The realistic exploration of people’s emotional, psychological and physical responses to frightening situations, whether they’re brought on by other’s actions, their own decisions or natural disasters, can be both a harrowing and insightful process. Director Kevin Macdonald captivatingly explored what the constant threat of danger can do to a person’s psyche in his new adventure thriller, ‘Black Sea,’ which opens in theaters on Friday. The film courageously explores how people dedicated to their chosen field of work can band together when they’re faced with dire sitatuions. But that bond can ultimately lead to the group taking out their frustrations on each other, as they struggle to not only understand the world around them, but how they can ultimately save themselves.
‘Black Sea’ follows submarine captain Robinson (Jude Law), who sacrifices his time with his wife, Chrissy (Jodie Whitaker), and their teenage son. After devoting over 11 years to a salvage company, the working-class ex-Navy man finds himself struggling what to do next with his life after he’s laid off. He suddenly and unexpectedly finds hope when he learns that a German U-boat that’s full of World War II-era gold has been abandoned on the Bed of the Georgian depths of the Black Sea since the 1940s. The captain feels as though he has finally found his salvation, and can prove his worth to not only his former company, but also his family.
So Robinson readily accepts a funding offer facilitated by an executive go-between, Daniels (Scoot McNairy), and assembles a crew to find and claim the historically treasured gold. Using a vintage Russian diesel submarine, which the captain insists be manned by a British and Russian crew, Daniels, the only American, also goes along on the journey, in order to look after his bosses’ investment. Robinson hires several Russian crew members, who are led by the savvy Blackie (Konstantin Khabenskiy), and also include the taciturn Morozov (Grigory Dobrygin), the stalwart Baba (Sergey Veksler), the pragmatic Levchenko (Sergey Kolesnikov) and the formidable Zaytsev (Sergey Puskepalis). The English crew includes the volatile Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn), veteran Peters (David Threlfall), the wisecracking Reynolds (Michael Smiley) and the young and impressionable Tobin (Bobby Scholfield), who Robinson takes under his wing.
As the submarine goes further down into the Black Sea, the crew tries to evade detection from the Russian Navy, which has its own submarines traveling in the water. The crew initially sticks together, in an effort to receive their equal share of the gold, but greed and desperation quickly begins to take control of the men on the claustrophobic vessel. After a shocking betrayal and discovery is revealed, the men start to turn on each other, which only leads to an uneasy truce, as they try to make it back to the surface alive.
Macdonald generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Black Sea’ during an exclusive interview at New York City’s Crosby Hotel. Among other things, the director discussed how his interest in nature and survival stories, particularly ones that are set on submarines and explore how environments can destroy people if something goes wrong, persuaded him to helm the adventure thriller; how he enjoyed working with the actors, especially Law, during their rehearsal period before they started shooting, as the two-time Oscar-nominated performer truly developed his character’s physical and emotional motivations; and how he originally wanted to film the entire movie on Russian submarine The Black Widow, in order to make the environment feel realistic, but the logistics of shooting completely on location ultimately proved to be impossible.
ShockYa (SY): You directed the new adventure thriller, ‘Black Sea.’ What was the process of becoming involved in helming the film? What was it about the story that attracted you to the project?
Kevin Macdonald (KM): I have always liked submarine movies, and there haven’t been any that have been released in a while. There’s something about the idea of men against nature and under-the-sea survival that I’m interested in. It’s very much like the idea of survival in space, and the loss of gravity, which is shown in movies like ‘Interstellar.’ The environment is so inhospitable, you’re only kept alive by the machine or suit you’re in. If something goes wrong, that environment will destroy you. So the idea of coping in an extreme environment is the reason why I wanted to make this film.
I was specifically inspired by a submarine disaster that occurred in 2000 on the Kursk. It was a Russian submarine that went down after an explosion. Some of the sailors survived until the oxygen ran out, which happened over the course of a couple of days, and the rescue crews couldn’t get to them. So the initial inspiration for my involvement came from there.
SY: Dennis Kelly wrote the screenplay for the thriller, which marks his first time penning a film, after he scribed several television series and worked on theater productions. What was your working relationship with Dennis like as you were filming ‘Black Sea?’ How closely did you work with him on the story as he was writing the script?
KM: Well, Dennis is a great writer. At the time we began collaborating on the film, he had only worked on plays and a television comedy series called ‘Pulling.’ But it was his plays that I mainly read, which made me think he would be the most appropriate person for the job.
We worked together on and off for two or three years on different versions of the script. But I approached him with the basic idea, and he created the whole story and the interesting characters. It was a nice experience to work with him, as it felt more like a theater experience.
We really worked with the actors when we started rehearsing. There was also input from Jude in the early stages. He started working with us a few months before we started shooting. We worked with him on developing his character, and he had some interesting thoughts on the process. So it was very collaborative experience, which I really enjoyed.
SY: Speaking of Jude, he played Robinson, a submarine captain who leads a team to uncover a WWII-era U-boat on the bottom of the Black Sea. What was your working relationship with him like while you were filming?
KM: Over the course of the first few months after we met, Jude really immersed himself in the role. He put on a lot of weight, and built himself up with a lot of muscle in the upper body, in order to look like a sailor. He shaved his head and lowered his voice, which is a very difficult thing to do. He adopted this Aberdeen, Scottish accent, which is very specific to that area. It’s a working class place, and has its own strong identity. So he immersed himself in it, and that helped him give a transformative performance. He did something people have never seen him do before. I hope people recognize him for that, and they walk away from the film thinking, Wow, Jude was great. I truly think he was fantastic.
