Jude Law hopes to thrill in “Black Sea”

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First Posted: 1/28/2015

From “Topkapi” and “The Thomas Crown Affair” to “Ocean’s 11” and “The Town,” heist movies are an evergreen genre in Hollywood. But when was the last time you saw a heist movie set almost entirely inside a submarine?

If that sounds appealing, check out “Black Sea,” a tense thriller about a former navy submariner (Jude Law) who rounds up a crew of desperate Brits, Russians and one American (Scoot McNairy) to unearth a treasure trove of Nazi gold buried in a Soviet sub at the bottom of the ocean.

Maintaining suspense in the tight quarters of a submarine was quite the challenge for Scottish director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) who occasionally rued the day he put the project in motion.

“At lunchtime, we’d come out and see some blue sky for about ten minutes,” Macdonald said. “And then we’d go back to the cramped, smelly quarters of the sub. You have no idea how much you miss the sky and the sun and the wind in your face when you’re trapped inside a sub for hours on end.

“But I wanted to do a movie that reminded people about the power of nature. When you’re on a sub, you can’t put a foot down wrong or you’ll die. We like to think we’re in control, but this is a situation where nature is in control.”

Macdonald got the idea for the film after reading about a real-life tragedy involving a Russian sub. In 2000, the Kursk suffered an explosion on board which killed a large number of its crew. The Russians were slow to respond and another 23 crew members died from a lack of oxygen.

“The crew members who survived the initial explosion went to a compartment that still had air and they were tapping on the side of the submarine, trying to send out signals,” Macdonald said. “But the rescuers couldn’t reach them in time. It was just such a horrific scenario that I can’t even imagine what those men went through.”

Around the same time, Macdonald began to imagine how fascinating it would be to set at sea a desperate-men-in-search-of-loot movie like “Sorcerer” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

“What I love about those movies is that they’re thrillers but the thrills come out the characters being in real-life situations rather than things like ghosts or special effects-generated [events],” the filmmaker said. “I also like how the movies are about something social and political.

“For instance, `The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ is about what gold and greed does to people, how greed tears people apart. And `Sorcerer’ is about desperate people who’ll do anything for one last shot at self-respect.”

Since “Black Sea” pivots on the central character – a world weary sailor named Robinson – Macdonald knew he needed a strong actor to play the role.

Jude Law was way down on Macdonald’s list but the filmmaker was impressed by the actor’s willingness to immerse himself, so to speak, in the movie.

“I didn’t think of Jude initially because he usually plays suave, witty, handsome guys,” Macdonald said. “He’s known now mostly for the `Sherlock Holmes’ movies. He’s just not who you’d think of to play a blue-collar guy, a rough guy capable of leading a pack of misfit men.

“But when I met him, I saw how much he wanted to try something different. And I think he pulls it off.”

Law was so committed to the project that he not only physically transformed himself by shaving his head and bulking up but he spent nearly a week aboard the HMS Talent, a nuclear submarine off Gibraltar.

Law slept in a room with 18 other submariners and worked six hours on, six hours off, just like the rest of the men.

“Jude said that when he was picked up by the sub, they told him if they got an emergency call, and had to take off for, say, the Arctic, they’d have no time to drop him off and he’d be trapped,” said the filmmaker. “But he wasn’t scared off. He did about 5 days on the sub.”

While Macdonald wasn’t able to join Law aboard the Talent, he did considerable homework to make sure that the on board action would look authentic. During his research, the filmmaker located a creaky real-life Russian sub and wound up shooting there for 2-3 weeks.

“When we got on the sub, it felt like we were stepping back in time,” the director said. “It felt analog. There was nothing digital about it. It was very cramped, very claustrophobic. There was no room to move. I can’t imagine what it must have been like when it was operational and held 85 men.

“But I think it helped the actors to shoot on the sub. They got a sense of what it was like to be trapped with no daylight in a total metal environment. “

The remainder of the film was filmed at Pinewood Studios in London but Macdonald had nearly as much trouble at the studio as on location. During the last third of the film when parts of the sub are flooded, the water turned yellow because of a chemical reaction, and the set had to be drained and re-flooded.

Then Macdonald discovered that Ben Mendolsohn, the actor playing the team’s best swimmer, not only hated the water but was such a big smoker that he could barely make it ten minutes without lighting up.

“He always wanted to step out for a smoke break,” Macdonald said. “But you can’t do that when you’re filming diving scenes.”

While “Black Sea” is as tense as the classic heist movies of yore, Macdonald hopes the film carries something of a sting with his class-conscious message.

“I think the movie has a topicality to it, “ the filmmaker said. “The system has treated these guys badly. They’ve been discarded. I think the move reflects the times we live in, when most people feel powerless in the face of corporations.

“But, in the end, it’s a thriller. I wanted to make it as exciting as possible but also lace it with a look at what’s going on in the world today.”