When Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald read about the Kursk submarine disaster back in 2000, he was horrified. The story of a sunken Russian submarine, 23 of whose crew remained entombed in the vessel for days before perishing, captured the world’s attention. But the disaster also stirred Macdonald’s imagination. “I felt that it was such a horrendous, awful, frightening thing,” he says. “And then I thought that it would make an interesting basis for a film.”
15 years later, that film, Black Sea, is set for release on January 23rd. Starring Jude Law as Robinson, an embittered submarine captain who’s lost everything–his job, his family–and leads a rag-tag crew of British and Russian submariners to find a cache of sunken Nazi gold which may or may not be there, the film is a cross between The Hunt for Red October and Lord of the Flies. It’s as much about underwater intrigue and red-flashing-light terror as the evil that men do when living in an isolated environment governed by greed and passion.
Black Sea is the kind of film that one might expect to be released over the summer on a big budget with an even bigger-name cast (Law is the only bonafide Hollywood star in the movie), but Macdonald says that he consciously went the indie route in order to maintain creative control over the film and make it more of a complex character piece. “People liked the script a lot and liked the story a lot and said that this could be a really commercial movie,” he says. “But it wouldn’t have been true to what I liked about the project, so we decided to stick with how it was conceived. I suppose I’d rather make something that was on my own terms and smaller rather than sell out.”
This motto has consistently governed MacDonald’s career as he’s jumped back and forth between documentaries (Touching the Void, Marley) and features (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play, and even experimented with unorthodox films, such as 2011’s Life In a Day, a compilation of YouTube-submitted clips that were filmed on a single day. (Macdonald directed the film and Ridley Scott produced it). He talked to Co.Create about what’s led to his interesting career choices; how he aims for authenticity in all of his work, regardless of the format; and how Black Sea’s Russian actors made sure the production was well supplied with vodka.
Macdonald says that there’s no method to choosing his projects, but that he likes to keep things interesting and fresh, which means working in different film genres.
“I suppose that I’m easily bored. If someone approaches me with an idea, like the YouTube film, where somebody came to me and said, ‘YouTube wants to finance a movie using their technology. What could you do?’ And that sort of set my imagination going. I thought, Cool, you can do something different, make a new kind of film. I suppose that’s what appeals to me–to do something I haven’t seen before or that I haven’t done before.
With Black Sea, I long had an idea that I wanted to do a film about people stuck on the bottom of the ocean. I thought that was a terrifying scenario. So I took that idea to the writer, Dennis Kelly, and he wrote this wonderful script. But it’s about wanting to do different things, that’s all. Wanting to keep things fresh, to explore. And one of the great things about doing documentaries is that you get to go out into the real world and connect with different people. That’s really interesting if you’re curious about people and interested in people. I did a film about Bob Marley and I got to spend three months in Jamaica. I got to hang out with a whole load of fascinating and often strange, but fascinating, people. And learn about a whole world that I never would have otherwise learned about. So I guess it’s like an adult education course. You immerse yourself in a new subject every time.”
Macdonald applies the same kind of authentic approach to his feature filmmaking as his documentary work. No matter what the genre, he wants his work to look and feel as real as possible. With Black Sea this meant immersing himself in the mechanics and culture of submarine life, and traveling to Russia to find actors.
“I did a lot of research. I read a lot, watched a lot. But I also talked to a lot of submariners. Dennis did as well. Then we went to visit several submarines and one of those was the one we ended up shooting on, partly. We shot on board this 1960’s Russian diesel submarine that we happened to find floating in a river outside London that had been bought by a collector guy who thought it would be a nice hobby piece–have an old, Russian sub. He bought it for $100,000 in 1994 and it had just been sitting there, pretty much, all this time. We saw that as research then we thought it was so incredible inside the sub, we have to shoot on it.
“Then when the actors came on board we spent a week rehearsing, and every morning we’d have a lecture from some submarine expert who’d explain how subs work and what each individual crew member would do. So they’d take the person that’s playing the navigator, for instance, aside and explain to him how to navigate a submarine, so that then he would know what to do in the background of a scene and actually keep it authentic. And likewise the guy who handled the diesel engine or the guy who ran the electric engine or whatever it was. So we tried to keep everything as authentic as possible.”
Macdonald also went to Moscow to cast the Russian crew members because “I didn’t want it to be the usual thing of somebody from Brooklyn pretending to be Russian. That would have destroyed the sense of authenticity, and, just, there’s something wonderful about a bunch of actors who really don’t speak English. So that’s all real (in the film, the Russians and Brits can’t understand one another), the sense of them not understanding everything is genuine.”
Another way in which the Russians influenced the atmosphere: “At the end of the day they’d have a few vodkas. They threw a party for us all and they gave us all a Russian submariners watch which they put at the bottom of a big tumbler of vodka and we had to drink from the glass in order to get the watch.”
Macdonald admits he’d “love to have a huge, commercial hit,” but with Black Sea he wasn’t willing to give up the original concept of the film, or his autonomy as a director, in order to make a more mainstream picture.
“It’s not that kind of movie. It’s a smaller movie. It’s a character-driven film which is also entertaining; it’s tense, it has all the excitement of a commercial movie, but it also has more interesting thematic stuff going on. I think if you combine both of those, then it’s really a successful movie in my book. And also, if you want to go into a little more character complexity and not create black and white characters, not good guys and bad guys, then by definition that’s not gonna be a huge, summer blockbuster. Those movies for the most part have to be pretty straightforward, particularly in the action genre.
“This movie very British in a certain way, and I think that’s difficult for an American audience, maybe for a wide audience. They want to see a bunch of American characters, they don’t want to see a bunch of British characters. And, yeah, I had the opportunity to come and make the movie here for a lot more money with American actors, but it would have been a very different film, it wouldn’t have been those characters.”