In his new British action-thriller “Black Sea,” Oscar-winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (“One Day in September”) literally puts himself in a tight spot to tell the story of a group of working men who team up with a former submarine captain (Jude Law) to search for a Nazi sub rumored to be brimming with gold. Once below the surface, alliances are formed as the men begin to realize their stake in the sunken treasure increases with every man that dies.
During our interview, Macdonald, 47, talked to me about the true story that inspired him to make an underwater thriller and what it was like shooting in the confines of a real submarine. We also discussed casting Law in the lead role and why it took some convincing for Macdonald to finally agree it was the right decision.
Where did the inspiration for a submarine film like this come from?
Well, I really wanted to make a submarine movie, particularly one that wasn’t a naval film – a military film. I wanted to make something like a heist movie. The inspiration was originally the Kursk disaster that happened in 2000 where a Russian submarine went down and a bunch of sailors were stuck at the bottom of the Bering Sea. They were only 100 meters down, but they couldn’t be rescued. Eventually, they all asphyxiated after a few days when the oxygen ran out. I thought that was a terrifying setting and an interesting idea for a movie.
Your screenwriter Dennis Kelly had never written a film before. What did you see in him to create this particular story?
I went to Dennis because I had read some of his plays. He was very good at black humor and storytelling. He tells a good tale. I thought this story was very much like a play. You’re stuck in one location for the whole thing and you have a big ensemble cast. So, that’s why I hired a playwright. Since he wrote this, he has gone on to write a TV series called “Utopia.” If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out. It’s very weird and strange and amazing. He also wrote the upcoming musical “Matlida,” which was a big hit on Broadway.
What was it like shooting a film in such a confined space? Can you compare it to any other shoot you’ve done before or was this all new ground you were experiencing?
It was hard because you can’t move the camera and the actors. There was nowhere for anyone to really stand. It was tight. A few years ago I did a movie called “Touching the Void,” which is a mountain climbing film. We filmed that in an ice crevasse in the Alps. That movie was really about something quite similar to this movie. It was about people being where they shouldn’t be. When you’re up a mountain in the death zone, you shouldn’t be up there. You can’t live up there. Climbers who go that high are impossible to rescue. Helicopters can’t even go that high. They’re cutting themselves off going into a place like that. The same happens with the men in this submarine. They were relying on that vessel to keep them alive like a spaceship in space. But if something goes wrong, you’re finished.
From a psychological standpoint, what do you think it takes for someone to decide to go to a place as dangerous as the top of a mountain or the bottom of a sea?
A mountain climber will do it because there is some inner need in them to go somewhere they haven’t gone before to test themselves. That’s probably the reason so many of these extreme sports have taken off in the last 50 years. We are the generation that hasn’t really experienced war, for the most part. Well, the whole nation hasn’t been to war in the same way as we were in WWI or WWII. So, I think it’s a way of testing yourself and asking yourself, “Can I do this? Can I survive in this difficult environment?”
Was motivation important for you in this story? I mean, did you think money was enough of a reason for these men to risk their lives like this?
I think the characters in “Black Sea” feel themselves to be on the scrap heap of society. Society is telling them they don’t matter anymore. I think that loss of identity, like losing your job, can drive someone to do something as desperate as this. In a funny way, it’s not even about the money. It’s more about self-respect.
Since you’re part of that generation you described earlier who really hasn’t experienced war as a nation, do you need to fill that void with something, or is filmmaking enough of a rush for you?
I’m not into extreme sports, but I do think filmmaking puts me into some physically challenging environments. (Laughs) Maybe that is my way of testing myself, yeah.
With all the time you spent in this submarine, do you now know all the ins and outs of it? Can you explain how it works or are a lot of those buttons still a mystery to you?
(Laughs) I would like to say in principle I understand it, but if you put me on it and told me that I had to pilot this submarine, I would not be very competent.
How did the crisis in Crimea last year affect the film?
It’s interesting because when we started off, the character the men buy the submarine from is a Ukrainian admiral. But before we finished post production, the Ukraine no longer had a navy. We were left behind in history in some ways. I took that scene out, but not for that reason. I took it out just because it was slowing things down. Also, we were going to try to go back to the Ukraine to shoot on one of their submarines underwater, but because of what happened, we weren’t able to go back.
Did you have Jude Law in mind from the very beginning? What were you looking for in a leading man?
I didn’t have Jude in mind, no. I didn’t have anyone in mind, honestly. Jude wasn’t the first person that occurred to me or Dennis. Jude’s image is someone who is suave and debonair. He’s done some fantastic performances like in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Road to Perdition” and “Anna Karenina.” He read the script and got in touch with me and said, “I really like this. Do you want to meet?” I thought, “Well, yeah, why not? There’s no harm in meeting.” He showed such passion for it and such an understanding of the character and a commitment to transform himself. It was so appealing to me to have an actor so interested in doing something so extraordinary. So, it took me a little while to be convinced, but then I ended up being completely convinced he was the right guy. I think he does an amazing performance. I think it’s very different from anything people have seen Jude do before. He’s so masculine. He feels like a leader. He’s aggressive.
Oscar nominations were recently announced. I’m wondering since you won an Oscar for the 1999 documentary “One Day in September,” what were your thoughts on the nominees for Best Documentary this year?
Well, it was very exciting when they announced the nominations because my wife (Tatiana Macdonald) was nominated.
I did not know that. Congratulations.
Thank you. She was one of the production designers on “The Imitation Game.” Well, I don’t think it’s been a vintage year from my point of view. There were not many films that I really loved. I did like Nick Broomfield’s film “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” and that didn’t get nominated. I thought “Citizenfour,” which I think will probably win, is a good film, but could’ve been a great film. The material is fantastic, but I wasn’t completely bowled over. I really liked the film “Virunga,” which was nominated. But there isn’t one that stand out to me as being “the one.”
Last question: Do you think you might try to get back on Marc Maron’s podcast to promote “Black Sea?” (Note: In 2013, comedian and podcaster Marc Maron agreed to interview Kevin Macdonald thinking it was “Kids in the Hall” actor Kevin McDonald. When Macdonald showed up to Maron’s home for the interview, Maron had to excuse himself and do some quick online research on Macdonald to find out who the person he was about to interview really was. Ultimately, Maron was able to conduct the interview without much of a hitch and ended up releasing it as a double episode after he got a hold of McDonald, told him what happened, and McDonald agreed to do an interview with him, too.)
(Laughs) Funny enough, you are the second person to ask me that today after having not met anyone in the past year who has asked me that. I didn’t realize that Marc Maron was such a big deal. (Laughs) That was quite a funny experience. I tell that story to quite a lot of people. It took me quite a long time during our conversation to realize he didn’t know who I was. But I was still impressed by him.