Dylan O'Brien, left, and Mark Wahlberg in Deepwater Horizon, which was filmed in New Orleans and opens here Sept. 30.
"Make sure you get it right."
Sporting a simple black T-shirt, with waves of long brown hair cascading from his Wahlburgers-branded baseball cap, actor and producer Mark Wahlberg, fresh from his 6:30 a.m. tee time, recounts his local golf buddies' initial reaction to Deepwater Horizon: A certain skepticism, born of their belief in the story's importance.
The film, opening in theaters Friday, is a tense, often terrifying depiction of the blowout, explosion, and subsequent fire aboard the offshore oil-drilling rig on April 20, 2010, killing 11, injuring 17, and leading to the largest oil spill in U.S. history. It's Deepwater Horizon's focus on "the human tragedy" that motivated Wahlberg, who plays the rig's chief electronics technician, Mike Williams, to bring the project to fruition.
"When I realized that 11 people lost their lives, I was a bit surprised that there wasn't enough attention put on that," Wahlberg says, echoing co-stars Kate Hudson and Kurt Russell and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. In their recollections, it was the potential ecological consequences of the BP oil discharge, and not the disaster that started it, which broke through to the national consciousness in the spring and summer of 2010.
"I had seen all this coverage of the environmental disaster, and I don't recall ever hearing that 11 people had died," di Bonaventura says. "So, when I read the article in The New York Times [on which the film is based], I was surprised about it. And I was like, 'Well, there's something wrong in not knowing about that, and why don't I know?' And as you dug into the story, the story was so clearly made for a movie in the sense of what happened on that day. There are events that you couldn't make up from a fictional point of view. If we had said to you that the BP executives came that day to give an award for safety and it blew up two to three hours later, you'd go, 'Pffft.'"
Russell, who plays the rig's offshore installation manager, Jimmy Harrell, is saltier in his assessment.
"I assumed there was a media prejudice, but I had no idea the media prejudice expanded to choosing potential ecological disaster over real human death and catastrophe," he says. "Can anybody sitting at this table tell me that the media gave a shit about the people living on that rig and working on that rig?"
Under the direction of Peter Berg, who collaborated with Wahlberg on 2013's Lone Survivor and the upcoming Patriots Day, about the Boston Marathon bombings, capturing the architecture and the atmosphere of the rig became paramount. The filmmakers sought permission to shoot on working offshore rigs and attempted to buy a retired rig from a salvage yard before deciding to build an 85 percent scale model of the Deepwater Horizon on the site of the former Six Flags New Orleans.
"At first, the oil world looked at us with suspicion," di Bonaventura says, but "gradually, over time, as people were interacting with us, they more and more embraced us."
Whether the film does in fact "get it right" has recently come into question, however. As WWL-TV's David Hammer reports, a number of details in Deepwater Horizon, including the actions of British Petroleum's Don Vidrine (John Malkovich) and deputy dynamic positioning officer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), "diverge from the public record." The result is a film that returns the attention to the victims, the survivors, and their families, but in the process smoothes out the complications of real life to fit within the confines of a big-budget action movie — of which Berg has become one of Hollywood's go-to directors.
"The reason he's the right guy is Pete's a very unusual person. He has a surplus of machismo and a surplus of soul, which is a rare combination," di Bonventura says. "He is very emotionally in tune, and usually the machismo runs over that, but you needed to have the guts to take this on."
Wahlberg and Hudson spent a significant amount of time with Mike and Felicia Williams to prepare for the film, and Russell, who was unable to meet Harrell in person, watched extensive footage of Harrell's testimony to the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Investigation as part of his research for the role.
"Nobody knew the rig better than him," Wahlberg says of Williams, one of six oil-industry veterans who consulted on the production. "He was the last one off. He's very capable of articulating it, telling the story in a way that really kind of puts you there. But the thing that I cherished most were the times where I got to see a guy who obviously has some serious post-traumatic stress smile and laugh and feel relief."
"Felicia, the great thing she said was, 'Kate, minutes felt like an eternity,'" Hudson remembers. "I get little chills just even thinking about that, because unfortunately that happens way too often for a lot of families. It's that thing, isn't it? It's that thing that, in a flash, your life can just change completely. We are very resilient, but we're also mortal and fragile."
Wahlberg emphasized the emotional response to the film's U.S. premiere, which was held Sept. 19 at New Orleans' Orpheum Theatre.
"To have the families come to me [after the premiere] with tears in their eyes — tears of joy that finally, even though it was long overdue, their loved ones were recognized and acknowledged in a way that they had hoped [they] would have been initially — that was very special for me," he says.