Friday 7th October 2016
On April 20th, 2010, one of the world's largest man-made disasters occurred on the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. Our film follows a vital story that many have not seen: the story of the 126 crew members working aboard the Deepwater Horizon that day, caught in the most harrowing circumstances imaginable. They were skilled working men and women putting in a grueling shift in the hopes of getting back soon to families and lives ashore. In an instant, they were faced with their darkest hour, pushed to summon the courage to battle an unstoppable inferno blaze in the middle of the ocean, and when all seemed lost, to save one another.
The ultra deep-water drilling rig off the Louisiana coast -- the Deepwater Horizon - riveted the world as it experienced a devastating blowout, fire and nearly unstoppable ocean floor oil leak. For 87 days millions watched, hearts in mouths, as more than 50,000 barrels of oil a day gushed from the sea floor into the Gulf of Mexico. It would become the largest accidental ocean oil spill in human history. A fragile marine system hung in the balance, livelihoods were left in limbo, and red flags were raised about the true costs and dangers of drilling for oil in deep water conditions.
Deepwater Horizon brings that story to the screen with a gripping glimpse into the unseen world behind the global disaster that took the lives of 11 workers. Filmmaker Peter Berg once again collaborates with Oscar® nominated actor Mark Wahlberg sharing an untold story of men & women, real life heroes, who faced extraordinary consequences with extreme bravery. The pair previously explored a Navy SEAL team mission gone wrong in the Oscar® nominated LONE SURVIVOR, and the duo is set to release PATRIOT'S DAY, the story inside the dramatic events leading up to and after the Boston Marathon bombing later this year. In Deepwater Horizon, Mark Wahlberg is joined by an incredible cast including Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O'Brien and Kate Hudson to bring audiences directly into, not only the events, but the charged human drama and acts of valor beneath them.
Wahlberg takes on the role of real-life Transocean chief electronics technician Mike Williams, a devoted family man who was overseeing the rig's computers and electrical systems on April 20th, when everything he imagined could go wrong ... did. Oil rig workers are a notoriously tough and gritty breed. The work is physically punishing and ultra high-pressure - as workers grapple with complex equipment approximately 60-feet above remote seas. Yet even for Williams, what happened that day was unprecedented. Williams knew the work was desperately behind schedule, but he also knew the Deepwater Horizon had sophisticated defenses said to be able to prevent even the worst blowouts. Nevertheless at 10 p.m. that night, volatile methane shot up into the rig, and all the rig's defenses failed. The result was a sudden, deadly explosion and a series of fireballs, as the shattered rig and its crew were shaken, hurtled and drenched in combustible gas.
From that moment on, Williams was in a race to save his own life and those of his crewmates - each driven by the hope of making it home -- in an escape that seemed to defy all the odds.
Says Wahlberg: "I play a rig worker who was an ordinary guy who had to do extraordinary things -- not only to survive, but to help others in a moment of overwhelming disaster. For me that's an extremely compelling story to tell. It's something I find very inspiring and those are the kinds of movies I most enjoy making and seeing."
The real Mike Williams, who consulted on the film, says the commitment of Wahlberg and the filmmakers to the reality of what he went through was gratifying: "The cast and crew captured all the elements of what happened that were important to me, other survivors, and the widows of the deceased. My biggest goal and ultimate drive that made me want to be part of this project is that we honor these eleven men and what they did every day.
For Berg, the story's themes were vivid and a chance to shed light on an event most often talked about in terms of the environmental, rather than human, impact compelled him, "I'm drawn to tales of human courage and of the human spirit trying to triumph over real adversity -- and those elements are the heart of this story," says Berg. "The men and women aboard the Deepwater Horizon were extremely intelligent and capable and they tried everything they could to prevent the blowout. It's important to remember that 11 people lost their lives on the rig, and more were injured. In the middle of all the deserved attention for the oil spill, that heroism has almost been lost. This film is a chance to tell that story."
Meeting with the survivors and the families of those lost on the Deepwater Horizon struck Berg with a deep mix of loss, humility and awe, all of which he wanted to infuse into the production. "It was an incredible experience to get to meet these people and hear their stories and see the power of their spirits and, how people find the strength and the resiliency to move on. As an artist and a person, I find that to be very inspirational and life-affirming."
