“The Great Invisible” should be another activist documentary. It was produced by Participant Media, who’ve cornered the market on them with “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Food Inc.” and “A Place at the Table.” Its subject: The aftermath of the Gulf oil spill. It is that, but it doesn’t have a readymade solution, and isn’t entirely against the oil business (though not exactly for them either). Indeed, as directed by Margaret Brown (“The Order of Myths”), it’s as much out to raise awareness as it is to hang out with the region’s locals, from former, scarred employees of the Deepwater Horizon to Roosevelt Harris, a longtime local celebrity in Alabama. In fact, given the four years over which it was shot, sometimes it’s more the latter.
This isn’t a typical Participant Media movie.
My film is not like what they usually do. I was really shocked when they gave me money. [Laughs]
How did you convince them?
They liked the fact that it wasn’t a traditional activist film. It was about complication and gray areas, about understanding this landscape we’re all connected to. She was getting all these proposals from people wanting to do films about the oil pill, people who would just go out with the camera right away and film stuff, film people being angry. It’s really easy to make a film like that. It’s harder to stick around for four years. It takes more staying power. It was harder emotionally to stay engaged for four years.
Were you ever interested in just doing a straight-up activist film?
I don’t really like movies that say they’re activist movies. Usually they’re for one side, and the world of oil, the way we’re connected to it it’s so gray. I wanted to be an activist doc, but I wanted people to come to it on their own and not have it crammed down their throat — to understand how we’re connected to this factory that’s under the Gulf of Mexico that’s pulsing all the time with petroleum
Besides, they’re often preaching to the converted?
I mean, who is that going to convince other than people who already agree? I think why even bother. Is that a snobby thing to say? I don’t know. Why are you wasting your time if you’re just preaching to the converted? Maybe my film does the same thing. I wouldn’t trust someone who looked at one side of something.
You spend a lot of time not just tracing the lives of your subjects, but really just spending time with them.
With Roosevelt and the soup kitchen, we would be living in Austin, and he doesn’t answer the phone. So we’d have to drive for 11 hours to Alabama, then hope he would maybe want to film some. There was a lot of hanging out and a lot of patience. We had to hang out with Roosevelt a ton. I still don’t understand if he knows what we were doing. He knows now it’s a movie. But he thought we were just these kids who showed up ever day and wanted to ride around in his truck.
Did you have much trouble getting into their goodwill and convincing them to be filmed?
[Some of them] thought I might be a spy from BP or Transocean. They thought it wouldn’t be beneath them to send some fake filmmaker after them [to ruin their insurance claims]. That was hard. I spent hours on the phone, talking to the wives, listening to their concerns.
You even, late in, hang with some oil company guys, who, amazingly, don’t come off as evil.
Some people think it’s a secretive industry and they don’t talk. But not everyone in the industry is huge, and those guys don’t think that. They think people don’t understand their industry. That scene where they’re smoking cigars and drinking, they’re actually saying some pretty interesting things that show they’re really thinking about this. They’re thinking about it from a business perspective, but they’re also thinking, What does the public want? What’s possible right now? I think when people think about these things they think about them in an emotional way, not a practical way. The fact is we are dependent on oil right now. We’re thinking in terms of comfort; we’re not thinking in terms of what’s going to hurt the planet. And they understand that, in a way, better than we do, because they’re the ones supplying it. There’s something to be learned from their perspective. It’s easier to look at them and say, “Those guys are smoking cigars, they’re oligarchs of our country.” But what are they saying? That’s my favorite scene because what they’re saying perhaps should be thought about.
Did you spend a long time educating yourself on the science and the lingo?
Oh my god. Yes. Do you know how complicated that stuff is? For every movie you have to do teach yourself something, but the oil industry is so technical. Just even understanding what happened on the Deepwater Horizon, technically — I don’t know if I could even repeat it now. It was a different language. But even to feel comfortable and confident talking people in the oil industry, I absolutely had to read a lot. I would still say, “Look this is not my background and you might have to explain something to me eight times before I understand it.”
After devouring the news cycle for a number of weeks, the oil spill largely disappeared from the zeitgeist. Has anything changed?
Nothing has changed since Deepwater Horizon happened. There have been no laws to make it safer. It could happen again. BP plans to drill in waters twice the depth of the Deepwater Horizon. What did we learn from this? Nothing. I guess that’s not shocking, but after all the uproar and grandstanding, what really happened? That’s the media news cycle. It was this big thing, then it went away. It was interesting to film what was happening when the cameras go away.
It has to also be said that this is an often beautiful film, in part because you have cinematographers like Jody Lee Lipes (“Girls,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) and Adam Stone (“Take Shelter,” “Mud”). What were some of the conversations you would have about the film’s look
When they’re eating crawfish, drinking beer, I wanted the viewers to feel they’re there at the table. It was always a question of how to achieve that immediacy. You’re with Roosevelt in his truck, you’re in the oyster house. I wanted to show the landscape of the South and what there is to lose. Those two things were what we were always talking about. I always thought it was a portrait the South through the lens of the oil spill.