ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
If you've ever cooked food on a stove, chances are, at some point, you've used a pan coated with Teflon. It's been around for decades.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Even burned food won't stick to Teflon, so it's always easy to clean.
SHAPIRO: Recently, we've started to learn a lot more about a chemical used to make it.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: PFOA, a chemical byproduct of making weatherproof or nonstick materials...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Linked to cancer and organ damage in laboratory animals, is in the blood at low levels of almost all Americans.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Six diseases, including two forms of cancer and ulcerative colitis.
SHAPIRO: A new film tells the story behind that discovery. "Dark Waters" follows Cincinnati attorney Rob Bilott. One day, a West Virginia dairy farmer shows up at his law firm. The farmer says all his cows are dying, and he thinks it's because the DuPont Chemical Company is contaminating the water.
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MARK RUFFALO: (As Rob Bilott) Sir, I am a corporate defense attorney.
BILL CAMP: (As Wilbur Tennant) So?
RUFFALO: (As Rob Bilott) I defend chemical companies.
CAMP: (As Wilbur Tennant) Well, now you can defend me.
SHAPIRO: Mark Ruffalo plays Rob Bilott. Both men recently came into our studios, and I asked them to describe the experience of filming in some of the places where this story played out in real life.
ROB BILOTT: This is Rob. I mean, I really think that was incredibly powerful to have the filming actually occur in the offices where a lot of the story took place and with the families that were involved. There were several of the folks there in the community in West Virginia that participated.
RUFFALO: We wanted to center as much of it as we could on the actual community. A lot of filmmakers would be afraid to do that, even afraid to have Rob around as much as we did.
SHAPIRO: Why - because those people would try to exert control over the story?
RUFFALO: Yeah. I think it's comes out of a fear that maybe people won't feel comfortable the way the story is being told or even - there's an ego dimension to it, too, just having, you know, the guy you're playing standing over your shoulder, telling you, that didn't happen like that, or, you know, I would've done that differently or - but for me, it was really freeing to have him there. And poor Rob. I depositioned (ph) him.
SHAPIRO: Well, I was going to say the flip side of having somebody micromanage your performance who you are playing is that you can turn to that person and say, how would you do this? Does this seem realistic? Does this seem accurate? Can you give me an example of when you did that on set?
RUFFALO: Yeah. There is an actual deposition scene where Rob Bilott is deposing Holliday, the CEO of DuPont.
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RUFFALO: (As Rob Bilott) That's DuPont's pregnancy study from 1981. Does that look like a DuPont document to you?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Charles Holliday) It looks to be.
RUFFALO: And I, as an actor, wanted to go in and use that deposition to literally tear into DuPont and all of their abuse and deception. You know, you get the chance to finally, like, meet your adversary.
RUFFALO: And I asked Rob, and he said, what I was really doing there was trying to lay out to him the things that they had done and who they affected so that he would do the right thing. And it changes that scene, and it makes that scene so much more compelling.
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RUFFALO: (As Rob Bilott) Seven pregnant women, all DuPont employees, all from the Teflon line. Do you see this here? Quote, "child, four months, one nostril, eye defect."
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Charles Holliday) Yes.
RUFFALO: (As Rob Bilott) Two of the seven women - nearly 30% - gave birth to babies that have the exact facial deformities that your company already knew about.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Charles Holliday) We're done here.
SHAPIRO: Part of what sets this story apart from other kind of legal David-and-Goliath-type thrillers is that, Rob, you were a corporate defense attorney, and you were a corporate defense attorney when you took this case. So how risky did that feel at the time?
BILOTT: You know, at the time, we thought this was going to be a fairly straightforward project.
SHAPIRO: Just representing one farmer.
BILOTT: Right. We had no idea at the time we were taking this on that we would discover this was a completely unregulated chemical and one that was not just there, you know, at the farmer's property, but in the water of the whole community and ends up in the water all over the world and in everybody's blood. When I started digging in and seeing those facts, I just realized I've got to get this information out to people. And hopefully, once people see what's really happening here, people will understand this is a public health crisis.
SHAPIRO: DuPont denies wrongdoing, and the company has pushed back on the film, saying the facts are not all accurate. The current DuPont CEO says he never witnessed the kind of behavior that we see in the movie. Rob, they've said that this is inspired by your life, not based on what actually happened. How do you respond to that?
BILOTT: This is Rob. I'll jump in first. You know, this is something I've been dealing with for a couple of decades now. You know, the company has its version of the facts. And you know, I think folks can see the film. And you know, I've recently done a book. So people will have those resources and, you know, they can draw their own conclusions about who's got the actual version of reality here.
SHAPIRO: In the film, it's clear that your actions really kind of divided the community and your colleagues. As you were filming this in Cincinnati, now having kind of litigated the whole arc of this case, did it feel like everybody was on your side, or did it feel like some people still looked at the project, you know, crosswise?
BILOTT: You know, we're still talking about a community out in West Virginia that is - you know, it's a company town. And there are still, I think, hard feelings in that community between the folks that took on the company and the supporters of the company. And hopefully people - when they see what really happened and what this community went through, hopefully those attitudes will start to change.
RUFFALO: I just want to add to that.
RUFFALO: I mean, what - you know, where did we come to in America where we have a choice between having a job and being healthy, whether you're talking about the fossil fuel industry or you're talking about farming and the pesticides that we're using? People are choosing, hey, listen. Yeah, I might get cancer from this, but at least I got a job. And, like, that is such a sad state of affairs for American workers.
SHAPIRO: It is not a spoiler to say that you leave viewers with some really sobering information at the end about the pervasiveness of harmful chemicals around the world. Why not leave people feeling good? Like, you got a court victory. You got justice for these sick people. Why end on the note that you do?
RUFFALO: Because the story's not done. It's still out there. It's in our blood. It's in the blood of nearly every living creature on the planet.
SHAPIRO: It - you're talking about is PFOA, the chemical that was at the center of the litigation. Yeah.
RUFFALO: It's in polar bears. They found it in eagles. It accumulates in us over time. We can't get it out of our systems. And in the end, part of what the debate, I think, about this film should be - and I think it's a debate that we're having nationally - is, do these systems that are made to protect us - are they actually in service of us, or are they in service of a corporate political system? And that's why we can't end this movie with our hero driving away in a SUV and a happy ending.
SHAPIRO: Mark Ruffalo and Rob Bilott, thank you so much for talking with us today.
RUFFALO: Thank you.
BILOTT: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: Ruffalo stars as Bilott in the new film "Dark Waters." And Bilott also has written a book about his time fighting DuPont's lawyers. It is called "Exposure," and that's out now.
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SHAPIRO: DuPont no longer makes PFOA. The company says it is actively examining its use of all similar compounds. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.