Going Deep

Margaret Brown’s new documentary, The Great Invisible, delves into the human suffering experienced in the wake of the BP oil spill.

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With three documentaries in the past decade, Austin transplant Margaret Brown has tapped a rich cast of colorful characters—regional docents and witnesses to history—to discover the larger truths of culture and place. Her first film, Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (2005), is a lyrical, engaging portrait of the troubadour-ambassador and native son whose short, storied life (he died at 52) presents like the Stations of the Cross for artistic suffering. The Order of Myths explores the racially segregated Mardi Gras parades in her native Mobile, Alabama, and enjoys the unique distinction of being one of the only films about institutional racism in which no one is racist.

“I like southern storytellers, and I started meeting a lot of them,” she says. So that kept me involved, just hearing people’s stories.”

Storytelling is also at the heart of The Great Invisible, currently in Texas theaters, a multilayered study of the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 and dumped an estimated 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Working at five years remove, with intimate access to half a dozen key characters, the film registers the disaster’s lingering repercussions in terms of economic impact, aborted promises, and human wreckage. It won the South by Southwest Grand Jury Award in March.

“I don’t just go in and leave,” Brown says of her character-driven approach. “A lot of my characters are really surprised that the film isn’t more about them because I spend so much time with people. So they think, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a really big part of this movie.’… Sometimes to get to deeper stuff, you have to put the time into the relationship.”

Brown grew up in Mobile, Alabama, a small city tucked into a bay of the Gulf Coast. Her father, Milton L. Brown (not to be confused with Milton Brown and the Musical Brownies, the “Father of Western Swing”), was a country-western songwriter who dabbled in commercial real estate. Commuting between Mobile and Nashville, often taking his daughter with him on those all-day drives, Milton wrote songs for Charlie Rich, Anne Murray, Tanya Tucker, Glen Campbell, Ronnie Milsap, and many others; discovered Jimmy Buffett and first brought him to Nashville; and collaborated with Clint Eastwood on his contemporary westerns, penning the title tracks from Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can, as well as the eighties icon’s number-one duet with Merle Haggard, “Bar Room Buddies,” from Bronco Billy.

It’s not too great a leap to draw parallels between the subject of her first film and her father’s colorful legacy, a correlation she confirms before I finish the question–as much for the contrasts as the similarities. 

“It wasn’t like Townes, who kind of abandoned his family to go do this thing,” she said. Brown’s portrait of Van Zandt’s life lays bare the harsh reality that he left behind his wife and children to follow his creative pursuits. “A lot of the Townes movie is about these kids, and not always knowing,” she said. “I knew my Dad loved me.” (The Great Invisible is dedicated to her Dad.)

Along with music, her father also imparted a passion for film to his daughter. In 1992, Milton made a documentary called Indian Blood about the local Mo-Wa (spanning Mobile and Washington counties) Choctaws’ quest for official recognition that aired on station WKRG locally. A decade later, he wrote and directed a contemporary western called Mi Amigo, on which Brown started out as a production assistant and wound up as the producer. “When I got into film school [at NYU], my Dad was more excited than me, by far,” she recalls.

In the mid-nineties, Brown attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where she pursued a double major in creative writing and semiotics, a postmodern discipline that studies signs and symbols as they pertain to language and culture. (The Brown Art Semiotics program has had an outsize influence on popular culture; famous graduates include novelists Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody and Sam Lipsyte; filmmakers Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon; media theorist Steven Johnson; and This American Life’s Ira Glass.)

After graduating, she moved to Austin for a year before enrolling in NYU’s graduate film school. While she was there, she read a 1998 Texas Monthly story about Townes, which inspired her to return to Texas, where she filmed much of her first documentary. Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black was an early champion and is a producer on all three of her films, and many of her key collaborators (cinematographer Adam Stone, editor Robin Schwartz, composer David Wingo) have prominent Texas credits. She considers Austin her adopted home.

Brown’s second feature, The Order of Myths, won a prestigious Peabody Award less than a month after the Deepwater Horizon spill. At the awards banquet in New York City, she showed her ITVS producer some photos her father had sent her of the floating orange berms that British Petroleum was using on try and corral surface oil on Mobile Bay. As the bulk of the oil collected on the ocean floor, it became one of those semiotic signs embedded in the film’s title – a great invisible pyramid of stultifying crude oil, the photo-negative of the submarine ice castle that bested the Titanic, preserved in a solution of mystery and transparency, complicity and accountability. Brown returned to Alabama the next week and began shooting The Great Invisible

“You know, people down there are suspicious of outsiders, and I’m from there, so I thought it would be easier for me,” she says.  

