Under the Radar

'Black Sea' Director Kevin McDonald's Submarine Thriller


"Black Sea," is a submarine thriller starring Jude Law and directed by Kevin Mcdonald. Law stars as an unemployed, working-class submarine captain given a chance to lead a makeshift crew in a castoff vessel on a quest for Nazi gold. Things (obviously) don't as planned, the bad guys aren't exactly who you think they are and there are some surprises at the end after a series of incredibly tense action scenes.

We talked to director Kevin Mcdonald about the movies that inspired his film, historical accuracy and his earlier career as a documentary filmmaker. We've also got a couple of exclusive clips where Jude Law gives a tour of the Russian sub used in the movie.

In this clip, Jude Law explains the Russian submariner "Morse Code knocks" communication system.

So if you and I wanted to go buy a black market submarine now, is that something that we can really do?

Well, hmm, yes, I think you could. You certainly could in years gone by. It might be a little harder now. The submarine that we filmed on is also the exterior of the submarine you see, is a 1965 Russian diesel sub that was bought by a British military collector in 1992 and brought to Britain. And we filmed onboard that, so I guess, yeah, he bought one for $100,000.

The movie is set partially in what was the Ukraine, Sevastopol in Crimea, and that’s where they pick up the submarine. And at that time late last year, the Ukrainian Navy had a submarine exactly like this still working, which they were willing to lend us to shoot on. So it's not too much of a stretch.

In this clip, Jude Law gives a tour of the sub's control room.

In 1965, were they still building subs based on that U-boat framework 20 years after World War II?

Well, I don’t think it's that they were – well, first of all, I should say this, you know this is a movie.

I’m just letting you take the bat out of our commenters’ hands.

It is certainly true that, at the end of the war, the Soviets shipped whole U-boats back to Russia and for many, many years they based their designs on the U-boat design. Since that design was so far ahead of its time, it's not out of the bounds of possibility.

We’re probably at the very end of the timeline where you can make a Nazi gold movie. It's 70 years after the end of the war and it’s almost like you're getting in under the wire.

I don’t know. I think you can carry on doing that, can't you, because it's become kind of an urban myth/mythology kind of thing, hasn’t it? And it will probably remain so because of all the tales of U-boats leaving Bremen in 1945, mysteriously disappearing to Argentina.

We've all heard those stories, and there are true stories of submarines, of U-boats, which fled at the end of the war. There was one particular incident which happened after the end of the war, where a U-boat was seen by the RAF heading towards Norway and refused to stop, submerged when it was signaled to stop. And the RAF attacked it and sank it in very deep water. For many years, people asked why were they running away, where were they going? They thought that maybe the U-boat had gold in it, so it was raised in the 90’s. It turned out not to have gold, but there were compartments which had not flooded with water and were preserved with clothing and all sorts of stuff down there. It turned out the reason they had been fleeing is because they had an advanced prototype of a new kind of torpedo, which was a self-guided torpedo. And they had been told in no way to hand this technology over to the Allies.

So yeah, there were things which, with a little pinch of imagination, you can say it's possible, in the same way as our film’s back story about Hitler and Stalin. History tells us that Stalin was desperate to stay out of the war. That’s why he went into his unnatural pact with Hitler, because he didn’t think the Soviet Union was ready for a war. So is it credible that he could have tried to bribe Hitler not to invade? Well, it's possible. What we're trying to do is set up an alternative history. We’re not saying that it's truthful. We're saying, “Hmm, this could have happened.”

One thing I enjoyed about the movie is you hit all the submarine movie notes and all the World War II conspiracy notes, but it's also like a heist movie combined with something like “The Wages of Fear."

The Wages of Fear and its 1975 remake by William Friedkin, Sorcerer, those two movies were big influences. It’s the idea of men who are put in a position of being so desperate that they all take on an almost certainly fatal task. Driving the nitro across the mountains equates obviously very well with our guys taking this old rust bucket of a submarine. They know it's a bad idea, but they're somehow psychologically in a place where they're willing to take a risk. It’s the Hail Mary Pass, isn't it?

