For director Kevin MacDonald, it was intriguing to watch Jude Law get into character to play a rogue submarine captain in the thriller “Black Sea” (opening Friday). The film is about a group of down-on-their-luck, unemployed seamen out to find a multi-millon-dollar cache of Nazi gold sitting in a sunken sub on the bottom of the Black Sea, off the coast of Ukraine.
In town recently to promote the film, MacDonald, maker of such award-winning films as “The Last King of Scotland” and the documentary “Touching the Void,” told me that Law was amazing and that he really “got down and dirty” with the role.
Zeroing in on just the right man to play the lead in “Black Sea” was not so easy. “It is a quintessentially British film. It really couldn’t be made in America. The characters are so British. We kept wondering, ‘Who is out there who can star in this movie?’ You had to think about actors who are the right age and all that.
“Frankly, we really had a hard time coming up with somebody, and then I got a call from Jude. It turned out the script found its way to him, even though I hadn’t sent it to him. He read it, and said, “I think I’d like to make this movie.’ ”
At first, MacDonald was somewhat skeptical. “My image of Jude is that of the dashing matinée idol kind of guy. But after we met and talked about it, I quickly realized how passionate he was to play the Robinson character. He was so into the character and so committed to making a total transformation of himself. I think that got me excited.”
MacDonald said Law spent several months carefully prepping for the role at the same time he was preparing to play the title role in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” in London’s West End. “In some ways, that preparation for ‘Henry V’ fed into this character in my movie, in the sense they both are about the assumption of leadership roles. They both are about becoming very masculine characters, so that was a good thing.”
MacDonald noted that in real life, “Jude is a kind of a slight type of guy. He’s very intelligent and very charismatic, but he doesn’t necessarily have that masculine authority/leadership kind of thing.”
To make it all work, Law worked out hard in the gym, pumping up his muscles, but in a way that would make him look like the type of fellow whose strength had come from years working on ships at sea.
Even more amazing to MacDonald — who is Scottish himself — is how Law, a native of London, was so adept at acquiring a very specific Scottish accent.
“He worked a long time on perfecting that. It was very brave of him to attempt it. You have to realize, while it is a Scottish accent, it is a very particular one. It’s from the far northeast part of Scotland — from Aberdeen. It’s where the maritime industry and oil industry is located.”
Beyond that, Law also spent nearly a week on a real submarine, shipping out with Britain’s Royal Navy. “He slept in a bunk room with 17 men,” said MacDonald. “He really absorbed the whole thing.”
MacDonald said he had long wanted to helm a submarine-themed film, and two specific things led him to what would become “Black Sea.”
“As you know, I made this documentary a few years ago, called ‘Touching the Void,’ and that has a central theme that’s about being alone and being trapped away from humanity — and how do you get out of it.”
Secondly, MacDonald was fascinated by the tragedy involving a Russian submarine that went down a few years ago. “I remember reading about the few survivors of the submarine’s initial explosion who were trapped down there. They lived like for three days but couldn’t be rescued, even though they were only 100 yards below the surface. By the time the Russians could get to them, it was too late and they were dead.
“That had a huge impact on me and played on my mind for a long time — the idea of being trapped at the bottom of the ocean, so close to air, but you can’t get there.”
MacDonald added the idea of it being a heist film — a search for hidden treasure — and then “I took it to [screenwriter] Dennis Kelly to write the script.
“Because he’s principally known as a playwright [for very different projects, such as the stage musical ‘Matilda’], I thought Dennis would be perfect.
“After all, 80 percent of this film could easily be a stage play — with a single set — all taking place on a submarine,” said MacDonald with a wink.