New Queer Cinema pioneer Todd Haynes built his name on turning the melodrama genre inside out. Films like Carol (2015) and Far From Heaven (2002) are their own kind of protest films – fierce critiques of the institution of marriage cannily disguised as tear-jerking love stories. It seems odd then, that when Mark Ruffalo bought the rights to a New York Times article about Rob Bilott, a corporate lawyer turned environmental whistleblower, he wanted Haynes to direct the movie adaptation.
Yet Dark Waters as a Todd Haynes film makes sense. It is another protest film – this time about an underdog outsider concerned with the pollution of everyday American life. When farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) tells Bilot (Ruffalo) that residents of their West Virginia hometown have been drinking contaminated water, the attorney begins to mount a case against chemical company DuPont, a corporation he once defended. It’s an angry, elegant political thriller, rightly furious about the corporate gaslighting of ordinary people.
VICE met Haynes in London to talk about surveillance culture, 'forever chemicals' and the subversive power of an unhappy ending.
VICE: Why do you think Ruffalo thought you were the right fit for this?
Todd Haynes: There was a human component to a story like this that was essential for it to reach an audience, something that in my hands he felt would be achievable. The story had a sense of a lonely individual challenging a system that reminded me of great whistleblower films, particularly from the 1970s, and within that, particularly the [Alan J] Pakula/Gordon Willis Paranoia trilogy that I revisit on a regular basis.
Rob Bilott’s story lends itself to that era of American filmmaking. Our privacy anxieties – the internet and biometric facial recognition – draw similarities to 70s politics and this climate of suspicion and paranoia and being surveilled.
But privacy questions have become normalised. This film begins in the late 90s, safely ensconced in this post-regulation, pro-business, pro-industry [era] decades after the Reagan administration. There’s been this normalisation that the prerogatives of industry are going to determine policy drivers. Ironically, it was the Nixon administration that created the EPA [United States Environmental Protection Agency]. Environmentalists will say it was the golden era for regulation and for governments’ concern about the environment and creating regulatory systems that examine abuses and curtail it.
By the end of this movie, because of everything that Rob discovers and undergoes, it’s like you’ve gone through the looking glass again. All of a sudden everything looks suspicious, like it did in the 1970s, with that sense of mistrust and instability and conspiratorial systems of power.
'Forever chemicals' are the dangerous chemicals in nearly all of our water – and many products. How aware of these chemicals were you going into the project, and how much did you learn?
I learned so much. I mean, I knew that something was wrong with Teflon, like years and years ago, it was probably the early 2000s when this news, which started in the 20/20 report with Barbara Walters, went global very quickly. This must’ve been how it filtered down to average consumers, that Teflon wasn’t a safe product, but I think some convenient amnesia followed. People will say to me now, I just assumed that they fixed that.
Here in the UK, the government hasn’t provided a new chemical strategy since 1999. According to data from Unearthed, the regulation of UK water has been reduced by 50 percent in the last five years due to budget cuts. And with Brexit, there’s the possibility of even less regulation of these chemicals.
I always feel like the US sets the tone for global practices, industrial practices, right? We don’t operate in isolation from each other – one would like to think that the EU would have more rigour in oversight, compared to how far to the right we’ve gone, especially in the Trump era.
It’s dire. It’s serious. And look, the fossil fuel industry knows what’s coming, they are planning for changes in practices for renewable energy alternatives, they know it’s the future, they’re not idiots, right? Just how DuPont knew this story was coming – they’re not gonna make a big banner and say "This movie, it’s full of lies and it’s all these Hollywood liberals stirring it up", they’re gonna duck out, and hope the movie disappears. So it’s just remarkable when the governments actually become even more aggressive than the industry itself.
Have you heard anything from DuPont?
Some Ohio business consortium that came out with a puff piece right before the movie was released: “Don’t believe what you hear about Dark Waters, the Ohio business community provides robust jobs and economy to our state.” It was pretty superficial, but we think it probably came from DuPont.
"Better living through chemistry" is DuPont’s 1950s-style slogan in the film. It’s fascinating how the myth of wellness, which is really just a myth of capitalism, has persisted, even though we should know better, should be smarter…
And more discerning, and suspicious. Suspicious the way we were after the 60s and the 70s. This campaign by conservative administrations and pro-business administrations has changed the median, and we just accept a general assumption that profit motive is the norm.
How do we grab that needle and pull it back?
There’s crazy and toxic partisanship in the United States right now, we see it reflected in so many other democratic governments and countries. It’s frightening because the conservative side bears so many resemblances in the xenophobia and the anti-immigrant sensibilities – if not outright racism – that you see in the Trump administration. The fuelling of hatred and contempt for the Other further divides, but has also created much more openly progressive policies on the left: universal healthcare, gun control, things you couldn’t talk about ten years ago if you wanted the Democrats to win. That’s because the right has been so aggressive on its end, the left has to stand up, out of some of –
Yes. And these are populist positions, these have consensus among the voters. Who will win is the question. Corporations operate by shutting up the story, by paying off people – the one thing they can’t really afford is the truth. And DuPont was willing to settle, and settle, and settle. But guess what, the truth came out. And Wilbur Tennant’s single wish was granted.
Which makes it worth it.
It’s all worth it, even though the film doesn’t offer a silver bullet. I think movies about whistleblowers that give you that sense of pure victory at the end are disingenuous and don’t really reflect the world as it is.
And the real victory, getting the six illnesses identified as direct exposure to [forever chemical] PFOA – is the saddest victory in the world. It’s heartbreaking. But it’s all you have as actionable evidence to then push back against DuPont and make them culpable.
That kind of hero ending makes you feel as though you’ve done the work, but there’s still so much work to be done.
And we’ll never remove capitalism, we’ll never remove all the PFOA that’s in the water systems. What does that mean – you give up? You go back and buy more Teflon? No. We don’t like patriarchy, we don’t like capitalism – that doesn’t mean you don’t stand up to it, pick your battles and fight them.
The world is never gonna be the perfect place, we know that. Movies don’t always leave you with that, but I liked that this story really did. It’s a grown-up movie in the sometimes woefully juvenile times that we live in.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length. 'Dark Waters' is in UK cinemas from Friday 28th February.