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Margaret Brown

Exploring the Aftermath

Oct 29, 2014 Margaret Brown Bookmark and Share

On April 20, 2010, an explosion on the offshore oil drilling rig, Deepwater Horizon, killed 11 crewmen and triggered the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history. The state-of-the-art rig, owned by Transocean and leased by BP, was positioned in the Gulf of Mexico, about 130 miles southeast of New Orleans. It sank on April 22, leaving a well gushing hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the ocean over the next 87 days.

At the time, documentary filmmaker and Mobile, Alabama native, Margaret Brown, was in Ecuador, writing a screenplay about a local surfing town. Her father sent her pictures of their family house in Mobile with oil containment booms surrounding it. The booms were placed there by a volunteer fire department. “It looked like an invasion of some kind,” Brown says. “It was surreal and weird. After seeing those pictures and talking to people in the areano one knew what was going to happenI thought maybe I should try to make a movie.”

Brown’s documentary, The Great Invisible, examines the emotional, psychological, and physical toll that the explosion had on Gulf Coast residents and workersfrom injured Deepwater Horizon crewmembers and their family to fishermen and shrimperswhile raising questions about the safety of offshore drilling and Americans’ reliance on oil.

The Great Invisible won the Grand Jury Award for documentary feature at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. Margaret Brown spoke with Under the Radar in Beverly Hills last week.

Chris Tinkham (Under the Radar): After talking to Gulf Coast residents, was there any kind of prep work period before deciding that this was going to be a full-fledged documentary feature?

Margaret Brown: There was no prep. My last film, The Order of Myths, won a Peabody Award, so I was going to the ceremony [in May], and my producer, Jason Orans said, “Why don’t you go to the Peabody Awards with a proposal about how much you need to get people down there this week, and hand it to ITVS?” And so I did. I was down there less than a week later with a full crew.

Was a feature-length documentary the original idea?

Yeah, it was always a feature-length documentary.

Was there a key piece of footage that kind of brought the film together for you?

It went in so many stages. At first, there was a switch to making the film less about what happens when the cameras go away in Alabama, where I grew up. And then there was a moment when I realized, about two years in, that this was about a larger web of how we’re all connected to this factory under the Gulf of Mexico that makes our lives very convenient and allows us to get everywhere. That was a bigger thing. A footage moment was when Doug Brown [Deepwater Horizon chief mechanic], who was on the rig, gave me a DVD that he’d made to show his family what it was like to live offshore. He was really proud of his job. He’d been with the Deepwater Horizon since it was built in Korea; he was there. He knew it like his child almost. He was very proud of it, and so he made a movie, like an hour-long movie, that showed life on the Deepwater Horizon, specifically his life and what it was like, the day-to-day. He gave it to me, and I remember watching it, and it was like watching the Titanic before it sank. It was unbelievable. It was one of those moments where you think, “I cannot believe he just gave me that.” I called him and said that I’d really like to use it, and he wanted me to, so that was incredible. It was a gift to the film.

How did the footage with Steve Wyatt [Bahamas Oil Refinery Co.] and the other oil execs come about?

Through meeting a bunch of people, I met Steve one night at the Offshore Technology Conference, OTC in Houston, which is the biggest gathering of oil folks in the world. It happens in Houston every year, I think in May. A bunch of his friends get together every year, and they have dinner. His friend Hal McWhorter said, “You should come and film it. We’re all going to sit around and talk. These are all my friends.” As they say, they’ve been in the oil business for over 30 years. They remember when there were faxes and your word was your bond, and they explain what the whole culturelonghorns on Cadillacswas like. That was the first night I met Steve, when we filmed that. We kept in touch, because the story he tells about his dad and Saddam Hussein is insane, and I knew that I wanted to film with him again. When anyone asks, “What are you looking for in characters?” I would always say, “I want the best storytellers.” In the South, it’s the most important thingat least, in my familyto be a great storyteller. And Steve got that. I said, “Who can you get together who can talk about what Americans don’t understand about oil, and how we’re connected to it?” We talked a lot about who should be there. He picked friends that he thought were really smart and could explain it in a smart way. That scene is one of my favorite scenes, because I think some of the things they say are really important for people to hear. It’s interesting because they’re smoking cigars, and I think when people first see that scene, they think it’s going to be something really different than it actually is. That’s why I love that scene, because what you’re seeing is different than what they’re saying. Some of my favorite stuff about making movies is when you get something like that, that works on many levels.

Where’s the story at right now in terms of litigation?

