An Interview with “Black Sea” director Kevin Macdonald: There’s no substitute for a good “sub” genre… literally.

Sections: Academy Award, Essays, Movie Review, Movies, Trailer

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Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald’s newest film “Black Sea” manages to resurrect a long-forgotten SUB-genre (more on this particular pun later) — the submarine movie.

While films like “Below,” “Das Boot,”Crimson Tide,” “U-571,” etc. frequently “surfaced” (sorry, I just can’t help myself) during the 1980’s, 1990’s and even the 2000’s, this forgotten style of action-thriller has basically been forsaken during the last decade or so…

… until now.

Thanks to Macdonald, screenwriter Dennis Kelly and stars Jude Law, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, the claustrophobic, paranoia-inducing, grimy, salty, steam-filled atmosphere that can only come from a dozen or so men cramming themselves into a cigar-shaped sea vessel and living directly on top of one another for days, weeks and months on end is back. Well, I can’t say that a sailor’s life is the life for me, but I  will say that Macdonald’s stylistic, action-packed thriller is the closest you can get to this sort of environment without getting an inevitable case of scurvy.

What’s that you ask? Is “Black Sea” actually an entertaining film OR does it manage to go “belly up” by the time the credits roll? Well, that’s a legitimate question and HERE’S THE ANSWER hidden within my review on Entertainment Tell.

Now, I was lucky enough to have a chat with Macdonald about things like buried treasure, the pros and cons of pros and cons, certain songs in The Beatles’ catalog, and the construction of the perfect sandwich.


Entertainment Tell: I’ve noticed some of your previous films like “Touching the Void” have taken place on mountain peaks and your newest film, “Black Sea,” covers the briny deep. What is the next Earthly terrain you’l be tackling?

Kevin Macdonald: (laughs) I like making movies about people in extreme environments. I’d love to make

Kevin Macdonald on the set of "Black Sea"

Kevin Mac… hard at work.

a space movie, except I think “Gravity” was so great and I think they kind of did everything I’d like to do with it. Or maybe an aviation film. I’ve done the survival thing, but there’s something about putting your characters in these awe-inspiring situations, where nature is so powerful, that I find really interesting.

ET: So, I guess you’re a fan of the “man vs. nature” theme?

Macdonald: Well, yeah. I guess it’s man vs. nature, sure. It’s about how it makes you think and feel. You might be alone on a mountaintop or you’re alone on the bottom of the sea. How does facing up to your own mortality and your fears make you feel? I think these sort of situations are genuinely terrifying and are well-suited to making a movie, honestly. 

ET: The crew of characters you’ve assembled in “Black Sea” is your basic rogue’s gallery (aka: villains and crooks). You’ve also managed to humanize (murdering Ugandan warlord) Idi Amin in one of your previous films, “The Last King of Scotland.” What draws you to telling the story of the anti-hero?

Macdonald: Well, I think that nobody is totally good and nobody is totally bad. There are ordinary people who are put in extraordinary situations and have to become heroic. There are also people who go the other way and can do very evil things. I’m interested in exploring the complexity of human characters rather than just simplifying things.

ET: So, I’m going to switch gears for a second and lighten things up a bit. Let’s talk about “subs” for a minute. First off, can you tell me what your all-time favorite “submarine movies” are?

Macdonald:Das Boot,” which is a German U-boat movie, is so naturalistic and realistic. It’s just so gripping. I love that movie. It’s probably the [movie] that really depicts, more than any other one, what life aboard a submarine, certainly during the war, was like.

I like “Crimson Tide” a lot. For me, it’s Tony Scott’s best film. It’s so exciting and features Denzel Washington when he was pretty fresh and young and at the peak of his power. It’s got Gene Hackman and his funny, little dog. I love him and his funny, little dog. He plays that kind of crazy captain character. [The film] is done with so much bravura and has all this energy within the camera. It’s very different from what I was trying to do with my film. It’s a great movie.

Then there’s “Run Silent Run Deep,” which is with Clark Gable. In the same ways you probably wouldn’t

A still from "Black Sea"

Jude Law’s looking pretty Ahab-ish in this particular scene, isn’t he?

expect Jude Law as a submarine commander [in “Black Sea”], most people wouldn’t expect Clark Gable as a submarine commander. [Gable’s] great in the movie, because he’s not all there. He’s kind of this rough around the edges, famous, obsessive submarine captain. It’s very much like “Moby Dick,” but instead of a whale, he wants to destroy a Japanese battleship, which sunk his previous submarine. He’s going after this submarine with whatever it takes. It’s just a great character-driven movie. It also has Burt Lancaster in it, who’s one of my favorite actors.