To dig into the lives and hearts of the men and women for whom the Deepwater Horizon was at once home, workplace and a perilous trap after the blowout would require intensive research. The events were complicated, contested at times, and involved highly specialised machinery and jargon. All of that became background in the screenplay by Matthew Carnahan and Matthew Sand, which instead put the life-and-death experiences and in-the-moment emotions of the crewmembers front and center
The foundation for the screenplay was a seminal New York Times article: "Deepwater Horizon's Final Hours," written by David Barstow, David Rohde and Stephanie Saul, which was in turn the result of probing interviews with 21 survivors, as well as sworn testimony and written statements from others, creating the most detailed insiders' account of what they saw happening, second-by-second, on the rig.
Sand recalls reading the article on the edge of his seat, but he wasn't sure at first if he saw the heart and soul of the kind of movie he aspires to in it. Then he saw an interview with Mike Williams. "Mike was talking about the moment on the rig when he saw the rescue boats were only half full and he made the decision to go back into extreme danger to help his brothers and sisters back to safety," Sand remembers. "That was a profoundly cinematic moment right out of real life. I love movies about heroes who meet big moments with deep courage. I met Mike and saw he was the real deal. Then I knew we had a movie."
Carnahan then went further, conducting and distilling his own interviews, focusing in on the emotions, connects and love of life that drive a person to find the heights of skill, bravery and compassion in the midst of disaster. The result became a moving exploration of how ordinary people commit extraordinary acts when it matters most.
When that tension meets the power of geological forces, the results are shocking. Carnahan says he also felt an especially fierce responsibility to be true to what the men and women on the Deepwater Horizon went through that night. "I tried to do the very best I could to honor the fact that 11 people lost their lives that night. I've never worked on a movie before with that kind of reality," notes the screenwriter. "The people who lost their lives were always omnipresent in my mind while I was writing."
Sand was enthralled by what Carnahan brought to the script, and even more thrilled when Peter Berg came aboard. Sand concludes. "In a way this movie is the last of a classic breed - a story of courage with the tremendous scope of the most exciting adventure thriller."
An insatiable demand for fuel has brought oil companies into ocean depths where humans have never before dared to labor, bolstered by new high-tech equipment capable of plunging thousands of feet below sea level, operating where humans can't go, amid shifting sands and hazardous pockets of explosive gas. It's a brave new world of exploration for the oil industry, but on April 20, 2010, the dangers of that world became devastatingly clear.
On that day, the Deepwater Horizon, an ultra-deep-water, advanced oil rig owned by the Swiss company Transocean and leased by British Petroleum was drilling deep in a well named Macondo about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. Suddenly, the crew faced the greatest fear of all ocean rig workers: a ferocious blowout, caused by pockets of unstable methane shooting up the pipes with deadly force. Though equipped with a blowout preventer that included an Emergency Disconnect System (EDS), both failed to contain the blowout. The initial blowout killed 11 men who were never found, critically injured others and sparked a bold evacuation of men and women trapped amid roiling mud and fire. After two days of searing flames, the remains of the Deepwater Horizon sank 5000 feet to the ocean floor, leaving the well gushing beyond control, ultimately releasing, according to government estimates, 4.9 million barrels of oil.
Since then, the words Deepwater Horizon have become synonymous with the words "largest marine oil spill in history." But prior to that, the Deepwater Horizon was seen as a technological marvel. An offshore oil rig is essentially a stationary cruise ship - and the Deepwater Horizon was among the most sophisticated in the fleet. Built in South Korea, the rig featured a deck the size of a football field, a 25-story tall derrick and below-deck living quarters for 146 people, including a gym and movie theater. The mechanical innards of the Deepwater Horizon utilised space-age technology, spanning from electronic drilling monitors to computerised modeling systems and automated shut-off defenses.
But wondrous as the rig was, it was also, at the time of the explosion, 6 weeks behind schedule, and costing a half million dollars a day - pushing management to complete the well as fast as possible. The full consequences of the Deepwater Horizon blowout are still being assessed. After several failed containment attempts, on September 21, 2010, the well was finally declared dead. Today, court cases are ongoing, coastal businesses are recovering and environmentalists are studying damage to marine life. But for the 11 families who lost their loved ones, and the workers who faced mortal danger, the consequences are felt every single day.
It was clear from the start that Deepwater Horizon needed to have a single visionary leader able to commandeer a massive, multi-layered production full of intricate moving parts and visual designs - but one who also could get to the story's beating heart. It was equally clear that person was Peter Berg.
