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article imageKevin Macdonald’s underwater hunt for realism with ‘Black Sea' Special

By Earl Dittman     Feb 3, 2015 in Entertainment
To create the breathtaking and thought-provoking submarine action-thriller 'Black Sea,’ the Scottish filmmaker submerged himself in authenticity. Macdonald discusses the process of constructing a genre-redefining motion picture starring Jude Law.
"I wanted to make a submarine movie that wasn't naval or military, but one about the fear of being trapped underwater – very spooky and creepy, but also character-revealing about having people trapped at the bottom of the ocean," explains Academy Award-winning director Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September and The Last King of Scotland) about his nail-biting, suspense-adventure thriller Black Sea. "There’s a real fear associated with submarines because of the inherent claustrophobia. I wanted to explore how men behave and how that would bring out the best and the worst in their humanity when they are trapped. The best because they have to use their ingenuity and leadership skills, in the case of Robertson, Jude Law's character. And, the worst is that they also fight with each other over who is going to survive and who's not going to survive. I just thought on a submarine was a great dramatic, frightening cinematic setting, which I had never seen before.
"There hasn't been a submarine movie, at all, for a number of years," the 47-year-old Scottish filmmaker continues. "There certainly haven't been many where it's a submarine movie that isn't naval or military. These guys are all ex-naval, but it's not about the Cold War or someone threatening war. As filmmaker, I suppose I've always been interested in examining what the constant threat of danger does to a person’s psyche. On a submarine, thousands of leagues under the sea, seemed like a great place to explore those themes."
In Black Sea (penned by English playwright Dennis Kelly), two-time Academy Award nominee Jude Law portrays Robinson, a submarine captain whose nearly 30 years of voyages have cost him the love of his wife Chrissy (Jodie Whittaker) and child. When the salvage company for whom he has toiled over 11 years abruptly lays him off, this working-class ex-Navy man finds himself adrift.
After hearing the tale of a German U-boat full of WWII-era gold sitting on a bed in the Georgian depths of the Black Sea, the captain feels he can prove himself anew. He jumps at a funding offer facilitated by go-between Daniels (Scoot McNairy) and pulls together a misfit crew to brave the deep and go after the sunken treasure. A vintage Russian diesel submarine is manned by British and Russian roughnecks, with a lone American – Daniels – aboard, obliged to keep an eye on his shadowy bosses' investment.
As the sub probes deeper and deeper while evading detection from the Russian navy above, everyone anticipates collecting a share of the gold, but the number of shares declines as greed and desperation take control onboard the claustrophobic vessel. A shocking betrayal, a startling discovery, and escalating uncertainty about the mission cause the men to turn on each other – only to have to make an uneasy truce in hopes of ever making it back to the surface alive.
Jude Law stars as a rogue submarine captain searching for sunken treasure in  Black Sea
Jude Law stars as a rogue submarine captain searching for sunken treasure in 'Black Sea'
Focus Features
To portray the role of Robinson – a proud submarine captain who has nothing left to lose and yet envisions a cut of sunken loot as his last chance at any happiness – Macdonald went searching for a British actor who could believably portray a real man who had so much going for him but has had life take its toll entering middle age. Jude Law (Cold Mountain and The Talented Mr. Ripley) met his needs and exceeded his expectations.
"Jude read the script and said he was interested, but I thought, initially, 'Robinson is very different than the normal Jude Law, so you never know,’" Macdonald confesses. "I didn’t want to rule anyone out, so I went to see him. As we talked about it, it became obvious that he understood this character and he really wanted to do a transformative performance. He was really determined to change his physique and his voice."
To deliver one of the incredibly intense, compelling and stellar performance of his career, Law began physically transforming himself into the blue-collar Robinson. He shaved his head, bulked up his physique – changing up his overall physicality – and perfected an authentic Aberdeen accent.
"Jude and I worked together for several months on giving him this very specific Scottish accent from Aberdeen, which in the Northwest and is a maritime kind of city," the Glasgow-born director explains. "He lowered the tone of his voice about an octave and he put on these muscles to make himself look sailor-ish – up top with his body. He just really inhabited the character. I suppose in a way because the rest of the actors are all these wonderful character actors, Jude had to become like a character actor. He had to fit in with those guys. I think he gives a really marvelous performance. I think it is surprising people, because it is very different than anything he’s done before.”
