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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

Black Sea

by director Kevin Macdonald

I’ve been thinking about making a submarine film since the year 2000. That was the year that the Russian naval vessel Kursk sank during exercises in the Barents Sea. Of the 118 sailors on board, 95 died instantly. The survivors, sitting on the ocean floor, were trapped in a single compartment waiting for the oxygen to run out…. which it did after several botched rescue attempts.

When I read this story I thought: “that has got to be one of the most horrible ways to die that I can imagine.” So close to the surface—to air and sky and life (only 100 metres down) but impossible to escape.

I started to wonder about a film scenario where the characters were in a similar predicament but somehow, through sheer ingenuity, found a way to escape. I thought it would be interesting if the characters were civilians; every other submarine film I knew was a naval story (usually set in World War II or the Cold War). I then started to ask myself who these characters were and why they were there at all. What were they looking for?

That’s how the initial story of Black Sea developed—and that’s where the wonderful writer Dennis Kelly took over. Dennis had never written a film before; he was a playwright (he is probably best known in the U.S. for penning the book to the hilarious and moving musical Matilda on Broadway) which I thought suited him to writing a story set in the confined environment of a submarine. He introduced elements of a heist film (Nazi gold, no less!) and created a series of wonderfully real characters to inhabit the boat.

One of his brightest ideas was to make the crew of the submarine half English speaking and half Russian speaking (the English speakers need the Russians because they know how to operate the old Russian submarine that our band of desperadoes “borrow”). Given the origins of the story that appealed to us, I was able to cast some of the finest Russian actors—including Konstantin Khabenskiy and Grigory Dobrygin, who are household names over there.

I’m off to Russia to Premiere the movie there a week after writing this. The Kursk disaster is still raw for them so I wonder how they will respond when they see how it has inspired a thriller.