Director Joe Wright on the light in the dark in ‘DARKEST HOUR’


Gary Oldman in DARKEST HOUR. Courtesy of Focus Features.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

I was interested to strip everything back and be as simple and at the service of the story as possible and to see what that felt like. It felt really good.

Winston Churchill was a leader unlike any other in world history. His speeches drew in the public, banishing fear and inspiring hope in a time of darkness. Director Joe Wright’s drama, DARKEST HOUR, does the same putting its audience at ease. Telling the tale of Churchill’s first few tumultuous weeks as England’s Prime Minister, his captivating character study is a showcase for actor Gary Oldman to shine as the acclaimed orator.

At the film’s press day, we spoke about everything from what it was about Churchill that affected him, to his creative approach to capturing this historic sliver of time, to if he yearns to direct a genre picture – and what genre that would be.

I have to say, your film really resonated with me. And I think I got so emotional solely seeing someone lead and care about his people. I’m sure you’re getting this from a lot of American feedback so far?

I don’t think that’s just America either, to be honest with you. I think it’s in Europe too – certainly in Britain. There seems to be a kind of crisis in leadership at the moment. When we started making this movie, January 2016, I came on board, Brexit hadn’t happened, the American elections hadn’t happened, the French elections hadn’t happened. It’s very interesting. For so many years I had wished I could make a topical film and then this happened and events around the world happened and suddenly, you remember about what your mother said about being careful about what you wish for.

You never can predict. These things are always in the pipe line for years and you never quite know where art will intersect with the zeitgeist.

Yeah. It’s interesting.

Did you know you wanted to make a biopic?

No, and I don’t really see it as a biopic. If anything, it’s really a character study rather than a biopic. I was interested in making a story about the power of words and the power of the word to change the course of history. I was interested in the character of Winston Churchill and how, at this crucial point of European and global history, he suffered a crisis of confidence and doubt. And then how doubt can be turned positive – become a key attribute in the attainment of wisdom.

I’ve suffered some crisis’ of confidence myself in the past. And I’m interested in those difficult times, how those experiences can be turned into something really positive.

What has got you through or over that hump?

As a filmmaker, what’s helped me is going back to the films I grew up loving. Remembering why I love what I do. Regaining inspiration from the likes of Scorsese, or David Lynch, or Fellini – any of those greats.

Do you feel like you might want to do a genre picture?

Next? I don’t know, to be honest with you. I’m not sure. Maybe. I’d quite to do a genre movie. I’d quite like to a horror movie, but everyone is doing them at the moment. When I was a teenager, I used to watch a lot of horror movies on VHS cassette. One of my favorite horror movies is BLUE VELVET, which might not normally fit in the classic category of horror movie. Have you seen KILLING OF A SACRED DEER?

I have!

Now that is an amazing horror movie!

It’s still under my skin.

It’s extraordinary!

Are there certain challenges you set for yourself – goals to achieve – when making films?

Every film is a challenge. Every film you have to approach naively – as if you’ve never made a film before. You walk into it ready to learn basically. I was interested in this movie – especially after some of the recent movies I had been doing – to strip everything back and be as simple and at the service of the story as possible and to see what that felt like. It felt really good.

I think there’s something exercising your own creative voice within the context of someone else’s true life narrative. Did you know the moments where you could use creative visuals – like character placement in the frame, lighting and camera movement – to help tell the story?

The job of the director is to understand the story and the characters – love them, really. And then express the intentions. Find the cleanest, most communicative expression of the narrative. Those expressions that you found, you don’t really set out to try to be stylish or even beautiful. You try to be expressive.

Was there any pressure in recreating such iconic moments in Churchill’s history?

Yeah. The speeches were some of the most exciting shooting days I’ve ever had. There was certainly a sense of pressure around them. There’s a kind of desire to do Churchill’s words justice, but also, the three pivotal scenes in the movie. There was certainly a kind of anxiety around that.

You used the real War Room meeting minutes for that scene, but was there a transcript of the phone call between Churchill and Roosevelt that you were following?

No. There’s not a transcript of that. In fact, that phone was on a scrambler. That negotiation happened – the suggestion of pushing the planes to the Canadian boarder happened.

Let’s talk about when Gary showed up on his first day in full costume and makeup. Was there a lot of modulation to getting that look right?

It was a six month process of developing the make-up to the point that we were all happy. It was trying to find a sweet spot between looking enough like Churchill and also still retaining accessibility to Gary’s performance.

This really was fantastic work. As a critic, we see a lot of bad prosthetics, but this was remarkable.

Yeah. It’s extraordinary. The prosthetics designer is a strange, crazy scientist/ artist.

Do you ever lose yourself in a take?

All the time.

And that’s when you know you’ve got it?

No. I’m not sure I do have it – I’ve lost myself. That is maybe. I sit next to camera when we’re shooting. I’m there with the actors and camera operator. I’m often, especially with Gary, in awe of what’s happening in front of me. It’s the best front row seat in the world.

You’ve got these world class actors here. What were the things they brought to their roles that maybe weren’t there on the page or in your head?

Rhythm, imagination and skill, basically. A great composer is someone who has a musical imagination. A great painter is someone who has a great visual imagination. A great actor is someone who has a great dramatic imagination. What I’m always wanting is actors to take my suggestions and fly with them to places that I had never imagined. Those moments are where it’s really exciting.

DARKEST HOUR opens in limited release on November 22. Click here for our review.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.