Interview: Star Jude Law and Director Kevin Macdonald Talk ‘Black Sea’ and Submarines

In acclaimed British actor Jude Law’s latest film Black Sea, the actor takes on one of his most challenging roles yet, that of a Scottish submarine captain bent on retrieving a large sum of gold buried beneath the sea. The film is a harrowing adventure that features a motley crew of English and Russian men all pursuing the same thing: fortune. It is an old fashioned thriller that explores a number of themes including greed, paranoia, and sacrifice. I recently had the great privilege of interviewing star Jude Law and Academy Award-winning director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, One Day in September). Here’s how the interview went:

So describe that feeling of being and working in these tiny, little spaces and what that was like for you?

Jude Law: Well, there are two aspects to it in my mind. One is like, as a human being just to sort of deal with it and the other is how to deal with it in our profession, to make a film, to make it work, do you see what I mean? I find you go into a place, you have to, you prepare yourself, you know, day in and day out, you know, okay, we’re going in. You know, you have to get yourself ready for that, and it may sound straight-forward, but it’s a sense of sort of knowing that you’re not, you can’t get on, you can’t let people get on your nerves. You kind of have to let go of personal space, and there’s a certain amount of rallying yourself and those around you through it. But as an actor and in a piece like this, it’s incredibly helpful, and it added a wonderful element and sometimes sold certain issues to help us kind of construct the drama of a scene. This is the space, you know, play it as real, and there’s a big difference between being in a room this big and playing a piece of drama across the room.

Kevin Macdonald: You’ve got so many choices, normally. With this, the choices are all made for you because you can’t really move. The actors can’t move, the camera can’t move too much. You just kind of gotta, you know, wherever feels the right place to do it, you’re going to do it there, and that’s it. A lot’s dictated in the filmmaking by the space.

How do you get into the character of someone who is more comfortable at sea and has worked most of their adult life in the submarine if you are just getting into the submarine for a few months?

Law: I guess, you know, it’s the usual-

Macdonald: You act. Yeah!

All: (Laughs)

Law: Assumed knowledge and experience, which is like Kevin says, is called acting. That was a large part of, I guess, where we as a crew had to educate ourselves. What’s interesting is, what I learned was an awful lot of the guys who are submariners or work in the salvage who spend a lot of time at sea, they find it harder than leaving. They get so used to the confinement.

Macdonald: There are also a lot of stories about people coming back off of submarines and ending up sleeping on the floor in a corner. Really, they couldn’t sleep next to their wives or whatever on a bed. They’d sleep in a corner with a blanket over them. And there’s also lots of stories we were told by submariners that would go away for six months, and then they’d come back but they’d lie to their families about when they were coming back and say they were coming back two days later so that they could go out on the town and stay with their mates and get drunk with them all because there’s obviously no drinking on the submarine and they’re sort of fun like that. So they’d cut loose for a couple of days and then say to their wives, “Oh, I’m back! Just got in!” Which says quite a lot about the relationships on the submarine and that intense environment that they’re in.

Jude, this was a demanding part. Was this your most physically demanding role?

Law: You’re not the first person to ask that, and I don’t, I mean yeah, it wasn’t physical. It wasn’t hugely demanding to be honest. Every part in every film has its hurdles, and that’s often the fun of it. You know what you’re embarking on and you know what you’re getting involved in. That’s usually the reason why, for me, that’s why you get involved. There’s no point going, “Oh no, I don’t like confined spaces, Kevin.” You know what I mean? So the physicality was part of, I liked the idea of playing a leader, and I liked the idea of the drama but also the camaraderie and the intensity that can face me when I embarked on this. And all of those…and I love the physical stuff. It was nearly a week we spent on the scene towards the end of the film, we’re getting very wet, and I loved all that stuff. I mean, it’s hard work, but you know, being a little boy, pretending on a submarine that’s going down, and I got to do it kind of for real.

Well, you mentioned earlier that everybody was on top of each other. It was such a tiny space and you’ve got all this testosterone going on. So what were like the little nuances of people, like, being on top of each other? Were there panic attacks?

Law: No, no, none of that. There was a lot of singing, a lot of very rude language and insane humor and a lot of ribbing. Which is, I went on a real naval submarine and interestingly, the thing I observed was that, I don’t know if it was like this with all of them, but there was a way they communicated with each other, mostly incredibly derogatory. They put each other down all the time, but you had to laugh at it. You couldn’t take yourself seriously, and weirdly, that did start to seep into us as a team because banter, I guess you call it, starts to evolve and people take on personalities as to who takes what.

Macdonald: So are they taking the mickey out of you on the submarine?

Law: No one took the mickey out of me. (Laughs) At least in front of me. But Bobby, who played Tobin, it was his first film, and he got a lot.

Macdonald: Yes.

Law: He got a lot.

Like hazing kind of stuff or…?

Law: Teasing?

Hazing.

Law: What’s hazing?

Like making them do things-

Macdonald: Silly rituals.

