Black Sea’s Kevin Macdonald and Jude Law Talk Underwater Heists, Real-Life Rescues
This week Kevin Macdonald and Jude Law were in New York to promote their new movie, Black Sea, a smart, gritty, and definitively old-fashioned heist-survival-action movie set on a submarine. More like the’70s film Sorcerer than Black Hat, it’s good counter-programming for some of the slicker action movies we’ve been getting recently. In it, Law plays a recently laid-off submarine captain who assembles a crew of seamen to steal gold from a Nazi U-Boat on the bottom on the floor of the Black Sea.
Director Kevin Macdonald, boyish at 47, clearly wanted to break free of the “serious” dramas and documentaries he’s known for with this genre film. His concept for Black Sea was simple: to make a movie about a submarine on the bottom of the ocean. Searching for a reason for the submarine to be stuck there, he decided to make a heist film about a crew of veteran submariners attempting to take a boat full of Nazi gold before the company that laid them off can get to it, as an act of revenge against big business. To tell his story, he needed to find a writer and chose first time screenwriter Dennis Kelly, who won a Tony last year for writing the book for Matilda the Musical (and is currently adapting it to the screen).
Together with Kelly, he and Macdonald had the task of creating thirteen crew members without actors attached to the film. Kevin explained that the characters weren’t written for specific actors in mind, but that they did make adjustments after casting their ensemble of veteran character actors. Macdonald’s criteria for casting was simple, he said:
I just wanted people who had great faces and were great character actors. And I was lucky enough to be able to do that and cast people who just felt right in every role, and that doesn’t happen very often. But they were a wonderful bunch, including the Russian actors. We had such a cosmopolitain group. We had six Russians, an Australian, a few Brits from all over, and an American.
The nationality of the cast for a submarine movie is vital, considering the genre’s close connections to the Cold War era. And while it is never addressed overtly, Macdonald explains it was intentional because “there is something about solidarity of the working man, whether they be Russian or Australian or American,” he said. “There was something very interesting to me about the fact that a big portion of the crew was Russian, they had to be Russian because they can run this Russian submarine. The British don’t know how to do that. So they need the Russians, and they have this common experience of being valued for their skills and then thrown on the scrap heap. And particularly in Russia, that is very much the case.”
“But they also have the history the Cold War,” continued Macdonald, “and suspicion of one another. These two groups of guys are old enough that when they started out in their careers, they were probably chasing and spying on the submarines that the English characters were in. So that gives the film this whole sort of historical subtext and added reason for having suspicion and mistrust.” Law agreed, explaining that “There is a natural, almost primal, sort of division, and then this sense that only together can we survive this. It’s a great sort of metaphor.”
It was just as important to emphasize the differences and difficulties of language, because Macdonald knows “the language divides them naturally, but at a certain stage they have to decide, are we going to worth together and try to get out of here, or are we going to fight and all die?” Language and accents also inform the characters’ backgrounds, as it does for Law’s Captain Robinson, who sports a thick Scottish accent. Law, who has a south east London accent, wanted an accent which suggested a background we don’t see on screen, explaining, “I liked that he was an echo of his father’s experiences, because of the powers that be. And Aberdeen, Scotland is this coastal town called Granite City, known in the ’70s for having this huge dock which was actually shut down. So I had this idea that his father was one of those guys. One of those guys who lost his pride and his dignity.”
Macdonald, a Scotsman with a very light accent, appreciated Law’s work because of the amount of specificity it gave the character, and acknowledged, “It’s very different from any Scottish accent I’ve heard before. It’s a very specific region in Scotland, and there is something nice about that.” Key for the film was finding that level of specificity about the men who live these kind of lives. During his research for the film, Macdonald heard stories about the lives of those men who spend months aboard ships in confinement, and struggle to return to civilian life. “There were stories of people coming back after being on submarines and sleeping on the floor in the corners,” explained Macdonald. “They couldn’t sleep next to their wives on a bed. They slept in the corner with just a blanket over them. And there were also stories of men who would go away for six months, but then they would lie to their wives and families about the day they were coming back. They would stay with their mates and go out on the town and go drinking, because there is no drinking on submarines. So they would cut lose for a couple of days and then a couple of days later say to their wives, ‘I’m back.’ Which says quite a lot about the relationships on submarines and how they intensify.”
