A Revlock Interview: Kevin MacDonald - BLACK SEA

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

 Interview with Director Kevin MacDonald for Latest Movie "Black Sea"

 By Tinsel & Tine Blog Contributor - MIKHAIL REVLOCK

Kevin MacDonald is nothing if not ambidextrous. With almost metronomic regularity, the Scottish director alternates between shooting fiction films and documentaries. Though he might not be a household name in the states—he is quick to confess that he has yet to produce a “hit”—MacDonald does not lack in prestigious accolades. One Day in September, his gripping account of the Munich Massacre, netted the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2000. His 2004 docudrama Touching the Void is widely considered the best mountaineering film of all time. And in 2006 MacDonald introduced the world to Forest Whitaker’s dark side, facilitating his Oscar-winning turn as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.

Black Sea, scheduled for wide release on January 30th, marks another foray into fiction filmmaking for the 47-year-old director. A modern submarine thriller, Black Sea stars Jude Law as an ex-Navy man who is contracted to plumb the depths of the titular sea in search of a sunken Nazi U-Boat loaded with gold bricks. He is joined by a crew composed of equal parts English and Russians, and the friction between the two contingents is evident from the outset of the mission. When Law’s character announces that the gold will be divided equally among the shipmates, his benevolent dictate sets off a bitter dispute over shares. It isn’t long before a startling act of violence throws the entire mission into jeopardy.

I met with Kevin MacDonald at a conference room in the Four Seasons Hotel. He was affable and unpretentious, and showed me how to use the automated espresso machine. Setting my double espresso on a round table, I launched the interview with an examination of his diverse body of work.

Revlock: Looking at your career, I noticed that you bounce between fiction films and documentaries with relative frequency. Do you have a medium preference?

MacDonald: I like fiction films because I feel like I’m still learning. That’s one of the fun things about fiction. I don’t think you could ever really learn everything about it. Working with actors is so fascinating and unpredictable. I like documentaries because you get to learn about the world. I’m doing a film about a Chinese artist right now, and I’ve been enjoying immersing myself in this singular world. It’s like being a journalist.

Revlock: Your fiction films feel like documentaries and your documentaries feel like fiction films. There is a level of detail in your work that gives it a strong sense of authenticity, especially in The Last King of Scotland, where there feels like a real engagement with Ugandan culture that you wouldn’t see in most films set in Africa.

MacDonald: That movie was interesting because it was my first fiction film, and the studio wanted me to film it in South Africa, and I checked out Uganda, and I saw this incredible, rich, vibrant culture, and I thought this is amazing. And I went to South Africa on the same trip, and it was completely different. And I insisted to the studio that we film it in the actual setting of the real events because I wanted to showcase a strong sense of place, to evoke for the audience a specific world. In South Africa, the people look different, the landscape is totally different, the language is different. Coming from documentaries, I'm not so inclined to put on a show. You could say it's a failure of imagination, but it's just the way I like to do things, I want the reality to be a part of it. Even when the film is a total fiction like #BlackSea.

Revlock: In 2006, you coax this Oscar-winning, possibly career-best performance out of Forest Whitaker. With Black Sea, you get a performance from Jude Law unlike anything in his filmography. How do you elicit such strong performances from the actors in your productions?

MacDonald: Those performances have something in common in that they are both going completely against type. With Forest, in particular. At the time, everyone thought I was crazy. They said, ‘Forest is a gentle, sweet guy, he's so not right for this villainous role.’ And I didn't see it either. But when he auditioned for the part, he blew me away. So I've learned not to hold onto my preconceptions about actors. If they've bothered to read for the part, I'm going to give them a fair shake. It was the same with Jude. He wasn't the kind of person I could imagine playing a submarine commander. But when I started talking to him about it, I could tell that he got the character, and he spent a long time preparing for it. He developed his muscles in the right parts, learned how to walk like a sailor, lowered his voice, learned this specific Aberdeen accent, shaved his head, and became this other person. When you know someone's committed like that, it's a gift.”

Revlock: What inspired you to make a submarine film?

MacDonald: I just felt like there hasn't been one for a while. I read about the Kursk disaster in 2000, where there was an explosion in a submarine, and the sub sank to the bottom of the sea, and one of the compartments was intact. Some of the sailors managed to make it into an intact compartment, and they survived there for six days, but they were too deep to rescue, and they eventually ran out of oxygen and died.

(Journalistic compassion compels me to cry SPOILER ALERT!!! at this juncture.)

