In Searching for Gold and Redemption, Director Kevin Macdonald Takes Jude Law to the Rock Bottom of the Black Sea

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Thanks to director Kevin Macdonald’s tense, tight-quartered new submarine thriller Black Sea, we now know exactly what it feels like to be trapped on the bottom of the ocean at death’s door, mortality staring us in the face, survival chances slim. The movie presents a you-are-there aesthetic with tense direction and its effective screenplay, which raises a number of topical themes about disenfranchisement and redemption.

A top-notch Jude Law is a down-on-his-luck submarine captain who hatches a plan to retrieve a lost cadre of gold from a sunken World War II German U-boat, lying somewhere on the floor of the Black Sea.  After assembling a motley crew of economically desperate Russian and British seamen on a ramshackle vessel, tensions flare and danger rises, testing their loyalties and their mission. It’s a tense couple of hours, and director Macdonald, who won an Oscar for his 1999 doc One Day in September, keeps close on the men’s tempers and the sub’s machinations, both crumbling.

I caught up with Macdonald recently to discuss the film’s tense milieu as well as themes of class distinction and economic disenfranchisement, the dual influences of both The Wages of Fear of Sorcerer, and how exactly he mounted Black Sea’s gripping action.

The submarine film genre is quite established and seems to always work, though usually in the context of war. Black Sea is no exception. Why this movie for you?

I wanted to do a submarine film, and 15 years ago there was a Russian submarine disaster, the Kursk. A bunch of sailors got stranded at the bottom of the sea, less than 100 meters from the surface and could not be rescued. They ran out of oxygen and died. They were tapping on the side and people didn’t get their messages. I thought it was a terrifying scenario and it sat in the back of my mind for several years, and I thought I would like to do something with that. And I thought it would be good to make a submarine film that wasn’t Naval; that had to do with civilians looking for treasure or something valuable. That was the basic premise, and I hooked up with the screenwriter and he created the script.

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Black Sea works on a number of levels—certainly as an action film, but there are deeper thematic undercurrents if you look for them. Like several other recent movies, including Foxcatcher and Snowpiercer, the movie features some pointed indictments of the 1% exploiting those less economically fortunate.

I think that initially was an idea—to make a heist movie with a motivation that is a bit more complex and interesting. We felt like making a movie that had a political element to it and deeper thematic elements, rather than just working on the one level. So I was starting to think about why these guys do what they do and why they want to go on his mission. And one of the movies we looked at as inspiration was The Wages of Fear, as well as the remake, Sorcerer. That was actually the movie I showed to my actors and said “These are the characters and who you are.”

But this idea that you have people who are motivated by a sense of feeling they’ve been thrown on the scrapheap, the forgotten blue-collar man who society no longer values, and above that the 99% of the 1%. We all feel the resentment by people who seem to be making out like bandits towards people that are faceless or nameless. And meanwhile, the rest of us are all earning less than we used to. And struggling. There is a lot of resentment around. Maybe it hasn’t reached the stage of these kind of people, but I also like the idea that they feel this anger. I’m interested in how that is warping their point of view, because society is saying they’re not worth very much and nobody cares about their skills anymore. This is a digital world. And that makes people lose their self-respect. They start living by the values of the 1%. And that was one of the reasons that we decided not to really personify who the company is, because it isn’t really about them. We already know who they are. I was interested in what it was doing to these people, and actually how they have developed a false way of looking at the world, which Jude becomes aware of at the end. What are the important things?

However, the lone American in the group, played by Scott McNairy, turns out to be the villain as it were, or the voice of unbridled capitalism. Was that a cultural commentary?

Several people have said that! It is sort of a coincidence. I suppose in a way it’s a shorthand for him being a middleman and a guy who is a wheeler dealer, and I guess in Britain we would think he was slick and suited. And maybe that’s better as an American. But I never see him as a villain. I mean, he is on one level, but he is also a victim himself. He is a salaried he man who has to be doing this to feed his own family and is put in this position and wants to get out of it. And he’s not part of the team. It’s an interesting thing that we talked a lot about—the two opposing views of humanity that seem to be there. Jude Law’s view is that “We can share this; we can pull together”—the socialist for the working man. And then Scoot McNairy’s view is absolutely the opposite of that: “You have to take what you can get. You give everyone else who was helping you the minimum that you can.” That is a capitalism for you. And his philosophy is that human nature is like that. If you tell people to share, they are going to tear each other apart like animals. You have to give them discipline, structure and hierarchy. I guess in the end he is proved right.

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The pinnacle of the film is a tense sequence where gold is transported across the ocean floor from the U-boat back to the submarine. It feels almost like space terrain; like science fiction. Can you share some thoughts on this sequence, as well on the building of its tension?