Berg explains what drives his very distinctive style of filmmaking: "I'm a fan of deeply experiential films. I aspire to allowing audiences to feel they are not just sitting in a theatre but going through these events themselves. I want them to be immersed in both the action and emotions. When the ride is over, I want people to feel like they've really been somewhere that had an impact. I don't want my films to be a spectator sport. I want them to be experienced on a personal level."
Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura calls out Berg's connection with actors as key but also says the director pushed himself to a new level. "I call Pete the invisible actor, it's almost as if he's acting in the scene as he watches it transpire," he explains. "Pete has tremendous confidence in terms of getting performances - and he knows instantly when he's got what he wants and he can move very quickly because he trusts in that. He's also skilled with energy and pace and that was important because the film had to be authentically terrifying and tragic - yet also be a dynamic and compelling entertainment. Pete brings a very distinctive energy and style to this film."
Producer Mark Vahradian says that Berg's skill with technology and action was a big draw; but the biggest draw of all was his ability to tell moving stories about unsung heroes. "We all felt that if we got the fire and explosions right, yet somehow failed to convey the hearts of these men who died, and the men who survived and helped each other to survive, then it would not have been worth making the movie," says Vahradian. "There are not many directors who can combine spectacle and human drama the way Pete can. There are also not a lot of people able to take on the physical challenges of making a movie like this - shooting in the heat, at night, working with huge, complex sets. He was able to make it all happen and also bring the audience in to feel a part of it. He shows not just the mechanics of what happened, but also the humanity of the workers and the world of this kind of work."
When real-life survivor Mike Williams - whom Wahlberg portrays in the film - came aboard as a consultant it was a litmus test. Williams admits he had his doubts that a movie could do any justice to what he saw and heard that night. But he was soon exhilarated by Berg's human-centered approach and interest in immersing audiences in the rarely seen lives of oil rig workers before the blowout ever occurs.
"Once Pete told me 'this is a story about survivors,' I agreed to come on board. The oil field is not very well understood by outsiders," Williams points out. "It's a very close-knit community, and the things we do out there are more dangerous than we'd like to let on. It's a dangerous environment no matter what steps we take to mitigate the danger. This is a great opportunity to show the world what these men and women do out there."
Berg was immediately intrigued by Mike Williams whose real life suddenly became the stuff of cinematic heroics. "What I found so interesting about Mike Williams is that he was a maintenance supervisor - a fix-it guy working with all these big-brained MIT engineer types, yet he was a very streetsmart capable guy who ultimately became the last one off that rig. He was an everyday, blue-collar guy who found himself in the middle of the most terrifying and extraordinary experience," says the director.
Berg summarises: "We all use fossil fuels and petroleum. Even if we drive a hybrid, we use fossil fuels. Yet we know very little about how we get our fuels. This movie is a chance to bring audiences inside these gigantic rigs that are so technologically amazing, to show the people working on them who are so highly skilled and dedicated, and to reveal that even though we never see these men and women, or their sacrifices, they really are closely connected to our lives."
When it came to casting Mike Williams - the Chief Electronics Technician of the Deepwater Horizon at the time the blowout occurred - the search was on for someone who could penetrate the very particular world of technicians who live and work on oil rigs, as well as a man who taps into unrealised reserves of physical and emotional strength to make it home to his family.
It quickly became clear that few actors were as close a match for that description as two-time Oscar® nominee Mark Wahlberg. In roles ranging from The Fighter to The Departed to Berg's Lone Survivor, Wahlberg has demonstrated a distinctive ability to explore the inner realities of blue-collar men.
Wahlberg and Williams bonded before the film started shooting and spent a lot of time during production on and off set together. The filmmakers were excited by the resulting performance. Says producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura: "What Mark brings is honesty and a real sense of blue-collar integrity. He brings out that American ethic of doing hard work, even when you're working amid forces you can't necessarily control". Adds Mark Vahradian: "Mark cannot or will not play a character without knowing him, understanding him, drilling him, being with him. He has the sensitivity to understand he's playing a real human being who went through a traumatic situation, and he handled that so well."
