Interview with Kevin Macdonald, director of “Black Sea”
January 15, 2015
Presbyterian Outlook: OK, so I have to know about the historicity of the whole Hitler/Stalin gold shipment….
Kevin Macdonald: (laughs) You mean, “Is it truthful?” (laughs)
Presbyterian Outlook: Or rather, “How much truth?”
Kevin Macdonald: Well, one of the things that Dennis, who’s the writer, does really well in this and other things he’s written, is that he takes little nuggets of truth and also imagination and bits and pieces of urban myth and conspiracy theory. As for the Hitler/Stalin arrangement presented in the movie, there’s no evidence for that, that it really happened… but it’s possible. Stalin was, as we know, desperate to keep Hitler out as long as possible, because he didn’t feel the Soviet Army was ready for the war. So is it possible? Yes, it’s possible.
Presbyterian Outlook: Or at the very least, not outside the realm of possibility.
Kevin Macdonald: Exactly. Very well put. But there were other things, too: the fact that the Black Sea is anoxic, for about 75 years, which means there’s no oxygen and therefore no decay. There are amazing shipwrecks from the Phoenician/Roman period; you can look on YouTube and see the submersibles filming them. So that part is true. So yeah, it’s an amalgam of things that are factually true and things that are embroidered from that. And I think, for me, the fact that it’s just a good tale is part of what I find fun when I go to make a movie.
Presbyterian Outlook: How was it that you decided to cast Jude Law? How did that come about?
Kevin Macdonald: Well, it’s obviously a very unexpected role for him, and that’s one of the attractions, for me. I didn’t have anyone in mind when we wrote it and I wanted to keep it British. So you restrict the number of people who can bring money to your project, and there are very few British stars who are the right age, sex and physicality. Jude wasn’t on my radar, but he got in touch with me and said he’d read the script and liked it and could we have a meet. One thing I learned early on in my career, when I did “The Last King of Scotland” – I didn’t really want to meet Forest Whitaker, but he happened to be on the list of people to come in… .
Presbyterian Outlook: That was brilliant casting.
Kevin Macdonald: And when we met, he just subverted my expectations. And I learned from that that you just cannot second-guess what people are really like, you know, what they have within them. None of us knows what other people are capable of until we see them in a particular situation or in a particular way. Ever since then, when somebody wants to come see me about a part, and I think they’re completely wrong – and they usually are completely wrong – ever since then, I will say, “Yeah, fine, come in.” And it was like that with Jude. I said, “I don’t think you’re right, but let’s talk.” He was so enthusiastic about the part and so committed to doing the transformative performance. That’s very exciting for a director, to have an actor who just wants to give you everything. And he spent several months preparing for this. He went off on a real submarine for a few days with the Royal Navy. He lived on board with 18 men in a little room. He perfected this very difficult Scottish accent, the Aberdeen accent, from the far north of Scotland, which is a very maritime city. He built up his muscle, aged himself with makeup, really turned himself into someone else. And that’s what he had to do to sit with all those good character actors. All those salty dogs.
Presbyterian Outlook: If you could hand out the Oscars, who would you hand them to?
Kevin Macdonald: Well, I was celebrating this morning because my wife got nominated for an Oscar, for design for “Imitation Game.”
Presbyterian Outlook: Wow, congratulations!
Kevin Macdonald: So that’s who I want to win.
Presbyterian Outlook: What’s next for you?
Kevin Macdonald: I am doing a documentary on a Chinese artist who is best known for doing the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, the fireworks and “the footprints across the sky”… after that, the early years of Elvis Presley – maybe – trying to work out the details.
Presbyterian Outlook: Good luck with that. I’ll be interested in seeing it. Thank you very much for your time.
Kevin Macdonald: It’s a pleasure to meet you.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.