Not a disaster movie?

Article by Helen Tunnicliffe

The Chemical Engineer visits the cinema to see how Hollywood tackles the subject of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy

The movie producer’s view

THE Deepwater Horizon semi-submersible rig had been preparing to seal the Macondo oil well 65 km off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 when the well suffered a catastrophic blowout. The rig exploded, killing 11 men. The blowout preventer, meant to prevent such a disaster, failed, and the well leaked an estimated 4.9m bbl of oil into the ocean, devastating the environment and killing wildlife, before the well was sealed 87 days later. BP, which had leased the Deepwater Horizon from Transocean, has ultimately paid US$61.6bn including fines and compensation for the tragedy.

The blowout was a disaster on a epic scale, and perhaps inevitably, it caught the eye of Hollywood. The film, Deepwater Horizon, has now been released and The Chemical Engineer spoke to producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura – whose company Di Bonaventura Pictures has also produced the Transformers series, Stardust, Constantine, Red and Red 2, and Side Effects - to find out more.

The film’s tagline is “Inspired by a true story of real life heroes”, and it was the human story that di Bonaventura wanted to tell.

“We had seen so much coverage of the environmental disaster and then I read a New York Times article that talked about 11 people having died. In all the coverage, I’d never read any reference to people who’d died,” he says.

“I don’t see this as a disaster movie, I see it more as a day-in-the-life movie”

That New York Times article, Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours, was written by David Barstow, David Rohde, and Stephanie Saul, and was meticulously pieced together from the survivors’ first-hand reports of the disaster. The screenplay and script was based on that article.

“I don’t see this as a disaster movie, I see it more as a day-in-the-life movie,” says di Bonaventura, adding: “When I started to get to know the story it really reminded me of a movie gone over-budget and over-schedule. People start doing things with the best of intentions, but that’s usually the thing that trips you up. It began to feel very familiar.”

Making it real

Making Deepwater Horizon realistic was important from the outset and the film ended up being an education for all involved.

“I learned, quite marvellously, what an incredible piece of machinery an oil rig is. The sophistication was surprising to me. Most people’s sense of oil is “We hit a big one!” and out shoots the bubbling crude, so I’m quite awed by what they do,” says di Bonaventura.

Unsurprisingly, di Bonaventura found it difficult to find a company willing to host a visit to a rig, but eventually, a group of seven of the film-makers travelled to a rig in Mexico, to see what it was like and to get a feel for the atmosphere. Kurt Russell, who played “Mr Jimmy” Harrell worked with a man with the same job on another rig to make his character more authentic. Five oil industry consultants worked on the film, with one or two on set every day.

“We built a replica rig of 85% proportion. It was over 2m pounds [over 900 t] of steel, the helicopter deck was 85, 90 feet [27 m] up and we landed a helicopter on that. It was an engineering marvel”

In addition, two of the disaster’s survivors, Mike Williams, played in the film by Mark Wahlberg, and Caleb Holloway, played by Dylan O’Brien, also acted as consultants and attended the shoot every day.

Seeing, and using, audio, visuals and transcripts from the investigation and court proceedings after the disaster helped to give a sense of character of the real people involved and further add to the realism. The film makers were keen to incorporate these characters into the script.

“One important scene which most people probably don’t focus on is the scene between Kurt Russell [Mr Jimmy] and Mark Wahlberg [Mike Williams] after Vidrine [played by John Malkovich] has explained the bladder effect as the reason behind the strange pressure reading in the drill pipe. These guys are smart, the judge says it was a made up thing, but it had to have made sense to them. We were trying to show that it’s confusing in the moment, but these guys are smart, I don’t believe they were bullied into anything,” says di Bonaventura.

survivor: Mike williams played by mark wahlberg
Survivor: Mike Williams played by Mark Wahlberg (Enrique Chediak)

Shooting the film

In an age when many films are shot against a green screen with computerised graphics (CGI) added later, the realism of Deepwater Horizon is quite impressive. However, there is a good reason for that. A lot of it isn’t CGI.

“We built a replica rig of 85% proportion. It was over 2m pounds [over 900 t] of steel, the helicopter deck was 85, 90 feet [27 m] up and we landed a helicopter on that. It was an engineering marvel, actually,” says di Lorenzo.