From the get-go, Wahlberg was insistent on bringing Williams fully into the filmmaking fold, in a way few subjects of a film ever get to experience. "I was pretty adamant about having Mike with us the whole way," Wahlberg recalls. "He was the last one on the rig, and he knew so much about what really happened there. I didn't want to just meet him; I wanted him around and consulting with us the entire time. It turned out he was a great help to everybody. He had complete license to say, 'hey, this didn't happen that way. This is how it happened.' He could stop us at any time and give us more to go on."
As for their personal conversations, Wahlberg describes their depth: "We talked about everything. We talked what he did before he was on the rig, about how he spent his time off the rig, about his relationship with his daughter and wife. At times, he got quite emotional talking about what happened on the rig, but there wasn't anything he wasn't comfortable talking about with me."
He realised that for Williams being on the rig always had two contrasting sides. "He's out there providing for his loved ones and he was always excited by that idea," observes Wahlberg."Mike really loved the work, loved being out there, but he also understood the danger and that it was a big sacrifice to be so far from his family."
Williams found that talking with Wahlberg about his experiences was ultimately cathartic. "Answering questions about what happened from the time I woke up until the time I got to the hospital, and to be able to walk the cast through that has been beneficial to me," he explains. "It helped me not only to re-live the story, but it also allowed me to let go of some of it, and that was very therapeutic."
As Wahlberg dug into the nitty-gritty of the bodily and mental challenges of rig work, it was equally important to him to explore those connections back home, the pride and joy in his family that carried him through that night. He especially enjoyed working with Kate Hudson. "We don't have many scenes together, but the moments we do have are so powerful and help you to realize how in love these two people are and what they mean to each other," he says. "Kate was just fantastic. She dove right in there and it felt very real with her."
Once on the set near New Orleans, Wahlberg also felt a need to make connections with the people of Louisiana, who were so deeply affected by the Deepwater Horizon incident and its aftermath. "I take pride in us going down there - it is the kind of place where, if you don't get it right, you're not going to be welcomed back," he muses. "On a film like this it is about so much more than your individual experience as an actor or director or cinematographer or whoever. For all of us, it was really about making sure that we made the local people proud and doing the families involved, justice."
Reuniting with Berg was also special for Wahlberg. "I'd sign up to do anything with Pete," Wahlberg offers, "We have a similar approach to the work and we're both drawn to true-life stories about people overcoming the odds. Pete is an actor first, so he's all about performance but he's also a true leader. He sets a high bar and challenges you for sure."
Equally key to the casting was finding the film's "Mr. Jimmy", Jimmy Harrell, who was the offshore installation manager of the Deepwater Horizon - essentially in charge of the entire crew. Golden Globe® nominee Kurt Russell, another star renowned for his real-guy appeal, stepped into the poignant role. Russell became fascinated by how people react when they have to make impossible decisions under extreme pressure. "You realize that in this very dangerous world, when things go wrong, human beings can only try to make the right decisions," says Russell. "These are not black-and-white kinds of decisions. It's a difficult thing to face."
Russell felt the weight of portraying a real person in his performance. He spent hours watching Harrell's testimony before the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Investigation. "Any time you play a character drawn from a real person, you have the responsibility to find out as much as you can. Unfortunately, I was never able to meet Jimmy, but I saw a lot about him as a person from the testimony that I watched," Russell explains.
Russell notes that Harrell was deeply respected by the crew, and set out each day to prove that he deserved that respect. "I thought of him in the way I heard Mike Williams talk about Mr. Jimmy: that he was universally respected, and a no frills kind of guy," Russell explains. "Mr. Jimmy wasn't humourless, but this was his rig, this was his family, and he took that part very seriously."
Russell especially loved working so closely in concert with Wahlberg, who becomes Mr. Jimmy's saviour after the blowout. "He's a very natural actor who somehow makes his work look effortless. He was great, and always so prepared," Russell says.
He also enjoyed the sparks in his interactions with John Malkovich as BP "company man" Donald Vidrine, with whom Jimmy Harrell butts heads over the treacherous schedule.
"Malkovich is just terrific as Vidrine," says Russell. "I love the scenes that give you a sense of what was at stake in the conflict between the company and the workers. You have Malkovich representing BP, and me representing Transocean, and we really lock horns."
After the explosion, Mike Williams aligns himself closely with 23 year-old rig worker Andrea Fleytas, with whom he finds himself trapped on the fire-choked rig, with no easy escape. Fleytas is played in an intriguing departure by Jane The Virgin star Gina Rodriguez.