Law: Oh, I see! No, not so much, just ribbing, you know, because obviously, you know, the camera is moving, and you’ve got to stick around, and it’s a big effort to go out of the submarine, just to get off-set. You’re spending hours and hours in the same space.

Macdonald: There was definitely an interesting thing because he was, it was his first film part he ever had, the young boy, and he’s playing this newcomer to the world of submarines in the film, so there was a lot of people going, “Stick with me, boy, I’ll show you how this works. Don’t close your eyes on that. We don’t do that, we don’t do that, no.” Everyone giving him actor-ly advice.

When it came to the casting, you picked a lot of really established character actors. Were roles written with people in mind or did you adjust them once you had the cast?

Macdonald: No, they weren’t written with anyone in mind, and I guess we did adjust them a little bit because certain actors read a certain line a certain way or are good at putting across a certain emotion or a certain kind of attitude, and so certain lines become unnecessary or you need to play up a certain other thing. I just wanted people who had great faces and were great character actors, and I was lucky enough to be able to cast people who were right for every role, and that doesn’t happen often in movies. So they are a wonderful bunch, including the Russians, and we’ve got such a cosmopolitan group. We’ve got six Russians, an Australian, a few Brits from all over Britain, and an American.

Kevin, it’s quite apparent that collaboration is important to your set. What did you do to make everyone feel like they were part of a team?

Macdonald: I don’t know. Well, I did take the two actors who came furthest, who came from L.A., were Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn. I thought a couple days before shooting, I thought I’d invite them around to my house for dinner and then I’ll take you to a really nice London thing which is go, it was beautiful hot weather, doesn’t happen very often, but I’ll take them swimming on Hampstead Heath, these lovely outdoor ponds. So I took them there, and they were very nervous because the water is kind of murky and mucky, and I’m like, “Don’t worry, it’s fine.” A few rats in there. (Laughs) Anyways, but I didn’t realize, we jumped in the water and I said, “Let’s just swim ‘round a couple of times,” and they looked so nervous. Anyway, I then scoop in there and swam off and then we heard this yell behind us. “Help! Help!” It was Ben Mendelsohn, who in the film is playing the world’s greatest diver, it turned out he’s not that confident in the water, and I had to go rescue him and drag him to safety. It’s the only time I’ve had to use the skills I learned.

Law: Yeah, all those skills you had us learn, in case of an emergency.

Macdonald: I hadn’t actually told that story, but this is our last day of press, so I’m allowed to tell it.

How are your swimming skills?

Law: They’re okay, but I stayed on the boat. They’re alright, yeah.

Have you scuba’d before?

Law: I had, yeah.

So what do you remember about the first time that you went scuba diving?

Law: Well, it was in Egypt. The colors, I think. The colors of the reef and the sea life is so extraordinary. The second time I did it, I did it with sharks and that was pretty extraordinary. Yeah, South Africa.

Macdonald: Certainly different from the world of Black Sea, that sort of murky, dank world where you can’t, certainly not beautiful colors. I mean, you can’t see very far and that sort of sense of the unknown can be terrifying, and that’s what we were going for.

How hard was it to film those scuba scenes and make them understandable to the audience while still expressing how murky and dark it is?

Macdonald: Well, that was the only part of the film which we storyboarded because we kind of had to, the animated pre-visualization of it, because it’s really hard filming underwater, and to tell the story, you want to know, I need that shot, I need this shot. Some of that changes a bit, but it was all very set in advance. Also because that’s the part of the movie where I had to use the most CGI because we had to sort of extend, we had little bits of a submarine, little bits of U-boat, little bits of a ridge, and had to extend those later on in post-production. So we had to know exactly what that was going to be. You pre-visualize it all. But the interesting thing about that sequence for me is it’s sort of like the big action set-piece of the movie, 50 minutes underwater, but it all takes place in slow-motion because when you’re underwater, you move very slowly. So it’s got this very deliberate pace to it, which I think really builds the tension, but it goes against, you know, the obvious way of doing an action sequence.

This is the first feature, I hear, the screenwriter wrote. He did a very good job, he’s primarily a playwright, right?

Macdonald: Yes.

How did you go about recruiting a rookie to do this? How did you connect with Dennis?

Macdonald: I had this idea to make a submarine movie, a submarine stuck at the bottom of the sea, and I had to think of what they are there for, must be there for some sort of, after some sort of treasure or something. I had that kind of idea in my head, and that was all, and the reference of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as well, which was one of the influences on the script. And I was looking for a writer, and I had met a couple of different people, you know, great writers, but they didn’t quite connect to it. See, then Dennis came up, the producer Charles Steel mentioned his name. He had met him, said to read some of his plays, which I did, and one of them is set in an old second World War bunker, a large part of it, and the idea of sort of somebody who could write a play set in a single location and who is interested in and can make interesting the idea of characters trapped together in some way. And he’s just a very, very smart guy. Obviously here in New York, he won the Tony last year for Matilda the Musical, which he told me last night he’s working on the screenplay, they’re going to do a movie.

