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SA Director Donovan Marsh on His Hollywood Blockbuster and Spends 3 days on a Submarine


Cape Town – South African director Donovan Marsh’s submarine thriller Hunter Killer opened at number three at the local box office.

Starring Gerard Butler and Academy-Award winner Gary Oldman it centers on American submarine Captain Joe Glass (Butler) who is on the hunt for a U.S. sub in distress in the Arctic Ocean. He soon learns that a secret Russian coup is in the offing, a conspiracy that threatens to dismantle the world order.

In this Q&A Donovan tells us more about his working with Gerard, what makes the film different from others in the genre and his highlight working on the film.

You were born in Jozi, can you tell us more about your South African background?

I was born in the illustrious Joburg Gen Hospital, but have spent equal parts of my life between Jozi and Cape Town. I studied drama at Wits after high school in the Cape, I spent a couple of years in Holland growing up, and began my film studies in London. Even with all the time abroad now for Hunter Killer I have to say that I just absolutely love South Africa and all the subcultures we embody, and it’s something I always try to represent on screen. Even now that I’ve had the opportunity to relocate to LA, there is something very special about our lives here and the telling of the South African story that keeps pulling me back.

Did your heritage play any role in how you approached the film?

Let me put that question into perspective: the US Navy has 66 nuclear submarines (18 Ohio class, 11 Virginia class [+5 under construction + 2 on order], 3 Seawolf class SSN, 34 Los Angeles class SSN [+2 in reserve])… South Africa has 2 diesel submarines. The first one is broken and we don’t have enough crew to operate the second one! So entering the enthusiastic military climate of the patriotic United States was quite a challenge culturally; there was nothing I could really contribute, just a lot that I had to absorb and assimilate to make effective story telling.

What was it that attracted you to this specific project?

Not dollars, though people might think that! I actually turned down more lucrative projects to do this one because I thought the script was really fun and the whole submarine genre is so classic. There are three main plot lines that are individually exciting but all tie together really well, making it a fresh version of a story that we all enjoy. Securing the movie was a really long process, and I wasn’t their first choice but I think I convinced them with sheer enthusiasm. Nuclear submarines are highly classified, and I immediately dived into research to show that I was committed to creating an authentic movie – something that Hunter Killer is consistently praised for – and I actually cut a short “promo” movie as part of my pitch. After that I sent Gerry a follow-up email to tell him how passionately I felt about it, and he tells everyone that, that was what clinched me as his choice!

What do you think makes Hunter Killer different from other films in the same genre?

The idea is always to evolve a popular genre, not try to reinvent the wheel completely. There is such a particular feeling to submarines movies that we wanted to keep because that’s what draws people – the suspense, the literal pressure, shots of torpedos – but we brought new elements in, with the modern spin of how the subs now look and operate. As I’ve mentioned there are also a couple of storylines, so there is an interesting blend between politics, the submarine, and the topside action of the Navy Seals. We are hoping to attract people with the familiar and keep them riveted with the new twists.

What was the most challenging part of bringing Hunter Killer to life?

Not having full creative control, which I was accustomed to. In such a big production there are a lot of cooks with a spoon in the pot, each with a particular vision they want to bring to the big screen. It was a juggling act of trying to please the sensibilities of not only producers and actors, but also making it authentic to the Navy while keeping the less realistic but more thrilling elements for viewers. Although the budget was more than anything I have ever worked with, it was still very lean for a film of this magnitude – our budget was a third of Crimson Tide’s, which was made twenty years ago! So we had to compromise and let go of some things, but ultimately I believe the movie still transcends that.

What was a personal highlight for you while working on this project?

Finishing it! (Laughs). The opportunity we had to go out and spend three days on a nuclear submarine as guests of the US Navy. It really gave us an incredible window into the lives of these people and the environment they operate in. It was fascinating to be so close to such classified and cutting-edge technology and experience the way of living for a group of what we were so pleased to discover are some of the smartest, funniest, nicest humans you could hope to meet. It really surpassed all expectations but I was very ready to surface and disembark after just those few days!

Gerard Butler and Donovan Marsh.
What was it like working with Gerard Butler?

I get asked this a lot! Gerry was lovely to work with – he is supremely talented and passionate, which comes with a lot of energy to manage, but he still manages to be very nice to everyone on set for someone accustomed to so much power. I landed up being his wrangler to a large degree, as I needed to redirect him and make some big compromises with him. He was attached to the script about 8 years ago so felt very close to the project with very strong ideas of what he wanted (he was also a producer) but ultimately because we both wanted what was best for the movie he was often a great ally of mine when we had to press the producers on certain issues. But even after chewing over compromises I still lost some of those wars. I think that’s how Hollywood movies are made, in a process of give and take. Until you are Scorsese, perhaps!

Why should people go watch the film?

It has something for everyone! Out of interest it tested equally well in red and blue states in the US, as well as with men and women, even though they have chosen (mistakenly perhaps) to push it in the more conservative states. Ultimately it is not a pro-war movie, and the several action elements create an interesting dialogue to be had around how the next World War could realistically go down. It’s certainly fun, it’s thrilling, and the blend of geo-politics and action make it a fresh spin on the classic high-intensity elements you would expect from this movie. (Plus my kid needs to go to varsity. – Georgie)

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

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