By Iain Blair
Maybe it’s something in the water, but Dunkirk and Winston Churchill seem to be popping up everywhere these days. While the British statesman and prime minister merely hovered unseen in the background of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk epic, he’s front-and-center in Joe Wright’s aptly titled Darkest Hour, which was nominated for Best Picture.
Starring Academy Award-nominee and BAFTA Award-winner Gary Oldman as Churchill, it tells the story of his first weeks in office during the fraught early days of World War II. A witty and brilliant statesman, Churchill is a stalwart member of Parliament, but at age 65 is an unlikely candidate for prime minister. However, the situation in Europe is desperate, with allied nations continuing to fall against Nazi troops and with the entire British army stranded in France at Dunkirk. (Oldman got an Oscar nod for Best Actor for his role as Churchill.)
He’s appointed PM as the threat of invasion of the UK by Hitler’s forces looms, only to find his own party is plotting against him and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) skeptical that the new prime minister can rise to the challenge. He is confronted with the ultimate choice: negotiate a peace treaty with Nazi Germany and save the British people at a terrible cost, or fight on against incredible odds.
With the support of his wife of 31 years, Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), Churchill looks to the British people to inspire him to stand firm and fight for his nation’s ideals, liberty and freedom. Putting his power with words to the ultimate test, and with the help of his tireless secretary (Lily James), Winston must write and deliver speeches that will rally a nation as he attempts to change the course of world history forever.
Working from a script by Anthony McCarten, Wright also assembled a stellar below-the-line team that included DP Bruno Delbonnel, editor Valerio Bonelli and composer Dario Marianelli.
Wright first grabbed Hollywood’s attention with his debut film, 2005’s Pride & Prejudice, which won a raft of awards and four Oscar nominations. He followed that up with the Oscar-winning war drama Atonement, and in 2012 reunited with his Atonement star Kiera Knightley to remake Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s classic tale of love and betrayal.
Now, the master of period pieces, whose credits include The Soloist, Pan and Hanna, is getting a lot of awards and Oscar buzz for Focus Features’ Darkest Hour, and Oldman looks like a lock for an Oscar nomination.
I met up with Wright to discuss making the film.
This is definitely not your usual biopic. It’s a real political thriller, but also a character study.
Yeah, and that’s what I wanted to make. I didn’t realize there were so many Churchill projects going on in both movies and TV, and I wasn’t interested in trying to cover his whole life. This is a very concentrated slice about a pivotal moment in his life — and in history.When I first read the script, it was such a page-turner, full of all this drama and emotion, highs and lows.
First off, he was this complete English eccentric who’d hold meetings while taking a bath, or in his bed, and he’d drink whisky and scotch at lunch and discuss matters of state in his nightshirt… that’s an appealing character. I think he was also a bit of a genius. I say “bit of,” because he also got a lot wrong in his life and career, such as Gallipoli. But when it really counted the most — the resistance to Hitler, tyranny, bigotry and Nazism — he got it exactly right.
Casting the right actor as Churchill was obviously crucial, but what made you choose Gary Oldman — who looks nothing like him?
I’ve always been a huge fan of his — he’s the man — but for this role I wanted an actor with the right level of intensity. I saw Churchill as almost bi-polar, with all this energy both in thought and action that led him to brilliance, but that also sometimes led him to disastrous and reckless acts. Gary has that kind of energy, which is impossible to fake. You can do all the rest — prosthetics and make-up and body suits, but the essence is what’s most important.
What were the main challenges of the shoot?
It wasn’t a big shoot though it’s got a big scale and deals with epic themes. It wasn’t a micro-budget, but it was tight, so a main challenge was how to deliver a movie that feels truly epic with very limited resources. It’s a very dialogue-heavy film, and with a lot of scenes — including a 10-minute one with people sitting around a table talking — so we had to find a way to make all that very dramatic and as suspenseful as possible.
Fair to say your visual approach on this marries a lot of cutting-edge camera moves to a very classical style?
I think that’s right. I kind of like classicism, and I strive to achieve what might be called “modern classicism,” and I also use a lot of sweeping and unusual camera moves at the same time. Because so much is set in the underground bunkers, whenever we left I wanted to give it a lot more scope and scale, so we designed a lot of shots with that in mind. As I read the script, I envisaged it, and then I spent many, many hours lying on the sofa, listening to music and thinking about what I might do. That’s when I dreamed up those sequences. And we started with all the VFX and post from day one. It all happened together.
Do you like the post process?
Love it, and it’s probably my favorite part, though I like the whole filmmaking process. There are times when post can be very frustrating, but that’s also true of shooting.
Where did you do the post?
All in London. I cut it at my house, and it was set up in such a way that I could do most of the post there, which was great. Craig Berkey, the supervising sound editor — did my first film and every one since — does most of his cutting and work at home in Canada, and then he came over, and we did all the mixing at Halo Post in London.
Then we did the DI at Technicolor in London, with colorist Peter Doyle, who has a very subtle hand and eye, and he does a lot of my stuff. I really enjoy that process so much as well. Back in the ‘90s in London, everyone was doing music videos, and we all used to spend long nights in telecine smearing stuff all over the film and trying to experiment with all sorts of looks. So it’s always been very important to me, and exciting, and I’m pretty involved.
The film was edited by Valerio Bonelli, who worked with you on Black Mirror, and whose credits include Philomena and Florence Foster Jenkins for Stephen Frears. How did that relationship work?
Black Mirror was a good opportunity to try someone new. I loved working with him, and that rolled straight into this. He was on location with us up in Yorkshire at the house we used, and we set a cutting room up there. After shooting every day, I’d come back, we’d watch dailies and discuss the edit. The edit took about six months, and for the first time — I’d committed to directing a play — I took a six-week hiatus and found it to be very helpful with the edit. I didn’t watch it once during that time, so it was abundantly clear where I was being indulgent when I came back to it with fresh eyes. I plan to take a break like that during editing from now on, it was so helpful.
What about visual effects shots in the film. How many are there?
We had about 60, and Framestore did them all. I really like working with VFX as they’re such a useful tool, a means to an end. But when they become the end, then you have a big problem.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?
For me it’s half of the experience. I sent the composer the script prior to shooting and we talked about my ideas. I wanted something quite minimalist, which was unusual for him as he’s more in the lush, romantic tradition. I also sent him a photo of Gary as Churchill walking, to show him the energy. He wrote a piece based on that photo, and did a fantastic score.
Did the film turn out the way you hoped it would?
You always have a picture of it in your head and it’s always different from the way you originally pictured it, but I’m very happy with it.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.