Armed with multiple viewings of Harlan County, U.S.A., Barbara Kopple’s seminal indictment of the Kentucky coal industry (the FX series Justified adopts its worldview wholesale), Brown followed a host of characters as they bored ant trails through this daunting edifice of raw statistics and unintended consequences: Doug Brown, the chief mechanic on the Deepwater Horizon rig, one of the many still awaiting a settlement from BP, a gentle giant who accompanied the rig from its birthplace in South Korea, and who imagines himself as Lieutenant Dan, assailing the elements from the crow’s nest in Forrest Gump;  Stephen Stone, a cultured roustabout whose bookshelf stretches from Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to the Bible, but who most identifies with The Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham’s novel of post-WWI alienation, which he views through the prism of his own PTSD; and his wife Sara, whose hyperrealist paintings of the Congressional subcommittee hearings literally provide the victims’ suffering with a human face. 

There’s also Keith Jones, a trial attorney whose son Gordon died on the rig two weeks before the birth of his son. Jones attended every court proceeding he could in the civil trial because “I want to be there when the world finds out what these people have to say.” Latham Smith, a tugboat captain and former Yale man, who confides over a mountain of crabs on sheets of butcher paper that he’s been wanted for 13 years in Venezuela. And most memorably, Roosevelt Harris, the Mother Teresa of Bayou La Batre, epicenter of the state’s seafood industry and 23 miles from Brown’s childhood home, who makes deliveries for a food pantry on his own dime, keeping the local shrimp fishermen, oyster shuckers, crab pickers, junkers, and other denizens of “Hard Luck City” alive. Any of them could be found wandering through the pages of a Raymond Carver story or a Harry Crews novel. 

Representatives for British Petroleum—and in fact any affiliate of big oil, what Brown studiously refers to as “the international integrated companies, the Big Five”—refused to appear on camera. Even Shell Oil, whose safety record leads the industry, and who showed her their new state-of-the-art onshore redundancy rig – a mirror-image control room housed inside their corporate sanctum—wouldn’t participate in the film. 

Nearly five years after the catastrophic environmental disaster, the company continues to fight in court. In September of this year, a federal judge in New Orleans found BP grossly negligent, opening the door to a possible $18 billion in additional civil fines, to join the $28 billion in fines and settlements it has already paid out. 

Last weekend, the opening of the film’s exclusive run at the River Oaks Theater in Houston, the Houston Chronicle published an interview with John Mingé, the CEO of BP America, who when asked about the slow trickle of payouts as it affects BP’s bottom line and continued solvency, said, “We did a couple settlements. Those did not go as well as they could and we had to stand up and fight back.” So it was mildly astonishing when Mingé himself showed up at the screening Saturday night and introduced himself to cast members in attendance.

According to Keith Jones at the screening the following afternoon: “An employee of BP actually showed up at the film last night, and then after the film introduced himself to us. And I made sure I heard his name, because I told him, ‘You are now, since April 20, 2010, the first employee of BP that has ever told us that they’re sorry Gordon died on their rig. I don’t mean apologizing; I mean saying they’re sorry that Gordon died on their rig…  It’s kind of inhuman to me, the way that they’ve been. He kind of broke the record.”

For her part, echoing both Latham Smith, the Yale tugboat captain, and a tableful of independent oilmen who appear in the film, Brown feels that we’re all complicit – in our demand for $2 gas and our blindness to the cost. Like a striking miner says in Harlan County, U.S.A.: “A lot of people don’t understand that that electricity over there, there’s somebody dying for it every day.” As the film rolls out nationally, Brown contends there’s more than enough blame to go around. 

“Not that I’m above it,” she says. “We get in these SUVs to go to the airport, I’m flying everywhere, there are cars picking me up—it’s so weirdly Hollywood. Do they realize this is a film about oil?”

Portrait by Sara Lattis Stone, wife of Steve Stone, who was one of the Deepwater survivors. The portrait is of Sheila Clark, widow of Donald Clark who was killed in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. From the artist: “This is a painting based on a photo of Sheila listening during a news conference on Capitol Hill. At this news conference, the family members of the 11 victims of the explosion called on theSenate to ensure that these oil companies show responsibility for the tragedy.”

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