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Crude Filmmaking : Producer of HBO's Exxon Valdez Docudrama Calls it a Black Comedy as Well as a Tragedy


The facts about the Exxon Valdez incident are common knowledge. But the behind-the-scenes catastrophes after the mammoth oil spill three years ago shocked the British creative team of HBO's docudrama "Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster."

"It is fairly horrifying," said researcher-writer Michael Baker. "In some ways, my view was that it was like some kind of black comedy. When people are faced with a crisis and they respond with enormous levels of incompetence, it can actually get quite funny. My feeling was that it was not unlike 'Catch 22,' where you had kind of Major Majors running around sort of chasing their tales."

"In some ways this could be a Robert Altman movie, a black comedy as well as a tragedy," said executive producer Leslie Woodhead.

On Good Friday, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound, rupturing its storage tanks and spilling 11 million gallons of oil into the waters along the state's coastline. The tanker's commander was under the influence of alcohol. Though Exxon managed to transfer the remainder of the cargo onto another tanker, the spill polluted 1,000 miles of beaches, killing approximately 500,000 birds, in addition to countless sea otters and other mammals. The long-term effects of the spill are still being evaluated.

"Dead Ahead" depicts the bureaucracy, fighting and finger-pointing among officials at Exxon, the Alyeska Pipeline Company--a consortium of seven oil companies that owns the pipeline and the Valdez terminal--the Coast Guard, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Bush Administration, while the spill was left basically unattended for days.

John Heard stars as Dan Lawn, the Valdez district supervisor of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation who subsequently lost his job, and Christopher Lloyd plays Frank Iarossi, the now ex-president of the Exxon Shipping Company who flew to the Valdez to supervise the Exxon cleanup and removal of cargo from the tanker.

Producer John Smithson thinks "Dead Ahead," which aired in September in England, should "make people angry."

"That's very much the effect it had on us," Woodhead said. "It is so infuriating, the revelation that the oil laid there for three days in beautiful weather. It was just the tangle of priorities and people trying to tidy up their own images which left the oil lying there in the water."

"People started kind of blaming each other," Baker said. "It became a question of controlling the media, not cleaning up the oil, but controlling the spill as an event."

Baker said he was surprised when he was researching the movie that some of the principals agreed to be interviewed. Exxon officials, however, were reluctant to talk and Baker received absolutely no cooperation from Alyeska. "'The kind of national security defense (that Alyeska) gave me was that because of pending litigation, people were not able to talk to me freely," Baker said.

Frank Iarossi, Baker said, was the greatest find and gave the docudrama its perspective. "One of the reasons for him being cooperative is that he wanted to get a number of things off his chest, not the least (being) the fact he thought Exxon had kind of dumped on him," Baker said.

Before Iarossi talked, Baker said, the film was turning out to be "a slightly traditional drama in which on one side you had the goody environmentalist like Dan Lawn, fighting against everybody else. Finding Iarossi meant you had two people who apparently were on the opposite sides of the fence, but were both in a similar position in that they found themselves isolated within their own companies. Both of them ended up being rejected, if you like, by their own people."

Filming primarily took place in Vancouver, British Columbia, but establishing shots and aerial footage were shot of the Port of Valdez. Director Paul Seed said it would have been difficult to shoot inside Alaska because of the unpredictable weather.

The production wasn't able to use an actual oil tanker either, so it leased a large freighter. "It was only two-thirds as big as the Valdez itself," Seed said. "But we altered the deck top on it and shot very carefully the angles on the ship. We used that together with archive film of the real tanker."

A food thickener made from gelatin substituted for the oil spill. "I am advised it is the same stuff McDonald's uses for cherry-pie filings," Seed said, laughing. "There are some very fat sea gulls around Vancouver."

Woodhead hopes "Dead Ahead" will make the viewer reflect on the comforts taken for granted because of oil and the penalties that come with those comforts.

"We better pay attention to the cost of getting this stuff out of Alaska," Woodhead said. "America cannot afford to be without that (oil) supply, but we better try to do a lot better in controlling how we get it out of there."

"Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster" premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.

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