There was just an $18 billion settlement that’s being appealed by BP. Neither of my characters [Douglas Brown and crew survivor Stephen Stone] were part of the class that that was related to, so they haven’t gotten any money yet. But I’ve heard rumblings that one of them might soon. It seems crazy to me that the people who were on the rig the day it exploded, some of them still might not have gotten money from that, especially since they both suffer greatly from PTSD. Doug has had like 10 operations, and each time Transocean argues with him whether or not they’re related to the incident. So, it’s been a battle the whole way.

In terms of the food and the water in the area, has there been sickness related to contamination?

My film isn’t as much focused on that. It’s more about the human ecology of the spill. That’s one way you could put it. I did start shooting environmental stuff when I first went down there, and it became clear about two years in that these answers about what’s safe in the environment take a really long time to figure out. It would be like a 20-year film. I would go back and I would interview the same people again a year later or two years later and spend time with them and follow them around and shoot them vérité, and they just didn’t have any answers yet. They said it’s still being measured. So I just felt it didn’t work for this movie. In a way, it made my job simpler, although I do think there’s a big film there.

There is that one scene where a local gentleman is showing the camera a small plastic bag of shrimp, and brown fluid is collected at the bottom.

Yeah. There are things people will say when the camera’s on, and there are things they will say when the camera’s off. I think shrimpers are afraid to say anything about what’s in the water. So they might say, when the camera’s off, that yeah, there’s still stuff out there. When the camera’s on, maybe not.

What were you looking for in terms of music, and how did David Wingo become involved?

Jeff Nichols’ movie, Take Shelter, the score is incredible, and I knew after watching that, I wanted to work with David. And also, David’s a friend. I live in Austin a lot of the time, and David lives in Austin. He’s friends with my boyfriend, and we’ve talked before. He had seen The Order of Myths, and he had expressed interest in working with me. But I had never done a score before. I told him before we started, “You’re going to have to teach me how to do this, because I have no idea.” My dad’s a musician, and I grew up going into the studio and watching him work on albums. It’s such an interesting process, and it was really fun when it wasn’t completely stressful. It was fun figuring out how to convey to him what I wanted in a scene emotionally with the music. He is really good at translating what I would tell him into something. It was fun to see, after I would explain the feeling I wanted, what he would come back with. At first, I had a really hard time with it, but after a while, we got a shorthand going, and it was much easier for me. Then it became super fun, because it would be quicker. It was one of the most pleasurable parts about the movie, ‘cause I’d never done that before.

Where are you living now?

I kind of live out here? We just got a sublet in Laurel Canyon for six months. I just moved out of my apartment in New York. I usually live in Austin or New York, but right now we’re out here.

Your last two films are tied to where you grew up, but was there a disconnection before college that made you want to

—Leave Alabama? Hell yeah. I hated it growing up. I thought it was super conservative. I didn’t hate it, because I had my punk rock friends that were different, and I do think that when you’re in such an environment that’s very conservative, you almost have to create your own fun. You have to make up stuff. I used to get Maximum Rocknroll in the mail, and it was like this gift every month. Stuff like that, where you have to figure out your creativity. I don’t know if I’m explaining it right, but I’ve talked about it to other freaks who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and it’s a similar story, coming from a smaller place where there’s less counterculture. I think it just makes you creative. And I’m glad I grew up like that. It gave us a huge gift to grow up in Alabama and figure it out.

It seem like that disconnection lends some


Yes, or objectivity. But there’s also the connection, so there’s an insider’s perspective that you can share with viewers.

I think what you’re saying is that I’m outside of it but I’m of it as well.

Yeah. I think that works for you movies, that you have both perspectives.

I don’t know why it works. But I know that I’m fascinated by the South as a region. Just three days ago we were in New Orleans, my boyfriend and Imy boyfriend, Jeff [Peixoto], who shot the movie, the main cinematographerwere there for the New Orleans Film Festival, and we went to get a coffee or something, and this pygmy goat comes out in the street and starts head-butting me in the leg and then moves over to Jeff. I think it’s why I like the South. There’s so much about it that’s not homogenous in the way the rest of the country is. It still has character. Even the way my mother’s accent is so specific and regional. I just love that. I’m sure everyone feels that about where they’re from, but I think I just feel a really strong connection to that place.

When I spoke to you about Be Here to Love Me nine years ago, as we were wrapping up, you said that you wanted to make something about where you’re from in the South. Did that turn out to be The Order of Myths?


OK, because when you said that, I thought maybe you might be working on something Katrina-related.

