“It’s about a love for your mission, a love for your belief, a love for your planet, a love between the characters, a love for your God; it is a love for all those things.”
A multi-layered story that embraces some of life‘s most profound concerns, Submergence is a cerebral love story that takes us into the extremely different worlds of two protagonists.
Wim Wenders (The Salt of the Earth, Wings of Desire) directs from a screenplay by Erin Dignam (The Last Face), based on the novel by J.M. Ledgard.
A film that delves into unknown worlds, whether political or geographical, while exploring the passionate love story between two driven souls, Submergence will, hopes Wenders, inspire food for thought. “What I really hope is on a rainy Thursday night in Bristol or Detroit or wherever you are, when you come out of the cinema, your perspective of the planet, on your own habits, is just altered slightly. You will realize how large the world is, how varied it is, but also how fragile it is.”
Danielle Flinders (Alicia Vikander) and James More (James McAvoy) meet by chance in a remote hotel in Normandy where they both prepare for a dangerous mission.
They fall in love almost against their will, but soon recognize in each other the love of their lives.
When they have to separate, we find out that James works for the British Secret Service. He’s involved in a mission in Somalia to track down a source for suicide bombers infiltrating Europe.
Danielle ‘Danny’ Flinders is a bio-mathematician working on a deep sea diving project to support her theory about the origin of life on our planet. Soon, they are worlds apart.
James is taken hostage by Jihadist fighters and has no way of contacting Danny, and she has to go down to the bottom of the ocean in her submersible, not even knowing if James is still alive…
J. M. Ledgard was born on the Shetland Islands, Scotland, in 1968, and educated in England, Scotland, and America. As a journalist he covered society and politics across Africa for The Economist magazine, and was inspired by his experiences living and working in Somalia.
“I was very interested in our lack of perspective of the planet we live on,” he says. “It is much bigger than we think it is, much more complicated than we think it is. At the same time it is much harder and tougher as well. I have always been obsessed with the oceans and the idea that there is clearly a lot more life in the ocean than there is on the surface, particularly the microbial life of bacteria, viruses and algae at very deep levels. This life outweighs all other life on the planet. It is older, it is tougher and stronger. And whatever happens to human beings, that life is going to keep on going. Of course we now know that we evolved from the bottom of the ocean; that is where life began, deep in the oceans.
“At that time of my life when I was in Africa,“ he continues, “I was reporting a lot on terrorism and spending a lot of time with Al-Qaeda guys who you probably would not get to meet these days, at least if you wanted to keep your head. So the story bubbled up out of those two experiences.”
Ledgard constructed a highly intricate, cerebral novel interweaving three distinct but overlapping worlds.
“The novel has three strands,” he says. “One strand is set in Africa and about a British spy who is kidnapped by a Jihadist group. The second follows a professor at Imperial College, London who is a bio mathematician, which means she studies the volume of microbial life in the oceans. The third sees these two characters meeting in a hotel in France and forms the central part of the story. They have a passionate love affair. So really, it is about science, belief and love.”
The novel’s compelling subject matter and Ledgard’s masterful style have earned the author a growing army of fans.
One of those is producer Cameron Lamb.
Cameron Lamb was drawn to the novel by its many layers and its mature approach to its interlinking and often very complex and challenging themes. “Jonathan Ledgard always says it’s a geopolitical novel because it is about the earth, where we came from, the bottom of the ocean. And it is also about where we are at now, in terms of war, famine, overpopulation, many things. So it is about the past and whether we have a future. “But it’s also a romance,” he adds.
“I just could not resist the material, it was so poetic,” he says. “I tried to find excuses not to dive into this world because it was so complex to structure as a film and had so many different locations around the world, but I just couldn’t put it to one side. It kept coming to life in my mind and I wanted to see it as a movie. So I met Jonathan Ledgard and pitched my vision for the material as a movie and then I shared the book with writer Erin Dignam, who I had been looking forward to work with for a number of years. She had the exact same reaction to it as me – she fell in love with it – and I knew she was the right person to write the screenplay.”
Dignam began an intricate process of pulling apart the narrative and rebuilding it.
The final screenplay is structurally nothing like the book which is largely narration with little dialogue.
When Cameron Lamb began to think of directors who would be able to bring the project together it became immediately apparent that only one filmmaker had the talent and vision to do the story justice: Wim Wenders.
Having discussed the decision with Ledgard, Lamb sent Wenders the novel and a few days later, the director replied that he was interested.
A year later, Lamb sent Wenders the first draft and it was then that he boarded the project and began to work on a final screenplay that would go out to actors.
Wenders was struck by Lamb’s persistence. “Cameron introduced me to Jonathan’s book and said he was determined to make a movie of it,” says the director. “I read the novel and I realized this was quite something. I had never read anything like it and how to make a movie of it escaped me, but that is always a good sign because for me, not knowing how to do something is a good reason to try to do it.”