Kevin Macdonald  cinematographer Christopher Ross and Jude Law on the set of  Black Sea
Kevin Macdonald, cinematographer Christopher Ross and Jude Law on the set of 'Black Sea'
Focus Features
Law would also learn, firsthand, what life on a submarine was really like. Fortuitously, The Royal Navy invited the actor to spend four days and nights down in the Gibraltar Straits on an operational Trafalgar class nuclear submarine, the HMS Talent, as part of his preparation to play Robertson in Black Sea.
“Jude went with the Royal Navy on a nuclear sub for five days,” Macdonald remembers. “They picked him up in the Mediterranean, and he slept in a room with 18 other guys. He told me that he had to throw his clothes away after got off the sub, because they stank to high heaven. They were so smelly. He said that after a few hours, though, you get used to the smell. You don’t notice that nobody hasn’t showered, because there is no water. People don’t take showers, so they smell of food, sweat and whatever. It was quite an adventure for him. And, it really helped him to understand, even more, what these men go through when they are down in the depths. It really paid off.”
Resolute that Black Sea exuded realism, Macdonald was determined to shoot the entire film on a real submarine, rather than building an entire submarine at a studio. Macdonald and his frequent collaborator, producer Charles Steel, found a Russian submarine (known as the Black Widow), stripped of all its gadgetry, sitting in the Medway River in the southern English town of Rochester, in Kent.
“We were really excited that we could shoot the movie on a real submarine,” he says. “It was a real submarine that was the right vintage and model from the 1960s (a Foxtrot class submarine from the Russian Navy, built in 1967). It had been bought by this arms collector guy in England (John Sutton). It had was sitting there in this river. We shot on the Black Widow and we had a submarine expert come with us to explain to the cast, ‘If you were the navigator, this would be your job’ and ‘If you were the electric engine operator, you would be here.’ Everyone had sort of a lesson for a few days about how a submarine worked and what their specific job as a crew member would be.”
An underwater sequence from  Black Sea
An underwater sequence from 'Black Sea'
Focus Features
As the project was developed further, though, the practicalities and logistics of doing an on-board shoot became harder to attain. A compromise was made. After nearly a week of location shooting in and around London, the cast and crew spent two weeks filming aboard the Black Widow. The production would then moved to the legendary Pinewood Studios where sets were built and a massive water tank was readied for extensive usage. Although Macdonald was able to shoot in a seemingly controlled environment at Pinewood, he learned rather quickly, that shooting under water came with its own unique set of challenges.
“I’m sure you’ve heard all the James Cameron stories about working on Titanic – well, they are all true, because water is hard,” Macdonald says with laugh. “It’s difficult for millions of reasons, which I learned the hard way. When you’ve got the vessel being flooded, it’s very cold, difficult and dangerous because there’s water flying around, complete with metal objects in it – it’s tough. The cameras are always misting up and not working. On the other side of it, when you are filming underwater, you have the big action sequence under water, that we did at the tank at Pinewood in London. When you are the director, and you are up above, and the actors are down below, and you’re trying to get them to do the right thing, it’s bloody frustrating. Communication is difficult. Trying to make it feel like you’re at the bottom of the ocean rather than just in a tank is always problematic. That was the hardest sequence to do, but the one I am most proudest of in the movie. I think it is really strong.”
With Black Sea, Macdonald admits he wanted to pay homage to director Wolfgang Peterson’s penultimate 1981 classic motion picture Das Boot. “It’s the most influential of all the submarine movies, that’s the best way I can say it,” Kevin professes. “I love that movie. It was a big influence on this film. Das Boot was a war movie, though. I wanted to take a more naturalistic approach."
Jude Law in  Black Sea
Jude Law in 'Black Sea'
Focus Features
However, Black Sea, an intensely gripping, edge-of-your-seat thriller, is redefining the submarine action/adventure genre. Macdonald – who says his forte is “intelligent genre films” – is immensely proud of the final print. He firmly believes that fans of both high-intensity, action-packed movies and profound, thought-provoking films will both appreciate and enjoy Black Sea.
“It’s an adventure story, but it’s also a very cinematic film,” he says. “It makes you feel very tense, and it works very well on that level. But, at the same time, it has some interesting characters and interesting themes going on, so it works on two levels. It’s sort of a suspense thriller with a lot of action, and also is an interesting character study. It should to appeal to both mainstream audiences and to moviegoers who prefer art-house type of films. It’s not your typical mainstream fare, but I think people will find it exciting. I’m hopeful and confident at the same time.”
Black Sea is currently playing in theaters across North America. (Check local listings for show times)
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