Gerard Butler’s character in “Hunter Killer” is a submarine captain, and when he introduces himself to his crew he tells them that unlike most commanding officers, he is not a graduate of the Naval Academy who learned about their jobs in class. He rose through the ranks, and doing most of their jobs himself. Butler was in a similar position on this film, as an actor and producer who was deeply involved in every aspect of script development, the score, the editing, the casting, and the visuals. He worked on this project for more than a decade, and the day before our interview, even visited the Pentagon to speak about the film.
What was it like to find yourself conducting a real-life briefing at the Pentagon yesterday?
If my life was to flash in front of me and five moments were to happen, it would be that especially because it was a little unexpected. I knew I was visiting the Navy. We had a very symbiotic relationship and they helped us a lot with the film. To go to the Pentagon and kind of be a spokesman for them, it felt like a nice thing to do, and fun to meet all the people there and the top military brass. And in the middle of that they said, “And you have a press conference to do.” I didn’t quite realize what that meant until I stepped out and went, “Oh, I’m here, okay.” I guess if you’re doing a press conference at the Pentagon, it means you’re really doing a press conference at the Pentagon.
My first question was from Barbara Starr from CNN and I think she asked me three questions back to back about Saudi Arabia and I’m thinking, “Okay, thank you guys.” [laughs]
Making this film was very personal for you, wasn’t it?
I’ve been involved in every part of this movie since 2011, since I first read it and it’s always been a dream of mine. And when I say a dream, literally a dream. After having the script for a couple of years I had a dream that I was living it and making it.
I had always loved the script and thought we need a movie like this again, but it was very difficult to make. It felt like a genre that wasn’t necessarily so relevant back in 2011. A story about the US against Russia—nobody cared, nobody believed it and then I had that dream and I started knocking on doors. Things turned a little bit more aggressive to intense between those two nations and so suddenly when you read the script you have an emotional connection to it. You go, “Okay, yeah, I guess if that skirmish happened they would react like that and then they would counter-react and then this machinery would go into place and suddenly you would find yourself on the brink of war,” and therefore you are much more emotionally invested in the story and the plausibility of it and we went from there. Fortunately, we had always been working on the script and saying “How can we tighten it and make it modern day with not just updating it politically or geopolitically, but updating that genre and bringing you into a new way of telling the story. And yet it still feels like that classic kind of action-thriller but fresh and invigorating and exciting?”
I always wonder in a movie like this how you as an actor feel about the tech-talk the character has to get through—enough to sound authentic but not enough to distract the audience or slow down the movie.
Being a producer has weirdly, in some ways, helped me as an actor. Because by the time you go to make the movie you’ve lived with it for so long, you’ve worked on the script for so long that you know it inside out and you’ve run those words a thousand times, you’ve changed those words, you’ve cut those words, you put them back together so that they’re not such a mouthful anymore when you go to say them. So that definitely helped. But without a doubt there were times at the end of the day when you were tired and seems tense and you’ve got to say 15 technical words back to back in a hurry and you got to get it out in half a second and every time they go action you go “I’m not going to get out, I’m not going to get it out; it’s going to be a disaster.”
We really take people on board. Even when the audience doesn’t understand some of the commands being given out that’s the whole point; they understand the intention, they’re feeling it, they can see what’s happening, they know the logic behind the decisions, they know what we’re trying to achieve but we’re not kind of laying it out on a platter. In that way, considering you have the big popcorn element of the movie, but I think it’s really a thinking man’s movie too. It’s very thought-provoking about the situation we’re in but also in climbing into the mind of a naval commander or two naval commanders and the military minds in the war room of the decisions they have to make. As an audience you’re in there, you’re being intellectually challenged. What would you do? Would that be a military decision, a moral decision? What’s the strategy?
We see some amazing technology in the film. Does all that really exist?
Yes. We exactly duplicated a Virginia-class submarine. We got all the Navy engineers to work with our production department and they spent a long time. Our director, Donovan Marsh, really fought for the authenticity especially in the sub and it made a real difference in the authenticity in the performance of every member of that team, even what would typically be considered the one-day player. We were all in this together so they all got trained on how the buttons you press, the way you pilot a sub so that everything felt very real, not just what the main characters say but what that means to every other character on the boat; who calls who, who says what, who backs that up, who passes that on and therefore who has to walk over to weapons and has to travel back to the sonar.
