SXSW Interview: Margaret Brown

We're all connected through the Great Invisible

Margaret Brown from our 2008 interview. Same shirt, different year. (photo by KXM)

When the explosion on the Deep Water Horizon oil drilling platform happened in April of 2010, causing the world's largest oil spill that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for over five months, it was difficult to imagine a world content to live on an addiction to petroleum. But here we are, four years later, still sucking on crude.

Filmmaker Margaret Brown (Be Here to Love Me, Order of Myths) premiered her new film, a documentary about the Gulf oil spill, The Great Invisible last night at SXSW.

I wish I could say Margaret Brown and I go way back. We go back one interview, from 2008, for her last film, a documentary about Mardi Gras culture in her hometown of Mobile, Alabama, Order of Myths. We have a fun rapport; I've really looked forward to talking with her after screening her documentary about the Gulf oil spill, The Great Invisible.

Margaret Brown: I just realized I'm wearing the same outfit as the last time we did an interview.

The Austin Chronicle: That's hysterical. How did you figure that out? Were you just looking at the pic from the original blog post?

MB: Yeah, and it's not even western-shirt weather. I'm like, "Holy crap, I'm wearing that shirt again." That's so bizarre. I stopped wearing it for a while, because I would wear it every day.

AC: (laughter) Honey, it's always western-shirt weather. Are you living in Austin again, or are you in-and-out of town?

MB: I was living there, but then I moved back out here [to Los Angeles] when I finished the movie because one of the editors lives out here. So I moved out west for a few months.

AC: Is the move temporary?

MB: Yeah. People keep trying to convince me to stay, but all I've been doing out here is working so it's not very seductive. It just seems like a work town. Maybe it'll change my mind once this movie is done. But I miss Austin so much. It's like my spirit animal home or something.

AC: Have you been surfing?

MB: I have not been surfing but twice. I've been so busy on this movie since I've been out here for almost five months – which is really depressing, because I bought a new board. I got it custom-made, and I haven't even used it. That's how much this film has taken over my life.

AC: It would be depressing enough if you were land-locked, but you aren't. I'm sorry. That sucks.

MB: My friend said, "You haven't been surfing?! I'm flying to LA to go surfing with you, because that's just ridiculous! You are going surfing." It's not the way the world should be.

AC: Did you learn to surf in the Gulf [of Mexico]?

MB: No, actually, the first time I ever truly surfed was at Point Dume in Malibu in the Santa Monica Bay. That's the first place I ever went surfing here. But I didn't really learn to surf until a few years before [you and I] did that last interview. This movie has been really emersive for me, so every vacation I take is a surfing vacation. It's a weekend warrior kinda thing.

AC: So, you've not surfed in the gulf?

MB: I've surfed once in the gulf. I wouldn't really call it surfing. It was like an ex-boyfriend pushing me into the waves or something. That was my limited experience.

AC: You grew up on the Gulf Coast. What does the gulf mean to you?

MB: I grew up in the water. I was a competitive swimmer in high school and college. It's funny, an old swimming friend of mine recently posted on Facebook: "37 Things Swimmers Know That No One Else Does," and one of them is that you work out everything you're going to do that day, because your head is underwater the whole time. It is meditative. I've always been a water person; it sort of defines who I am.

AC: And you did grow up in Mobile? Is your relationship to water more than just pool water?

MB: I spent summers on Mobile Bay and also Perdido Bay [between Alabama and Florida]. Everyone that grows up down there, the water is part of your life, inextricable to life on coastal Alabama. On Spring Break, you go to the beach. All your early childhood memories are – for me at least – related to being on the water. A lot of it is recreational, like skiing or catching your first fish. There's kind of a… I don't want to get too poetic on you…

AC: Oh, get poetic.

MB: There's a certain sensibility to it. It's a way of life. I don't think there are many Western regional ways of life that are left in the US, but I think that [the coast is] one of them. I wanted the film to show the place. Everyone who's seen it, says that my film is about a place. My film is really about a place: The gulf.

AC: Well, you know I'm from Florida, and the film managed to put me right in it. I definitely recognized the issues, but also the range – especially of class and race – of the people. I've been curious about the access you had. How did you access such a range of people? And how did you get them to all talk?

MB: I talked to people over four years – lots of conversations and drinks.

AC: I was especially curious about the gathering of men in the film that I keep referring to as the "Captains of Industry." The oil dudes with the cigars. How the hell did you get them to talk on the record?

MB: All those guys are independent. They don't work for BP or Exxon or TransOcean. If they did, they would never talk to me. We tried to get interviews with the majors over the four-year period, and no one would ever talk. They would toy with us, but in the end, never talk. There's all this image about how they want to be transparent, but that's not really true. But those guys, the independents in the industry, the ones in the film, they're kinda intersted in why that is.

