Saturday, January 31, 2015

INTERVIEW: Director Kevin Macdonald on Black Sea

Kevin Macdonald directed one of my absolute favorite movies of the last ten years, the twisty political thriller State of Play. As such, I was especially excited when I had opportunity to chat with the director about his latest project, Black Sea (now in theaters). The film stars Jude Law as Robinson, the civilian skipper of a beat-up old submarine, leading a crew of English and Russian seamen on a trek to lost Nazi gold in the middle of the titular body of water. Naturally things don't go entirely to plan. What follows are some highlights from my conversation with Mr. Macdonald, covering State of Play, Black Sea, shaping the film's main character with Jude Law, the differences between working in and out of the studio system, and more:

Right up top, I want to say that I'm a huge, huge fan of State of Play. This is a movie that I screen in my classes, and I have been screening for the past six years.

Well, that's very good because, yeah, I think that movie didn't quite get the reception I would've liked for it, but people didn't really understand what to me seemed like such an important issue, the death of the newspaper and the death of good reporting.

That's exactly the context in which I show it. I think it's almost like an artifact. I think ten years from now, or even sooner, we could look at it like a memorial for the way newspapers used to be.

Exactly. But it's funny because at the time, I thought, you know, it's such an important issue, and that people would really talk about that when it was released, but nobody really did. I was surprised by that because I thought the people who should talk about it are journalists, and they're the ones reviewing it and talking about it. It didn't really catch on. Maybe it's just the wrong movie at the wrong time.

Certainly I've been a one-man committee trying to get the word out about it.

Well, I appreciate that. It's always nice when your orphaned children find a parent somewhere.

That's a good metaphor for it, absolutely. Now, in terms of Black Sea, obviously, this is slightly different from State of Play

Very different, yeah.

But I do see some similarities in that it is an ensemble piece.

It's also kind of -- there's sort of a similarity but I'm stretching it in that it's about obsession, and about somebody who does a job really, really well and who may not have a job for that much longer. And in a way, his job gets in the way of him having an ordinary life. I think with Russell Crowe's character [in State of Play] and Jude Law's character, what's central to this is the idea that a lot of people, particularly men, can take their jobs so seriously, and the jobs take over their lives.

And when they don't have a job anymore they lose their sense of self and self-respect. And they can feel very angry about that and very resentful. And this sort of -- I guess it's the 99% versus the 1% kind of feeling, so that tied into it as well, feeling like they're being ripped off by the system, and they're suffering and the 1% seems to be getting richer and richer, and everybody else isn't. So, there's some relationship there.

And what you've just described is really the heavy emotional and sort of thematic undercurrent of this story.

You know, we tried to sort of, I guess, weight what's otherwise, hopefully, an entertaining thriller with some thematic undercurrents that are there. If you want to go in that direction as you're watching it, you can. But I think also, I hope that the audience will watch and appreciate it just as a piece of entertainment, as a kind of thrill ride.

What were the roots of the story in that sense? Did you go in kind of wanting to do kind of a Treasure of the Sierra Madre type thing?

Yeah, that was kind of the idea from the beginning. It was inspired by this Russian submarine accident that happened in the year 2000, the Kursk disaster, where some submariners ended up at the bottom of the sea, the Barents Sea in Russia, and they couldn't be rescued even though they were only 100 meters down. And they suffocated and died, and I thought that's a horrible way to go but it'd be an interesting scenario for a movie about a bunch of people stuck at the bottom of the sea and what happened to them.

What are they doing there? And I thought maybe they're looking for treasure, and then this idea came along. What if you made a version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on a submarine? That was kind of the pitch that I took to the writer Dennis Kelly, who at that time was best known as a playwright. He's now written a musical, Matilda, which he won a Tony for last year. He's written this very interesting series, Utopia, which is a dark and fascinating, conspiracy kind of thriller series.

I read in the press notes that you made a conscious choice that this would not be a military sub.

Yeah, I thought that that was one of the things we could do differently. I guess when you do a genre film like this, you're torn in two directions. One, you've got to be, to some degree, faithful to the genre. There's certain things that one wants to have in a submarine movie. But also, at the same time you want to go the other way, which is to do things differently. And one of the things that's never really been done to my knowledge is like a non-naval, a non-military submarine film. These guys are ex-Navy. They've all been in the Navy but now they're not particularly thriving.

Obviously, Jude Law is the head of the ensemble but did you worry about us getting enough of a connection with the characters? Especially with the Russian characters, who we don't even get to share the language.

Well, yes and no. Obviously, in an ensemble that is always a risk, especially one as big as this, but I figured that you get in touch with, hopefully, a few of them. But actually, I kind of like the -- the sort of movies that inspired this, things like The Wages of Fear and Sorcerer, its remake which was done by William Friedkin. You discover a character through the action and you observe people, and you're not told a lot about who they are. You have to just sort of imagine.

You know, like in life, you piece together their stories. And I kind of like the idea of it being like that, that it's not sort of given to you on a plate, but you're going to see people and you get little clues as to who they are but you don't know who they are. Except perhaps Jude, as you gradually go through the film, you get a clearer and clearer idea of who he is and what motivates him.

