In Margaret Brown’s 2008 documentary “The Order of Myths,” the filmmaker explores the continuing racial tensions in a small town of New Orleans. More than 150 years after the abolition of slavery, the movie captures its continuing reverberations. Her follow-up, “The Great Invisible,” also focuses on the lingering effects of a traumatic period: The aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010, which killed 11 workers and caused the largest spill in U.S. history. While BP and Transocean faced serious criticism in the ensuing months, Brown’s movie looks beyond the chaos to find a more human component in the story — by talking to the survivors and blue collar workers impacted by the tragedy. The result is a tender, poetic look at the intimate ramifications of environmental neglect.
After winning the grand jury prize at SXSW, “The Great Invisible” was picked up by Radius-TWC, which opens the movie in limited release today. Brown spoke to Indiewire earlier this month.
How have the issues in the movie changed since “The Great Invisible” premiered at SXSW?
There’s the huge settlement that happened with BP, which has been in the news, and the Climate March. The conversation around the film feels a little bit more relevant now. Also, the fifth anniversary of the spill is coming up pretty soon. I just feel like it’s a really interesting moment for the film to come out.
Did you have that anniversary in mind as you were working on the film?
I always knew the film would be longitudinal. I was curious what would happen when all the cameras went away. I didn’t time it to that, though. I think our TV release would be sometime around then. ITVS was one of the first companies onboard, and they’re doing this hand-in-hand with Pivot.
This isn’t a traditional talking heads movie. How did you develop a visual approach to telling this story?
I wanted to tell the story of the oil spill. It’s a look at the American south through the lens of oil consumption. That’s the way I like to talk about it. I started making it because it’s a personal story. It’s where I’m from. It got much bigger because I got more curious about our relationship to oil as a country. We don’t think about it. There’s an invisible relationship, to use that word, which we don’t question even though it fuels our lives. Then there’s also the landscape of the south. I wanted to do something that worked on a lot of layers. All my favorite movies have a bunch of things happening at once.
I thought a lot about “Harlan County, U.S.A.” in terms of having a sense of place. That film has it in spades. And it’s also an activist story that’s super-effective. In terms of things that do a lot at once, this is a weird reference, but I really like “Top of the Lake.” I’ve been really inspired by it. I don’t think you can see that it in my movie, but it exists on a lot of different planes. In one sense it’s a mystery and in another sense it’s about a spiritual leader, and this girl’s family. I like stories where you can’t pin down exactly what it is. It has a multiplicity of meanings. A lot of films are just about one thing. It’s challenging and essential to make film that are about much more. As a filmmaker, it keeps me more interested.
That’s certainly the case with your last two movies. “The Order of Myths” deals with racial segregation in New Orleans even though it’s never explicitly stated.
I didn’t know exactly that was what it was going to be about until after the film. I knew there was segregated Mardi Gras. But I didn’t realize until I was interviewing this black grandfather who said, “Oh, my family came over on the ship,” how closely that family was connected to the white family that brought the ship over. All of a sudden I knew the film. That was after Mardi Gras was done. So I feel like this film is kind of similar. I knew it was about the oil spill, but I got the survivors a year ago. The people who were on the rig were the last thing I got — and that’s a huge part of the story. But they wouldn’t really talk to me for a long time.
So what changed?
Trust and access. I talked to the wives of the survivors for hours on the phone. It was the kind of thing where they were really afraid that being in the film would give them more PTSD. They also thought I was a spy from Transocean for a while. They were really paranoid — but to be fair, I think that Transocean had been spying on them. But I don’t know. A lot of weird things happened to them. They’d just been treated really badly and wanted to know what my point was going to be — would I be fair to their story? They’re dealing with guilt and responsibility in a way that you just don’t see with BP or Transocean. They’re not saying, “We’re sorry.” It just doesn’t happen.
What do the survivors think of the movie now?
I think it’s been part of their catharsis. They saw it the morning before the SXSW premiere. I wanted to see it with them and I couldn’t fly to all those places. I think they were terrified about what the movie was going to be. They trusted me after I spent so much time with them. I guess that’s obvious when you talk to filmmakers all the time. It’s something that would take a while. For Doug [Brown, chief engineer of the Deepwater Horizon] to talk about this thing he’s held inside so long, which has damaged him so much, it’s deeply cathartic. One of the people from Participant wrote me recently that she was so sorry she couldn’t come to the New York premiere, but one of her favorite things about the film was seeing how much Doug changed over the weeks. He was so inward. How he blossomed — being able to talk to people about how they should understand what happened, and how it connects to the way you should live your life. He just felt so empowered by being able to speak about this. It was great for everyone on the team to see the effect it had on him.
Have BP or Transocean acknowledged the movie at all?
No. I think BP did a ton of stuff wrong and should be held responsible even more than they are. But I also think that we should also pay attention to the way we’re connected to it, because nothing’s changed and it could happen again. It’s not just BP — it’s the government, our own lack of understanding of how we’re connected to it. At least, that’s how I feel.
In that case, what’s the bigger picture?
It’s us, our consumption, not understanding how we’re connected to this factory under the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing has changed. Congress didn’t pass anything after the spill. BP’s drilling deeper. It’s unbelievable that that happened and nothing changed. I just think a lot now about all the little choices I make in life. It’s kind of this grassroots thing where there’s a moment now, where people are caring about this, and realizing we need to work on this. I hope the film elucidates the grey of this world, that we’re connected to it, that it’s not just BP. I don’t think you feel satisfied after watching this film because the bad guys got defeated and the good guys won. The film is this complexity of things.
More intellectual advocacy than direct call to action.
What would the direction action be? I just saw “CITIZENFOUR,” and I don’t feel like I need a thing at the end that tells me what to do after I watch it. I trust my audience to watch the movie and think about it. We will have a website that says the things you can do — because it can be overwhelming. But hopefully after watching the film you can understand that you can be part of this. But medicine is boring. Do audiences want medicine? There’s this renaissance of people watching documentaries right now. I was in this class at USC and the teacher said, “Raise your hand if you watch reality TV,” and half the class raised its hands. This was not film students. Then he said, “Raise your hand if you watch documentaries,” and almost everyone raised their hands. Granted, they’re watching at home on Netflix. But I think people watch documentaries — if not in theaters.
Since this is a very image-driven story, how do you feel about people watching the movie on television as opposed to theatrically?
They do very different things. For this movie, I was on the beach in Alabama filming and random people who asked us what we were doing had seen “The Order of Myths” on PBS. I just loved that everyone watches PBS. I want people to see it. But I love going to the theater and feeling the crowd. It’s sort of sad if that’s going away because I’d love my movies to be experienced there. I really like ITVS and what they did with my last film, but I love going to movies and spend so much time doing it. I live really close to the Arclight in Los Angeles. I just love being at a movie in a theater.
Was this harder movie to make than your last film?
It took longer. Imagine sustaining a movie for four years. Going in, you don’t realize what a marathon it’s going to be. “The Order of Myths” took four months, which was a marathon. In this case, I’m not going to stay interested in something for four years. That’s not my personality. I had to be willing to not like my movie every day. But the film changed. I like it now. The structure was harder than anything I’d done before. I wanted to tell a lot of different stories in one film. After a year and a half, my idea was to show the survivors, the people who worked in the industry higher up. It took me a while to realize that was the film I wanted to make. For whatever I do next, I want it to challenge me in a different way.