Revlock:  I was kind of hoping for the movie to end that way, but I figured there's too much money behind this.

MacDonald: Well, only two people survive. You're the first person in America to say you were hoping they'd all die.

Revlock: It has a seventies movie feel. Naturalistic performances, minimal CGI, so I was expecting it to end in a typical bleak seventies way.

MacDonald:  It is pretty bleak. Your hero does drown. I think that it's an interesting thing, endings in movies. Are we softer now? People think that the ending of Black Sea is quite shocking. They say, ‘Why did he have to die? Couldn't he have found a way out?’ I tell them, he feels like he deserves to die, he's manipulated all these people to go there. He's saved the boy, he's living on through the boy. He doesn't want the boy to make the same mistakes he did. That feels like the right ending to me. But people tell me it's too dark. Maybe in the past, they all would have ended up in the bottom.

Revlock: Plus they’d have eaten each other.

MacDonald: It's interesting how hard it is to do dark endings in the mainstream. I did a movie called State of Play with Russell Crowe as a journalist. I suggested to the studio that it end with Crowe being shot. And they flipped out!

Revlock:  It's tempting to attribute your influences to other submarine films, but there are so many other films that it resembles: Alien, Moby-Dick, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. MacDonald: “Treasure of the Sierra Madre", yes. "Alien", of course. Submarine films, not so much. We looked at them to see how to shoot it, but that’s it. Because all submarine movies are military movies. This is very different. One of the things that Dennis Kelly, the writer, does so well is he creates realistic characters in a simple way. He doesn't over-explain them, they just are. And the dialogue is very authentically working-class, very rough and crude.Revlock: “I liked the coarseness of the language. It did feel very real MacDonald:  “Yeah, it feels like that's how a bunch of sailors would talk.” Revlock: “It seems like studio generally don't give directors too much grief about profanity if they know they're not aiming for a PG-13.” MacDonald: “No, that wasn't a problem. They were more worried about the accents. We tried hard to have strong, authentic accents and be understandable to American ears. How did you find it?” Revlock: “It wasn't bad as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels for me. I was totally lost in that. Watching your film, I adjusted to it.” MacDonald: “Good.”  

Revlock: Sound is a pretty critical element of submarine films.
MacDonald: Absolutely. When you're trying to create an immersive experience, if you will, sound is your best friend. It's those subtle sounds. The sound of metal, the subtle sound of water rushing. And the different engines.
Revlock: So you work pretty closely with the sound engineers?  
MacDonald: Really closely. I've got a bunch of sound guys who I work with. A sound designer, Niv Adiri, I've worked with for my last few films. He won the Oscar last year for Gravity. He brought some of the same sensibility to this film.

Revlock: Many of the actors in Black Sea speak Russian. Did the language barrier make it difficult to direct them? 

MacDonald:  “Yes. The five real Russians in the film, they're all big name actors in Russia. They're lovely people, but they do like to talk a lot, to discuss and debate everything. And I was tearing my hair out because I had only got six weeks to shoot. But they were fantastic, they did amazing work. Only one of them spoke English. Everything had to be translated, and they felt a bit left out. So we had to make them feel included and explain everything to them.”

Mikhail Revlock is a freelance journalist and fiction writer. His hobbies include bicycles, books, and food. A Philadelphia native, he lives in University City with his girlfriend and two cats. Be sure to check out past contributions: Interview with "Dear White People" director Justin Simien, reviews of "American Sniper" & "Horrible Bosses".

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is about discovering what I find pleasing in screening & eating - in case you missed it, the name is a play on Tinseltown using the Tines of a Fork.

Feel free to send me info on a film or new restaurant you'd like me to highlight.

Will there ever be a cap on movie prices?

Will we one day pay $20 a pop?

Why don't we pay on a scale?

A crap movie like everything Adam Sandler has ever done should cost about $4.50.
Big action movies like"Lord of the Rings", "Iron Man," "Transformers" are worth $10.
Woody Allen movie or something like "Silver Linings Playbook" $6-$7.
A chick flick or light comedy $5.75 and most Indie Films $5.25.

You could even do it by seasons - all summer block busters from May to August - $10
Sept - November 15th $3.50 - $4
Back to $10 for Thanksgiving and Christmas etc...

Or you can do it by A Actors ($9 - $10), B Actors ($6 - $7) TV actors on the big screen ($3.50 - $4)

Surely I'm not the first person to realize this makes sense. Has it been voted on in the Motion Picture Industry and then vetoed? If so, why?

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