When director Joe Wright, the filmmaker behind “Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement,” “Hanna” and “Anna Karenina,” finished the movie “Pan,” and it was released into the world, he felt shattered. The expensive, big budget spectacle bombed at the box office and he wasn’t sure he’d go on.
“I had just made this $100 million flop. It was a dark, difficult time. I didn’t know if I was going to make any more movies,” he admitted. “I didn’t know that I wanted to make movies anymore, to be honest.”
In his period of personal crisis, he came upon a script that spoke to his moment of uncertainty — “Darkest Hour” by Anthony McCarten. The script details a crucial time during the early days of World War II, as Adolf Hitler’s Nazi army encroached, and the fate of Western Europe hung in the balance. France was falling, Germany was advancing and it was up to the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill decide how to respond: negotiate with Hitler, or fight on against terrible odds.
“What struck me about the script is that was really self-doubt. But also about being dogged and mustering courage. I could relate. I think making a movie about self-doubt speaks for itself. There is no wisdom to be found without self-doubt,” he said about self-examination and navigating past. “Plus the script made me laugh a lot which surprised me and it made me cry. It was heroic in its own way. How do you find courage against all odds? Where does the tenacity come from? This obviously intrigued me.”
Wright was already considering, if considering anything at all, going back to basics and directing a much smaller scale film, and “Darkest Hour” fit the bill. Starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in a transformative performance, literally and figuratively, “Darkest Hour” is a contained chamber drama, but it’s incredible tense and fast moving. Wright being the dynamic filmmaker he is, creates a nerve-wracking, propulsive drama even though much of it is men talking in room, weighing their limited options. Beyond Gary Oldman’s towering work, “Darkest Hour” stands out because of the immense sense of stress-inducing urgency Wright imbues it with.
Finding his Churchill was tough, but Wright then had the inspired idea to use Gary Oldman, despite the fact that actor looked nothing like the Prime Minister nor had his bulging, physique. “I was [more] concerned about the physical similarities then I was about capturing the inner essence,” he stated. “So while Gary did have the same height and same eye color [laughs], size here was about essence of character. Gary’s already a shapeshifter and he immediately struck me as someone who had size and stature to his performances and could bring it to this performance.”
“Casting is the most important choice you can make in a film. So, you cast someone magnificent like Gary and then you worry about the rest later. It’s the essence that matters most,” Wright added.
Oldman would spend more than four hours per day in make-up and the results are staggeringly real, perhaps the best aging and physical transformation ever seen on screen (you can certainly lock up that Oscar category and throw it away until that evening; it belongs to “Darkest Hour”). The prosthetics, created by legendary makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, were worked on developed for five months. Tsuji had retired from Hollywood dedicating himself full time art sculpture, but he was convinced to come back and work on “Darkest Hour.” However, some of the early designs went too far.
“…it became finding a balance in transforming Gary into Churchill, but not losing Gary in all of the prosthetics,” he said. “We had versions where he had disappeared too far into make-up. We wanted to make sure, the soul of the performance would be there.” Incredibly, there’s only 12 digital shots in all the make-up, all of it just erasing wig lines. “There was no real digital trickery. That’s all Gary and prosthetics. Tsuji is one of my heroes.”
One thing that Wright hadn’t anticipated while developing the script was how similar works were in production. “The Crown” hadn’t hit— Winston Churchill and King George VI features prominently in both works—and of course neither had Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.”
In Wright’s film, as Germany invades France, the entire outgunned British army trapped on the shores and harbor of Dunkirk. Sitting ducks, Churchill has to decide whether to surrender and save the lives of 300,000-something young men, or somehow fight on. Known in history as the Miracle of Dunkirk, a hail mary decision was made to evacuate the stranded soldiers using a hastily assembled fleet of over 800 boats, many of them civilian. While Wright’s film is about the nail-biting decision making and politicking that has to be made on the eve of this military disaster, Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is essentially the story of that evacuation as its happening. It winds up being a perfect companion piece film. But Wright didn’t know the full extent of the movie and how it was told.
“I was extremely nervous and extremely relieved when I saw it about how little overlap there was,” he said, noting that “Churchill,” with Brian Cox had preceded his film too. The director waited to see “Dunkirk” until his film was finished. “I was worried, but relieved that Churchill wasn’t in it at all. It’s a tremendous piece of filmmaking. I love the magnificent minimalism of it. The way its self-contained and still very intimate. But yes, [‘Darkest Hour’ and ‘Dunkirk’] would make a nice double feature.”
Wright wasn’t attempting to make any political statements with the movie, but Brexit was on the mind of the English filmmaker, and he did find himself drawing parallels.
When being pressured to negotiate with Hitler, Churchill, had a “resistance to bigotry and hate and stood alone,” Wright said. With Brexit and nationalism in the air, the director asked himself, “What does good leadership look like? What does it look like to have conviction, while leading and harboring huge self-doubts. England couldn’t see the forest for the trees of what was happening in Europe. Churchill had vision and ultimately, he had the courage of his convictions. It was all inspiring stuff and fuel to keep going forward.”
“Darkest Hour” is in theater now in limited release.