Americans, we don't think about oil we put in our car. We don't think about where it comes from or what that is. And Steve Wyatt, one of those guys you call a 'captain of industry,' is very concerned. He says, "Why is it that our industry – the biggest industry – doesn't do a better job explaining this? Why is it that people don't understand this?"

AC: But there's also this sort of ambivalence you captured, a level of arrogance. The industry is so far removed from the people they impact. It was an amazing thing to capture.

MB: It was not easy. Those are people I know. Those are people that trust me now. Those are people that knew that I was making a film about the Deep Water Horizon. But the direction of the film changed. I became more interested in our larger relationship to oil. I told them: Your perspective is not one that people hear normally, and I'm interested in that perspective.

The oil industry doesn't talk. And the[se guys] wanted to. I felt they had a perspective that I wanted them to share. And they have some crazy stories that didn't even get…

AC: Oh my God, that Sadam Hussein story [in the film].

MB: Yeah, I love that story. It's actually about his dad, a pretty famous Texas oil guy.

AC: Well, even beyond the stories, there are things they say, truths, sad truths, and your way of juxtaposing…

MB: They say something that we should listen to. I have them in the movie for a reason. If they were just normal oil guys, maybe not, but they know things that the average… Let me put it this way: Early in making the film, a liberal person told me that I should boycott BP. We can't boycott BP. It became clear that I needed a different perspective on this. Let's talk to someone who knows. We may not agree with them politcally, but let's talk to someone who understand the structure. They may understand what's possible, and we may be able to figure this out, because polarized positions don't do much.

I hope they don't get demonized too much, because that's not what I'm trying to do at all. They have something of value to say, and they deserve to be heard. If they're smoking cigars while doing it, so be it. But I think there's something important there.

AC: You do that throughout the film. A lot of differing points of view and realities are covered. And the main point of how inextricably linked we are to oil is clear. You gave them each their opportunity to say it.

I went down to the coast about a month into the spill. I felt like such a jerk renting a big car, contributing to the mess. I couldn't shake it. I gave up a vehicle for two years. Of course, I relied on other people's vehicles, buses, Car2Go. What a nightmare. I live in Austin, and on the outskirts of the Eastside. It's almost impossible to live in Texas with a career, but without a car.

MB: I hope you put that in the article, because that's fascinating.

AC: Oh, come on. It wasn't a big thing, and like I said, I still relied on vehicles.

MB: Maybe you're doing this tiny thing, but I always wonder if the thing I'm trying to say is too big: Why bother, you know? But when I hear something like that, I think, "Wow, people really give a damn." I mean you didn't drive for two years.

AC: I won't lie. I did miss it. And any chance I had, I rented cars. And I mean I'd rent something like a Dodge Charger.

MB: (laughter) That's cool. We're all human.

AC: So, back to the access you had to people in the film. I'm fascinated to know how you found folks like Roosevelt, the food pantry volunteer.

MB: There are really easy answers to the question of access: Spend 3 1/2 years on a movie. Move to where your subjects live.

Even though I was making a movie about the oil, I drove up and down the gulf coast and flew so many miles. I felt like a hypocrite. But then, you think, "What is the greater good? Hopefully the greater good is educating people. And I did have to buy a car. I still own it, and my boyfriend drives it. I still drive and own the same car that I've had since college, my Volvo. I did not get rid of it.

AC: The one in your press photo? (laughter)

MB: Yes. It's this possession that I've had the longest. It's ironic: I'm making this film about oil, and my possession that means the most to me is my car. But it does. It's the thing that I've owned the longest, and it's been a part of my life as a filmaker.

But when I started making the movie, the Volvo was not reliable enough to drive from New York to Austin to New Orleans. At a certain point we realized I need a new car, so I got a diesel Jetta wagon, a station wagon, so I could throw all my equipment in the back … and surf boards. (laughter) A car to accomodate equipment, writing, surf boards, and my filmaking lifestyle. (laughter) I was trying to get a smaller car, but Jeff, my boyfriend (with whom she shot most of the movie) said, "We need to get a station wagon. And I was like, "A station wagon is a granny car," but whatever…

The short answer to the access thing was in spending time with people. Participant Media came into the project at a certain point. Diane Weyermann, the head of documentary there, was very supportive. We were trying to get access to people who were on the Deep Water Horizon [during the time of the explosion] early on in the project, and it wasn't working. Nobody wanted to talk. At a certain point, I started getting access to people who would talk, and it was clear that it was going to change the movie. I went to Diane and said, "I think it's going to take longer," and she supported me knowing this was adding another year to the movie.