Fleytas was the Deputy Dynamic Positioning Officer, with the vital responsibility of maintaining the floating rig's position directly over the well using propellers and thrusters. To learn more about Fleytas's job, Rodriguez quite literally went to school. "Pete was all about being as authentic as possible, I did my own research and went to dynamic positioning officer training in Houston. It was quite the experience," she muses.
Rodriguez also had to dig deep as the tough-talking, engine-fixing Andrea has to face some of her deepest fears while finding the depths of her courage. The emotional challenges were greater to her than the physical ones. "I'm definitely an adrenaline junkie," Rodriguez confesses. "For me the challenge was to be as true to the character I could, to be as careful and fragile with her as I could, because she deserves that."
Fleytas played a major role in alerting the world to what happened on the Deepwater Horizon. Notes Di Bonaventura: "Andrea was the first person to call a mayday, which nobody else was doing, and she took the initiative to do it. She was reprimanded for doing it but she was right. This makes her a very relatable character because we all have felt, wait a second, what am I supposed to do in a situation when different people are telling you different things. She tries to do the best thing for her fellow workers. Gina also captures what it's like to be a 23 year old woman in the middle of a crazy, ultimately catastrophic situation."
Wahlberg, too, was impressed. "Gina is a tough Chicago girl who really dove in there and wasn't afraid to get dirty with the rest of us. My character has to get a bit tough with her but when I tried to apologize, she would say, No keep going further.' She's a real gamer."
Along the way, Wahlberg was a pillar of support for Rodriguez. "He was just such a stud," says Rodriguez. "I learned a lot from him and it was such a wonderful experience to see what a beautiful, genuine, hardworking, big-hearted person he is."
As Mike Williams fights to stay alive on the Deepwater Horizon, his wife can only watch in shock from their onshore home, hoping her husband survives the nightmare their family always hoped would never come. Taking the role of the woman who motivates Williams is Golden Globe winner Kate Hudson.
For Hudson, the lure of the part lay in the big picture of the film - a chance to bring to life the human experience of an event that continues to reverberate. Says Hudson: "Audiences will not only be able to understand more about what happened on the Deepwater Horizon but also get to know these people and the actual experience of how terrifying and challenging it was."
She was also interested in the specific, often invisible, experiences of families silently awaiting word of their loved ones in times of peril. "Felicia's perspective is that of someone who couldn't know what was going on for her husband," Hudson points out. "All she saw is what was on the news and nobody was really telling the families anything, all they could do is hope that their husbands or wives or boyfriends and girlfriends would make it home."
Hudson was deeply moved to have the real Felicia Williams on set with her. "It was really helpful because there were moments where I could go up to her and just ask her: 'What was this like? How did this moment feel for you?' It obviously brought back a lot of trauma for Felicia and Mike, which was hard, but they were always willing to honestly share with us about what was really going on for them."
Though the tension builds to a fever pitch for Felicia, there are also moments of joy and deep love she greatly enjoyed portraying with Wahlberg. She also adored getting the chance to be on set with her real-life father, Kurt Russell, though they share no scenes together, this is the first film they both star in together. "I loved seeing Mark and my Pa, Kurt, working together, what a great combination they are," says Hudson. "They're both very much working men, very American men and that's something that in both of their blood. To see them paired together on screen was pretty great."
That pairing - as well as her partnership with Wahlberg - came to life authentically in large part because of the atmosphere Berg created, adds Hudson. "Pete has great energy and instincts and he's very fast, which creates a more realistic performance. Often you don't know even where the cameras are which is nice because you have to stay present and it allows him to catch the moments that are most real. When you've had experience acting, as Pete has, you have a great instinct for knowing what gets actors out of their heads and more present. He knows how to get a natural response versus the thoughtout response, and that is key for this story."
Two-time Oscar® nominee John Malkovich takes on one of the film's most intense roles: that of Louisiana-based BP manager Donald Vidrine.
Deepwater Horizon is the fourth film Malkovich has made with producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. Says the producer: "John is the consummate professional and one of the most brilliant actors of our time. Any time you have him in a movie he raises the game of everybody around him."
The screenplay lured Malkovich. "I was impressed by the script's terrific sense of urgency and the sense that there was something underneath the bottom of the sea that was going to have its say. The story has a running clock from the get-go, but it also introduces us to world we haven't seen in film before," Malkovich comments.
