Joe Wright Looks at the Politics Behind the Man in Darkest Hour

It’s always hard to call the awards race in March, but that’s exactly what happened following the Focus Feature presentation at CinemaCon 2017. Buzz began spreading throughout the halls of Caesars Palace after footage was shown of Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright’s November release, Darkest Hour. Whether it will rack up any silverware is anyone’s guess at this point, but Oldman’s performance and Wright’s direction are sure to be seen on critics’ top ten lists at the end of the year. 

Darkest Hour begins in the early days of World War II, with the British parliament mired in turmoil and infighting as the threat of Nazi Germany begins to spread on the continent. Churchill, newly appointed as prime minister and lacking popular or political support, takes over the reins as British forces find themselves cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk. With France about to fall under German control, Britain is torn between diplomatic efforts and open war against an enemy inching closer by the day. Boxoffice spoke with director Joe Wright about the making of the film and the challenges of adapting historical events to the big screen. 

I remember seeing the first images of the film during the Focus Features presentation at CinemaCon—the whole room was very impressed. Seeing the final product, I don’t think anyone will be disappointed. How did you come on board to the project? What were your first impressions of the screenplay?

I was sent the script in early 2016, by someone I have a very good relationship with. I read it and found myself surprisingly, incredibly moved by the story, which is not what I would have expected from Churchill. Yet somehow [screenwriter] Anthony McCarten was able to get under his skin and get under my skin.

Although I loved the screenplay, I always judge a story on, Would I go want to see this at the movies? I was unsure at first … until the name of Gary Oldman came up. Suddenly I thought, “Yes, I’d definitely go see Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill at the movies.” So I approached Gary, and to my wonder he accepted. And we were off to the races.

Gary Oldman’s transformation is incredible. How difficult was it getting that look right? 

I’m always gratified, when I meet actors and artists who I think are geniuses, to discover that they work really, really hard. Gary spent four months preparing for this role, by which I mean every day working in his studio—reading, watching, practicing, and rehearsing. Part of that process was working with Kazuhiro Tsuji, the prosthetics and makeup guy. Very quiet, very studious guy, who has dedicated his life to figuring out how to do this stuff.

They worked over and over, with many iterations of the prosthetic. We would meet and Kazuhiro would try something. First he would make a cast of Gary’s face, head, and shoulders. Then he sculpts onto that. He makes molds of those sculpts. We’d try them out—“Oh, this one’s a bit too far.” It’s really about getting a balance between Churchill and Gary. I think you saw that the makeup didn’t overwhelm Gary or his performance.

Gary spent roughly four hours in the makeup chair every morning before shooting. So he would arrive way before the rest of us, and he’d be there having the prosthetic removed after us. It was really a very intense labor of love for Gary.

Much of the story focuses on the political situation in England at the time, something that might not necessarily be familiar to audiences around the world. Was dramatizing that political in-fighting a concern for you?

To be honest, I think even in England people think of Churchill as being this great iconic hero. Even in England, we don’t really understand the challenges that he was facing within his own party and within his own government. There’s a classic Churchill line, when someone said to him “I think history will be kind to you,” he replied, “Yes, because I intend to write it.” So we know of Churchill the hero and we know how the story ended, but we don’t necessarily know how the story began.

He wasn’t a popular choice [within his party]. For me, this story is about someone who has made a lot of mistakes. He made other mistakes in the First World War, especially in Italy. He never outlived that guilt, really. He made some mistakes with his policy on Indian independence. He made mistakes with his policy on Northern Ireland. So he was someone who I was interested in showing as being flawed.

It just so happened that at this moment in time and history, faced with the threat of Nazism and the invasion of England, Churchill was right. He was right about Hitler and he was right about Nazism. So it was really a matter of conveying someone who is also flawed. Really I think for us to iconify these characters is kind of dangerous.

You’ve always been known to be very detail-oriented, especially when it comes to production design. This film is no exception. It looks gorgeous—everything from the glasses during the dinner scenes to the downstairs bunker where all of the military strategy is being done. How did you approach some of these design challenges of a period piece like this?

To be honest, the difference between cinema and television is cinema acquires that level of detail, because it’s examined in a totally different way. So I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to investigate and examine the detail of any scene and any set. I’ve been very lucky from the beginning of my career with the designer Sarah Greenwood and her set decorator Katie Spencer. Together we’ve created a kind of aesthetic that we return to and develop with each movie. There is lots of research involved.

Luckily, there’s a wonderful museum now [the Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri] run by Phil Reed, who was an advisor on the movie. So every detail from the pins and the strings on the maps to mark the German advances to the whiskey decanter that Churchill drinks from, have been very carefully researched. I wanted to give the audience a feeling of really being there—the opportunity to actually sit at that table with Churchill, to have a place at that table of history.

How challenging was it to stage and shoot some of the battle and combat scenes, when so much of the drama in the film itself is geared toward phone calls and conversations in interior spaces? 

When watching the film, so much of it is set inside and interiors. The idea was to make it as claustrophobic a feeling as possible. But it’s still cinema, so I wanted to make sure it had a sense of scale. I didn’t want the battle scenes to just be cutaways.

The idea was to play with the emotion of Churchill looking down across a map, the scale between the major players and the men on the ground whose decisions they affected. We chose the aesthetic of the aerial shot looking down across a map, then that map kind of turns into real life. It’s all seen from Churchill’s point of view. I’d done a big Dunkirk-style scene in a previous film, Atonement. So I didn’t want to repeat myself in that respect. I had to find a different way of doing it.

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