He says that during his film career, he has learned that the more that can be filmed practically, the less you can tell where the visual effects begin. His tactic has always been to build as much as possible. The crew also built huge water tanks to film in, the biggest one holding almost 8m l.

“There was a really great benefit that none of us saw – when we were up there, all of us, you felt the height, you felt the fear of looking down and seeing the fire on the water, so I think from a performance level it really helped the actors to be put in the situation,” says di Bonaventura.

He admits, however, that it was physically and logistically demanding to shoot the film on the replica rig.


Unsurprisingly, BP, Transocean, Halliburton and Schlumberger wanted nothing to do with the film. However, it was the families of the 11 men who died that Deepwater Horizon’s makers were more concerned about. They wanted the film to be a fitting memorial.

“We had ten of the 11 families visit the set. We invited the others but they chose not to come. They spent the day on the set, met the actors who were portraying their loved ones, and they were part of the premiere in New Orleans. We have gotten incredibly positive feedback and they have been very appreciative. We did what we said we were going to do, which was to show what this world was like and what these people risk. We were not going to whitewash what happened. These men didn’t die in the easiest way,” says di Bonaventura.

The families, he said, told him that they found some sort of catharsis in going to the set and seeing the film, while di Bonaventura himself gained a new understanding of oil and gas engineering and the necessity of not taking the engineers’ ultimately dangerous jobs for granted. He stresses he is absolutely not anti-oil.

“I learned to appreciate what engineers do in a way I’ve never done before. One of the fun things about being in the movie industry is getting to peek into other people’s jobs, and either appreciate them more or not, and in this case, definitely more,” says di Lorenzo.

on set: Director Peter Berg, Jeremy Sande, Dylan O’Brien, and Mark Wahlberg
On Set: Director Peter Berg, Jeremy Sande, Dylan O’Brien, and Mark Wahlberg (David Lee)

The expert’s view

A former BP safety engineer with offshore experience, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity, accompanied The Chemical Engineer to the cinema to view the film and give us her opinions. Overall, she thought the film was good, but it is not all perfect.

“First of all, although Deepwater Horizon is based on real events it is inevitable to have trade-offs between accuracy and drama. It is a big challenge to transform a 360-page report with complex detail leading to a serious incident into a 2-hour film,” she began, adding: “It’s gripping, but the film would have worked better if it took a documentary-style approach to the incident without focussing the blame just on BP, portraying them as villains, intimidating and putting pressure on the rig crew. I can’t see what purpose that would serve to the industry!”

Our contact also believes that the start of the film should have warned that the facts had been compressed and simplified, beyond the simple “based on true events”.

BP has distanced itself from the film. Geoff Morrell, BP’s senior vice president of communications and external affairs, said that it is not an accurate portrayal of the events that led to the accident, BP staff, nor the character of the company. He added: “In fact, it ignores the conclusions reached by every official investigation: that the accident was the result of multiple errors made by a number of companies. Coming as it does six-and-a-half years after the accident, the movie also does not reflect who we are today, the lengths we’ve gone to restore the Gulf, the work we’ve done to become safer, and the trust we’ve earned back around the world.”

The start of the film should have warned that the facts had been compressed and simplified, beyond the simple “based on true events”

Our contact agrees that the movie’s portrayal of the behaviour of BP staff is “far from reality of the culture and values of BP” in her experience, and it was a “shocking and sad thing to see”. “BP is really not like this”, she says.

The first thing she notes positively is the description, by Mike Williams’ daughter, of the oil beneath the seafloor as a “monster”. This is a theme that runs through the film, leading the viewer to wonder whether the characters as portrayed in the film understand the nature of the “monster” and what they’re dealing with. There is a sense of complacency throughout the film, something reflected in the incident reports.

“Activities on oil and gas rigs are well-managed, generally. You might have people injuring themselves every day, but these kind of big bangs don’t happen all the time. Hence the message is that addressing complacency, ambiguous competencies, and unclear accountabilities is really important,” she says.

However, references to standard safety procedures and assessments on a rig are missed many times in the film, according to our contact.

