Interview with “Black Sea” director Kevin Macdonald

Black Sea

Photo courtesy of Focus Features

“Black Sea” is a feature film directed by Kevin Macdonald starring Jude Law as a submarine commander who has just lost his job at a marine salvage company. He is hired to take a 1960’s era Russian sub to find a lost WWII sub that may have millions of dollars in gold on it.

I talked with Kevin Macdonald about his film and working with Jude Law.

How did you find this story?

Kevin MacDonald: Well, the inspiration for the story was the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000. A Russian submarine went down in the Barents Sea. There were some survivors from the original explosion, and they ended up on the bottom of the ocean about 200 meters down. They couldn’t be rescued because it was too deep. After several days, they all expired. I just thought that was a terrifying scenario. I thought it could be the basis for a different type of sub movie, where a good part of the story takes place on the bottom of the sea. It’s about people trying to find a way to get out of there, using their ingenuity to get out of there. That was the origin of the story, and then I thought why would they be there that would be a non-military scenario, and I thought, what if there was a treasure. I went with these ideas to the writer Dennis Kelly, who came up with this great yarn.

Black Sea

Photo courtesy of Focus Features

I read somewhere that Jude Law had to convince you that he was right for the part.

Kevin: Well, it wasn’t that, it’s just he not the obvious type to play a rough, tough blue-collar sailor. His image is that he is quite dapper, suave and a bit of a ladies’ man. He’s played a lot of romantic comedies, kind of suave roles. But as I went back and looked at his films in the past, he has also played a lot of interesting character parts. Whether it is in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” or “Road to Perdition” or “Anna Karenina.” I went to see him, thinking he’s a great actor but can he do this role. He convinced me he could, and I always think that is great when an actor wants to do a part and is committed to transforming themselves. That is just what he did, and I think people will be amazed to see him in the role, something we have never seen before. He is very convincing in this role of a strong leader and tough guy.

Did Jude do anything to prepare for the role?

Kevin: He did a lot to prepare for the role. He went on a real submarine for five days with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, sharing a room with eighteen men. He worked with a voice coach to lower his voice and develop an Aberdeen accent. He worked out with a lot of weights to get the sailor’s physique. He did pretty much everything to change the way he looks. That kind of level of commitment is great.

Black Sea

Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Did you go back and watch some of the classic submarine films, like “Das Boot” and “Crimson Tide”?

Kevin: Yes, of course I did. That’s part of the reason I wanted to do this. I thought it would be nice to put a new twist on the submarine movie. I watched “Das Boot,” “Crimson Tide,” “K-19, the Widowmaker.” And a wonderful movie from the 1950s with Clark Gable called “Run Silent, Run Deep.” This sort of genre movie you are trying to do something new to the genre, but at the same time there are moves you have to make with this type of film, otherwise it’s not a real submarine movie.

Did you shoot the film on a real sub?

Kevin: Yeah, that’s right. For about a third of the time, we shot on a real Russian sub from the 1960s. A military collector bought it, and it’s sitting in a river in England.

That must have been a tough shoot. That’s rather cramped quarters.

Kevin: Yeah, very cramped quarters. It impacts the way the movie is filmed and the way the actors can move. But it’s all good because it kept it authentic. It all adds to the claustrophobia and hence the tension.

Black Sea

Photo courtesy of Focus Features

And there doesn’t look like there is a lot of CGI in this movie.

Kevin: No there isn’t, it’s just the exteriors of the sub when it’s underwater, and that’s pretty much it. Pretty much everything else is real. I think that impacts the way that you feel about a movie. When you know there is a lot of CGI, it makes it not authentic. The risk isn’t as much for your performers. Your sense of empathy for what they are going through is lessened. When anything is possible, nothing matters.

Also, with realism, the actors are going to feel that claustrophobia feeling you get when on a sub.

Kevin: Absolutely. The first third of the movie we did on the real sub and then we moved on to the sets. You know it’s hard to feel authentic on a set because they are made out of wood and plastic, and they are in the middle of a bunch of warehouses. It just doesn’t feel authentic. But when you have been on a real sub, you bring that sense with you when you go on the set.

While the film is a thriller and has plenty of action and suspense, it’s also a commentator about the economy and big business. Talk a little about that aspect of the film.

Kevin: Yeah, well these guys aren’t driven by the normal things; they are driven by the sense of waiting to get back at the companies. Kind of the “99 percent” versus the “1 percent.” They have all be downsized or laid off. They also feel like they have lost their own self-respect. A lot of men’s identity is from their job, and when they lose that, they lose their identities. They are trying to regain their self-respect by doing this job. Ultimately, the theme of the film is that sometimes we can put too much importance on our jobs, on our work. No one ever on their death bed has gone, man I wish I had spent more time at work. We are all on our deathbeds going; I wish I had spent more time making that relationship work. I wish I had seen more of my kids when they were growing up, and that is more of what is the theme of the movie.

Black Sea

Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Tell us about the rigors of shooting underwater. You have quite a bit of scenes underwater.

Kevin: The big set piece in the middle of the movie is this kind of slow action sequence underwater. We wanted it to feel a bit like the Ridley Scott movie “Alien.” When the spaceship lands on the planet, and you can hardly see anything because it’s so murky, where you can only catch a glimpse of the scenery. That’s what we wanted in this film. We wanted it to be scarily murky, so you don’t know what is around the corner. We filmed in Pinewood studios, where James Bond is shot. It’s not a big tank, but we used the darkness and murky lighting to make it seem bigger. It’s challenging shooting underwater. It’s really slow and tricky shooting.

Black Sea

Photo courtesy of Focus Features

I loved Ben Mendelsohn in the film. Tell us about working with him and his performance in the film.

Kevin: He is a wonderful actor because he is so unpredictable. He never does the same thing in two takes, which is both infuriating and fantastic at the same time because he is exploring different things each time. That unpredictability makes him seem so dangerous. It gives his performances a feeling of warmth and violence at the same time. The complexity of that makes it really interesting. I love him.

I want to thank you for talking with me and good luck with the film.

Kevin: Nice to talk to you.

“Black Sea” opens nationwide on Friday.

“Black Sea” Website

 

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