I was wondering if you could talk about that. What was your process like as far as getting Jude Law involved, and also, constructing the character with him?

Well, Jude was obviously not an obvious person to have in the role. He's not the first person you'd think of as an authoritative, blue collar, tough working guy. That's the opposite of the description of Jude Law, you would think. So, I didn't have anyone in mind for the role, and Jude happened to read it. We share an agent in L.A. He happened to read it and got in touch and said he liked it.

And I thought, well, if there's one thing I've learned in my career, it's if somebody interested, they may well have something in them that really will work for this, and you shouldn't discount anyone. So, I went to see him and we started talking about it, and I realized that he was very, very serious about wanting to do a kind of transformative performance.

And that's very exciting, when you see an actor who really wants to change themselves and throw themselves into the part completely. So, we met a few more times, and then I cast him, and then we worked together on it for several months. And he worked with a voice coach to learn his voice and to learn this very difficult Aberdeen Scottish accent.

He did weights, these particular weights to build up his upper body and his forearms, so he looked more kind of sailor-y. He changed his posture, shaved his head. He went on a real submarine for five days with the Royal Navy, the only one of us who did that. He went out on the water for five days. So, he really threw himself into it, and I think he gives a performance unlike anything he's ever done before, and I think he really pulls it off. I'm thrilled with it.

I remember reading a quote from somebody awhile ago, that eventually, all leading men get to become character actors.

I hadn't heard that but that's very interesting. I mean, I was talking to someone else earlier what kind of films I'd seen and liked that influenced this. One of them I really like is Run Silent, Run Deep. That movie has Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable, and it's to me one of the great Clark Gable performances because it's so different. It's a bit like what Jude's done because it's so different than the leading man, sort of matinee idol that you expect Clark Gable to be. He plays this quite dark, obsessive and bitter, it's kind of a Captain Ahab figure.

And he's kind of lost his looks a bit, and it's really, it's a strong performance. So, that makes that similar to what Jude is doing, and I think another thing, as you get older, you have to, I think, learn your craft better and be more interested in just the acting because you're not going to get by on your looks anymore. Although, having said that, I think if you look back on Jude's career, you can see that there's a real pattern of him doing kind of really interesting character parts, whether it be in Ripley or whether it be in playing the assassin in Road to Perdition or whether it be Karenin in Anna Karenina. There's a few other I can't remember but he's done this handful of kind of interesting character parts and he's always been really, really good at them.

I totally agree with that. I think in terms of what he did here, it felt very ego-free.

Yeah, and I think one of the things I loved about working with him was that he is ego-free. It's like working in theatre. You know, in theatre, the actors are there to work and to explore the character and to really act. And that's what Jude is like. You can say anything to him. In film sets, normally, with particular stars, there's all those egos going around and all that sense of you can't really say anything too negative, so you have to go about it in a very subtle way. With Jude, it just felt like we were working together. Let's work together and try and make this good.

Expanding on what you just said, I would love to get your insight into the difference between making a more traditional studio film versus something that's more independent.

Well, obviously, I've only really made one studio movie, which was State of Play.
In a funny way, that was not representative at all because it's a funny example because it's based on this British TV series.

Which is a great show by the way.

It's very, very good. But the British TV series is pure entertainment, where the Hollywood movie actually has something to say. It's about journalism, and so, that's kind of the oddity. It's not…it's probably a more socially engaged work, the movie, than the TV show, and that's not what you expect of Hollywood. But having said that, when I worked on this movie, we had a very low budget but because we had Jude, I didn't have pressure to put other stars into it.

I was able to cast people who were right for the role. I could get the best character actors who were going to look the part and act the part, and be fantastic to work with, and that's what I did. And I really enjoyed that. And I think, for me, one of the pleasures of this movie is just seeing these different character actors doing their little turns and bringing these three characters to life in a way that's very subtle. Dennis Kelly hasn't given them kind of big, character-revealing moments all the time, but there's those little dollops where you're understanding who they are and what drives them.

In big picture terms, the submarine genre is very much a thing that people keep going back to. It's sort of an evergreen. What have you learned about the submarine genre's appeal?

Well, I think the submarine genre and the space movie are very similar. Interstellar in a kind of way is a submarine movie, in some ways. And I think that in some ways, Alien is very like a submarine movie. I think that it's the idea of being in a vessel which is your ark. Without that vessel, you are going to die. The environment is so unfriendly, and you are somewhere where you wouldn't survive without that vessel.

So, the vessel and its safety becomes of absolute importance, and the claustrophobia of that environment and the worry that you have as a crew member of what happens if the captain goes crazy, what happens if he makes the wrong decision, are we all going to die? That builds up a sense of psychological intensity and concentration in these movies, which means that you see both the best and the worst of human nature occurring in them. I think just because of the compression of psychology in the submarine, the sense of space, the claustrophobia of the space and the sense of the precariousness of life in that environment.

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Many thanks to Mr. Macdonald for his time. Check out Black Sea at a theater near you, and listen to the latest MovieFilm Podcast via the embed below to hear the audio from this interview:

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