Malkovich was also taken with Peter Berg's process, which he says heightened the film's relentless sense of realism. "Pete is an intensely passionate person and he's also quick. Sometimes directors give things more space and time than they merit, but Pete doesn't allow that. I personally love his focus," summarises the actor.
Rising star Dylan O'Brien, known for his hit TV show Teen Wolf and The Maze Runner films, portrays another true-life survivor of the Deepwater Horizon: Caleb Holloway, a floorhand on the drilling crew who had been working on the rig for 3 years at the time of the disaster.
O'Brien was gratified to work closely with the real Caleb Holloway, who generously shared his memories of the events as he experienced them, including his friendships with his fellow crew members, several of whom were lost that night, with whom he spent time hunting and fishing. O'Brien's bond with Holloway turned into a close friendship.
O'Brien recounts meeting Caleb for the first time: "I was really nervous to meet Caleb at first, but really thankful that I could. We had scheduled a meeting for just an hour but that meeting then turned into us hanging out the rest of the day - and then he became the best friend I had on the project. Meeting him was huge for me. I came into this as a chance to be a part of a true story, which I've never done before."
Ultimately, Holloway impressed upon O'Brien just how searing and nightmarish it was aboard the Deepwater Horizon and how everyone who was there carries that with them forever. O'Brien goes on: "Through becoming close with Caleb, I found my arc. He really let me in all the important elements of his experience with the whole thing, as well as how he still deals with it and how it's affected his whole life."
Peter Berg notes: "Having Caleb there, along with Mike Williams and some of the other guys, was a really valuable tool for the actors. It was important for Dylan to speak to the real Caleb and get that insight no one else could possibly have."
Lorenzo di Bonaventura says O'Brien brought something essential to a role that is an emotional linchpin: "Dylan has a grace and strength, yet the vulnerability of a guy that age, and you watch him go from being the strong guy, fighting for his life, to a guy mourning some of his closest friends."
From the start, the filmmakers of Deepwater Horizon had a resolute commitment to shooting in Southern Louisiana, amidst the people and colorful, tight-knit communities these events affected so powerfully. Working in such close proximity to the Gulf also allowed the production to bring aboard a slew of current and ex-oil workers in roles ranging from welders helping to build sets to extras for the evacuation scenes. They, in turned, helped to bring to life the unique working culture of an advanced, exploratory industry that brings together tough blue collar workers, brainy engineers and high-pressure corporate honchos.
"It was so important for us to go down there and really get to know this world," says Peter Berg. "Southern Louisiana is a fascinating part of our country where you have this very real dance going on between the big business of oil, which employs a majority of the people, and the spectacular, natural beauty of marshlands full of sportsmen and naturalists. Spending time in Port Fouchon or Venice, Louisiana, you really get a feel for how these two worlds have a complicated marriage."
The production also closely consulted with survivors, families of those who were lost, oil industry experts, as well as Coast Guard advisors. Each one played a role in the film's searing realism. Says producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura: "We had submersible guys working on the submersible scenes and real drillers working in the drill shack scenes. It gives the movie a deeper level of gravity because they each speak in a particular way and they know when something doesn't feel right."
Before production started, the film's singularly massive design challenge loomed: recreating the sprawling Deepwater Horizon - a floating universe unto itself -- in the close-up details of both sight and sound needed to take audiences into the sophisticated yet precarious oceanic environment where the film's characters fought to survive.
The sheer facts of the rig were astonishing:
- The platform's deck was about the size and shape of a city block
- The entire rig weighed around 33,000 tons
- More than 5,000 individual pieces of technological equipment were on board
- Six huge 10,000 horsepower engines with satellite communications kept the rig stable
Some directors might have calculated that the sheer complexity called for extensive CGI, not Berg. He felt it was important to build a working set that would bring not only cast and crew but also every person in the movie theatre into the intense environment of the Deepwater Horizon. It was no simple procedure, however, to get that right.
"An oil rig is an extremely complicated and vast piece of engineering," describes Berg. "What we built may be one of the largest film sets ever built, a very large re-creation of the actual rig. We built it in several different stages to show what the rig was, then to capture the actual blowout and then to film the courage of the men and women fighting against adversity after the event. We were able to re-create each phase with authenticity."
Adds screenwriter Matthew Sand: "The Deepwater Horizon is one of the largest human machines ever built. You see pictures of it and it's enormous but then you realize it also extends five miles beneath the surface. It boggles the mind. Pete and the crew had to essentially choreograph a ballet with 400-ton machines - and they did."
