Interview: Director Kevin Macdonald talks filming 'Black Sea'

Interview: Director Kevin Macdonald talks filming 'Black Sea'

Shakefire spoke with director Kevin Macdonald about his latest film, Black Sea, which tells the thrilling story of a group of working class men who pilot a submarine deep into the Black Sea in search of buried treasure. The film stars Jude Law as the fiercely driven Captain Robinson, whose anger and need to get back at the people who wronged him puts everyone at risk. And when something goes wrong hundreds of feet underwater, there's not much you can do.

Shakefire (SF): How did you first get involved with the project?
Kevin Macdonald (KM): I had the idea for it quite a few years ago because I read about the Kursk disaster, which was a famous Russian submarine disaster that happened in 2000 where a bunch of submariners got stuck at the bottom of the sea. They were only 100 meters down but they couldn’t be rescued because the Russian Navy didn’t have the right equipment and they were sort of using forks to tap out Morse code messages to their family and things like that. It was pretty horrific, and then eventually air ran out and they died. I thought, “That’s such a horrible way to die, but it’s a fascinating scenario for a film.” A submarine movie which is about people trapped at the bottom of the sea. That could be frightening but also there’s the interesting idea of them using their ingenuity to try and get out of that. That became the inspiration. And then after that I started thinking, “Well what are they doing there? They’re not military people, and if they’re not military what are they doing there?” And that was where the idea of them looking for treasure came from. I had that just basic outline of an idea for a long time and then I spoke to Dennis Kelly, who’s a writer, about it a few years ago and he started work. So yeah…

SF: What attracted you to Dennis Kelly, who has worked primarily in theatre and television?
KM: Well he’s really best known as a playwright up until recently. I read some of his plays and they had great sets of story and narrative. That’s one of the things about this script is that it plays by the conventions in a way of a sub movie, but also you don’t know where it’s going. It’s got twists and turns that I think are unexpected. Then Dennis, I suppose, is used to writing a play which is set in one location or a couple locations as a major of theatre, and I thought that’s very similar to being in a submarine so I thought he would be a good person for that. Now he’s written subsequently a musical that’s on Broadway. He won a Tony last year for Matilda the Musical. And then he’s written this great series called Utopia that’s had two runs on Channel 4 in the UK, which David Fincher has just bought to remake in the US.

SF: Black Sea primarily takes place in a single location, inside a submarine. It’s easy to see that when watching the film. It’s very claustrophobic. Lots of tight spaces. Can you talk about the filming process?
KM: Yeah, we tried to achieve that. We shot the first part of the movie, the first third we shot in this real Russian submarine. In that submarine you’re confined to the reality to how much space there is. You can’t use a dolly, you can’t use a steadycam; you don’t have the room for it. The actors have to stand; it’s very difficult for them to move around each other and that kind of thing. So when we went into the set we decided to stick with that idea, to stick with the restrictions of the space. We could have done a Crimson Tide or something and opened up the set and had a crane arm and moved the camera around like that, but it would have felt very artificial because you can sense that this camera wouldn’t actually be able to do this. We decided to not do that and to keep the same restrictions and we kept the same intensity and the claustrophobia.

SF: How did that bring out the performances in the actors?
KM: I think being on a real submarine made a huge difference. When you’re on a set it’s made of wood and plaster and paint. You’re in this kinda warehouse and it’s kinda soulless. It’s very hard to feel you’re there. But these guys, because they’ve been on a real sub even though it wasn’t underwater – once you close the hatch you might as well be underwater – they get the sense of the smell of the diesel, the feel of the metal, the claustrophobia, the tightness of spaces, the discomfort of it. They knew what that was like, so when they went onto the set it was all there. It all felt familiar.

SF: What about any hindrances to their performances?
KM: Well it’s very difficult just in terms of blocking and camera movement. It’s very, very difficult, and restricts what you can do stylistically. So you end up thinking a lot about light because light is one of the things you can control. And it’s very difficult even with light because normally in a set you would top light everything. You would just have a big light at the top and make everything bright. You can’t do that in a submarine. There isn’t a high ceiling to be able to do that. So it restricts in the way you light. It also means light takes on a great importance in terms of understanding the psychology of the characters through the way the light changes and that kind of thing.

SF: One of the characters I enjoyed most was the Russian navigator, Baba, who was listening to the sonar.
KM: Yeah, he’s great. I think all those Russian actors are fantastic. They’re real Russian actors and are all really talented guys. They brought a real sense of authenticity to those roles. It was a big decision to go to Russia and to cast actors there. Those faces are so memorable. Very Russian, aren’t they? He’s great because he believes he’s got this enormous expertise that nobody else can do, and he’s got this humor about him that’s fantastic.

SF: What kind of research did you do? The scenes where Baba navigates solely through hearing the reverberations of the sea were fantastic. How faithful was that to naval soldiers at the time?
KM: We spent a lot of time with naval experts and submarine experts. They came and talked to all the crew and cast about the principles of submarines. They tried to correct the things in the script that were inaccurate. There are definitely things which are stretching credibility. I wouldn’t say that all of it is absolutely scientifically 100% kosher, haha. We wanted the feeling of it to being real and authentic.

SF: There’s a very heavy theme of class and blue collar versus white collar workers.
KM: Yeah, definitely. That was an interesting motivation for these guys. Why would you go on such a life threatening and crazy mission? You have to feel like this is something that is really important and being driven by Jude’s character, Robinson, is by anger. It seemed like a good motivation. And there’s also wanting to get back your self-respect. You feel like society doesn’t pay attention to you because you don’t have a job or the skills that you have are no longer required. It’s the crisis of masculinity is that people define themselves through their work, through their jobs too much. It becomes a thing where they lose their job, they lose their sense of self and sense of identity. These guys are driven by that. It’s as much as psychological thing as it is a political thing, I think.

SF: And basically how at the beginning you see that Robinson’s 15 years or so of service is only worth X amount of money.
KM: Yeah. On one level that is terribly insulting and demotivating for Robinson. In a way, at the end of the movie he realizes that actually he didn’t need to react the way he did. He could have just gone and made a relationship with his son and tried to become friends again with his wife or whatever. He had lost them because he was always at work. That was his choice. A lot of men say, “Oh, I have to be at work because I have to earn money to support you.” It’s also a choice, a tough one sometimes, but it is a choice. I think at the end he realizes that he should have stuck with his wife and his kid, and he didn’t need to be driven by this sense of anger and maybe that came from the pressure from society to be rich and be successful and to have a job.

Black Sea opens in Atlanta this Friday, January 30th. 

Matt Rodriguez
Interview by Matt Rodriguez
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