Peer through Dark Waters and crumpled file boxes, fluorescent office lighting, and indestructible carbon chains will peer back. In other words, the new legal drama from Portland independent film luminary Todd Haynes doesn't much resemble his oeuvre of mold-shattering music biopics (Velvet Goldmine, I'm Not There) or richly imagined queer dramas (Far From Heaven, Carol).
Odd directorial choice though it may seem, Haynes considers Dark Waters his personal contribution to the cinema of the class action hero. Mark Ruffalo stars as Rob Bilott, the real-life corporate insider who led the legal charge against chemical giant DuPont for decades of knowingly contaminating West Virginia farmland and water.
On the phone from New York while preparing for a westward press tour, Haynes discussed his film potentially impacting DuPont's stock price, the progress of his Velvet Underground documentary, and the gift he's most proud of giving Portland.
Before this script came to you from Ruffalo, did you ever imagine making a procedural eco-thriller?
Todd Haynes: I made a sort of psycho-eco-drama in Safe (1995), but that's from a very different perspective. The thing I could have imagined and probably had a secret desire to do was tell a brooding whistleblower story in the tradition of the Pakula paranoia trilogy in the '70s [Klute, The Parallax View, All the President's Men], Michael Mann's magisterial, rich, weird The Insider, and Silkwood I love. When they're really well made, I can watch them repeatedly and find something weirdly hypnotic and almost therapeutic about doing so. This story had all those earmarks.
Does that hypnotic quality come from the rhythm of the procedural or the viewer becoming obsessed alongside the character?
I think it's all those things. It's also just watching process very closely tracked. It's not like you watch All The President's Men to learn about Nixon's corruption or how it ends. We know how it ends. We're just watching how it happened over and over again. I feel like I'm learning and returning to a process every time.
You recently told The New Yorker you're interested in characters who reject their traditional societal roles, like those in Carol and Far From Heaven, thus unintentionally hurting those close to them. Couldn't that also describe Rob Bilott?
It does. Everyone is hurting everyone else across this spectrum of class that starts with [farmer] Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) in West Virginia and ends with Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) at the top of the line at Taft Law. There's a sense of physical and emotional peril that affects everyone's relationship to their peers and families. The sense of futility that hangs over this story is heartbreaking. That doesn't mean it's not a victory. It's awesome to think that this guy, this unelected figure, is taking on the industries that he's defended as a lawyer.
I read that DuPont's stock could actually take a hit from Dark Waters.
I read in Bloomberg they were warning investors that could be the case. That's a nice thing to hear.
You've certainly never released a movie that could affect a share price before.
I would say that is true. Look, the one thing companies like DuPont can't afford is for the truth to come out. They can afford every possible settlement, but ultimately, the word that has emerged from Rob Billot's story is that Teflon is not what we thought it was. That brand has lost its luster. DuPont itself had to reconfigure its own name and standing and splinter off into a company called Chemours for its manufacturing and merge with Dow Chemical because of this story, because they can't function as they once did. So [whistleblower] Wilbur Tennant's wish—I don't want your settlement money; I just want people to know what happened—is ultimately what has occurred.
That must make you feel good on some level.
It does. And it makes everyone involved feel good. This was a new experience for me. And to be so close to these people in [Cincinnati and West Virginia], that was an amazing privilege. It allowed me to get into the details and things I wouldn't have expected to be narratively exciting until you hear them stated by the people who were there.
Almost 20 years after moving to Portland, do you still take inspiration from being here?
I love Portland. That's where my house is. I'm there for the future. And I take a certain portion of pride in the very fact that Kelly Reichardt [Meek's Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy]—one of the great filmmakers working anywhere—has really made her career on the Pacific Northwest as a subject. That came because I moved there and she'd come visit me, and I introduced her to Jon Raymond. They just recombined their forces on her movie that's coming out in the spring, First Cow. I've gotten a lot out of Portland and its people, but I've also given something back as well.
How's the Velvet Underground documentary coming along?
Oh my God.
Is that an "Oh my God; don't ask"?
Well, we filmed all the interviews in 2018, so that was under my belt when I diverted my attention to Dark Waters. Adam Kurnitz, who co-edited Jarmusch's Stooges doc [Gimme Danger] and my partner Bryan O'Keefe, who has an encyclopedic knowledge [of the Velvet Underground], they've been collecting the most extraordinary archive of material. We also went to the Warhol Museum, brokered that entrée and got access to the most incredible materials. Anyway, I just watched a cut of what [Kurnitz] has been doing while I'm away. I'm so eager to finally have time to return my whole head into it.
What kind of footage is in that archive?
It's stuff people have never seen before, largely rooted in the experimental film culture that surrounded [that] moment. It's really trying to conjure that world and stay rooted in the people who witnessed it, not talking to people who followed telling us how great the Velvets were. That my goal: to let it really trip you out and take you somewhere in the music and refresh the experience and help you identify why it sounds the way it does. People will see images and clips and a lot of film on the band that they've never seen before, which is saying a lot, because there never was a lot.