For Mark Wahlberg, the set was an education unto itself. "It may be one of the largest sets ever constructed in the history of film," he notes. "I loved getting to work early and just walking around it with Mike Williams. I wanted to know and understand every element of it."
"It was really important that all the equipment was in the right areas and used correctly, so I was glad to be very involved in that process," says Williams.
Berg recruited a skilled team including director of photography Enrique Chediak (MAZE RUNNER, 127 HOURS) and production designer Chris Seagers (X-MEN: FIRST CLASS) to help him bring audiences aboard the rig in the most immersive way. Together they worked to build, light and then photograph the sets in a full sweep of 360-degrees.
Chediak was excited by Berg's approach: emphasizing practical effects to create a more organic visual experience. "What I love most is how practical effects interact with the lighting, the cameras and with the actors. If you do everything with visual effects, it can become bland or fake. Although practical effects take more time, they bring an enormous amount of reality to the screen," says the cinematographer.
That reality merges elemental human bravery and ingenuity with the pandemonium going on around it, something Chediak sought to reflect even as the camera is in non-stop motion. Inspirations for Chediak included Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado's stark black-and-white images of oil rig workers and firefighters battling a brutal blaze in Kuwait; and Werner Herzog's 16mm documentary Lessons in Darkness, which treated the Kuwait oil field fires as an alien landscape.
"What drew me to the Salgado pictures, even though they're black and white, is their level of contrast, the level of shininess. To do something similar, we really emphasized the sweat and the mud and the darkness on the rig workers after the blowout," he says.
It took Seagers and his team, including 85 welders, 8 months to build the Deepwater Horizon set - which was created in three separate parts, to 85% scale of the actual rig. The main set weighed in at 2,947,094 lbs. and utilized 3.2 million lbs. of steel. It even included a functioning helipad where an actual helicopter was landed on the set.
Seagers says he knew what Berg wanted. "Pete's the kind of guy that he knows what he wants and it's essentially keep it real, keep it true."
"That became his mantra," says Seagers, "The nature of the way an oil rig runs is that there are many different companies involved. One company runs the oil rig, another company runs the navigation system, another company runs the mud area, another company would do all the underwater marine work, another one would do all the pipe work. There are a lot of different individual specialties and we had to combine them all."
Seagers continues: "The, biggest thing for me was to get the main locations right: the bridge and the drill floor. We had limited amounts of research since the Deepwater Horizon is gone. For instance, with the bridge, we only had four photographs and none showed all of the bridge, so we had to call the manufacturer of the equipment and they kindly gave us a layout of how the bridge was formed."
No detail was overlooked. "All of the instrumentation is real," Seagers notes. "When you're looking at screens, they all come from real rigs."
Everyone was thrilled with how Seagers and his crew devoted themselves to the rig. Peter Berg says that realism was key to achieving the overarching aspirations of the film. "It's one of the biggest sets ever created and we are appreciative and grateful we had the chance to build it. Everyone on the production will tell you it was a lot of work to get up on that rig; it was hot and it was challenging," says Berg. "It also was an inspiration - because when you got up on it, you felt like you better work that much harder because people did so much to create this set in order for us to do the job of re-creating this world completely."
Says Lorenzo di Bonaventura: "One of the reasons we hired Chris is that he has a history of working on a lot of Tony Scott movies, who always built things, so he has that very practical experience. A lot of people wondered whether this was going to be a CGI movie and we came into it with the attitude of no, this is going to be mostly a practical movie."
Chediak, too, was fired up by Seagers' rig set. "It was tremendously exciting and gave us a lot of possibilities," he says. "You could shoot it up and down and from all angles."
As a survivor of the Deepwater Horizon, Mike Williams was astounded by what Seagers achieved, simulating the destroyed rig to the point that it sometimes seemed to turn back the hands of time. He worked closely with the design team to share his insider's knowledge of the rig's deepest nooks and crannies. "I was involved in the location scouts and with the set building to help assure all the correct pieces of equipment were in the right places," Williams explains.
Says Seagers: "Mike is very procedural. He would says: this what we did, this is what we need to do, and this is how we'll achieve it. His collaboration was a huge plus for us."