“Right at the beginning, at the helideck, Mr Jimmy, the offshore installations manager [OIM] is speaking to the Schlumberger guys, over the noise of the rotor, and just saying ‘I can’t hear you’. There was no handover between the OIMs. The OIM is like the captain of the ship, who has overall responsibility. You have to have a handover, see the log, what’s been done, what hasn’t been done, take time to review everything. All we witnessed was a number of verbal conversations,” says our contact.

During the negative pressure tests on the drill line and kill line, where there was a clear chance of a kick, our contact was puzzled by the presence of operators on the drilling floor, which she doubts would have happened on the real Deepwater Horizon. Most of the procedures, she says, stress that you must not put yourself in harm’s way. She was also concerned by the complete lack of risk assessment, or attention to process safety and potential hazards, by the film’s characters before the tests. There was no indication during the film that the full potential of the hazards or consequences in case of a kick was fully understood. Transocean would have had a safety review for the rig but this was not referred to at all during the film.

Even to an expert, however, the film is not without merit. While not factually perfect, our industry can still learn from it

In the film, the rig has no contact with onshore at all until Andrea Fleytas (played by Gina Rodriguez) puts out the mayday distress call when the rig blows up.

left to right: Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien) and Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg)
Left to Right: Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien) and Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) (David Lee)

Our contact feels that the movie failed to show who was actually in charge on the rig. It should be the OIM, Mr Jimmy, but in many cases, the BP executive Vidrine is portrayed as calling the shots. “There were a dozen places where the rig’s personnel could have stood their ground and spoken out but didn’t, which deeply touches on the culture of all the companies involved, not just BP’s.” Mr Jimmy was called away at a critical point in the negative pressure test for a trivial matter, and later on, when asked a question from the drill shack as to how to proceed, he was vague and uncommitted.

The reality: The rig burned for two days before sinking into the sea (US Coastguard)

It makes you think

Many of the other errors are more minor, but grate nevertheless. For example, on arrival at the rig, Mike is shown running down a flight of steps, in his civvies, without holding the handrail. Andrea walks onto the bridge, her domain, without so much as a pair of safety boots on. There are also the continual clashes between BP and Transocean employees.

Even to an expert, however, the film is not without merit. While not factually perfect, our contact says the oil and gas industry can still learn from it.

“It made me think about the risks of going out to a rig. It had an effect on me. The human loss side of the movie is very sad. We shouldn’t be sending anyone out unless we know they’re coming back safely. Definitely many barriers were impaired and the danger is when we think those barriers are there and they’re not,” she says.

The look and feel of the rig, the atmosphere onboard and the sense of support, family and camaraderie, is realistic says our contact. She praised its portrayal of Mike Williams, how his knowledge of the rig saved him and others, emphasising the importance of personnel being aware of the hazards surrounding them. “I have to say that BP have made many good changes in the company to ensure learnings from the event are well embedded in how the company works.”

She agreed that the film is good at showing the human tragedy, and the consequences of repeated failures. “Seeing this could make others realise that it could happen to any operator,” our contact says. “What I got out of it is that we as an industry are still trying to understand the nature of the ‘monster’ and how that ‘monster’ can come at us, and destroy us.”

The reporter’s view

I wasn’t expecting to like this film. It’s a film portraying a disaster, one I reported on extensively, and one I know doesn’t end well. However, Deepwater Horizon is a superb disaster film. It is gripping and thrilling, and you can easily warm to the three main heroes – Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), “Mr Jimmy” Harrell (Kurt Russell) and Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez).

The film builds up the tension right from the off – Mike’s alarm going off to wake him up, Andrea’s car refusing to start, even a bird strike on the helicopter – you’re left always expecting and waiting for something to happen. We are first introduced to the Deepwater Horizon through footage of a submersible filming the drill pipe and the wellhead to look for problems. As the submersible turns away, the camera zooms in on an ominous stream of bubbles suddenly bursting up through the seafloor by the wellhead itself. Here we go… But of course the disaster doesn’t start there.

Oil drilling explained: A can of Coke, a sharpened metal pen tube and A bottle of honey (David Lee)

Every good disaster film has to have a ‘baddie’, and in the case of this film, it was obvious right from the start that the message was that BP was the bad guy. The first time we encounter anyone from BP in the film is in the Bristow helicopter departure lounge, where two executives, Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza, wearing BP-branded shirts, are waiting for a trip out to the rig and instantly put up Mr Jimmy’s back. This lays the groundwork for the rest of the film, with the two men continually at loggerheads with the rig’s predominantly Transocean staff. The helicopter journey itself is shown in great detail, with great aerial sweeping shots out over a beautiful, pristine environment, as if to remind you what is about to be lost.

