In the summer of 2011, I spent two weeks on the Gulf Coast doing research for what would become “The Runner.” The BP oil spill was not a part of my original concept. At first, the story was meant to be a portrait of a politician struggling to rebuild his life after a scandal destroys his career. It was inspired by the sex scandals of our time – Clinton, Edwards, Spitzer, Weiner, etc. – and I’d chosen to set the film in Louisiana due to its rich culture and scandal-plagued political history. This was a year after the Macondo well had been capped, thus putting an “end” to the most severe environmental disaster in U.S. history. I live in New York City, and like most outside the Gulf Coast, I figured the region was slowly recovering, since spill coverage had all but vanished in the mainstream media.
When I arrived in Louisiana, what I found was a region still devastated by the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon twelve months earlier. In New Orleans, local politicians were trying to figure out ways to bolster tourism and aide the ailing seafood industry, which the city thrives on. I remember being deeply affected by a conversation I had with the owner of a po’boy shop in Algiers, who was uncertain whether his business would survive the summer. He had recently put oysters – once a staple – back on his menu, but no one was buying them. He explained it was a problem of perception – not many people actually believed Gulf seafood was safe from oil contamination. In fact, the owner had stopped eating oysters himself.
Outside the city in coastal communities, the picture was bleaker. I’d drive by shuttered hotels and restaurants, signs on storefronts: “Out of Business After 90 Years Because of BP’s Mess.” A Grand Isle shrimper told me he’d never seen the waters so dead, since the shrimp couldn’t get through the oil to mature. He’d take his boat out for hours and come back with “enough to make a gumbo with.” In Empire, an oysterman had laid off his entire workforce. His oyster beds were killed due to the rush of fresh water state officials released from the Mississippi in an effort to push oil back out to sea. There were no signs the beds would produce again anytime soon. Many of these fishermen had participated in BP’s Vessels of Opportunity program, where the oil giant had commissioned their boats and employees to clean up their mess. Some fishermen were suffering from chronic illness, presumably because of the chemical dispersants BP used to “get rid of the oil.” In reality, the dispersants would merely break apart oil slicks, making it appear as if the waters were clean.
Across the region, there was universal frustration over the claims fund BP set up to compensate residents for losses incurred during the spill. Kenneth Feinberg, an attorney who had overseen the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, was appointed to run BP’s fund. In theory, the claims process seemed like a great idea, but in practice, it was a disaster. Very few people had received any compensation from BP, their claims held up in a sea of red tape. While Kenneth Feinberg’s fund dragged its feet, people lost their livelihoods. It’s worth noting that Feinberg’s firm was paid an estimated $850,000 a month by BP to manage the fund.
It was upsetting to me that this was all being swept under the rug outside the Gulf Coast. I felt the stories I heard needed to be told. By the time I returned home to begin writing my screenplay, I had decided that the “The Runner” would be set in 2010 in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. The plot still revolves around a disgraced congressman (played by Nicolas Cage), but I drew heavily from my experiences with spill-devastated Gulf Coast residents to create the world of the film. The story is both a portrait of a fictional politician and a very real and tragic time and place.
I’ve produced several films, but “The Runner” is my first as a writer and director. It’s exciting to me that this is the first narrative feature to tackle the spill. I feel blessed to have attracted some of the most talented actors of our time to bring my story to life: Nicolas Cage, Sarah Paulson, Connie Nielsen, Peter Fonda, New Orleans’ own Wendell Pierce and Bryan Batt, along with many others. Authenticity was most important to me in the making of this film, and they gave my characters gravity and complexity I could only dream of when writing the script.
With the current political climate and recent news that BP agreed to pay $18.7 billion to five Gulf Coast states for environmental damages related to the spill, there has never been a better time for “The Runner.” My hope is that I’ve made a timely, resonant film that will both entertain and pull back the curtain.
Watch the trailer for “The Runner” below:
Written and directed by Austin Stark, “The Runner” will hit select theaters and VOD beginning August 7, 2015.