In his researching life on a submarine, Law spent time on a Royal Navy sub, and saw that camaraderie in person – and noticed similar behavior among his own castmates. “I don’t know if this is true of all of them, but there was a certain way they communicated with each other [in] the most incredibly derogatory [way],” said Law. “They put each other down all the time. But you had to laugh at it, because you couldn’t take yourself too seriously. And weirdly, that did start to seep into our team, because banter starts to evolve and people take on personalities as to who can take what.” Macdonald, who seemed surprised at this kind of behavior from his cast, laughed and asked, “Did they take the mickey out of you?” to which Law responded, confidently, “No one took the mickey out of me, at least not in front of me. But dear Bobby [Schofield], who played Tobin, he got a lot of it.” Macdonald laughed at this revelation, but added that a lot of the men on set also took Schofield, a less experienced actor, their wings and offered him acting advice.
Schofield is one of the actors who had to participate in an extended scuba diving scene, which Macdonald calls the main action sequence in the film. But unlike Law’s experiences as a tourist diver, appreciating the sea life and colors in the clear water, Macdonald’s scenes had to capture the dark and mirky bottom of the black sea which has “this terrifying sense of the unknown.” It was a challenging sequence to shoot, and Macdonald took extra time preparing, saying,
That was only part of the film we storyboarded, because we kind of had to do an animated pre-visualization of it. It is really hard filming underwater and you need to know, ‘I want this shot, I want that shot.’ And some of that changes a bit [while filming], but that was also the part of the movie where I needed to use the most CGI. Little bits of submarine, little bits of U-boat, little bits of of ridge that had to be extended later on in post production. So we needed to pre-visualize it all. And the thing about that sequence for me is that it is sort of like the big action set piece in the movie, but it all takes place in slow motion, because when you’re under water you do move very slowly. So its kind of got this deliberate pace to it, which I think really builds the tension. But it goes against the the obvious way to doing an action sequence.
Law stays out of the ocean in this film, but that doesn’t mean the role isn’t physical, which was part of the appeal of the film for the actor. “There is no point in getting involved and then saying ‘I’ll do the film, but I don’t like confined spaces,'” said Law. “The physicality was part of the appeal. I liked the idea of playing a leader; the drama but also the camaraderie and intensity which faced me when I embarked. And I loved the physical stuff. We spent nearly a week on the scene towards the end of the film when we’re all getting wet, and I loved all that stuff. It’s hard work but it’s also like being a little boy pretending you’re on a submarine. And I got to do it kind of for real.”
Ironically after throwing people around, staging fight scenes on the sub, and filming a flood, the one time Macdonald had to “come to the rescue” of one of his cast members happened before he had even started filming. Macdonald, excited to be nearing the end of his press interviews, laughed as he told the story for the first time to the press and Jude.
Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn came the furthest, from LA, and they came a couple of days before shooting, so I thought ‘I’ll invite them to my house for dinner.’ But before that, I’ll take them out to do a really nice London thing. It was beautiful hot weather, which doesn’t happen very often, and I took them to Hampstead’s lovely ponds to go swimming. So, I took them there and they were very nervous because the water is very mirky and mucky, and I said ‘Don’t worry, its fine, just a few rats.’ But when I jumped in and said, ‘We’ll just swim around’, but they looked so nervous. Anyway, Scoot McNairy and I swam off and then I heard this yell behind us ‘Help, help!’ And it was Ben Mendelsohn, who in the film is supposed to be the world’s greatest diver. It turns out, he’s not that confident in the water, and I had to rescue him and drag him to safety. It was the only time I had to use the water rescue skills I learned as a kid.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.