Law: Oh, that’s good.

Did having him as the screenwriter add to some of the dark humor in the film?

Macdonald: Yeah, he’s definitely got a very dark sense of humor.

Law: He’s written a wonderful TV show called Utopia. I don’t know whether you get it over here. You get it over here, yeah?

Talk about your Scottish accent. I always find that everybody sounds like Sean Connery when they try to do it, and you were not at all sounding like him.

Law: Good! (Laughs)

You were spot on.

Law: Well, there’s a very specific Scottish accent. I felt, well, it was a very open conversation. Early on in the process, we were obviously discussing Robinson and a sense of who he was and his past and in my ever kind of curious nature, kind of constructing someone very three-dimensional but also often not me. I kept thinking of, I can’t remember who said it first, actually, if it was you or I, but this idea of hinting through where he came from, of a past, and it seemed to make sense. He didn’t sound like a south-east London, which is my accent, nor indeed did we obviously want him for obvious reasons to sound what we would say rather generally is upper class. He wasn’t a sort of natural public school, private school as you might call it, what I say in military terms, general material. So we thought, well, we wanted him to come from somewhere maybe coastal, and I liked the idea that he maybe through his accent hinted at a past where he had, I liked that he was an echo of his father’s experience at the hands of the powers that be, and Aberdeen is this coastal town, actually called the Granite City, and known in the 1780s for having a huge dock that was shut down by the conservative government, and so I had this idea that his father was one of those guys. His father was someone, you know, who lost his job and kind of lost his pride and dignity, and it’s happening to him. Kevin being Scottish helped a lot because I felt more confident that if I can make that leap, at least I’ve got someone there next to me that’s going to go –

Macdonald: But having said that, it’s a very different accent. I’ve got a very soft Scottish accent, but it’s a very different to any Scottish accent I’ve heard in film before. Very specific region of Scotland, and so something nice about that, that it’s very specific and unique.

You were almost hoping for subtitles at certain points.

Law: Ha ha, oh no! (Laughs) Imagine what it’s like for us, when we watch your movies with your American accents! (Laughs) Sometimes it’s so hard, you’ve gotta listen harder.

What are the concepts of nationality? You have an international cast, and there’s the tension between the Russians and the English-speaking. Are you trying to express something specific with that, or is that just a natural thing that would cause tension when you have a bunch of people in a confined space?

Macdonald: Well, I think that having, you know, there’s something about the movie is partly about solidarity of the working man, wherever that person be, Russian or Australian or British, and there was something very interesting to me about the idea that a big portion of the crew are Russian. They need to be Russian. You know, Jude’s character recruits them because they can run this Russian submarine. The British sailors don’t know how to do that, so they need the Russians. They have this common experience of having been valued for their skills and then thrown on the scrapheap and particularly in Russia, you know, that’s very much the case. But they also have a history of the Cold War and the suspicion between each other. And I like the idea that these two groups of guys, they’re old enough that when they started off in their career in the Soviet Era, they were probably chasing and following and spying on the submarine that Jude’s character, the English speaking characters were in. So that gives a whole sort of historical context to the thing and an added reason for perhaps having suspicion and the trust.

Law: A wonderful drama, there’s natural primal almost division, and then this sense of okay, only together can we survive this, they are great kind of metaphors.

Macdonald: Yeah, because the language divides them absolutely because they can’t understand each other, but at a certain stage, they’re all stuck together. They’ve got to decide to work together and get out of here or are we to fight it out and all die? And so yeah, I think it is a metaphor.

What makes Black Sea different from other submarine movies?

Macdonald: What makes it different is that primarily it is not a naval film. It is not a military film. I think pretty much every other submarine film that I can think of is set during the second world war or set during the Cold War, and there’s also an interesting thing which is they aren’t usually about the fear that you’re going to be sent to the bottom. There’s only one other one that I’ve seen which has a big sequence actually with Charlton Heston. I can’t remember, it was a TV movie in the 70s.

Law: Lady Down?

Macdonald: Gray Lady Down it was called, yeah. That also had an element of being stuck on the bottom, but most of them aren’t about that. And I think it’s also, this is a heist movie. The structure that it conforms to most obviously, so it’s going to, you know, using a submarine for an audacious heist. It just happens that the motivation for that heist is not just kind of greed, it’s also about wanting revenge on the system and it’s this kind of theme of 99 percent vs. the 1 percent, people fighting back to get that self-respect.

What are your next, are you coming back to Broadway anytime soon?

Law: Not that I know of. I certainly look forward to the day, but not that I know of, no. I’m doing a film Knights of the Round Table next.

And you’re playing…?

Law: Playing a king.

All: (Laughs)

Arthur?

Law: No, not Arthur.

Jude, I’m curious, out of your impressive career, do you have a favorite role in particular?

Law: It’s always the last one I played! In truth, it really is, because it’s usually the one I remember.

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