In Hollywood, films like “Deepwater Horizon” are not supposed to exist.
When a movie’s production budget climbs past $100 million, the money usually flows to superheroes, sequels or remakes. Not to a film based on the last hours of a doomed oil drilling rig whose fiery demise led to one of the largest environmental disasters in American history.
“I give Lionsgate a ton of credit to bet a large amount of money on a story that is definitely going against the grain of what Hollywood is doing right now,” said Lorenzo di Bonaventura, the veteran producer who shepherded “Deepwater Horizon.” “It took a lot of guts. And they never blinked.”
But there were plenty of bumps along the way for a midlevel studio like Lionsgate venturing outside its comfort zone, where nine-figure budgets are typically reserved for its proven (book-based) franchises like “The Hunger Games” sequels.
An acclaimed indie director hired for his first big-budget movie was pushed out when the studio and producers recoiled from his kaleidoscopic treatment of the night in question. That resulted in a scramble to find a new director and to finish the film before hurricane season arrived. And the Hollywood studios’ ingrained aversion to offend means that the publicity machine is tamping down one of its more surprising elements — a pointed commentary on corporate greed.
Creative and business decisions like these help explain why, when “Deepwater Horizon” arrives in theaters on Sept. 30, it will be a star-driven disaster film promising audiences a life-affirming experience. When the opening weekend nearly always delivers the ultimate verdict on a big-budget movie’s financial success (or failure), “Deepwater Horizon” offers a case study in why we get the multiplex choices we do. Even for a studio admirably taking an expensive chance, there’s such a thing as too much risk.
On the night of April 20, 2010, a series of explosions ripped through the Deepwater Horizon rig 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, following the blowout of an oil well thousands of feet below. In the ensuing maelstrom, 11 men died and dozens more were injured, while millions of barrels of oil were soon spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.
Eight months later, The New York Times published a detailed reconstruction showing how the rig’s defenses had failed amid a cascade of calamities, missed signals and paralysis and how the crew had desperately — and at times heroically — tried to save the ship and then themselves.
The article got Hollywood’s attention. Erik Feig, then a top executive with Summit Entertainment (which was acquired by Lionsgate in 2012), said he spied potential in a story of people from different backgrounds toiling at complicated jobs, under extreme pressure and sometimes with different agendas. Then, when everything seemed to go wrong at the same time, in the worst way possible, many of them banded together to help one another survive.
For a Hollywood executive, the Deepwater disaster couldn’t have been scripted any better.
“BP executives had literally shown up on the rig to give a safety award on the day the rig blew up,” said Mr. Feig, who is now the co-president at Lionsgate’s motion picture group. “That’s truly the definition of tragic irony.”
Around the same time, the screenwriter Matthew Sand had connected with Mr. di Bonaventura. Their pitch was a classic Hollywood hero film, focusing on an electronics technician named Mike Williams, and Summit and Participant Media signed on.
Mr. Williams was not a central character in many of the catastrophes that struck the Deepwater Horizon, but he was a significant character in a “60 Minutes” segment in May 2010. As one of the last people on the burning rig when he hurled himself into the water to safety, he would serve as the audience’s entry into a complicated world.
But after the indie auteur J. C. Chandor was tapped in 2014, the focus of the movie shifted. Mr. Chandor — whose script for his first movie, “Margin Call,” yielded an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay — found himself fascinated by the details of the disaster.
In his latest movie, “A Most Violent Year,” set in the Mob-controlled heating-oil business of early 1980s New York, Mr. Chandor subverted the tropes of the crime-drama genre. “Deepwater Horizon” offered him a similar opportunity. Hollywood loves its “based-on-a-true-story” films, even as it bends real events and characters to its gauzy storytelling traditions. In this case, Mr. Chandor planned to make a virtue of the film’s fidelity to the facts, according to people involved in the production.
That desire for authenticity began taking physical form in the parking lot of an abandoned theme park in New Orleans. A replica of the Deepwater Horizon was built 85 percent to scale, with the helipad 73 feet high. The production ended up using 3.2 million pounds of steel for the faux rig, which took nearly eight months to build. And to simulate the Gulf of Mexico, a tank beneath the structure was built that could hold 2.1 million gallons of water. Chris Seagers, the film’s production designer, said it took a week to fill the tank.
The price tag, according to executives involved with the film: more than $10 million.
But as 2015 began, the studio and the producers started to worry that the visions for the movie had moved apart. Mr. Chandor’s draft of the script pushed the ensemble nature of the chaotic night to the forefront; the studio had committed to a star-driven movie.
