushback. And it’s going to destabilize you, and alienate you, and isolate you. And Rob was so poignant about that, right away, with Mario and I—how lonely, how painful, how scary this was. When the New York Times article came out, he literally said, “At least they can’t kill me now.” And he really did think his car was going to blow up after he deposed the CEO of DuPont. I mean, these have become tropes within the genre, but they are all rooted in truth and reality, or whatever.
But I love that sort of cool distance that we assume in, that’s what I tried to bring to this movie, and I love it in the Gordon Willis-filmed examples of the ‘Paranoia Trilogy’ in the ‘70s. And that you so often think about individuals isolated in spaces, corporate or industrial or residential. Or even in—I was thinking about people asking me about my second feature Safe (1995), which has a theme of chemicals but takes a very different approach. But I was thinking, yeah, again, it’s the subject in big, empty interior spaces, almost lost and losing oneself in them, and feeling the pressure of the system imposed in that sense of space and distance.
AM: Back to the story of Dark Waters, I’m old enough to remember the Barbara Walters thing, what, 20/20, where they talking about Teflon flu for the first time, and after my mom, you know, made me dinner with our Teflon pans. But reading the New York Times piece, what was staggering was learning about the full scale of how everything had unfolded, that this company has such a behemoth footprint of 35 times the size of the Pentagon, you know?
TH: And that’s just the Washington works plant in Parkersburg.
AM: Yeah. It’s so deeply embedded in everybody’s social lives. And then all this stuff is in our blood. Like in the article, there’s one line that’s like, “Everywhere scientists have looked for PFOA, it’s been there.” How did filming in these actual locations change your point of view as a filmmaker, and as a human?
TH: I mean, a thing that I loved about this story is how it crosses such a sort of delicate spectrum of class distinctions, and you even feel those quite acutely just within the Taft world alone where Rob sits in relationship to Tom Terp, in relationship to Kim Burke, his colleague, whose father was a steel worker, and the status of pedigree among lawyers, and Rob not having a fancy law school degree. In all the years that this story unfolded, Tom Terp has never once invited Rob Bilott out for a drink. I’m just like, Wow, are you serious? It’s incredible to me. I mean, one has to commend [Terp]—he shifted the direction of this firm, a corporate law firm and a defense firm, and took the risk of its reputation. And he allowed this to continue for so many years, and I’m sure many of the partners—and he became managing partner then, around the time of the recession, which was particularly hard on this culture.
But really, it was about how that world became so dependent on, and in fact the entire story started with working-class people and farmers in Parkersburg, and how the water systems link all of us. And it begins in the neighboring, downstream areas of Parkersburg, West Virginia. But it spreads through the six water districts that became the 70,000 members of the class action lawsuit that is the main second half of the film. And then it spreads through the entire country, and then it spreads through the entire world; we’re linked that way. None of us elected to have our bloodstreams compromised by the ease of non-stick cookware. We’re invaded without our permission, in ways that we are by other systemic things like, I don’t know, capitalism, patriarchy. So there’s a ubiquity to this chemical that you can extrapolate from and feel. And of course, there’s incredible success in this story, and victory, but it’s heartbreaking for the state of the world. And the story does not have a silver bullet ending. And you feel the weight of it all, and the pain of it all, in the end. And I found that pain to be important in this story. And yeah, just that’s really the truth that we have to confront.
AM: Yeah, this toxic sludge runoff that’s in our blood, poisoning us slowly, as a result of unfettered capitalism and greed. I mean, that’s a pretty good visual metaphor for everything that’s wrong with our world, right?
I just want to drill into your artistic process a little bit. You’re known for your very meticulous preparation work before and during shooting—you have your image books, which is sort of a compilation of inspirations taken from life and other forms of art. When you were here, talking about Carol with us, you and Ed Lachman described the influence that Ruth Orkin and Saul Leiter had on the look of the film. I wonder what it was like putting that process together for a film like this, that was hewn from a real-life story?
TH: It was the same. it was still looking at film precedents and film and inspirations from film and doing frame grabs. It was still collecting photography of Stephen Shore, and Gordon Parks, and a whole range of American cinematographers. And painting—Richter, and Bechtle, I love his photorealist paintings. But combined with a lot of the photography I myself took on that very first trip, and with us finding in the Taft law offices alone this kind of visual interplay of shadow and light, of corridors that were divided up, at least 45-degree angles, sort of early ‘90s architecture, probably a 1980s building that had no 90-degree angles that was all, like, askew.
We shot in the Taft law offices, and we found a gutted floor 10 floors above the actual floor that we could then build Rob’s office in as a set. Rob was working in the same building, but we could have the same cityscape views of downtown Cincinnati that were in the actual office. So it was kind of seamless. We also built the big conference room, and those triangular rooms, that conference room was a triangle that had those glass partitions with the frosted glass stripes that we shot through—all this stuff came from the actual architecture of the place. I worked with a new designer I hadn’t worked with before, the extraordinary Hannah Beachler. She, Ed, and I all agreed that were this not the Taft law offices, we still would have wanted to shoot in this place—it just yielded so much visual specificity and claustrophobia. And then strange, surprising views through to the Ohio River, through architectural sort of divides that Ed blocked and that kept interrupting your views; it sort of was a metaphor for searching and discovering.
AM: Can you talk about the decision to actually incorporate [the real-life] Bilott, and his wife, and Bucky Bailey into the film?
TH: Oh, yeah. Well, there’s a documentary that came out the beginning of 2018 called The Devil We Know that is sort of this story about DuPont and Teflon, but focusing more on Bucky and his mother, Susan Bailey. This guy is just an amazing presence, and it’s hard to find words to describe him because he’s been through so much. But, you’ll see if you see the movie, the kind of love and unconditional love that he was raised with, as a child who had 20 surgeries on his face, and was so ashamed to go out in public as a kid; his father was a pastor who was just like, “Bucky, you are beautiful, you’re so beautiful,” you know? And his mom was so devoted to him—and she worked in the Teflon line, and was pulled out and then put back right after she gave birth to Bucky Bailey... And birth defects was not even one of the six illnesses that were found as a link to the exposure to PFOA. Seven years is a long time to wait for people who are sick— and that was because of so much medical data that was accumulated. But there may have been even more illnesses and links found had it been even longer, you know?
Thank you guys so much.