The cast and crew underwent two weeks of "boot camp" training with Russian submariners so they understood their duties aboard the K-19 as well as the demands and procedures of daily life under the sea.
Built to scale, the sets were "extremely, extremely tight," Bigelow says, "no space, no oxygen. After spending months in these incredibly microscopic chambers, you felt you had a legitimate impression of what it would be like to be a submariner. It created a verisimilitude that, I think, was necessary for the piece."
The thought of Bigelow, who is 5 feet 11, and the film's two leading men, Ford and Liam Neeson, who are even taller, crammed into a small set with a camera and crew produces a rather claustrophobic image. "Claustrophobia is not an option for submariners," says Ford, although he admits "it was a bit of a challenge to find different ways to keep the visual environment alive. One of Kathryn's biggest talents is visualization, and she was very collaborative with the actors in letting us find motivations for the kinds of movement that reinforced the reality of the space."
Bigelow says she devoted as much attention to the characters' inner lives as to their physical environment, interviewing survivors of the K-19 and Vostrikov's widow. "Her ability to accept what I wanted to do and let me in emotionally was extraordinary, especially given that I represent the Hollywood community, which has usually portrayed the Soviets as either sinister or laughable."
Transcending those stereotypes, she continues, was essential to the success of her undertaking. "At the end of the day, in order for the story to have resonance, you have to care about the characters," even if they were, politically, our polar opposites. Her sincerest hope is that American audiences will come away from the film thinking, "They were the enemy and I desperately wanted them to live."
Richard Natale is a regular contributor to Calendar.