In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. It was the largest accidental marine spill in recorded history, killing 11 workers and dumping 5 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of nearly 3 months. From Texas to Florida, the coastal region was deeply affected, putting many involved in the shrimp, oyster and boating industries out of work.
Soon after the incident occurred, acclaimed filmmaker—and Alabama native—Margaret Brown decided to make her next documentary. In The Great Invisible, now in limited release, she considers the consequences of the massive spill, the lives affected and the lack of action that’s been taken. She stresses, “Nothing has changed.” The film is an undeniable call to action, a heartfelt exploration of the South and the oil industry in America.
Paste had a chance to chat with Brown about her four-year journey with the project, which won this year’s SXSW Grand Jury Prize. She went into detail about her time spent with those who actually worked on the Deepwater and how they’ve coped with the traumatic aftermath. She discussed her thoughts on what BP was really spending billions of dollars on and why only a third of the oil was cleaned up from the spill site. She also revealed the challenges of getting such a controversial documentary made, delving into a web that encompasses greed and compassion, government and community.
Paste: What made you make this film? What was the launching pad?
Margaret Brown: The launching pad was really my dad, who sent me these pictures of the [floating oil containment] orange boom which was the preventive measure of the fire department. There were pictures of workers around our house. I’m from Mobile, Ala. It felt super personal. It was all that was on everyone’s mind. I felt this sort of powerlessness in the face of it, this sense of impending doom in the culture.
Paste: How did you raise money to actually make the film? Because it’s a touchy subject, did you approach your pitch differently?
Brown: It happened so fast. I was in South America; my dad sends me these pictures. I was going to New York for the Peabody Awards [Brown won for her 2008 documentary, The Order of Myths]. Jason Orans, my producer, said, “Let’s write a proposal and a budget for a two-week shoot.” The spill had just happened. He said, “Why don’t you go to the Peabody Awards with the proposal in hand?” Less than a week later, the indie part of PBS, Sundance Institute and Chicken and Egg [Pictures] all gave me not-insignificant amounts of money. We were talking to some independent financiers but it was a lot of back-and-forth and I didn’t have time for that. I needed people who trusted me to get it done immediately. The first day that we shot is in the movie!
Paste: It’s surprising that many of the workers actually on the Deepwater oil rig look back with fond memories just as much as with anger towards their time there. It’s difficult to decipher their feelings. Is this because they have a sense of guilt?
Brown: For [chief mechanic] Doug Brown, he was so proud of his work on the Deepwater Horizon. He saw the rig being born. He knew how the whole thing worked. For him, it was just this huge blow. Before that he had been so proud of his job. There was just this major turnaround. Their lives have changed since the spill. They have an organic garden; they bought a smart car. They made life changes. They think every day about the risk it takes to bring us our fuel. Who feels guilt and who doesn’t? Doug, who’s not in charge, has these awful nightmares. You think, where’s the morality here, basic human kindness?
Paste: Was there anyone not included in the documentary who worked on the rig or who refused?
Brown: A lot of people didn’t answer me. My sense is they probably, when they got the money from BP, they signed something where they couldn’t speak. I was met with radio silence. There is a sense of let’s just put this behind us. These people were really deeply impacted and directly so and how have they not gotten money? Sarah Stone, who has the painting in the movie, I reached out to her first because I saw the painting she made and I was really taken. [Stone is the wife of BP rig worker and blast survivor Stephen Stone, who’s among the subjects of her portraits.] That’s how she had dealt with her anger and grief; it was interesting to me. I felt a kinship to her, too, because she’s an artist as well. But then, since I’ve made this movie, recently someone on the rig saw the trailer and wanted to reach out to me and now wants to be involved in the film. He saw Doug was having nightmares and has them too. Today [the film] is opening; it’s not out in the world yet.
Paste: A staggering statistic in the film is that BP cleaned up less than a third of the oil. Why? What was truly preventing them?
Brown: First of all, a lot of what BP did is a lot about PR. They were doing this thing where they were applying dispersant, which is meant to disperse the oil at the wellhead. That’s a major science experiment that no one’s ever conducted; we don’t know the long-term health effects. If they had let the oil naturally rise to the surface, we could skim it, we could get rid of it in a way better for the environment. That’s another thing that’s crazy thing to me; so many things are done for how they look.
Paste: Where were these budgeted billions of dollars going? Was it all about PR?
