By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—It’s an atypical cold and rainy day here in Southern California but the dreary conditions seem to be the appropriate setting for an interview with Scottish director Kevin Macdonald, who is in town promoting his new underwater thriller, “Black Sea.”
In this post-Cold War adventure thriller, Jude Law plays a down-on-his luck former sub captain who cobbles together a rag-tag group of Scottish and Russian sailors to go on a treasure hunt into the murky depths of Russia’s Black Sea. This unsanctioned and illegal expedition has to remain (literally) under the radar, or the captain and his crew could face arrest or worse.
They also face the peril of being aboard an aging Russian sub that could sink at any time, killing all onboard, with no chance of rescue. Of course, for these desperate, hardy men, the possibility of finding millions in gold bullion from a rumored sunken German U-boat, the pros outweigh the cons. With each crew member promised an equal share of the booty, it doesn’t take long for some to get greedy and for others to revert to dangerous old alliances. Betrayal, a startling discovery and escalating uncertainty about the mission cause the men to turn on each other, only to realize they have to draw a truce in order to make it back to the surface alive.
Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland,” Oscar winner for the documentary “One Day in September”) conceived the idea several years ago when he read about the Russian nuclear-powered sub Kursk, which sunk in the Barents Sea following an explosion. No one could reach the survivors in time. He enlisted Tony award-winning playwright Dennis Kelly (“Matilda”) to pen the “Black Sea” screenplay.
The genial filmmaker spoke about casting Law, the English actor who bulked up and adopted a thick Scottish brogue for the role, why he was attracted to the idea of making a sub movie and finding a real Russian sub in which to shoot part of the film.
Q: This film is suspenseful from beginning to end.
Macdonald: Oh good. Hopefully it has that thing that good submarine movies have, which is that natural built-in tension, just because of the environment that you’re in. Also, I think Dennis, the writer, has done a great job of creating some really unusual characters, and not clichéd movie characters. As a viewer, you don’t really know where this story is going to go, which is always fun.
Q: In submarine films, the adversaries are usually political. It’s the Americans vs. the Russian or the British vs. the Germans. In this one, you’ve got these different nationalities all in the same boat, literally, hoping for a chance to change their lot.
Macdonald: It’s the modern world, isn’t it? It’s the Working Man vs. the System.
Q: At the beginning of the film, Jude’s character has been working for his company for 11 years and he is let go without any ceremony or thanks.
Macdonald: I think that’s what attracted me to this, which is making a sub film that is not a naval film. It’s not a war film. It’s about the modern world in some ways. One of the influences on this was “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston and the other guys are victims of the Depression in America, and they’ve gone to South America to make it big. Nothing’s worked out, and they’re living in a flophouse. They are victims of the economy of the period. I like the idea of doing that about now because I think those people are there in the tens of millions all around the world— working men, whose skills are somehow no longer required. Society has said, “so long.”
Q: Was the search for gold based on a myth or legend?
Macdonald: It’s not based on an absolute specific story, but there are many many rumors about sunken U-boats carrying gold. At the end of the World War II, there was a U-boat chased by the RAF. It went from Germany north towards Norway, and sub’s captain refused to surface even though the war was over. It was bombed, and believed to have been carrying gold. In the 1990s, (salvagers) managed to pull it up (from the floor of the sea) but there was no gold in it. But there was, at the time the sub sank, some new self-guided torpedo that (the German crew) didn’t want to hand over to the Americans. So there are many stories about these kinds of things but none of them have ever found to be true. We took that mythology and went from there. There’s also a story about how Stalin tried to stop Hitler from invading Russia (by paying him in gold). There may be some truth to that. So we took these various bits of real history and rumor and made a story around it.
Q: Of course, there is the doomed Russian sub The Kursk.
Macdonald: Yes, that was the first inspiration for doing the movie. The Kursk went down and all these people survived the initial explosion, but they died of asphyxiation because they were trapped down there for so long. I just think that’s the worst way to go. It’s terrifying. Our idea was to have this submarine, but we had to figure out who they were. They’re not navy guys so what are they doing (in the Black Sea)? Looking for treasure. That’s the original idea that came to me and then I gave it to Dennis and he wrote the script.
Q: As you watch it, you wonder how are they going to get the gold on the sub even if they reach it on the sea floor.
Macdonald: Yeah, it’s not a very inviting environment.
Q: Can you talk about casting Jude Law as this tough as nails captain?
Macdonald: Yeah, he has such authority in this film. It’s very different from anything he’s ever done before in that he’s not the matinee idol. He deliberately mussed up his looks; he put on weight and had these muscles. He has this (Scottish) accent, which he does quite well. Part of the challenge, actually, was for him to look like he has authority over all these men. Jude’s a terribly nice, sweet guy, and he’s a great actor. At the same time he was doing this, he was preparing to star in “Henry V” on the West End (in London). So we talked about how there is something similar about his character in this to Henry V’s journey. He’s been the prince and the carouser and nobody takes him seriously. He’s a bit of a joker. And during the play, he has to become the king, and be a man, and get everyone’s respect. That’s sort of what Jude had to do in this film. He has to throw off that reputation he’s gotten. He had to make (the crew) forget that and see him as someone who has authority, a natural leader.
Q: Did you have to build the sub?
Macdonald: We used a real Russian sub for some of it. The fact that we found this thing was so fantastic. It was a brilliant set.
Q: How do you find a used Russian sub?
Macdonald: As it turned out, there was this sub about an hour and a half outside of London. It belonged to some private guy who had bought it because he liked sub memorabilia. It was sitting there for years and years, just rusting away, but on the inside it was in perfect, pristine condition. That was terrific. Originally, we just wanted to use it for research. And then I thought it looked so great, we just have to film it. It was actually quite difficult. We had to build a pontoon around it and get out there by boat every day. But I think it was worth it, in terms of the authenticity and the texture of the piece. Our production designer (Nick Palmer) did a great job in rebuilding two of the main compartments of the sub on a set. The cabins, obviously, we built. That shot the interiors in six weeks, and then two weeks underwater (filming). It was pretty quick.
Q: Were any of the actors claustrophobic?
Macdonald: Yeah. Actually, Ben Mendelsohn (who plays the volatile character Fraser) is a bit claustrophobic. It’s partly because he likes to smoke. He wanted to be somewhere at all times where he could pop outside and have a smoke. When you’re down in the sub, where there are diesel fumes, you can’t smoke. So that drove him a bit crazy. We took advantage of it, actually. You’re learning what it’s really like to be in that environment. That “Black Widow” submarine that we were on, when it was operational, had 85 people on it. It’s got maybe 12 beds. It’s insane. You think, “It’s so tight. It’s so claustrophobic.” The real sailors could never shower for months on end. There’s the odor.
Q: What kind of research did the cast do?
Macdonald: Jude went on an actual submarine. He said the first impression when they opened the sub up was the stench that came out.
Q: Did you send him on it or did he choose to do it on his own?
Macdonald: I sent him on it. I meant to go with him but it was too near to shooting. I had to be in pre-production.[/private]