It doesn't come as a surprise to learn that Dark Waters was made by the same team that brought us Spotlight. Both films tell true stories that were covered up, where the party at fault is too big to fail.
In Spotlight, it's the Catholic church. Dark Waters takes aim at DuPont, the American chemical company that is as ubiquitous in the States as apple pie. Their crime? Allegedly polluting the air, water, and land in West Virginia, resulting in the poisoning, and in many cases deaths, of the people living near their Parkersburg plant.
Digital Spy sat down with Dark Waters' director Todd Haynes, star Mark Ruffalo, and real-life inspiration lawyer Rob Bilott, and our writer had to admit that she hadn't heard about the scandal (despite being an American herself). It became fairly obvious why the movie needed to be made.
"This has been going on essentially unnoticed. Most people don't realise that this is happening," Bilott said, not hiding his indignation. "They don't realise the scope of the contamination or the seriousness of it, and why we should be worried about and doing something about it."
Sometimes, doing something means making a movie. Billot explained: "I was really hoping to find a way to bring this story out to a wider audience and Mark and the folks at Participant were just incredible and being able to do that in a way that I never could."
Bilott sells himself short. He is undeniably a real-life superhero: the lawyer who, as the New York Times Magazine said, 'became DuPont's worst nightmare' is brought to the screen by Mark Ruffalo.
It isn't the first time Ruffalo has taken on the role of a real-life crusader – he starred in Spotlight too – but to play Bilott, with the man in the room, was a different challenge. "I would follow him around without him knowing it," Ruffalo admitted.
"That was actually the second time we were meeting. I got there a little bit early and he was waiting for me. It was an atrium and he didn't know I was there yet. So he was walking around and I was following him for 10 minutes."
Sewn into Dark Waters story is the meticulous uncovering of the full extent of DuPont's complicity – and active participation – in not only the cover-up but in the poising itself. As Bilott learns, we learn. It moves steadily on towards the inevitable epiphany.
"That really was the dramatic challenge," Haynes said. "How to get this complicated story across to the audience in a way that is digestible, that is engrossing, that has dramatic impact."
The decision to make the film meticulous in its pacing was informed by Bilott himself, as Haynes described: "It's definitely who he was. But it's the only way a story like this would have come to light."
Haynes goes on to describe a particularly infuriating scene, but one not wholly unfamiliar if you've watched a legal drama. "That's why DuPont dumped hundreds of thousands of documents on this guy. They basically dumped their entire internal history about evidencing this malfeasance that went on for decades, thinking that no human being would literally go through it, right?"
"Well, they were wrong," Haynes said emphatically. "They met with the wrong guy. And he went through it and he pieced together the backstory. And that's why we have this information today."
Ruffalo described Bilott as "humble" and the process of uncovering the story was, for Ruffalo, similarly painstaking: "[Rob is] very demure and very humble. So he doesn't like to be in the spotlight. And so it took a while to get to all the deeper stuff of the story."
The deeper stuff is perhaps clearer to an American watching Dark Waters than it would be to someone else. When Bilott takes on a farmer from Parkersburg as a client, he has to explain to his bosses how he even knows the man – after all, he works in high-flying Cincinnati, Ohio – miles both geographically and existentially from rural West Virginia.
As Bilott stumbles around for the explanation – a friend of a friend of his grandmother's – his boss says something to the effect of 'it's okay to be from West Virginia.' As an American in the audience, it was a wallop of a message in a very small sentence.
Haynes explained: "It's rare, I think, for American films to really look at the nuances and the instabilities of class standing and this film really offered that and I love that about the story.
"There's a real sense of a lack of status, a lack of security that Rob occupies within the pedigree of the law firm, a very prestigious law firm that he's in, and he does not have an Ivy League degree. And so he's kind of hiding that," Haynes explained.
Despite this insecurity, Ruffalo was able to tease plenty out. "[Rob] was very generous with his time with me, and his knowledge and his experience, you know, and that was really an important part of the performance."
Embodying the indignant rage of Bilott wasn't hard for Ruffalo, already an avid campaigner for environmental issues. He has a clear goal in mind in the wake of Dark Waters' popularity.
"It would be great to see this whole class of chemicals... regulated, deemed a hazardous substance and basically taken out – unless absolutely necessary – taken off the market and out of consumers lives.
"And then have the companies who did this – knowingly doing it, knowingly poisoning us for all these decades – pay their fair share. You know, they made a lot of money off of us. They poisoned us without us having any choice in it whatsoever.
"And so they should pay," Ruffalo says. "They should take responsibility."
Dark Waters is out in cinemas on Friday, February 28
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