K~19 - Recreating history Article

Recreating history


Recreating the actual nuclear submarine was a feat unto itself. Toward that end, precisely detailed reproductions of ten submarine compartments were built. Authentic down to the smallest knob and dial, K-19’s interior is replete with Russian-language label plates and a maze of pipes. To achieve even more authenticity, production designers Karl Juliusson and Michael Novotny went so far as to commission a Toronto company to create a complete set of dinnerware when a full complement of real naval dishes was unavailable.

But extremely authentic interior scenes alone were not enough. The exterior of the K-19 had to be thoroughly true to life as well. Since “the actual K-19 lies in a Russian ship graveyard, poisonous and decaying, unable to be revived even by Hollywood,” according to producer Edward S. Feldman, a new one had to be “cast” to play the role of the ill-fated sub. Producer Joni Sighvatsson began negotiations to borrow an old Soviet submarine on display in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“It became very confusing,” says Sighvatsson. “When I told people on the phone I was in St. Petersburg, they never knew if I was in Florida trying to secure the sub or in St. Petersburg, Russia, doing research. Ultimately, the deal went through and we towed the ship from Florida to maritime Canada. We faced so many major hurdles before the cameras even began to roll.”

As producer and Executive Vice President of Production for National Geographic Feature Films Christine Whitaker notes, “The Florida submarine was smaller and a different class of submarine than K-19, but by the time our production designers did their magic, it looked like the genuine item.”

K-19   @ www.contactmusic.com
K-19   @ www.contactmusic.com
K-19   @ www.contactmusic.com
K-19   @ www.contactmusic.com

Filming at sea required director/producer Kathryn Bigelow to become a makeshift admiral, with an armada of almost 20 vessels and an army of marine experts under her command. In addition to the newly built replica of the K-19 itself, other important ships in Bigelow’s production fleet were a decommissioned Canadian sub, reconfigured to play the Soviet vessel that was dispatched to rescue the K-19, and the Canadian ship Terra Nova, cast as the American destroyer USS Decatur.

Also under Bigelow’s command was the barge supporting a replica of the K-19 conning tower, a huge lifeboat, five tugs, a camera boat, two catering vessels, a fast transfer boat, six speedy Zodiacs, two large crafts for production personnel and a boat for the art and special effects departments – literally a flotilla of vessels all important for a successful shoot.


In 1961 the Cold War was at its zenith. Both superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, were trapped together in a hall of mirrors, each captivated by images of the other’s nuclear strength and willingness to use it. In November of 1960, the United States sent the USS George Washington, its first Polaris missile submarine, on patrol. The sophisticated vessel, able to lurk undetected off Russian coasts for months at a time, was capable of launching 16 nuclear missiles on a moment’s notice. In response, the Soviet leadership rushed to place its own first nuclear ballistic missile submarine into service, though it meant risking the crew in an untried and unready vessel.

Often referred to as the “Silent Service,” submarines have always been dangerous boats (submariners traditionally call their vessels boats), and the K-19 -- at more than 4000 tons and nearly 400 feet long -- was no exception. During the Cold War, the United States Navy lost two nuclear submarines, the USS Thresher in 1963 and the USS Scorpion in 1968, both with all hands on board. The Soviets also lost three nuclear submarines during that trying period of history, and later, in 2000, the democratic Russia suffered the Kursk disaster even as “K-19: The Widowmaker” was beginning pre-production.

The K-19 was an exceptionally risky submarine to be aboard. The three ballistic missiles she carried used liquid fuel -- toxic, corrosive and explosive -- exceedingly tricky to handle. Even worse, her nuclear reactor sacrificed safety margins for power and compactness. On July 4, 1961, while under way on exercises, K-19 developed a leak in her reactor cooling system. Left unchecked, the leak could have led to a core meltdown of the reactor. Although it could not explode like a nuclear bomb, a reactor core meltdown had the potential to produce dangerous radiation and an intense radioactive explosion. Amid the tensions at the peak of the Cold War, such an explosion so close to a NATO facility might well have spiraled into a catastrophic military confrontation between the Super Powers

Faced with this unthinkable eventuality -- and the equally unthinkable alternative of accepting American help -- the crew of K-19 had to do what they could to repair the leak. And so they did, at a terrible cost: in the weeks and months following the accident, some twenty men died from radiation exposure.

Amazingly, after that terrible incident, K-19 was repaired and returned to service, but it continued to be a jinxed boat. In 1969, it collided underwater with the U.S. submarine Gato and was badly damaged. Still, K-19 managed to return to port, and in 1972, it suffered a disastrous fire while submerged, losing 28 crewmembers. In fact, Soviet submariners eventually dubbed the ill-fated vessel “Hiroshima.”

The 1961 accident that forms the story of “K-19: The Widowmaker” was covered up during the Soviet era, leaving the heroism and sacrifice of K-19’s crew unrecognized for 30 years. According to producer Joni Sighvatsson, it’s “a real human drama about people with enormous commitment to their country, and even more commitment to their profession, their peers and their fellow human beings” that has to be told.

“We were always intrigued by the mystery, the secrecy surrounding K-19, but we brought the project to Kathryn Bigelow because we knew she’d explore the humanity behind the story, not just the suspense,” adds producer Christine Whitaker. “She’d give audiences a way to relate to the Russians.”

“Understandably, the Communist regime did not consider it a shining moment in history,” observes director/producer Kathryn Bigelow. “So, because it did not happen in wartime, they assigned no heroism to it. They classified it as merely an accident. I hope ‘K-19: The Widowmaker’ will change all that.”


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