Scottish director Kevin Macdonald goes deep and meaningful with a submarine-set thriller, says Siobhan Synnot
KEVIN Macdonald is enjoying being a beach bum. “I’ve just had lunch by the sea with Catherine Deneuve,” says the Glasgow director, cheerfully. “I don’t think life gets any better than sitting in the sun while a legend of French cinema tells you stories about making Belle de Jour and other wonderful films, and eating great food. It’s like going to a Scottish pub and having a pint with Sean Connery”
The boyish 47-year-old Macdonald has landed in the pretty French town of Deauville to serve on the Anglo-French jury of its annual film festival, and is clearly enjoying seeing films and catching up with other movie makers. However, all festivals expect their guests to sing for their supper, so Macdonald has also brought along his latest work – a submarine drama called Black Sea.
Macdonald’s work often bridges the gap in genres between fact and fiction. He first made his name with documentaries such as the Oscar-winning One Day In September, Touching the Void and Marley, but his fictional films are also inspired by real events, such as the brutal regime of Idi Amin, as depicted in The Last King of Scotland, or the ancient Roman adventures of The Eagle. Black Sea has its origins in the Kursk disaster of 2000, when an explosion in a Russian submarine killed most of the 118 crew, and while authorities dithered and refused offers of help from Britain and other countries, the subsequent lack of oxygen suffocated the 23 survivors. “It’s one of the most terrifying situations you could imagine,” says Macdonald, soberly.
Black Sea also draws from other sources, including claustrophobic sub classics like Das Boot, and sweaty dramas like The Wages of Fear and The Treasure of The Sierra Madre. In a story shaped by Macdonald and screenwriter Dennis Kelly (who also wrote Channel 4’s conspiracy thriller Utopia), Jude Law plays a former navy submariner, who gathers a crew of Brits, Russians and an Australian and sets out in a vintage Soviet sub in search of forgotten Nazi gold buried at the bottom of the ocean.
Bulked up, heavily-stubbled and with his head shaved, this is a startling incarnation of Law, if you still associate him with dreamboats rather than U-boats. Black Sea’s trailers have also already stirred up local interest by showcasing Law’s first attempt at a Scottish accent. The actor and director agreed that the captain needed to come from a port town and “after a long debate, we thought Aberdeen would be the perfect place”.
To Scottish ears, Law’s accent seems to roam from the east coast to the dockyards and sometimes the Docklands, but it will probably pass muster with a global audience more concerned with Das Boot than Furry Boot inflections. “He didn’t actually visit Aberdeen,” admits Macdonald. “but he had a couple of Aberdonian voice coaches. And he carried a piece of granite with him for the whole of the shoot, for the Granite City.”
Black Sea is a modern story but carries a Cold War sensibility, not least with its vintage diesel setting. “We filmed it partly in a real Russian submarine from exactly the right period,” says Macdonald, “and we didn’t have to go to Russia to find it. A collector bought it as a tourist attraction in the 1990s, but never really got around to [doing anything with] it, so it was just sitting in a river near the Thames Estuary.
“Outside it’s pretty rusty, but inside it’s pristine with all the original features. There’s a natural claustrophobia and tension involved when you film the scenes because subs are tiny. They’re basically a long corridor with a few small rooms off it. There’s no space at all, and it’s very hard to film in because there’s nowhere to move a camera, nowhere to have your actors running around. At any one time, I think I had three crew members’ arses up against me. You’re in a place you shouldn’t be: the bottom of the ocean in a tin can. It makes you realise what a privilege it is to have a life on land.”
Law spent several days aboard HMS Talent, a nuclear submarine off Gibraltar, working six hours on, six hours off. “He says that when it came time to board, he opened the hatch and the first thing that hit him was the smell of men who had been working in there for weeks,” says Macdonald. “He slept in a room with 18 men, and they put him on engineering detail. He was very funny about pedalling away on an exercise bike, right next to nuclear missiles.”
Macdonald turned down the opportunity to join Law – “too busy”, he says, with some relief. In any case, there were plenty of tensions on set shooting scenes in a 1.2 million litre water tank. They spent several days plunging Animal Kingdom actor Ben Mendelsohn to the bottom in full diving gear – to discover the Australian was both claustrophobic, and resentful at the lack of cigarette breaks. “I kept having to say ‘No, you can’t just pop up for a fag’,” says Macdonald. Then filming was held up for a week after the chlorine in the tank reacted to a chemical in some memory foam, turning the water yellow, then blue. The entire supply had to be changed, and reheated – “We spent a lot of time checking our insurance.”
An additional challenge lay in directing a non-English cast. “Half of my actors didn’t really speak English, and I don’t speak Russian, so it was an adventure all round,” understates Macdonald. “But it was worth it because one of the pleasures of the movie is seeing such great actors you probably don’t recognise, but they’re of a very high calibre because they’re all big stars in Russia.”
One particular prize was Russian actor Grigoriy Dobrygin, who made his English-speaking debut in A Wanted Man earlier this year, and is hotter than Benedict Cumberbatch in his native country. Dobrygin was so absorbed in inhabiting his crew member role that he refused to stay in the cast’s block of serviced apartments, insisting they were too grand for his character. Finally, the production staff booked him into the local youth hostel.
As befits a man who survived working with Russell Crowe on State of Play, Macdonald seems to have remarkable reserves of zen-like calm.
“Well, one of my next projects is a biopic about Elvis, before he really became Elvis Presley,” notes Macdonald. “And one of the things I relish about his early years, is that he never set foot in a submarine.”
• Black Sea is on general release from Friday