Black Sea director Kevin Macdonald with Jude Law: "He really entered into that character." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
At the premiere in New York of Kevin Macdonald's action-packed marine thriller Black Sea, starring an intrepid Jude Law with Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, I asked Law about his relationship to the ocean and talked with producer Charles Steel about the horror of shackled skeletons. Screenwriter Dennis Kelly gives the world an ultimatum and I found out from the director that for him grapefruit rituals differ from continent to continent.
Law's face in Black Sea, looking a bit more roughed up and disillusioned than we are used to, commands the story of survival and greed. Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot meets Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer, meets Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly. The latter because of the team of McNairy [as Daniels] and Mendelsohn [as Fraser]. The two actors form again a wildly entertaining duo of unsavoury immoral characters.
Black Sea producer Charles Steel, Kevin Macdonald, Jude Law and screenwriter Dennis Kelly. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Captain Robinson (Law), intense and nostalgic for what never has been, is a former British Navy officer from Aberdeen, who spent his entire life underwater and gave up his family for the high seas. When he loses his most recent job at a salvaging company and is treated like a decrepit useless vessel himself, he meets with some of his pals at a harbour pub to discuss their bleak future. Fate takes a turn, and a mysterious man is willing to finance Robinson's precariously fruitful misadventure.
The crew, half-British, half-Russian, end up together in a very rusty submarine, on a desperate mission. Rumor has it, that gold, trapped in a Nazi U-boat, sunk to the bottom of the Black Sea in 1941, is there for the taking.
Anne-Katrin Titze: Before you started this film, did you have a fascination with shipwrecks at the bottom of the ocean?
Charles Steel: I didn't, but I have one now. I think when we started the project, it was over lunch and Kevin, whom I work with quite a lot was talking and said "I'd love to do a film set in a submarine." That started the whole journey, really, from there. At the time, there had been a recent incident about a Russian submarine called the Kursk. The submarine was stuck at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and these men were alive in there and nobody could get to them. It played out for about a week and the air was running out so nobody could rescue them. It was a big story and we talked about "god, can you imagine the terror of being stuck there?" That was kind of the starting point, really.
Jude Law on preparing for the role: "…lots of steak and going to the gym." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AKT: Black Sea tackles two fascinations - gold and time standing still in a time capsule which is that sunken ship. Was that combination attracting you as well?
Charles Steel: Yes, we always thought about that. Some of the sequences were inspired by films like Alien.
Charles Steel: Yes, and other science fiction films. Some of those sequences under water felt very much like they could have been in a science fiction film. An axiom - stuck down there in the middle of nowhere. And there they are on the seabed - it felt equivalent to something out of movies like that. There was a connection, to something like that, I think.
AKT: The skeletons in shackles is something so...
Charles Steel: Drastic?
AKT: Drastic and very haunting. It didn't have to be Nazis. It could be anyone.
Charles Steel: I think the idea was really to enforce the idea what could happen to those men. They were faced with 'this could be us.'
Jude Law as Captain Robinson in Black Sea
Dennis Kelly, on the red carpet, admitted his preferences in fiction and spoke about the state of the world today.
Dennis Kelly: Personally, I like being surprised, I like being scared and I like being angry as well… We are in a very difficult place right now. There are only two solutions. That we all just kill each other. That one day we all just decide to kill each other. Or - we all find a way not to kill each other. And that's what happens in the film. They find a way not to kill each other. And we have to do that. There's no choice. We don't have a choice.
Anne-Katrin Titze: Has making this film changed your relationship to the sea?
Jude Law: No! I still love the sea!
Law looks a bit different in person than he does as captain at sea.
JL: Hours of makeup! I hate giving away stuff like that - it's like a magician showing you the trick. We did little bits of prosthetics here and there and shaving hair and colouring - a little bit here and there. And the other stuff is just really boring - lots of steak and going to the gym.
Kevin Macdonald: "I was interested in this idea when you are in a place, where as a human being you shouldn't be." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Anne-Katrin Titze: Your film combines two of humanity's great fascinations - with things at the bottom of the ocean and with gold.
Kevin Macdonald: Also a fear of being at the bottom of the ocean.
AKT: That too, but also a fascination with boats that are stranded there, like the Titanic. Were those things that fascinated you?
KM: For me, I was interested in this idea when you are in a place, where as a human being you shouldn't be. I had done a film in the past about high altitude mountaineers and they obviously are going to places they shouldn't be. Human beings can't really survive in high altitude, the same way we can't really survive at the bottom of the ocean. Only with the benefit of those machines can we survive. There's something about being stranded there.
It was originally inspired by what happened to the Kursk, the Russian submarine that went down in the year 2000 and a bunch of sailors were alive and for three days trapped at the bottom of the sea and they couldn't be rescued. Even though they were only about 350 feet from the surface. I thought this was the most horrible scenario, the most horrible death you could imagine. But in the way of filmmaker, I thought also, 'ooh, that could make an interesting movie.' It appeals to your deepest fears.
On working with Russian actors not from the Bronx.
KM: The Russian actors are all very into Stanislavski, the Russian precursor of the Method. They all had gone and talked to friends of theirs who had been in the Navy, that sort of thing. They all did a lot of research. As a memento, they gave me a Russian submariner's watch. The soviets had a special watch for submariners. And they put it in a bottle, a huge tumbler of vodka.
Black Sea producer Charles Steel: "Some of the sequences were inspired by films like Alien." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AKT: Is it vodka proof?
KM: Of course. It's waterproof. It's a naval watch. I drank the vodka and then took the watch. I should have had it on today… I'd just been to Moscow last week. I did a premiere in St. Petersburg and one in Moscow. The actors were fantastic. They've all been trained in the Stanislavski method. They all wanted to know the motivation for themselves at any moment.
One of the things I like best about the movie is that you get those wonderful actors, some of whom are very well known in Russia, but here are not known at all. So you got those great actors that seemingly came from nowhere and they bring a great authenticity to the film. I was fed up with seeing movies where Russians are just people from the Bronx putting on a bad accent.
Jude Law did not seem to be the obvious choice for the role of a submarine captain.
KM: I sent the script to him. I realised over the course of my career, really good actors can do almost anything. You don't want to be prejudiced about it. We talked about the role and more than anything else, he wanted to transform himself, turn himself into this character. He did so much work - building up his upper body, lowering his voice, putting on this accent, shaving his hair, aging himself. He really entered into that character.
Black Sea US posters Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
For several months he was working on it and he worked with us on the script a bit. He was really part of the creation. He put on rubbery stuff that makes you wrinkly - it's a spray that makes your wrinkles more intense. A little bit of gray.
Filming in such a confined space had its challenges.
KM: Navigating in a small space is both beneficial and difficult because you are in a space where you can't move the actors around and you can't move the camera around in a way you would normally want to. And that gets frustrating and at the same time, that's what makes it feel authentic. That's what makes it feel claustrophobic, it means you're trapped. You as an audience are trapped there as well because you can sense that the camera can't move quickly.
Anne-Katrin Titze: Did you give the audience a hint in the scene with the grapefruit?
KM: Not intentionally.
AKT: I felt, this man, would he cut his own grapefruit?
KM [laughs]: You know, that's a very decadent American point of view. We in Europe cut our own fruit!
Black Sea opened today in the US and will be released on DVD and blu-ray in the UK on 13 April.