ET: Okay, let’s get back to subs. This is an important one. So… what ingredients make up your perfect submarine sandwich?

Macdonald: (pauses for a moment, then laughs] My perfect submarine sandwich? Now you’re talking. This is literally the first time I’ve ever been asked this question, but I love it. I think the key to making a sandwich is simplicity. So, I would go with some Parma ham, mozzarella – like proper mozzarella, the really soft kind – and basil. Maybe I’d have a few bits of tomato, but not much. And that would be it, my perfect sandwich. Oh wait, a drizzle of olive oil maybe. 

ET: “Yellow Submarine” – classic Beatles song OR overrated, poppy, bubble gum single?

Macdonald: (laughs heartily) The worst song The Beatles ever wrote and an unwatchable movie. And you can quote me on that. 

ET: Well, that’s the end of the submarine portion of the questioning.

Macdonald: I like your section about submarines in pop culture, but you haven’t tackled the best one yet, which is the fact that “submarine films” are a “SUB”genre of the thriller. 

ET: Let’s get back to “Black Sea.” There’s a mythical, Indiana Jones-like quality to the sunken, Nazi gold that exists at the heart of your film. You’ve publicly stated that the general idea for your story came from a real-life, 2000 incident in the Barents Sea (the sinking of the Kursk). However, are the ideas behind the aforementioned treasure based on something historical?

Macdonald: Well, it’s just based on a lot of stories, rumors and myths and the many tales about Nazi gold and what happened to Hitler’s gold after the war. Did it end up on the bottom of a deep lake in Switzerland or did it end up on the other side in America? No one really knows.

There was even a story, which people believed for many years, about a U-boat at the end of the second

A still from "Black Sea"

The things Red Lobster will do to get cheap seafood is downright criminal.

World War that refused to surrender and headed for the north of Germany towards Norway. An RAF (Royal Air Force) squadron went after it and was trying to signal it to surface, but it wouldn’t respond. In the end, they bombed it and it sank in deep waters. So, why were they running away in the first place? People thought it must have been because they had gold on board or possibly even some super-classified, Nazi war criminal. Years later, in the 1990’s, they actually salvaged the boat, thinking that they might find gold. Now, there was no gold on board, but what they did find were top secret, self-guiding torpedoes, which were state of the art for that particular time period, that the Germans didn’t want to fall into anyone’s hands.

So, there’s really a bunch of stories that fed into [the narrative]. I think that one of things that screenwriter Dennis Kelly is good at is taking little things that are almost true or could be true and combining them with little bits of history into something that sounds kind of credible.

ET: You’ve gone back and forth throughout your career between documentaries like (the Oscar-winning) “One Day in September” and traditional fictional pieces such as (the critically acclaimed) “The Last King of Scotland,” as well as “Black Sea.” In your heart of hearts, what type of film do you find yourself more partial to making?

Macdonald: You know what, in the old days I would’ve said to you documentaries. I was the kind of person who was such an advocate of documentaries and felt like fictional films were Phillistine and these type of filmmakers were sort of superficial. [In the past], I was SO pro-documentary that I even felt sorry for fictional filmmakers, but I’m not like that now. Now, in all honesty, I like both [styles of film making]. If I manage to get the money, I’d love to carry on making both.

Each [approach] is completely different. You certainly make more money making fictional films. It’s hard to make a living doing documentaries, but there’s a satisfaction you get from making them. You just, sort of, get to learn about the world, which I just enjoy, as I’m a curious person. I think if I had to spend all my life talking to agents and actors, I’d go a bit crazy. So, I like to take a break from that and

Kevin Macdonald on the set of "Black Sea"

That’s right… STILL hard at work.

rejoin the real world. 

ET: So, what’s up next for Kevin Macdonald?

Macdonald: I’ve got a few different things on the wall, but nothing really ready to talk about or that I’m definitely doing. I am doing a documentary at the moment about a Chinese artist named Cai Guo-Qiang. He’s a famous artist who lives in New York, although he’s originally from China, and uses gunpowder, explosions and fireworks in his work. He actually did something in Philadelphia a little while ago.  He’s sort of like half-artist/half-performing artist. You should look up his stuff, it’s really cool.

“Black Sea” opens nationwide this weekend on Friday, January 23. It stars Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy and is written by Dennis Kelly. Oh yeah, it’s also directed by Kevin Macdonald. Ya know, just in case you haven’t been paying attention to a SINGLE WORD I SAID.


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