POV: Describe Libby, Montana for someone who hasn’t seen the film.
Drury Gunn Carr: It’s about a small, beautiful, isolated town in northwestern Montana, where people’s identity is defined by hard work and the belief that if you work hard enough, good things will come to you. The story revolves around how outside influences beyond your control can intervene in that dream and literally change the course of a town and its people.
Doug Hawes-Davis: The film is a mystery in a way. If you come to the movie not knowing what happened, the film hopefully allows people to learn about the crisis in Libby in the way that the residents did. The film is part history of this small town, and partly about the relationships between small town America, the federal government and corporate America. Unfortunately, there are probably Libby, Montanas, all over this country and all over the world.
POV: What drew you to the subject?
Davis: For years there were rumors that something wasn’t quite right in Libby, but there was no real coverage. Then in late ’99 a great investigative reporter, Andrew Schneider, broke the story in a three-part series in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The first story was called “Death Comes to a Small Town.” Soon news that there was a huge environmental health crisis in Libby had spread across the country. Dru and I were working on another film nearby, and it just dawned on us that Libby was in our backyard. The situation there has been described as the most significant environmental contamination in U.S. history. There’s no way we could have not made this film being so close to the crisis.
POV: What exactly happened in Libby?
Carr: As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported it, hundreds of people had already died of asbestos-related disease, and the asbestos came from a vermiculite mine just seven miles south of the town. Vermiculite is used for insulation, for fireproofing, and to condition garden soil. But in Libby, vermiculite is a little different because one kind of asbestos, amphibole asbestos, is ingrained in it — it’s not commercial asbestos. The vermiculite mine had been there since the 1930s, and for years they were mining lots of it, to the point where they supplied 80 percent of the world’s vermiculite. The first company to own the mine was the Zonolite company, formed in Libby, and then in the 1960s, the company was sold to W. R. Grace. Grace hired about 300 workers, and in the 1970s, workers began to notice very serious lung problems. When they went to doctors, they were generally told that the coughing and wheezing they had was from emphysema and that it was caused by smoking, because a lot of workers smoked at the mine. There was also concern about the dust, which was everywhere. Whenever people talked about miners coughing or being sick, they would call it the dust disease. When they’d ask the plant manager at the time, Earl Lovick, he would say, “It’s just like farm dust, it’s not harmful.” W. R. Grace was very respected in Libby — it built the Little League field, it gave a lot of money to worthy causes in the community, and the mine managers were leaders in church and in the town’s fraternal organizations. They also had by far the highest wages in town. No one believed that they could hide something about why people were getting sick. When the story came out in the Post-Intelligencer, it was the first time people had even heard the term “asbestos” used in reference to dust in Libby. Not only had a couple hundred people died and hundreds of people were sick, but it wasn’t just mine workers — it was their wives, their children and their grandchildren. When the story first came out, the Environmental Protection Agency sent a team there that first felt that the story was overblown, because asbestos-related disease is a worker-related disease. But not long after they got there they realized that not only was the story accurate, but it was probably understated: Vermiculite from the mine was used all over town. The Little League field that W. R. Grace built was covered with vermiculite laced with asbestos. People took it straight from the mine and put it in their gardens. They used it as fill in their yards. Asbestos covered Libby.
POV: How long did it take to make the film?
Davis: It took about three years. When we first went to Libby, there had already been a tremendous amount of national coverage, including on 48 Hours and 60 Minutes. Once we had done enough research to decide we were going to go through with it, we connected with some of the people who were known victims of the tragedy. That process led us to the EPA. We followed the EPA as much as possible as they tried to assess the damage and figure out how to do the cleanup, meanwhile following the people and their families who were dealing with the problem.
POV: How did the main characters emerge?
Carr: When we first started to get to know people in Libby, I called Gayla Benefield, who told me about her family, which has over 30 people affected by some kind of asbestos-related disease. Gayla started telling us about other people and to call Les Scramstad, Neil Bauer and Alice Priest. There were a lot more people that we got to know who were affected, but we ended up talking to just a few over time, like Les Scramstad. When I first went to Les’ house, without a camera, just to meet him, the first question he asked me was, “Are you from W. R. Grace?” Of course I’d already told him I wasn’t, but he was very suspicious because a lot of these workers have been promised a lot, and they’re suspicious of outside people trying to get something from them. When you’re a filmmaker, you are always in some way trying to get something from somebody: You’re trying to get their story. But over time, I told Les a little bit about me, and he told me his life story and became a big influence in the film because he was very sick along the way.
We wanted it to be a character-driven film. Somewhat surprisingly, the EPA on-scene coordinator, Paul Peronard, became a major character. In our past productions, we’ve interviewed federal bureaucrats, and they’ve played a valuable role, but neither of us expected somebody like Paul, who is so intelligent, so charismatic and was able to come into a town like Libby where the federal government is not thought of very highly. Paul is an amazing individual, and he catalyzed the whole community around the cleanup and their plan for trying to solve the problems. It dawned on us fairly early on, after talking to the major players, that Paul was the guy who could really provide the insight and carry the story.
POV: How did you gain the characters’ trust?
Carr: The first thing we did in the community was to not promise them anything. We couldn’t promise that we were going to make them better, obviously, but we also couldn’t promise that the film was necessarily going to help their situation. When you make a film, you always hope that you’re going to affect the outcome of a situation that you’re addressing, but you can never guarantee that anything is going to get better. But you can hope to educate people. All we can promise when we make a film is that we’re going to try to tell your story as truthfully as possible.
