Filmmaker Joe Wright says Darkest Hour is a film that was important to make as it features a leader who, despite his flaws and mistakes, was governed by a true moral compass and acted upon principle rather than personality. By Team Viva
Joe Wright set out to explore the man behind the myth in his film, Darkest Hour, with Gary Oldman delivering a tour-de-force performance as Winston Churchill.
One of the most important figures of the 20th century, Churchill is hailed around the world as one of the heroes of the Second World War. The film is a remarkable, true story of Churchill’s first days as Prime Minister of Britain when the country stood alone as Nazi Germany swept all before it across Europe. It focuses on a pivotal moment in world history, in May 1940, when the Nazis have conquered Europe and British forces have retreated to Dunkirk where 3,00,000 of its soldiers are stranded on the beaches.
Oldman plays Churchill and Kristen Scott Thomas is his much-adored wife, Clementine. Lily James is Elizabeth, Churchill’s secretary. Wright has long admired Oldman but admits that at first, the actor was a little wary of taking on the role.
“When I was a kid growing up in London in the ‘80s, ‘90s, Gary was the man. He was the actor who, as soon as I knew he was making a film, I’d go and rush out and see it, because he would always surprise,” he says.
“His imagination was so extraordinary, and his skill at realising his imagination was so exacting that you knew you were in for something very special. The interesting thing about Gary is that he, like Churchill, is filled with self-doubt. He didn’t know that he could do it, which I find amazing, really. I went to LA to meet him. We discussed who we thought Churchill was and might be in our movie, and we were just quite quiet. There was none of that bravado, or sort of comparing the length of our swords; it was about a sort of, ‘Okay, shall we take this leap together?’”
What was it like taking Darkest Hour to Telluride and Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)?
I’d never been to Telluride, and it is a kind of heaven for filmmakers. There’s no press, no publicity, no red carpets and no competition. It’s one high street with various sports halls and about seven of them turned into cinemas. You get the grand masters like Werner Herzog and Francis Coppola, all the way down to first time short filmmakers and student filmmakers and so on, and everyone in between. There’s a completely egalitarian atmosphere. Everyone goes for like five days and you watch all the films, and you all talk to each other. It was like being, finally, sort of allowed in to this cineaste camp where everyone just got to talk about and love and appreciate each other’s work.
The response to Darkest Hour there was tremendous. It was really great. Suddenly we kind of went, ‘Ooh, this is fun. People seem to be getting this.’ So, on the back of that, we rode into Toronto and again the response was wonderful. When I made Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, someone said to me, ‘It won’t always be like this. You should enjoy it!’ I thought to myself with the arrogance of youth, ‘Oh yes it will. It will for me.’ And I was wrong. There have been some films that have been really well received and others that haven’t, and so now to be with a film that seems to be getting a lot of fantastic responses, I can view it with a kind of appropriate amount of enjoyment, distance, and boundaries.
Did the script come to you fully formed?
Not fully formed. It came to me and it had the inherent structure. I was surprised by how much it made me laugh at the beginning, and I was surprised by how moved I was at the end. But with all my films I try and make sure that there are never goodies and baddies, because that’s not really how I see the world around me. I think that we’re all fairly ambivalent and flawed and also we all have amazing qualities about us, and I tried to bring a bit more of that to the screenplay.
I tried to make sure that Halifax’s argument was as persuasive as possible, because I really wanted to pull the audience’s allegiances one way and the other. At a certain point they’d be thinking, ‘well absolutely, Halifax is right. The priority is to save lives, and the way to do that is to sign a deal with Hitler.’ Then we’d pull back the other way and have to think about what one would sacrifice for one’s principles, and the responsibility of taking those decisions. Inherent in that seemed to be the drama.
Did this process change your view of Churchill?