SY: The film being all about taking chances, you took the risk of hiring Russian actors, including Grigory Dobrygin and Sergey Puskepalis, to portray the Russian crew. Why did you feel it was important to hire a Russian cast for those roles? What was the process of working with them like overall?
KM: Well, I wanted the submarine to feel like it had a crew of people who could actually come from this blue-collar background. So I was casting for faces, particularly men who looked as though they could work with their hands. But most actors haven’t worked with their hands.
So Jude had to really fit into that, and look like he was a character actor, because he was surrounded by all of these Russian and British character actors. So it was nice not to have the financial pressure to cast stars. I had the freedom to make a movie where I could cast the right people. So I cast actors who felt right to me as characters.
I’m always concerned about authenticity, and want things to feel very real. The studio was like, “There must be some Eastern Europeans or Serbs living in London you can cast, instead of Russian actors.” I said, “No, they have to feel and be authentic.”
I think that really pays off in the film. You know these guys aren’t just acting Russian, which can be insulting to them. I think when people often play a Russian or Eastern European character, it can be broadly insulting. They can treat the Russian characters as though it’s still the Cold War, and they want to blow up America. A lot of the roles the Russian actors are offered are in films like ‘Die Hard 4,’ where they’re trying to bring down the financial system. One of the things the Russian actors liked about this film was that it wasn’t like that; they were equal characters. There are some of the best Russian actors in the film. I didn’t know them beforehand, but they’re famous, award-winning actors in Russia.
SY: The film interestingly balances the characters’ backstories with the action sequences they become involved in while aboard the submarine. Why was it important to you to incorporate the characters’ histories and personalities with the stunts throughout the film?
KM: Well, I wanted to make it what’s considered to be an old-fashioned, character-based action adventure film for adults. Hopefully the action comes out from relatively real situations. There aren’t monsters or ghosts that are driving a fantasy, and that’s quite rare. That’s what attracted me to the project-no one’s making films like this anymore. There might be a reason why no one’s making these types of movies anymore-maybe no one wants to see them. (laughs)
SY: You shot parts of ‘Black Sea’ in a real Russian submarine. Why did you feel it was important to actually film in the submarine? How did filming on location in the submarine influence the way you approached directing the film, as compared to shooting the rest of the film on a stage at Pinewood Studios?
KM: Well, I originally wanted to film the whole thing on the submarine, the Black Widow, which was built by the Russian Navy in 1967. It was such an incredible looking thing on the inside, with the paint work and stencil writing. It was an amazing looking period design, and I thought we could never make the set look as great as that. There was a complexity of pipes, switches and lights, which an incredible attention to detail.
I felt like if we were going to work so hard to make the casting feel realistic, we would have to make the environment feel realistic, too. So I did initially think, Let’s film the whole thing on the submarine. But when I looked into what that actually entailed, I realized it would be so complicated. We would have to go back and forth to the submarine by boat every day, as it’s sitting in a river. We would also have to rewire parts of the submarine, and it heavily smells of diesel. So it’s a horror place to shoot.
So in the end, we compromised, and shot for two weeks on the submarine. Then we filmed the rest of the time the conventional way, in the studio. Sometimes the stage would be on a gimbal, so that it could move during the scenes where the actors are being thrown around. But most of the time, we filmed on a stationary set. Combining the real submarine with the set meant the set had to realistically blend in. I don’t think most audiences will be able to figure out where one ends and the other begins.
SY: Speaking of working on both the real submarine and the set, what was the process of working with production designer Nick Palmer on the film?
KM: Well, Nick’s a great designer. Funny enough, this was his first movie where he was working as a designer. He had been working on big movies as an art director, who’s the number two person who organizes and builds the sets. So he had the experience of working on big-scale movies. But he brought his expertise from those experiences to this film.
I think he did an incredible job, especially since we didn’t have a large amount of money. He was able to get all of this ex-military stuff from Russia, like telephones and machines. He had all these pipes made in China, so those elements helped make the film look spectacular.
There were two main rooms that are supposed to take place on the submarine, but we actually built them on the set-the control room and the engine room, as well as the corridor that connected them. Then the scenes in the chambers and all the other rooms were actually filmed on the real submarine.
SY: How did you approach the actual shooting in the submarine-what was the process of collaborating with cinematographer Christopher Ross?
KM: One of the great things about submarines is that they’re claustrophobic, which helps in telling the story. But that claustrophobia also makes it hard to shoot, as awe were in a tiny space the whole time. We spent about seven days shooting in one room, which drove us all crazy. Jude was like, “I have to get out of here-I feel like I’ve been standing in the same place this whole time. We have to get out of here.”
I thought, how can I shoot this scene in a different way from other scenes I’ve shot, and make it feel different? But the positive aspect of that is that it feels authentic, like we were actually stuck inside the submarine. So it was always a struggle between being authentic, while not being boring at the same time.
That’s where having the flashbacks, particularly of Jude and his family walking through the water on the beach, kept the story from feeling too claustrophobic in the submarine. It really gives the audience a chance to pause and take a breath, and not be in the same environment the whole time.
SY: What was the process of creating and executing the diving and stunts sequences with Jude and the rest of the cast as you were filming?
KM: Most of the stunts were done for real with the actors, like when we had the water flowing in. We didn’t use stunt doubles too often in many of the scenes. In many cases, people take on their attitude from their leader. In this case, Jude was the leader, as he’s the biggest star and has the main role. He would often say, “I’m doing this and get wet.” He wouldn’t complain about it; he would actually say, “That was fun.” So that helped everyone else say, “This is the way it’s going to be, and we’re going to have fun doing this film.” They did have fun throughout the whole shoot. While the film looks grim, it was actually one of those instances that behind-the-scenes, everyone had a lot of fun.
Written by: Karen Benardello