AC: Doug Brown [one of the men who survived the Deep Water Horizon explosion] is not related to you, is he?

MB: Oh no. [He and the other subjects in the film] were some the only ones that would talk to us. I think that a lot of the people that settled signed nondisclosure agreements. And generally, there's a whole 'Cone of Silence' around this.

Sarah Stone, the artist in the film [a wife of one of the blast survivors who created paintings of faces from the testimonies in Congress and is featured in the film] – I saw those paintings and was very moved by them. That's how I got to her – through her art.

AC: Oh, man, that second portrait she shows…

MB: Gordon [a man killed in the blast]'s brother, Keith's other son.

AC: That face. He's so stricken. He's in the background of the C-Span footage as his dad is testifying. That's exactly the face he had. And she nailed it.

MB: You're the first person who's noticed that or commented on it, at least. I always think about that when I see that shot. I'm like, "Oh my god, that is the painting."

AC: The exact face. How were you received by these folks? It must have been challenging. These people are all still in mourning or post-traumatic shock.

MB: It was hard. They've been really hounded. At first, one of them thought I was from TransOcean spying on her. That had happened. People were suspicious. They were like, 'Are you from TransOcean?' It was really hard. These people have not been treated well.

Doug is in such bad shape. It amazes me that TransOcean would not… I still don't understand why he's not being taken care of by these multi-gazillion dollar corporations.

AC: You'd think they would be going out of their way to make him happy.

MB: You gotta wonder. Keith, the man whose son died, he feels like his son's company [a division of Schlumberger] treated them with respect and treated them well. But the ones who aren't being treated well, I can't help but think that it's part of the corporate culture at these place or just that all these places are run by lawyers. I really don't know. It's befuddling to me, that these guys went through this harrowing thing. Why aren't they the first people that are being taken care of? I don't understand.

It's four years later. Why is Doug having to argue with TransOcean about whether or not he gets an operation? He was on the ship that day. I feel like: This poor guy, he's the only person that feels anything morally about this thing he was involved in. Where is this feeling? When do we see anyone from BP publically have an emotion about it? Maybe there's some footage that exists somewhere, but I couldn't find it. But man, Doug feels something, and he didn't even do anything. It's crazy.

AC: It's pretty heartwrenching in the film. He feels such guilt and seems to feel so complicit.

MB: We're all complicit. It's easy to say, "Those people on the rig should have…" But if you think about your own job: I'm sitting here using a plastic Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water glass that's made of petroleum byproducts right now, and I just spent the last four years making a film about this. Clearly, we're all hypocrites. I think we all have to come together, all of us hypocrites, and figure out a way to make this better. It's not about pointing fingers.

AC: How did you invite BP to the project?

MB: Every way we could think of. Over and over and over. From talking to people in Mobile, people who had gone to high school with my cousins, who right when filming started were representing BP. Then writing formal letters to their PR departments, calling, you name it.

We knew people at BP and hoped that they would talk to us. After a while I just stopped trying, because it was like hitting my head against the wall. And it wasn't just BP, it was every oil company, every big oil company. They just didn't want to go on record. I'm assuming they are terrified, but it could be they just didn't want to go on record.

AC: US News calls him "The Man Who Puts a Price on Pain," and Time magazine calls him "The Compensation Czar." How did you get mediator Kenneth Feinberg to talk?

MB: He was pretty cool about the whole thing. We called his office, and five minutes later he called back the line producer and said he'd be happy to do it. Even after the interview, we'd call to ask him for data and numbers. And he would help. He's not a BP employee. He does post-diaster management. I think he considers himself enough an outsider to say what he thinks.

AC: He's the cleaner.

MB: He's also someone that enjoys being part of the conversation.

AC: What was the archival footage? The shots from the Seventies on the rigs?

MB: David Hoffman was a filmmaker who had gotten hired by Mobil Oil to do a piece on oil workers. Getting the footage was kind of a tragedy. He originally shot this stuff on film, and a while ago, there was a fire that destroyed his archives. We were only able to get a video copy. It was so well shot and so evocative. It's very sad that this stuff is no longer available in pristine form.

AC: Those first scenes of the film, the establishment shots of people fishing in the gulf. What year was that?

MB: The very beginning of the film, you mean? Where the girls in bikinis are photographing the oil on the shore? Touristy? That was the very first day we shot. That was the last day you could [legally] fish before the oil hit the beach. As you can see from the footage, the oil did hit the beach. People were fishing on that pier as the oil hit in the water. That was all the same 30 minutes.

AC: And no one told you to shut off the camera? When I went to Grand Isle [Louisiana] that first month of the spill, I got swarmed by those little dudes running the clean-up crews the minute they saw my camera.

