For the past few weeks I have been searching for the key to what makes a horror film truly scary.
My research was motivated by a recent film festival challenge, one among many that are launched in Fall as Halloween approaches and we celebrate monsters, ghouls and witches. I decided to try digging deeper than cliche horror, beneath the blood, gore, zombies and vampires… to explore the psychology of horror. I never expected to find my answer in a film about the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
Witnessing the inevitable disintegration of a complex technological system is micro/macro, metaphorically like watching the end of civilization as we knew it. There are plenty of Deepwater monsters including the corner-cutting executives at BP who literally got away with murder-by-negligence, or the ultimate Godzilla, the wounded Earth Mother unchained, a raging, fire-breathing dragon.
The reason this film is so much scarier than a Hollywood slasher film is because it is not a conjured-up fiction. Sit back and witness one of the epic horrors of the decade. Like the visions of war, terrorism or a natural disaster, this man-made cataclysm is real and it unfolds like a nightmare. As we sit back in our comfortable recliners munching popcorn and a soft drink, the silver screen presents an eye-witness observation of death on a massive scale.
The Deepwater Horizon blew up on April 20, 2010. I remember watching the days become months as the oil continued to spew millions of barrels of oil out into the Gulf each day while attempts to cap it off failed. This film only depicts the initial disaster and very briefly touches on the findings of the initial trial. It doesn’t cover the cleanup or the devastation to the shoreline and the creatures that once inhabited the waters of the Gulf.
Director Peter Berg was challenged at each step in the making of Deepwater Horizon, most notably by the executives at BP or British Petroleum who did everything they could to stop or impede the film’s production.
“Because the explosion and oil spill was so huge, that’s what dominated the area. You would go to these small towns in southern Louisiana, places you had never heard of, such as Port Fourchon, and you would see harbours full of boats with brand-new shiny engines, new trucks, people wearing brand-new Rolexes and new shoes. So many lawyers had moved in, there were so many lawsuits, and everyone who lived in that area had sued BP and made millions of dollars. They called them “spillionaires.” A lot of people got rich – some deserved it, some probably didn’t.”
That was just the first impressions Berg gathered up as he began exploring the region where the disaster took place. He had no idea then how difficult BP planned to impede his effort. Paid consultants would show up for a day of two and then call in sick, never to be heard from again. He was barred from accessing any oil rigs.
“We couldn’t even fly by one,” says Berg. “At one point we were in a helicopter on a tour of a rig called the Nautilus and were told if we got any closer we would be perceived to be a threat and they were going to defend themselves.”
So, production designer Chris Seagers and his team of welders spent 8 months building an 85% scale replica of the Deepwater Horizon using 3.2 million pounds of steel plus a functioning helipad!
It would get worse, much worse. His studio, Lionsgate had a wall of attorneys assigned to the film. He had as much trouble fighting with them for what he could DO and he did with BP over what he couldn’t do. Deepwater Horizon makes one specific point absolutely clear and Berg fought for a week to be permitted to say it. This disaster was caused by corporate greed.