I liked the fact that those movies and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which is another big influence on this movie, are films about blue-collar guys. In some ways, they're trying to get rich, but they're also trying to regain their self-respect and their masculinity. I think that’s a very interesting theme today.

Your began your career as a documentary filmmaker and made the transition to features. "One Day in September," your Oscar-winning documentary about the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Munich Olympics, is one of my favorites.

I started making television documentaries in Britain for the BBC and I was getting fed up with the formula that television documentaries kind of had to fit into. I saw Hoop Dreams and When We Were Kings, two great American movies, documentaries of the mid-90's, and they really inspired me to think, “Wow, I could make a nonfiction feature.”

I started looking for a story and particularly had this idea that it would be great to make a nonfiction thriller, to make a documentary thriller. So I came across a family member of one of the Israeli athletes who died at Munich and started talking to her and she had these amazing conspiracy theories and things she suspected had happened.

That attack was one of the pivotal events of the second half of the twentieth century and changed so much about the Middle East. It changed so much about security, about the Olympics, and yet people still didn’t really know quite what had happened, and so there’s a lot of mystery around it. And that, of course, is intriguing to a documentary maker. There must be something more to this.

I went on this two year long investigation and then made this film, which we tried to make feel like a thriller. Nowadays that’s probably quite a cliché. Everybody doing the same kind of thing of using lots of music and fast cutting and whatever. It’s become kind of boring and I certainly myself react against it now. But, at the time, it was quite a radical thing to do and quite a controversial thing to do in the documentary world. A lot of people really didn't like it, but the film did very well.

Then I made a film called Touching the Void, which is a mountain climbing film about Joe Simpson surviving an accident in the Andes. And that film could only really be made, I felt, if I used actors. And even then I was quite traditional as a documentarian. I kind of didn’t like the idea of reconstruction. I did think, okay, I want to make this film, I want to tell this story, and I’m gonna have to use actors. Using those actors and starting to use fiction film techniques, I really enjoyed it. Because that film was successful, people started approaching to make a fiction film. And that was how I came to make The Last King of Scotland.

I've never really trained as a fiction filmmaker. I've learned on the job and I'm still learning very much and I feel like I still use a lot of my documentary background and impulses when I'm approaching a fiction film.

There are so many military-themed films made in Eastern Europe because that’s a place you can go and work inexpensively. How much of the where can you afford to film influences the work for somebody like you now?

It influences it a great deal. I mean I think you just have to look in America. Hardly anything, if anything, is made in California anymore. Everything is made in Atlanta.I f I was to make an American film, that’s where you would almost certainly end up, because they offer the best tax rebates. And the studios are just very on that and it's hard to persuade them I need to film somewhere else because it's authentic. They don’t want to hear that and I'm all about the authentic.

When I made Last King of Scotland, I insisted we make it in Uganda, even though everyone was telling me, “No, you have to make it in South Africa because it's easier and there's film crews and da-da-da.” With Black Sea, everyone was saying, “No, why do you want to use Russian actors? They're so expensive and difficult and where are you going to find them?” You know they wanted me to use Serbians or Brits using a funny accent. In this case, the studio wanted us to go and film in Romania, build the whole set in Romania, and I find that quite difficult because having a sense of authenticity in films is one of the things I'm most interested in and you can't do that if you're forced to go somewhere that’s not the place it's meant to be. Obviously, there are times when it works, and it can work really well, but the specific is usually much more interesting than the kind of generalized cliché.

Most of the submariners in the film are obviously guys with military experience and it seems like they’ve had a tough time after getting out.

One of the things that interests me about these characters is that they have that thing, which I think a lot of people who served in the military for a long time have, and particularly people who have served in submarines have, where they can become kind of institutionalized and they're not able to function so well outside of the institution.

So they end up in trouble, a lot of old sailors, a lot of old submariners I talk to in Britain, you know they end up in jail or unemployed or divorced. There's a lot of family problems and that kind of thing. These guys are very much like that. There's a speech in the film about how we're penguins. We're more at home in the water than we are up above. We look like waddling idiots when we're up above the water, but down below we're elegant and sleek. That’s an interesting concept.

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