Davis: We came in on the heels of every major media outlet in the country descending on this town of 2,500 people, so they were pretty tired of the media. For the victims and their families, it was another opportunity to tell their story, but that’s not the same as building trust. We just kept coming back when the rest of the media had come once, maybe twice, to interview a big politician or to record a public meeting. We went to Libby maybe 40 times. In the case of the EPA, I think they were quite happy to have us making a documentary, but they’re very busy. With Paul and the EPA folks, it wasn’t so much an issue of trust as convincing them that the film would be valuable and worthy of their time.
POV: Is the town of Libby itself a character?
Carr: Yes. Libby has been a mining and timber town since the early 1900s and has created a niche for itself and was very affluent in the state. Hard work is American patriotism, and that’s very real for the people of Libby. In the film, they find out that hard work sometimes isn’t enough. Outside influences can come into your life and change the course not only of people’s lives, but the town itself. As a character, Libby unites as a community, and that becomes inseparable from the separate identities of people in the town.
POV: What was the biggest challenge?
Davis: Not having any money. Despite the fact that we lived in the same state, it still took four hours to drive to Libby, in good weather. Whatever the weather was like, if there was something happening in Libby, we would go. It was a struggle because of the huge volume of material that we recorded, and the story continued to unfold so we had to keep going back. We were spending money we didn’t have, meanwhile accumulating more material and following new leads, and the story kept changing.
Carr: There still isn’t necessarily a resolution in this town, so telling the truth of this town’s story was a challenge. There wasn’t ever a really good stopping point for the film.
POV: What’s been your greatest satisfaction with Libby, Montana?
Carr: Having people put their faith in us, and at the end of the process, thank us for making this film. I didn’t feel like we deserved that because they gave us so much, and when we finished the film, it didn’t feel like we’d done right by them, or that we ever could do right by them because of their situation. The first thing we did when we finished the film was to show it in Libby, and the theater was packed. We were very nervous, but it was satisfying at the end of the film when people whom we’d never met came up to us with tears in their eyes and thanked us for trying to tell the rest of the country what happened there.
POV: What surprised you?
Carr: In the film, there’s a taped deposition from Earl Lovick, who for many years was the plant manager at the vermiculite mine. He was a respected town leader. We watched hours of that tape, and although you can’t get to know someone through a taped deposition, you can certainly learn a little bit about his motivations. Earl often told workers at the mine that the dust there was no more harmful than farm dust, when he knew for many years that the dust contained asbestos. He knew that over time people would probably get sick, and if they worked at the mine long enough, they had a good chance of dying from asbestos-related disease. Earl knew a lot, but he didn’t tell people much. What surprised me most was that you want to believe that there are black-and-white situations where there are evil people in the world and that they conspire to harm people who are good. I learned that people who have good intentions and want to do the best for their community can find ways to justify doing things that you would never do to your family members or to people whom you love. Earl probably felt like he was doing what was best for the town because the company was providing good paying jobs. Hard work is capital in Libby. If you define yourself in terms of hard, blue-collar work, then it’s really easy to feel like providing jobs is best for the town. A lot of people think that’s terrible, but some people can justify it. It’s something over time that you believe in your heart is the right thing to do. Hopefully we can look back on the situation, and if we know how these things occur and balloon into terrible crises, maybe there’s the possibility of stopping it happening in the future.
POV: What’s the film about thematically?
Carr: The film is ultimately about how this can happen anywhere. It’s easy to dismiss because many of us believe that big environmental and public-health tragedies are a thing of the past and that our government will respond and will regulate and protect us. Unfortunately, while that is true to a large extent, what Libby, Montana tells us is that things beyond our control can occur, and it’s really up to all of us to be vigilant. If we suspect something is true, even if it goes against what we’ve believed all our lives, that healthy suspicion is a good thing. If people in Libby had trusted their intuition early on that something was wrong, they might have been able to do something sooner in the process. But this is a small town, and people trust each other, so the story is about revelation. Libby’s story is still going on and probably will continue to for a very long time. There is no clean resolution. The happiest ending we could take from it is to learn from it, and hopefully to prevent something like Libby happening again.
POV: Who would you want to see this film, and what would you want them to take away from it?
Carr: This isn’t just a film for people who are interested in public health or environmental injustice. I hope that people who still put faith in the corporate world see it, those who think that a large corporate entity has our best interests in mind. We have to be responsible and vigilant for ourselves, and the government is not always going to be there to protect us. I hope that the film can be used by a lot of different public-information groups who deal with public health, environmental justice and toxics. This is a tool to show that if you’re poor, you’re much more likely to live in a polluted place. This is the case all over rural America, even though environmental justice often focuses on urban areas. Rural areas often have to rely on just one industry to survive.
Davis: We want people to have an understanding of the conflict between rural America and corporate America, and the struggle of rural America to determine its own future. Libby was a company town where people took great pride in their work. It’s a very difficult thing to have the entity that provided employment and everything for the town turn out to have wronged the community so much.
POV: What’s the most enjoyable thing about making films?
Carr: The people you meet. We’ve done a lot of documentaries about controversial issues, and we’ve met a lot of people on both sides of an issue, and you learn that people are people. There are not good people and bad people — there are people with different perspectives. When you’re a filmmaker, people are revealed to you in ways that you never would have thought about before, and you’re constantly reshaping and re-forming your opinions about issues and about people. I love that about making films. You’re constantly surprised.
Davis: I love every aspect of it. I used to not enjoy the technical aspects so much, but now I actually enjoy that as well — creating something out of nothing. The stories are there, but the filmmaker is creating a mechanism to help people tell their stories. It’s very empowering.