Yeah, very much. I grew up with Churchill the icon, standing up there on his plinth in Parliament Square, untouchable, and therefore un-relatable, really. What I wanted to do was take him down from that plinth and meet him face to face and explore him as a human being, with his flaws, his bad decisions – of which there were many – and then how those flaws became the attributes that led us to our most heroic moment. I was really interested in those ideas. I was really interested in finding someone who was dynamic and had this amazing energy, and I was really interested in finding someone who had a lot of self-doubt. I relate to that, and I think that any wisdom must come through self-doubt, and what we want in our leaders is wisdom. I think he was really able to mine that. I want my leader to question everything, especially themselves.
You show him as a very eccentric man in many ways, like holding meetings in his bedroom when he’s still in his bathrobe. Did those bathrobe meetings really happen?
Yeah, that’s what he did! That’s what he was like. Obviously there had to be a lot of research about the political machinations, and so on, but there was also a kind of people’s history going on, written by those that worked closest with him, including his secretaries and his driver and all of those kind of people. Those I found to be often the most telling in terms of the intimate portrait of the man.
Did you involve the Churchill family in your process?
Yeah, the family have been involved right the way through from the beginning. That was very important to myself and also to Anthony (McCarten) and Eric Fellner, and they’ve been huge supporters of the movie.
I read that you’ve always been a big fan of Gary’s. Is that true?
Yeah, when I was a kid growing up in London in the ‘80s, ‘90s, Gary was the man. And he kind of still is the man, really. He was the actor who, as soon as I knew he was making a film, I’d go and rush out and see it, because he would always surprise. His imagination was so extraordinary, and his skill at realising his imagination was so exacting that you knew you were in for something very, very special.
So how did you approach this with him? Was he hesitant?
He was a bit hesitant about taking this on. The interesting thing about Gary is that he, like Churchill, is filled with self-doubt. He didn’t know that he could do it, which I find amazing, really. At the beginning he was tempted, he wanted it, he wanted to do it, but he was kind of scared of it, and my job was to let him know that I completely, 100 per cent believed that he was capable of doing something really extraordinary with the role.
Do you think there was a turning point that made him realise he could do it?
I think just the first time we met, really. I went over to LA to meet him and we sat and we talked. We discussed who we thought Churchill was and might be in our movie, and we were just quite quiet. It was a lovely first meeting. There was none of that bravado, or sort of comparing the length of our swords; it was really about a sort of, ‘Okay, shall we take this leap together?’
Did he talk to you during his intensive research phase?
Yeah, very much so. I’m always gratified to hear that all the great geniuses have to work really hard. He spent four or five months preparing for the role, and we spent a lot of time working together with Kazuhiro (Tsuji), the prosthetics guy, and so that was a long and delicate process. And then Gary would prepare in his studio at home, and would send me recordings. We’d discuss inflection and he’d say, ‘I think I’ve got this just about right, and this isn’t quite right.’ We talked about humour a lot and the right energy. We started by talking about how he breathed and getting his breathing right, and then we started talking about how he walked and what kind of walk he might have, and we built the character very slowly like that.
After such an involved process, how does it feel to see him walking onto set as Churchill on day one of shooting?
In a way it’s funny, because it’s been such a slow process up to that point. I demand rehearsals from all the actors prior to shooting. I do that on all my films, which isn’t particularly usual. And in fact, I don’t think Gary had done it since Dracula, or something, but I think he got a lot out of rehearsals, because it took the pressure off that first day.
Does the story of Darkest Hour resonate with the world we live in today?
I think very much so. My job was to make a film that presented a set of questions to the audience. It’s up to them to – and I hope they will – take those questions and discover the answers that might help us decipher what is going on in the world at the moment. It’s not my job to be didactic, and I try very hard not to be, but I think there might very possibly be a crisis of leadership in the world. So it feels that to make a film about a leader who, despite his flaws, despite his mistakes, was governed by a true moral compass and acted upon principle rather than personality, is really important.
(The film premieres on March 17 at 1 pm on Sony PIX.)