On 'Deepwater Horizon' movie set, survivors meet a Hollywood portrayal

A Deepwater Horizon replica was constructed in New Orleans. The film focuses on the crew, not the ecological disaster.
A Deepwater Horizon replica was constructed in New Orleans. The film focuses on the crew, not the ecological disaster.
Published Aug. 15, 2016

NEW ORLEANS — On a balmy night on dry land, hell breaks out again on the Deepwater Horizon.

Not the British Petroleum-leased oil rig that exploded on April 20, 2010, unleashing an environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, but a partial replica built nearly to scale in an abandoned amusement park.

This time, the holocaust is controlled. Nobody is going to die.

Only in the movies.

Closed-circuit monitors keep visitors to the set of Deepwater Horizon watching from a safe distance. On the screens, actors Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell struggle to release a lifeboat as fire roars and a hydraulic deck tilts.

Three times the confusion is replayed for director Peter Berg to choose the most thrilling take, a climactic moment in this $150 million production, slated to open nationwide Sept. 30.

Viewed out of context, the scene looks and sounds like just another disaster flick. That is exactly what the filmmakers don't want Deepwater Horizon to be.

"You remind yourself every day why you're doing it, who you're doing it for," Wahlberg said earlier. "The 11 people who lost their lives and people affected by it."

• • •

The Deepwater Horizon was a state-of-the-art offshore oil drilling rig that seven months before drilled the deepest oil well in history, more than 35,000 feet. When it exploded, 126 crew members were on board.

An eruption of drilling mud and methane gas ignited when the rig's blowout preventer failed. Investigators would later blame the disaster mainly on BP's cost and time-cutting measures, plus negligence of the rig's owner, Transocean.

As a result, the well gushed crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months. Currents dragged the disaster onshore, to coastal communities where tourism and seafood industry numbers took sharp downturns.

Billions of dollars in penalties and restitution ordered by the courts are still being sorted.

Berg's movie doesn't examine the ecological and financial costs. It ends with Deepwater Horizon survivors being rescued, after detailing the circumstances leading to 11 men dying.

Wahlberg sees the same bravery in those crew members that he portrayed before, among doomed deep sea fishermen in The Perfect Storm, and ambushed U.S. Navy SEALs in Lone Survivor.

"We committed to making the movie to communicate that to all the families, that that's our focus," Wahlberg said.

At least one survivor is skeptical.

"There's respect and there's truth," Patrick Morgan of McCool, Miss., said by telephone. "And if they're not telling the truth, then I don't think they're showing much respect.

"You know how Hollywood is; they're just out to make a buck."

Morgan, 47, was an assistant driller on the Deepwater Horizon, who evacuated the rig on a stretcher loaded in a lifeboat, his back and neck severely injured. After recovering, Transocean hired him on another rig, but the experience was too traumatic for Morgan and his family. He now works onshore as an AT&T technician.

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Pressed for an example of Deepwater Horizon missing the truth, Morgan said:

"From the trailers I've seen there's some people being portrayed as heroes and stuff, and they were not. Well, not that they wasn't heroes, but there was bigger heroes that should've been portrayed."

Asked if he meant Wahlberg's casting as chief electronics technician Mike Williams, an adviser to the movie, Morgan simply answered: "Yeah."

Williams became the unofficial face of the crew after a 60 Minutes interview in 2010, highlighting his daring 80-foot leap to safety from atop the rig. The escape is undeniably cinematic, with trailers for Deepwater Horizon using the stunt version as a visual hook.

"You have to kind of figure out whose point of view do you want to tell the story from," Wahlberg said. "We always thought after seeing the 60 Minutes piece that it was pretty obvious, that it should be Mike."

• • •

In addition to Williams' input, producers of Deepwater Horizon took extra steps to assure their respect, for the entire crew and their profession.

Survivors and victims' families were invited to the set. They met actors playing loved ones, and heard Berg pledge authenticity similar to his previous fact-based collaboration with Wahlberg, Lone Survivor.

