As Jude Law and director Kevin MacDonald walked into the room ahead of our interview to discuss the film Black Sea (now in cinemas), Jude Law must have been saying something he would not like me to hear. I know this because of the very first thing he said to me.
Jude Law: Are journalists like policemen? You know how the Queen thinks the whole world smells of new paint, and policemen think everyone behaves, does everybody just fall silent around journalists?
They do seem to, actually. But please, go on. Don’t let me interrupt you.
Kevin MacDonald: I think a journalist’s best tool is to be silent themselves.
[Pause] How much of your process is by instinct, and how much is by process, whether that’s deciding on the accent or where the camera will be positioned, or where a cut will come?
JL: It’s a little bit of both.
KM: We reached the accent through working at it and trying a number of different things.
JL: It was a process, but the idea was instinctual. Just felt that he couldn’t come from Lewisham, like me. It wouldn’t sound right, I don’t know why. The process started with us going right back to asking “Where did he come from?”
The script was a phenomenal read when it got into my hands but there was still mining and work we did, just to make sure the backstory of Robinson gave a theme, a seam for his motivation, and rounded him off. This was the only reference point to above the sea, I suppose, and everything else was about the mission. It made sense, back of Kevin being Scottish but also because I wanted him to have a gravitas and dignity and the possibility that he’s come from a family that suffered under the mistreatment of government. The idea that this is a generational thing, that he’s another member of his family to have been done by the system.
KM: We talked also about how he’s a really clever guy but the Navy is quite classist.
JL: He’ll only ever get to a certain level.
KM: To a certain rank, and then he’s booted out… and we talked about Aberdeen being a seafaring city, with big docks. It’s somewhere that a lot of submariners used to come from. Then I think you just liked the accent…
JL: I really liked it. It’s got this bass quality…
KM: And over the top, very even with a little bit of poetry.
JL: There’s a methodical nature to it.
KM: Methodical. That’s the word I’m looking for.
JL: So much of this film to me is about how the working man, the skilled man, is spat out by society and is done over by the banks. There’s a great social comment interwoven with the heist and the thriller. Choosing where the lead character came from and represents is very important, and you can achieve something very quickly.
KM: In a way, we’re also separating him from the Jude Law you know, saying that this is a character. Right from the beginning you see him in the office, you hear his voice, you look at him and you ask “Who is this character?” It’s not just somebody who sounds, looks and acts like Jude. It becomes a statement that he’s being somebody else.
You set me to thinking about… one of the interesting things that was going on was working out how you’d be the leader of all these big butch Russsians and you had to have the authority. At the same time you were rehearsing for Henry V and I think that really fed into this. Henry is about a prince becoming a man; there’s a carousing rebel-rouser out there who’s going to take on the authority of the crown. That was the thing you were doing next, wasn’t it?
JL: It already fit in.
KM: That fed into what you were doing here.
This film has got a strong aesthetic, in terms of its colour palette and lighting and the claustrophobic staging, but this was also handed down to you, in a sense, by the setting. By filming on a submarine a lot of your aesthetic choices are already made for you.
How did this work for and against you?
KM: We shot part of it on a real submarine, the rest of it on sets at Pinewood. It felt like if we filmed part of it in the real place the actors would take on board what it’s like to be down in the bowels of the metal machine. I think it did affect the way people stood and moved around, they knew what it was really like to be down there with the smell of diesel in their nostrils. But it does limit what you can do with the camera, and limits what the actors can do too. They might want to run around, but they can’t. If you’ve got three people on the set, it’s full, then you’ve got a camera and it’s over full. If you’ve got a second camera, bloody hell, you can’t even breathe.
But I started to see those restrictions as being really positive. They’re what makes it feel claustrophobic. You can sense that everybody is pressed up against one another, and as soon as you get a submarine set where you can remove the wall and swing the crane around, or whatever, you feel like the camera isn’t in there.
You didn’t have any fly walls at all?
KM: No, no. We had a couple of little hatches, just a couple of times, where we put the camera right “on the wall” as it were. That was the aesthetic decision. It’s kind of like whether or not you do what they did on Hunt For Red October or Crimson Tide with cameras flying around everywhere, totally artificial, you can’t do that on a sub, or you go to the absolute opposite and say “We’re going to be real about this.” I hope we made the right decision.
There were a couple of moments I did shoot where the camera was a little bit outside but I got rid of the wide shots. You can sense that the camera could never be where it was.
I think you did make the right decision for this film. Thank you Kevin and Jude.
Black Sea is out now.
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