Wenders was drawn to the book for two reasons, he says. “The material is authentic as it’s by a writer who had experience of what he was writing about when he was reporting on East Africa, Somalia and Al-Shabaab. And it also drew on the extensive knowledge he learned about the deepsea world about why it is so important for us to research what is happening at the bottom of the sea and how the bottom of the sea might be a solution for the future of our planet.”
Wenders was impressed with the work Dignam did in both bringing the two lead characters to life and in structuring the story: “The two characters came to life even more in the screenplay. This ‘water engineer’ James More really touched me and the young professor Danny Flinders also interested me. I thought that their mutual discovery that they were the love of each other’s lives and that at the same time they each had this commitment to such different causes felt utterly contemporary.
“What Erin did amazingly well was to chop up time and scenes which is incredibly hard to do,” continues Wenders. “And so she spliced these two worlds together. So when James is in the desert in Somalia having his Jihadist experiences, Danny is on a ship in the Northern Ocean preparing to dive deep down into the ocean. And I think that is what makes the screenplay so powerful.”
Ledgard knew his novel was in safe hands.
Wenders and Dignam were collaborating on the script to get the essence of the novel and Cameron had partnered with Backup Studio out of Paris to work on the production and financing of the movie.
Jean Baptiste Babin, from Backup, says that “the movie is European in its core. Its setting of course, in the fact that the original novel is British and obviously in Wim being German but most importantly in it’s entire meaning and message as well. And the complexity of the movie, its different locations, universes and layers, the many different emotions the film tries to engage the spectator with, were always going to lead to a challenging production process. The only way to make a movie that would not harm the promise of the novel and weaken Wim and Dignam’s ambitions would require the collaboration of several producers, and that is when we reached out to Morena and Juan Gordon in Spain.”
“If you were to say, what binds all of this together,” continues Ledgard, “it is a planetary story. It is about who are we on this planet, right now. Where do we belong? What are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Wim has shown through his career that that is the kind of sensibility he has.”
It was the finely tuned sophistication of the screenplay that attracted James McAvoy to the project.
“I thought it was a beautiful and poetic story and a really sophisticated adult approach to a film that’s a love story and about the idea of love,” says the actor. “It’s a romantic thriller and its theme of our all being connected was, I thought, stunning. When I’d read the script, I then met Wim Wenders. It was quite a short meeting in which I did all the talking because he is, quite famously, a quiet man. I thought, ‘I am not going to get this gig. This is bad‘. So I made my excuses and as I was leaving told him I’d love to the film but if he didn’t want me, then no hard feelings, but I really hoped that he would want me to do it. But I did think, I’m never getting that gig, so it was a huge surprise when they phoned to say I’d got the job.”
“Audiences will be moved by a beautiful love story and they will be terrified for the characters but I think that they are going to be surprised at how educational the film is as well – about what is happening in our world both geo-politically and in terms of the danger the world is in physically. That does not sound like a love story and yet it is – it’s about a love for your mission, a love for your belief, a love for your planet, a love between the characters, a love for your God; it is a love for all those things.”
For J.M. Ledgard, McAvoy was a revelation. “I had always felt that James was almost laddish, and very full of energy like a Duracell battery,” says the writer. “I saw James More, the character, as being a little bit more withdrawn, a little bit more level. But James convinced me in his performance – first of all, he is great guy, really great fun and second, he’s a first rate actor.”
Alicia Vikander takes on the role of Danielle Flinders. Like McAvoy, she was taken by the screenplay’s mature approach to love and human relationships. “Erin Dignam’s script is very special because it is like entering in a new world. It was the best adult romantic story that I had ever read because it dares to be challenging, intellectual, in the moment and shows how people meet in real life. It allows people to talk, to discuss, to fall for one another almost as though they are challenging one another to fall in love.
“I read the book after I had read the script,” she continues. “It was very interesting to compare it with the script which I had fell so much in love with. I was amazed at how much work she had done to take the story about religion, politics, science and above all love out of the very heightened and philosophical world of the novel which moves around in time and space. For Erin to be able to get the dreamlike feeling of the book and make it into something more concrete is pretty extraordinary. I thought it was something that was very, very different from anything I had ever read before and knowing that Wim Wenders was directing and Benoît Debie shooting it with James McAvoy as James More, it felt like a very wonderful chance to be invited to be a part of it.”
The handling of the romantic narrative thread was a breath of fresh air for Vikander. “Normally in love stories in film, two people will see each other, be attracted and fall in love. What I love with this film is that they are attracted by their complete differences. They share the same amount of passion for what they do, and they take great pleasure in challenging one another. It’s like throwing an idea to somebody who is intelligent enough to understand it but who can adapt it to their own field of expertise.”