Reporters from four Gulf Coast publications including the Tampa Bay Times got a similar tour in July 2015.

During a break in filming, Wahlberg stressed his commitment to portraying the courage and sacrifice of the Deepwater Horizon crew.

"(The media) seemed to lose touch — at least some of the media — with the human element of the story," Wahlberg said.

"They were focused on the environmental disaster, which was obviously horrible, but you're talking about 11 people losing their lives, and that's pretty substantial. That should always be the most important aspect of it."

Still, this is a story of not only lives but blue-collar livelihoods. Despite his experience, Morgan approves of offshore drilling and its employment opportunities. He's concerned that the movie may inspire more environmental protests against the practice.

"I realize that somebody was bound to make a movie of it," Morgan said. "I just don't want to see politics and political correctness and all that crap play into it."

In a struggling economy, jobs can outweigh personal tragedy.

"Even though I lost somebody, I still have family that works in the oil field," said Sheryl Revette, whose husband, Dewey, was killed in the explosion.

"That's the way of life."

Unlike Morgan, Revette accepted the invitation to visit the movie set last summer.

"It was mixed emotions at first," she said by telephone from her home in State Line, Miss. "We wanted to try and get an idea of what story they were going to portray, how our workers were going to be shown, the rig itself … whether it would be for drilling or against, what the guidelines were going to be."

On the set, producer Mark Vahradian said involving the survivors is "a very careful process."

"We've been concerned about it from the beginning …," Vahradian said. "It could be perceived as exploitation.

"Families are worried that they're going to have to witness their loved ones (die) in this movie, and to a certain extent they will. We have to be honest with them about that.

"We made it clear to them that we're not doing this to exploit the deaths of their loved ones. It's not taking a position of (offshore drilling) is a bad endeavor, or trying to be judgmental."

• • •

Deepwater Horizon ends with the surviving crew's rescue, and does that on purpose.

It's the same point where a 2010 New York Times story ended. The movie is based on that story, Deepwater Horizon's Final Hours, co-written by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Barstow.

"I don't think anyone watching this movie will think it airbrushes a natural catastrophe," Barstow said, noting that media coverage of the oil spill quickly overshadowed the human cost.

Barstow said the movie underlines shortfalls in safety and maintenance created by BP's cost-cutting that led to the disaster.

Barstow, a former St. Petersburg Times reporter, viewed an early cut of Deepwater Horizon. He and New York Times colleague Stephanie Saul are technical advisers to the movie.

"The version I saw, I don't think anyone would walk away confused about the corporate wrongdoing that contributed to this disaster," Barstow said. "The movie faces those issues really directly."

Barstow cited "an amazing moment" between Wahlberg and John Malkovich, playing a BP supervisor.

"(Wahlberg) gives this sort of litany of all the things that are broken on this oil rig, that they need to fix," Barstow said. "There's actually some moments when I was watching this, thinking they got it right."

Barstow described "an undercurrent of anger" in the drilling community, "that all of this attention was being paid to oil-covered pelicans when you had families grieving because they lost people. Other families were sitting in vigils at hospitals, hoping their loved ones would heal.

"There's no question this was a huge environmental catastrophe but in the midst of this is also an incredible human disaster."

Producers of Deepwater Horizon are staying in contact with victims' families, and arranging a private screening that Revette doesn't wish to attend.

"Me, personally, I don't want to be in (a theater) with the other families," Revette said. "I think we should be able to view it separately.

"It's just a real big emotional roller coaster. Knowing that all of us at the end had to lose somebody, it's going to be pretty hard to watch. If I can get a DVD and watch it in my own house with my five boxes of Kleenex and a hyperventilating bag, it would be better."

Morgan is torn about viewing a re-enactment of what he lived through.

"It's like this," he said. "I don't want to watch it but I also know curiosity will get the better of me and sooner or later I will watch it."

Until that time, Morgan remains dubious.

"There's a hundred people who know what happened on that rig," he said. "Hollywood sure don't know what happened on that rig."

Contact Steve Persall at or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.