MB: Not that day. Later, we would try to talk to the workers, but they would say, "We can't talk to you." They would get fired if they talked to the media at that point. All these people, a lot of them out-of-work fishermen, are cleaning up stuff that is ruining their livelihood, and they're being told they can't tell anyone. It's horrible.

AC: In Grand Isle, there were lots of signs in yards put up by people clearly unhappy with BP. A sort of silent, but present protest. Did you see much of that?

MB: There's not much of history of home-grown environmental political protests in the South. Oil, well, fishing and oil are a lot of people's livelihoods. Often when someone is not off-shore they are a fisherman. There's an overlap.

The oil industry is a blue collar job where you can make a very decent living with a high school education. People are really proud of that. When I ask Doug's wife [in the film] when she's going to throw all of Doug's oil rig stuff away, she says there's so much pride associated with it. He had done all these things in this industry that he was so proud of.

I hardly saw any dissent other than local college students or stuff, which was pretty paltry. One of the reasons I wanted to do the movie was that I want people to understand all our connections to this, and how it's not all black and white. We're all implicated. It's very a complicated issue. There are no simple answers, but we need to start talking about it.

AC: We're all connected to it, even if we don't live down there. We all use what's made down there.

MB: We're all connected to this invisible factory that's under the Gulf of Mexico.

AC: Do you think the bigger we all realize it is, that we become deadened to it more?

MB: I don't think people understand it. No one knows there's 3,500 platforms, some connected to 20 wells in the Gulf of Mexico. It's hidden from us, partly because we live in our comfortable lives, and partly because there's an agenda to keep it hidden.

On good days, I think we could make a difference, and on bad days, I'm like, "Oh my God, why do I even bother?" But change happens when people get together and decide they're going to do something. I'm hoping something like that could happen with the spill and people understanding more.

AC: Well, if I didn't feel it before, that animation sequence with all those red dots illustrating all of those platforms did it for me. Like the Gulf had a case of the freakin' measles (laughter).

On another issue: Roosevelt [a black man in Bayou La Batre] is such an interesting subject in the film. His presence, especially as he's going door-to-door to help his neighbors get assistance, and some of those doors have Confederate flags, whoa. You've tackled race issues, and specifically Southern race issues before. How did you and he talk about race?

MB: We talked about everything. We were in that truck a lot. He has a very complicated relationship to that.

For us, it was strange, after having done The Order of Myths [Brown's last film which delved into race relations in Mobile's Mardi Gras festivities] where is everything is so coded and loaded. The camera picked up on how people touch each other and don't touch each other.

When we went to Bayou La Batre [for The Great Invisible], one of the first things that struck us was the body language. On some levels, race wasn't as much an issue. People were hugging each other, and everyone seemed to get along. People would still say stuff, but everyone in the crew was like, "WTF? Everyone is getting along?" It was so different from what we experienced in The Order of Myths.

I would ask people about it. They'd say, "Everyone is poor here; we're all part of a community. We all help each other." I'm sure not everyone you'd ask would have that same answer, but that is what people kept telling us.

But one thing that started happening when the settlements started coming in: Some people would get something, some would not. There would be an oyster shop across the street from another oyster shop and – an Alabama congressman told me this – one oyster shop would get a ton of money and the other oyster shop would be denied. The exact same kind of business, the exact same kind of income level. So there started being a lot of community rifts about that more than about race. "Why are they getting it? They're cheating." Sadly, I started noticing that happening a lot. People were angry about certain people getting money and some people not. It seemed very arbitrary. I have no way of knowing whether or not certain people's claims were better written than others.

What I do know is that there's a huge Laotian poplulation living in Bayou La Batre, and there was no one that spoke Laotian in the claims center, so there's problem Number Uno. There's a lot of stuff like that, that I would ask Kenneth Feinberg about, if [there was outreach and] an effort to get the word out, and he would say, "Well, of course there is." And probably to his credit, he thought there was. I don't think there really was.

AC: That all seems highly suspect. How much did BP encourage folks to apply?

MB: What I think is more interesting, is that at a certain point there was a little bit of that going around. I show it in the movie where there is an effort to tell people about these meetings to learn how to make claims. But I think now there's an about-face, an effort to try to shut down a lot of the claims. They're putting these full-page ads in the New York Times, and there are suddenly all these articles coming out about people cheating the claims process. And of course, this is a very, very small portion of people filing claims.

KXM: The old "Welfare Queen" saw.

MB: It's ridiculous. Maybe Kenneth Feinberg thought he was doing something. Well, now he's gone, and they're changing the game. Crazy.

Two screenings of The Great Invisible remain: Tonight, Monday, March 10, 7-8:32pm, AMC Theater at VCC and Wednesday, March 12, 11am-12:32pm, at the Paramount Theatre.

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