Yes! When we were making that scene, we talked a lot about the original Alien, like when they first are on the planet and walk into the cave. It’s this feeling of wind blowing and murkiness, and you see little bits of the planet. But there’s also a sense that the rest is just murk. And there is something about that underwater that is frightening; the deep underwater. You do not really know what is happening there. In order to make the feet stick to the bottom, we put this memory foam into the bottom of the tank. And then we put the sound on top of it. We didn’t realize the Bromine in the memory foam would react with the chlorine and turn the water bright green. It was like a fluorescent, yellow-green, and we had to empty the whole tank. It was a huge disaster.

The tension is about rhythm and withholding, and denying people the moment that they want for as long as you possibly can, keeping the uncertainty going. It’s the editor and I sitting and working together; very much the nitty-gritty of filmmaking. You can have the same sequence played in a slightly different way and feel no tension at all. And it’s very hard to talk about, because it is a gut sense of rhythm of when not to go to something and for how long to hold a shot. For me, I find the tensest part of the film to be about whether they going to get off the bottom or not. And because you feel like you’ve been in the submarine for an hour, you feel like you want to get out of there.

That sequence actually calls to mind the truck crossing the bridge in Sorcerer, which you mentioned as a key influence.

Yes. I think the influence of Sorcerer is the physicality of it—the metal, grease and hands. It’s the analog part of it. We talked a lot about the Russians, and the screenwriter told me the story that when the space program was happening in US, NASA needed to develop a way for astronauts to write in space. They develop a special pen. It cost them $10 million. Whereas the Russians just got pencils. He said that’s the difference! It is all about using what you’ve got. And I love how these blue-collar guys in this moment use what they’ve got, and make it work.  Because nobody else could.

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Your grandfather is the legendary Emeric Pressberger, who made indelible movies with Michael Powell that are now considered all-time classics. What are your thoughts on them now?

Those movies are so magical because they grow every year. It’s easy to forget now that when I was growing up in the 70s and certainly in the 60s as well, and well into the 80s, that nobody knew about those movies. They were forgotten. It was only because Scorsese and Coppola started talking about them and promoting them that they sort of resurfaced.

What’s so amazing is that I recently watched a restoration of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which I saw at the Berlin Film Festival three years ago, and it was one of the most moving cinema experiences with the German-British relations and the complexity of it. Here is a movie that was made during the height of the war, which was supposedly a propaganda film, and yet it makes such a distinction between being a German, a good German, but that being a Nazi was something different. Even today, to have a movie about American troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, if you were to differentiate between the Taliban and have the Afghans teach something to the Americans, I think during the height of the war nobody would have accepted that. It would have been outrageous! But there they were at a time of complete crisis, when Britain could have fallen at any time to the Nazis, making this clear moral distinction and having these complex, interesting German characters. Plus the romance, and Deborah Kerr played three different parts. When I saw it, I was thinking that if this movie was released now it would have cleaned up the acting Oscars. Two guys have to age 40 years and a girl plays three parts! That’s the ultimate Oscar movie!

You initially wanted to shoot in a real submarine.

Because I come from documentaries I have a failure of the imagination. We always start with the real thing. We found this real submarine that a crazy guy bought 25 years ago when everything collapsed, and he thought he would turn it into a tourist attraction and it didn’t work. So it’s just sitting there and you can rent out for parties or you can do a photo shoot. We went to see this part of the research, and when we got on board our jaws dropped. It was a perfect time capsule of Soviet-ness. It was so perfectly awful in its design that we said “We have to use this.” At great inconvenience, we decided to shoot the first two weeks of the film there. And it definitely gave all the actors the feeling of what it was really like inside of a submarine, where you bang your head, taking skin off your chin going through those hatches cramped and where you can’t move. They got a sense of what that was like. And also when we would shoot the scenes where we would close the hatch and are there in the darkness, with the smell of diesel, you would get such a sense of what it would like to be underwater. It’s so visceral.

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What did you learn about terrorism when you made your Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September?

What I learned was that with that guy who I met, he and the other Palestinians I met who in one way or another have been involved in terrorism in the 70s and 80s for the Palestinian cause, was that they are human beings too. They had motivations which were political or personal or whatever. They also look back on those period and regret some things and the other things were justifiable and maybe they helped with their cause. I suppose with the younger ones, like him, and he was only 19 when he was part of that, he was probably brainwashed, it was glamorous; he thought it was cool. I think that’s the same with the jihadists today. They think it’s incredibly glamorous, cool and it gives meaning to their lives. You look at that guy, and he was the second or third generation of his family to be in a refugee camp in Lebanon not able to work. The more I learn about terrorism, the more that I think it is economic.

What is the best part about your job?

What I love about making films is just the entry into a different world with each film that you do. So entering into the world of submarines and learning about that, and going to Russia and working with Russian actors in creating this for a year or two years and concentrating on that, and then next going on to something else, whether it’s Bob Marley or a documentary I’m making about Chinese artists; I’ve been learning about China. That, I think, is the best. That to me is the fun part.

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