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Interview: Kevin Macdonald Sails the “Black Sea”

Apart from being the director who elicited an Oscar-winning performance from Forest Whitaker in 2006’s “The Last King of Scotland,” Kevin Macdonald also remains one of the most gifted documentarians currently working in the medium. His body of work includes “One Day in September,” a chilling account of the terrorism that rocked the 1972 Olympics, and “Life in a Day,” an extraordinary assemblage of footage shot around the world in a single 24-hour period. Yet it is “Touching the Void,” Macdonald’s acclaimed 2003 documentary about the treacherous journey of two mountain climbers, that serves as the true precursor for the filmmaker’s latest effort, the suspenseful thriller, “Black Sea.”

Jude Law stars as Robinson, a submarine captain who leads a group of desperate men on an exceedingly risky journey to the bottom of the Black Sea to retrieve hidden treasure that will make them all equally rich—if they don’t kill each other first. RogerEbert.com spoke with Macdonald about his love of editing, the influence of William Friedkin’s 1977 cult classic, “Sorcerer,” and the surprising way that his grandfather, the great director Emeric Pressburger (“The Red Shoes”), got him into filmmaking.

Not long ago, the Chicago Film Critics Association screened “Sorcerer” with Friedkin in attendance, and it was that film—rather than a submarine picture—that “Black Sea” most strongly evoked.

KEVIN MACDONALD: That’s the movie that I showed to my actors. I showed them the second half, not the first half. I like the original version, “The Wages of Fear,” a great deal, but the Friedkin movie does something with character that I tried to achieve in my film. I didn’t want to have too much “character time.” I wanted character to be revealed through action in a subtle way. I also liked the feeling that Friedkin’s film evoked of men and metal and grease and sweat, especially during that sequence where they prepare the trucks. I liked the idea of broken men making a last desperate attempt at not only regaining the respect of the world, but their own self-respect. “Sorcerer” has some brilliant things in it, and I’d say the second half or the second two-thirds are brilliantly done. But it does spend too much time introducing all of the characters before the action starts. The boldness of Friedkin’s technique is great, but I think that’s part of the reason why the film didn’t work. 

The thematic core of the film was this idea of isolation and abandonment. You’re stuck in a metal box that must function properly or else, you’re doomed. What do those confines reveal about human character? That existential feeling of being alone and trapped reminded me of “Touching the Void,” and it’s what originally attracted me to making a submarine film. Then I thought about what these guys are doing there and why they’re trapped at the bottom of the sea. I wanted them to be civilians rather than members of the Navy. I decided that they were looking for treasure and then thought about how money effects people in different ways. I approached my screenwriter, Dennis Kelly, and said, “I want to make a movie that’s basically ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ meets ‘Sorcerer’ in a submarine.” [laughs]

I was surprised at just how funny your film is, especially during the first act. A lot of the humor is fueled by the characters’ desperation, such as when Robinson does the exact opposite of what he’s instructed to do during a crucial meeting.

I probably would’ve liked if there was a little more humor in the film. It’s quite British—it’s black humor for the most part. You have to like the people. If you don’t like them, then you don’t care about the story. That’s a tricky thing when you’re dealing with an anti-hero like Robinson. You learn more about him as the film progresses, and you revise your opinion of him along the way. Joe Simpson in “Touching the Void” is not a very nice guy, but in a documentary, the characters don’t have to be nice for audiences to be interested in their story. That’s harder to pull off in fiction. Even in “Last King of Scotland,” you have a character who is a selfish bastard and yet, he’s vivacious and likable enough at certain points that you want to go on the journey with him. I watched “Nightcrawler” yesterday and thought it was a very interesting movie with a great performance [by Jake Gyllenhaal]. It’s so rare now to see your central character be an out-and-out evil villain. You’re seeing it all through his perspective, and that’s brilliant. If the performance hadn’t been good, you wouldn’t have cared about the guy. 

Your film also reflects the economic woes of audiences around the world.

That’s at the root of the characters that Dennis wrote. They are guys who are victims of the current economic situation. It’s been going on for a long time. Skilled working men are getting thrown on the scrap heap as the industries that they work for are no longer being valued. We’re also portraying the battle between the 99 percent and the one percent. Just look at journalism, for example. Wages are going down, you’re expected to work harder for less and yet the company that owns your newspaper is making loads of money and the guy who owns it is a billionaire. How does that work? I’m amazed there isn’t more of that resentment, and that it precisely what’s fueling these guys. They’re definitely representatives of the 99 percent. The idea that Dennis had in the script from the beginning is that you never know anything about the company representing the one percent. It’s really about what these guys think and how their anger and resentment messes everything up for them. 

One character turns out to be not all that far removed from Paul Reiser’s two-faced company rep in “Aliens.”

It’s funny because we talked a lot about “Aliens” while we were making the film, but only in visual terms. We wanted the underwater sequences to feel like the beginning of “Alien,” where they go outside the spaceship and it’s a windy planet where you can’t see anything. You can only catch glimpses of their surroundings. We never talked about that character [from “Aliens”], but now that people are starting to bring it up, I realized that we borrowed it. It was subconscious plagiarism. 