The bad guy?: John Malkovich stars as BP’s Don Vidrine (David Lee)

As Mike, Mr Jimmy, Andrea, Vidrine and Kaluza arrive on the rig, the tension continues to build as they pass the Schlumberger staff, who are taking the same helicopter back to shore. While the two groups cannot hear each other, it is implied that the Schlumberger staff are leaving before they can possibly have had time to carry out vital tests on the cement. More tension.

The joke is on BP all along, with two Transocean staff singing The O’Jays lyrics “Money, money, money, money” every time BP is mentioned. BP staff on the rig continually discuss how over- schedule and over-budget the drilling of the well is, and put pressure on the ‘goodies’, the Transocean staff, to make up time and come up with positive results that mean they can finish earlier rather than later. And we all know that’s never going to lead to anything good. In a later shot of Vidrine covered head-to-toe in drilling mud, there is mysteriously a clean patch on his hard hat right where the BP logo is…

As someone with no firsthand knowledge of rigs or oil drilling, I found the film quite informative. The explanation of oil drilling from Mike’s daughter in a scene right at the beginning, involving a can of Coca-Cola (the pressurised oil well), a sharpened metal pen tube (the drill) and a squeezy bottle of honey (the drilling mud) was a great way to explain to any lay person watching the film how oil drilling and wells work. However, the failure of the ‘mud’ after a few minutes and the spraying of Coke all over the Williams’ kitchen was an early reminder of what was to come. The film shows how a semi- submersible rig sits in the water, and stays in place with the help of thrusters. Even the process of the negative pressure tests, in the drill line and the kill line, which ultimately led to the disaster, is shown in non-technical, easy-to-understand ways, adding to the realism for the uninitiated viewer who might otherwise be left scratching their head.

The musical soundtrack of the film, though minimal, is actually very effective. The main theme is largely electronic, sweeping and calm, and effective whether looking out over a peaceful ocean or watching the Deepwater Horizon collapse in flames in slow motion. However, music in this film is mostly notable by its absence. The most abiding sounds are bubbling, rushing water, with underwater shots of the drill pipe and wellhead, screeching metal and yes, explosions and fire. Mostly explosions and fire, in fact, which was occasionally a little overwhelming and could make it hard to hear or understand the dialogue.

One of the film’s greatest successes is the portrayal of the human disaster. This is not a disaster that happened in a screenwriter’s imagination, this was a real event that affected real lives. The characters are well-played, rounded and likeable and you root for them. Well, the Transocean ones anyway! The BP characters are perhaps a little one-sided, and dare I say, a little too pantomime-bad-guy, particularly in the case of Vidrine. It doesn’t, however, detract too much from the film – remember people, this is Hollywood.

This is not a disaster that happened in a screenwriter’s imagination, this was a real event that affected real lives

The ending is heartbreaking and ultimately believable, and focuses on the very human cost of this tragedy. The relief of Williams’ wife when she finds him, the grief and anger of a father who has lost his son, children clinging to their daddies, the anxious faces of the gathered masses looking desperately at each new arrival to see if it is their father, boyfriend, husband, son, all in slow motion - with frequent looks back to Mike’s stitched and bewildered face.

Surprisingly, at no point does the film feel like it’s exploiting its subject matter. It is quite sensitively done, portraying the chaos and the horror without resorting to Hollywood shock tactics. The storyline clearly deviates from the actual course and timeline of events, but this isn’t a documentary, and even some of the more far-fetched seeming scenes, like when Williams is thrown 20 ft across a hallway and pinned to a bulkhead behind a door by a huge gas explosion whilst Skyping his wife from his quarters, or Mr Jimmy caught in an explosion whilst showering, are based in fact.

Deepwater Horizon does not forget the dead. The names of the 11 men who lost their lives in the tragedy appear, one by one, with a photo of each just before the end credits roll. Is this film a fitting memorial? I don’t know, but it is poignant and certainly gives pause for thought.

Article by Helen Tunnicliffe

Senior reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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