“They were pretty concerned,” said Mark Wahlberg, who plays Mike Williams and is also a producer on the film. “This is not the type of movie they’re used to making.”
Lionsgate and Summit (before its acquisition) have rarely played in such big-budget territory; such resources have usually only gone to their blockbusters based on young adult novels like “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games.” A documentary-style blockbuster costing more than $100 million (even after Louisiana tax credits) was definitely not in its wheelhouse. And the days of 1970s disaster films with a cavalcade of stars (like the “Airport” movies) are long gone in Hollywood, where expensive ensemble movies are reserved almost exclusively for the Avengers and their superhero ilk.
Mr. di Bonaventura found himself in the classic producer’s bind: Should he protect the director’s vision or deliver the movie the studio had greenlit? He chose the studio.
“I believe that the movie-star version of this movie is going to be a more profitable movie,” Mr. di Bonaventura said. “And ultimately, I also came to believe that it was going to be a more satisfactory movie, because you could pin your emotions to a smaller group of people and therefore really decide what the story is about.”
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“Audiences like stars, and stars need big roles,” he added.
By the end of January 2015, Mr. Chandor had left the film.
(When contacted for the article, Mr. Chandor wanted to say only that “I always thought that this was an incredibly fascinating story, and I look forward to seeing the completed film.”)
Lionsgate and the producers turned to Peter Berg, who had been attached to direct the movie a few years earlier.
Helping the transition was the creative shorthand he already had from working with Mr. Wahlberg (on “Lone Survivor”) and the screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (“The Kingdom”), who had come on board to help Mr. Chandor. That was essential, because the start of production was just a few months away. (It could be pushed back at most by two weeks, before hurricane season arrived and the window for the actors’ availability slammed shut.)
Mr. Berg, whose movies often blend machismo and heroism, streamlined the story, once again pushing Mr. Wahlberg’s character front and center and expanding scenes about his home life. Now, the 107-minute movie is split almost evenly between introducing the characters and the rig, and all hell breaking loose.
That atypical division — disaster films usually tilt more in the direction of apocalypse — sparked the most debate.
“Listen, the studio had anxiety, Pete and I had anxiety, every one of us had anxiety,” Mr. di Bonaventura said. “If anyone says they didn’t, they’re not telling the truth.”
Although the filmmakers said they strived to be as faithful to the facts as possible, some liberties were taken. Characters who had never interacted on the rig show up together. Chronologies are altered. And in real life, Gina Rodriguez’s character, a bridge officer named Andrea Fleytas, didn’t play a role in a climatic scene in the movie.
The studio has yet to hear from BP. Even though one real-life company executive (played by John Malkovich in all his slithery glory) undoubtedly comes across as the heavy, Lionsgate and the producers take pains to not cast aspersions in interviews.
“He’s neither good nor bad,” Mr. Feig said. “He’s a guy who’s under pressure from his own situation in life, just in the way everyone is all the time. He was part of a group of people who made a series of judgment calls.”
Still, a federal judge found in a civil case that BP, which leased the well and was in charge of the operation, was grossly negligent. In apportioning two-thirds of the blame to the company, he wrote that the executive had acted “recklessly.” (The judge assigned Transocean, which owned the Deepwater Horizon, 30 percent of the blame, and Halliburton, a contractor that oversaw an important step in closing up the well, 3 percent.) BP is appealing the gross negligence finding.
Mr. Berg said the studio was “a little nervous” about BP litigation. “Occasionally, they would ask me not to overvillify them, which I tried not to,” he said.
But, he added, they pulled no punches. He said that at a time when Hollywood was criticized for its lack of imagination and for churning out cynical garbage (although Mr. Berg used a more pungent term), “Deepwater Horizon” represented the mainstream movie business at its finest.
“Here’s Lionsgate stepping up and actually trying to make a film about something — about the oil industry, about corporate greed,” he said. “No, they can’t publicly come out and alert BP right now, because BP is going to sue the hell out of them. I applaud them for that, too, for having the courage to at least fire one across the bow of BP, which we do clearly in this movie. BP doesn’t get off clean.”
“Deepwater Horizon,” however, is not primarily a message movie. It’s a courage-under-fire film, with one of Hollywood’s best-paid stars at its center. And whether this version of “Deepwater Horizon” resonates enough to justify its handsome budget may well determine if studios are as generous with true-life adaptations in the future.
“I want people to tell these kinds of stories again,” Mr. di Bonaventura said, “and if you don’t make sure it’s profitable, you don’t get to. Particularly in this atmosphere in Hollywood.”