Right. No, at the time, I thought it was going to be a narrative about my mom, who was this Mardi Gras queen. But then I went down there and started interviewing people, and they were so interesting. It was just clear to me that it was a documentary and not a narrative. So I decided to make it a documentary, and my funders went along with it, which was awesome.

It seems that you’ve been fliting with narrative for a long time.

Yeah, I have.

Have you ever worked in narrative film?

I’ve just made shorts. Maybe I’ll make a narrative next, but there’s something really seductive about documentary. When I started making The Order of Myths and thought it was a narrative, and had written part of a script, as I was interviewing people I realized that they’re just so much better than anything that I could write. So, I’m thinking, “I’m not even going to try. This is too good.” It would be a missed opportunity to not make a doc. I feel very open to whatever happens next. It just has to be something that captivates me in the same way, whether it’s a narrative or a doc. But the act of documentary filmmaking, waking up and knowing that you’re going to film someone doing something and having no idea what it is, and having to rely on your wits to get the best thing you can, or to figure out how to film it, I love that. That’s when I feel most alive. Maybe not the most alivesurfing or that. That’s why I flirt with narrative but keep coming back to the docs.

So is that surfing film off the table?

No, it’s not off the table. I need to go back to it. But it’s been four years since I was working on it, so I don’t even know what it is anymore. I think when you write something, it’s almost like a living document of what you’re thinking of at that time. If you made a film four years later, it would be really different, even if it’s about the same thing. So, it’ll be fun to revisit that script and see what’s salvageable.

Have you had any interest in working in television?

I really want to work in television. I’m interested in this idea of a larger canvas and world, where you can work with characters over time. I’m totally a TV junkie because of Netflix. I watch all the shows. I’m really into The Killing right now. I loved Top of the Lake last year, and I loved The Wire and Friday Night Lights. When I’m making stuff, I usually don’t watch movies. I usually just watch episodic television. Why do you ask about TV? Just because that’s the direction that lots of filmmakers are going right now?

That’s part of it. I also was thinking about how many years there are between your projects, and I didn’t know if an hour-long project or 30-minute show might be available to you in the interim.

Yeah. No, I’d love to. This film took up so much of my life. The Order of Myths was less than a year. That movie was fast. But with these movies, the whole year after you make it is spent doing publicity and festivals and everything. So, even though it might take you a year, then there’s another year afterward that you have to work on the movie and do other stuff on the side if you can, if you don’t have enough money from the movie. It’s funny how it works, and I feel like I’ve figured out how to make a living doing it so far, but you never know. It’s so freelance, so you don’t know how its’ going to work out for the next thing.

Did you know that the poster for Be Here to Love Me was going to appear in Boyhood?

No, Rick did not tell me. I wasn’t at Sundance this year; I was finishing this film. And when it premiered, a bunch of people texted me and were like, “Did you know that Be Here to Love Me is in Boyhood?!” I was so flattered, because Rick Linklater has really been a supporter of mine. It was cool, and I was so happy.

That was shot years ago, and you never knew.

I know! He never told me, and I’ve had so many conversations with him in between. It was a crazy surprise. Yeah, that’s funny. I never thought about it that way. It wasn’t like they just shot it last year; he did that years ago. No, I had no idea. And Lee [Daniel], who shot that scene, also shot Be Here to Love Me. So yeah, weird. Many layers of why I should have known that in advance. But it was really cool to get those emails during Sundance from all these excited friends.

What are some of your music obsessions at the moment?

This is sort of embarrassing, but because of a script I’ve been working on, I’ve been listening to a lot of raggaeton music. Another script that I’m working on has a lot of ‘80s punk bands, so I’ve been listening to that. Left to my own devices, I listen to such a wide range of stuff, but to get in the world of the scripts, I make myself soundtracks.

Can you talk a little bit about The Great Invisible‘s affiliation with TakePart?

Sure. One of the reasons I partnered with Participant was because of the long tail they give a film with the outreach that they do. I don’t consider myself this activist filmmaker, although I hope that my films make a difference. With The Order of Myths and this film, I hope that they change the way people think about the environment and morality and how we treat people. But I knew that, if there’s action to be done on this movie, I would have a really strong partner working with me to get people to care about it. I feel like a film is just a part of it. It’s ridiculous to think your film could singlehandedly change a conversation, but it can start a conversation or be part of the conversation, and I thought, with a partner like this, it really extends your reach, and it’s exciting.

The Great Invisible is now playing in select cities. Click the link below for screening information.


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