Justine Wright, your longtime editor, generated tension in a similarly claustrophobic environment in “Locke” just before working on “Black Sea.”

She just won the European Film Award for editing “Locke.” In both that film and “Black Sea,” it’s very hard to move the camera. You’ve got to create this sense of rhythm and movement without movement because you’re confined in one space. She’s got a great sense of rhythm and storytelling. I’ve worked with her since the first feature documentary that I did in 1998 and she’s cut pretty much everything I’ve done since. It’s so nice to have a regular collaborator that you have a shorthand with and who thinks of things in the same way you do. We also know each other well enough that she can be super-critical. She can tell me when she thinks something is terrible. Everyone else I worked with on this film was new to me. It was quite a low-budget film and I couldn’t afford the people I had worked with in the past. We had a very experienced art director working for the first time as a production designer, and had a young, up-and-coming British DP. You’re never quite sure how honest they are being with you because they don’t know you well, whereas with Justine, I always knew that she would be brutally honest. [laughs]

Editing has always been the thing that I love about film and I suppose it’s still the part of the process that I like the most. Shooting is very stressful and exhausting and nerve-wracking. Sometimes it’s enjoyable but for the most part, it’s not because you are so on edge. When you get in the cutting room, you are in total control of the material. When you’re shooting a film, particularly in the case of a documentary, you’re not in control. You’re filming stuff and capturing bits and pieces of this and that. You’re always uncertain of whether the character is interesting or if you’re following the right story. Then you get to the editing process and go, “Okay, now I can make this what I want it to be.” I discovered early on in my career what you can do in an editing room and the power of one shot. You add a second shot and suddenly, it’s not one plus one equals two, it’s one plus one equals three. Then you add music and sound effects and suddenly it’s one plus one equals six. It’s the discovery that there’s magic going on here that you can’t always quantify. 

Was there a lot of discussion regarding when to cut outside the submarine?

Yes, very much so. There’s definitely a feeling that you want to get out of the submarine every now and then because it can get very boring visually. It’s also important to have moments for a rhythmic pause in the action. Normally in a movie, you would have something like a crane shot going up to the sunset. Movies are filled with those sorts of things, images that don’t say very much, like a shot of trees. But if that shot comes after a scene where someone has been killed, it means something very different. That sort of cutaway isn’t possible inside a submarine. The film deliberately tries to be very naturalistic and authentic in the ways that it evokes what life would be like onboard. We literally didn’t move the walls around inside the set, because we wanted the actors to feel confined. When you cut outside the submarine, it feels movie-ish and unnatural. You’re not in a place where the camera can be, so you’re breaking the grammar of the movie. There was a lot of discussion about when and how to cut to the exterior shots. As soon as you use too many of them, they lose their value. We wanted the water to be murky so you only caught glimpses of the underwater landscape. We didn’t want anything to look glamorous or pretty. 

You’ve proven to be skilled at getting the best out of a large ensemble in films like “State of Play.” What was it like working with this group of actors?

I was very lucky with the fact that because we didn’t spend a lot of money on the movie and because Jude still has bankability, we were able to cast great actors that feel right for the characters. The challenge for Jude was that he had to become a character actor in order to fit in with these people. If he was too much of a movie star, it would’ve felt utterly artificial. The actors were all lovely to work with and all had different approaches to acting. The Brits would make intellectual decisions and perform a scene the same way every single time. The Americans were always searching and doing different things during every take—flailing around, trying to find some truth. The Russians would ask questions. They could go for two or three hours at the beginning of the day talking about their characters, and they found tiny things to do in the background that would bring the scene to life. 

Your grandfather was the legendary filmmaker, Emeric Pressburger. Did he, in any way, serve as an influence on your career path?

My mother, who was his only daughter, didn’t have anything to do with the film business, so it skipped a generation. He was far too old and out of fashion when we were growing up for us to ask him [for advice on] how to get into the movie business. I wasn’t interested, but my brother was from the age of 16, and ended up becoming a film producer. I wanted to be a writer and a journalist, and I couldn’t get a job in journalism, which is ironic. Then I started making documentaries for fun, and I wrote a book about my grandfather. It was the process of writing that autobiography, funnily enough, that got me into making movies. In order to write that book, I watched his films and much older pictures from Germany. Watching those movies and interviewing filmmakers and learning about his life got me interested in movies in a way that I really hadn’t been before. So I do have him to thank for my career but in a different kind of way than one would expect. 

He had long since ceased to be able to get any films financed and was living in his tiny cottage in the countryside. Nobody talked about those movies because they were very unfashionable. Although I was aware that he was a filmmaker, it was only when he died, the film club at my university showed “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.” I saw that movie and was like, “Oh my god, my grandfather was really good!” [laughs] Then I got really obsessed and watched them all. After I left the university, I met a publisher at a party. I told him about my grandfather’s life—how he was a Jewish refugee who came to London—and he said, “I’ll commission you to write the book.” That doesn’t happen anymore. That was 1991, back when people still bought books. He gave me a little advance and off I went to write it. 

The book, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter, is currently available on Amazon.

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