Brown: Some people did get compensated. The tourist industry in the South was made whole quickly. The tourist season, after the spill, was more than it has ever been. Again, that’s a PR thing. People in the tourist industry know how to fill out claim forms. BP advised people not to get a lawyer. People in the bayou [La Batre] don’t really trust lawyers anyway. [Hurricane] Katrina and the spill was a one-two punch. I think that’s contributing a lot to people from lower socioeconomic [classes] getting a lot less out of this.
Paste: And you hear that through these interviews: “Sometimes somebody ought to feel something other than greed.” Did you sense this lack of emotion from executives as well?
Brown: I certainly felt like the way things were conducted on the rig was to save time and money and not for safety. BP also has a horrible safety record in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing has changed; there are no new safety regulations for offshore drilling to make it safer. The minute the well got capped, it was off the news. I’m hoping the film might remind people.
Paste: It’s a fine line, blaming the government and blaming nature. Immersed in the lives of the people affected, did you find their anger towards the government justified?
Brown: It’s not a natural catastrophe. It’s a human-created catastrophe. People know how to respond in the South to hurricanes. I grew up with hurricanes. Your neighbors help you. If you lose power, everyone shares food. It’s cultural, and we know how to deal with it. With this, there’s no blueprint, there’s just fear and people being scared. That’s what was different. There’s so much uncertainty about what the impacts are. People just want it to go away—to a certain extent, people want life to continue as it was. When you’re down there and you see a BP ad, people are mad. There’s a certain way of life on the coast and people want to maintain that.
Paste: Roosevelt Harris, a local church volunteer who delivers bananas to people in Alabama, was an incredibly impactful person in the film. How did you find him?
Brown: I found him because, at a certain point in the film, I was meeting people in the bayou but I didn’t have a character that was a strong through line. Go to churches because that’s where you can meet with the head of the church and whoever is running the food pantry. We were riding around with a few different people and we got in the truck with him and he started talking and we just knew.
Paste: BP wouldn’t participate in the documentary. Tell me about the process of reaching out to them and getting denied.
Brown: We reached out to them all four years through many different channels. We reached out through personal channels, official channels. I was working all of that. There were people for four years trying every angle on our behalf and we just got radio silence. [Attorney] Ken Feinberg called back in five minutes. But he’s not BP; he’s someone who deals with disaster compensation.
Paste: What were three shocking moments that stood out in your years on the project?
Brown: The most shocking moment was when Doug Brown handed me a DVD he made on the Deepwater Horizon. He made it to show his family and friends what life is like on an offshore rig. When I watched that, he basically had given me what was equivalent to the Titanic before it sank. It’s a secret world. You can’t just go out as a tourist. I thought at one point I was going to go out on a rig—I went through all the safety stuff, it’s expensive. I felt like not only did we get to see the Deepwater Horizon, you also get to sense what it’s like to be on a rig. Roosevelt, his love for the people and wanting to help people was pretty inspiring to me personally. The third thing is probably just realizing how the government is the industry, realizing the crisscross of pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico that connect to 3,500 platforms connected to as many as 20 wells each. Think of all those holes in the ocean floor that we’re not really regulating as well as we could be. The magnitude of it was shocking to me and nothing has changed.
Paste: How were you treated during these dinners and conventions where Big Oil executives were in attendance?
Brown: At the Offshore [Technology] Conference, the conference itself didn’t want to accommodate and let us film. We had one guy who worked for them who was a friend of a friend. He knew who I was personally so he was able to say, “I can vouch for her.” There were certain things we couldn’t film. Then, the dinners and stuff, those were personal connections, so those weren’t as hard. You have dinners with people; you get to know them as a person. Not everyone in the oil industry wants to obscure how you fill up your car and what happens offshore.
Paste: What’s your goal with the film? It’s clearly about raising awareness, but are there tangible things you envision people doing to create change?
Brown: That’s a really tricky question. There’s been talk [in documentary film] around measuring impact. I think art or film can open your mind in a new way. Making the film and things that are in the film have changed how I think about travel; I fly less, it’s changed the car I drove. I live in L.A., in Laurel Canyon, so I really have to drive! It’s changed my outlook about the way I think we’re all connected to this factory near the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a website with a bunch of different actions you can take at the end of the film. For some people, it’s helpful to have a place to go if they’re feeling overwhelmed by the movie. What I think about it changes daily. I don’t like movies that tell people what to think. I trust my audience to watch the film and figure it out themselves.
Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.