It wasn't easy for Williams, who was gripped with haunting memories, but he felt it was worth it. "It has been hard, it's been overwhelming at times," he admits, "but it's also been enlightening to see how a movie can take a story such as this, and re-create it in a way that is so compelling and to accurately show the daily life of a rig worker was important."
Technical consultant Chris Denton, a former oil worker with over 25 years in the business, also came aboard early on to help train the cast. "The director and producers were very concerned about getting every last technical detail correct," Denton says. "We had a lot of meetings to talk about how we could really do right by the legacies of the men and women who worked on the Deepwater Horizon. My marching orders were: make the rig look real - but also teach the actors to work with the equipment in authentic ways."
A big boon for the production came in working with ex-oil workers who brought further knowhow and personal insight into the life and atmosphere on a rig. Denton recalls that one ex-oil worker couldn't believe the set was built from the ground up. He thought they had recycled a real rig -- a moment that let Denton know they were truly on the right track.
Other sets included the actual Crowne Plaza Hotel where survivors were reunited with their families are featured in the film along with Port Fouchon where the crew for the Deepwater Horizon initially departed via helicopter to join the rig for their shifts.
The production also built several immense water tanks for the oceanic action. These were essential for the sequences in which a raging oil fire burns paradoxically on top of the choppy water. For those scenes, liquid propane was poured into the tanks to safely recreate the mind-boggling sight. The production's main tank was so huge - holding 2,094,400 gallons - it took three days to fill.
Rounding out the main sets, the team used a similar supply ship to the actual Damon B. Bankston to shoot the moving scenes of survivors huddling together in grief and gratitude after the disaster.
The most daunting sequence of Deepwater Horizon loomed over the production from day one: replicating the unthinkable moment of the blowout, which included explosions, fireballs, mud blowing at 10,00 psi of pressure and an oil and gas plume shooting 600 feet in the air.
Says special effects supervisor Burt Dalton: "Getting the blowout sequence correct was an incredible process. We consulted with experts who were there on the day, but it took us a long time to find just the right equipment and the right pressures to create that moment in a way that would feel right."
The scene, which deluged the cast with surging seawater, fire and mud in Biblical proportions, also create a gargantuan mess that had to be dealt with to keep moving quickly. "Once we figured out how to create the blowout, then we also had to figure out how to clean it up. We were disposing of 25,000 gallons of mud a day," muses Dalton.
The mud created for the film was bentonite clay, one of the ingredients in real driller's mud, and Dalton brought in authentic mud mixing machines to generate the sludge. Though could not safely recreate the enormous pressures that blew apart the Deepwater Horizon, he and Berg collaborated on numerous visual techniques to give audiences the sensations of being there. "We were able to keep it looking real, while also using a low enough pressure to be safe on the set," Dalton explains. "You have the feeling of extreme pressure without the incredible volume that overwhelming the Deepwater Horizon that night."
The challenges of creating and then implementing these intricate set pieces brought cast and crew closer - but also were a constant reminder of just how much greater the difficulties were for those who were there.
Notes Dalton: "We brought the fires as close as we safely could, and made them as big as we could, and as smoky as we could - but it could never be as big as what actually happened."
That thought was sobering. Dalton goes on: "The crew really got a sense of what I felt like to be in that fire, to feel the heat, to get hit with debris. Of course, the cast was never in danger, but we gave them something to imagine and that was important to Pete as a storyteller. It had to be as real as we could possibly create it."
That reality hits especially hard at the film's climax as Mike and Andrea contemplate taking the jump of their lives hundreds of feet into the deep, fire-choked ocean. For Mark Wahlberg, it was not only a technical crux, but also a deep emotional crux, of the story. "At that moment, Mike is fully in survival mode, as he and Andrea find themselves the last people on the rig. There's fire raging everywhere, even in the water, that life rafts are gone, and he sees there's only one hope. He didn't want to make that jump, but with the amount of love he felt for his wife and his daughter there was nothing going to prevent him from getting off that rig and taking the chance to see them again."
Wahlberg hopes that unforgettably tense and triumphant moment reminds people of what the costs were that night, for those who made it home and those who didn't. He concludes: "Like most people at the time this happened, I was only aware of the fact that the Deepwater Horizon was a huge manmade environmental disaster, and I truly didn't even know 11 people lost their lives. It wasn't until I read the New York Times piece and then this script that I realized wow, there is so much people are not aware of about this story and it is so important that it be told."