So it was a living, breathing environment that really came to life and was incredibly exhilarating. You’re in this confined space, pretty much as exact a replica of the control room of Virginia-class sub as you could get and I literally feel like our sub was about to go down and we’re going to be hit. We built the whole set on a gimbal and so we were all standing all the time on this hydraulic platform that would creak and groan—and it wasn’t supposed to—and sometimes it would fall down a few inches with 40 people on there and all the equipment, all the crew, all the set. It was literally scary. I literally thought sometimes it felt like we were in a more dangerous situation on that I swear to God, I thought that’s going to be the headline: “15 Actors Die Tragically as the Whole Set Collapses on Top of Them.” But it worked when it was supposed to work and I have to say it helped us help the audience. It’s amazing like a lot of people would say once you get on board you’re really on board in the movie; I just read one of those reactions where somebody said “when you’re on board then it catapults, you’re on board and that’s because you are.”
Tell me about Captain Joe Glass.
He has such a great name: Glass. He’s cool, he’s steady, he’s unbreakable but sometimes you think it would be nice if he explained a little bit more to the men. He has his way of doing things and there is a reason he keeps his cards close to his chest. But it really helps in the drama of feeling this tension build between him and his men, because he is new and so he hasn’t had time to build that ethical bond and that trust which is a big theme in this movie; it’s trust.
I like this feeling that he is quiet, contained, a bit of a renegade and he’s very much marching to the beat of his own drum, which for a submarine commander can be a good thing but it can also be very dangerous. He knows what he wants, he has the ability to think logically and with great intellect. But what seems to take him past the other men is that he also is very in touch with his intuitive side, and also has a very strict moral compass that he allows to in some ways control his emotions which sets him also apart I think from the other men. It was his destiny to be there and that’s quite a scary thing. Because I think a lot of the men feel that he might have a point to prove and to try to do something out of the box that isn’t necessarily right and we don’t have time. There’s no room for mistakes and no time for explanations or seeking agreement. He has the ability to look at that rule book and then throw it out and say, “I’m going to take it into another dimension,” which in some ways can be very inspiring. But it also makes the mood all the more tense because every decision is so tight and focused.
I like that idea that he doesn’t feel the need to, or he doesn’t have time to, explain himself. So he has to in a subtle way, just by the power of his truth, not only make the right decisions, and get them out of these death-defying situations, but bring them in together. And try and form a bond and try and form some level of trust, whilst not having time to pander and to also make decisions that he knows would not particularly establish a bond with the men. He’s having to say things that are very unpopular to them because it goes and flies in the face of everything they’ve been taught.
To me the most interesting relationship in the movie is between the two captains, one American, one Russian, who have to decide very quickly whether they can trust one another. It was bittersweet to see the late Michael Nyqvist, who is so good as the Russian captain.
He was amazing. I did a movie once, a Viking movie called “Beowulf & Grendel” with Stellan Skarsgård, so two of my favorite actors that I ever worked with were both Scandinavian and they were best friends. Their ability to play, to take risks, to be free and as people to be the most humble, easygoing people inspired me so much in both movies and I learned so much from them in both movies.
The reason I bring up “Beowulf” is because that was another story, even if it was a slightly stranger one, of two great warriors standing against each other who you would typically think intolerant to each other’s views, who slowly come to realize a common ground and a respect for each other that I found was a beautiful theme that we had in this movie. There is almost in some ways some strange love story between the two of them; this friendship that forms because it takes men like that. Whether through God-given natural talent being in your DNA, or a thousand years underwater acquiring so much wisdom that only they can think in that kind of way and that kind of special way that is going to solve a situation as complex and as dangerous and as brittle as this.
What is it about submarine movies that makes them so ideal for drama?
If you think about it, in the whole universe there is no other space that is more rife for claustrophobic, nail-biting, exhilarating, tense drama than in the 500-square-feet control room of a sub. It’s very, very small but it’s also full of equipment, machinery and men, and you’re essentially sitting on a large nuclear bomb and a ton of torpedoes and some tomahawk missiles.
You’ve saved a lot of world leaders in your movies and you have another one coming up.
I still try to do other things. I have a little psychological thriller coming out which is amazing, this little movie called “Keepers” with Peter Mullan. I still try and make like a Shakespeare movie or a movie about a father whose kid gets leukemia. I make these movies but I’m sure nobody ever sees them and then I sit down at these interviews and you go “So, you’re saving the world again” and I want to bang the table, “Goddammit, no!” It’s just the other ones that have had more success. People like me saving the world, so sometimes you’ve got to go, “Okay, I’m a reluctant hero, I’ll save the world!”