Darkest Hour picked up a bunch of BAFTA nominations this week, as it heads into awards season as one of the frontrunners. We had the chance to chat with its director, Joe Wright, about the latest film to bring Winston Churchill – this time in the guise of Gary Oldman – to the big screen…
Long day of interviews?
Yeah, quite. It’s been a long few months really. We screened the film first – we’ve been on the road since the beginning of September, since Telluride.
I suppose with something like this, where there was such early talk of awards, the press routine is more intense.
Yeah. I don’t know. Be careful what you wish for really. You want the film to be successful, obviously, and then when it does become – when people get excited about it, you’re then required to talk about it endlessly – so… yeah.
Do you find any pleasure in discussing the film?
No, none at all. I really like making films, in fact, I love making films, I love it more than anything in life. I feel more at home on a film set, I feel like I know how I fit in, who I am, what I’m for. Talking about films I feel quite uncomfortable, really, because it never gets to the nub of it. I never really am able to talk about films. That’s why I make films, y’know, because I’m not good at words.
So you don’t feel able to talk about the technical process and things like that?
I like talking about the technical process, more than I do the theoretical, thematic stuff.
We’ll get onto some of that in a second then, but there is one thing I’d like to address, actually. You’ve spoken previously about the self-doubt you had, particularly after Pan. I don’t think you’re alone in that sense of insecurity, and I wondered whether you thought there was something about the job that attracted people predisposed to those feelings?
Yeah. It’s like actors as well. We’re riddled with self-doubt, insecurity, and therefore we put ourselves out in the world in the hope of validation, only to find that we become hooked on it, and often that validation isn’t forthcoming, and often we’re sent spiralling into our insecurities and doubt again. It’s a fucking ridiculous way to live your life.
What sort of validation then, for you, is what makes it better?
Nothing. It doesn’t work. That’s the problem. You don’t get it. I don’t mean you don’t get it, I mean one doesn’t get it. It’s a kind of – it’s like a drug addict, it’s never enough. You never go, “ooh, great, I’ve had that hit of heroin, I never have to take it again”, it doesn’t work like that, you’re always searching for it.
But, if you can break that cycle, and just enjoy the process of making the work, which is really the thing, then you’re OK.
It almost sounds as if that drive to be recognised is what sets you apart from the people that aren’t successful. There are lots of people who want to be Joe Wright.
I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to be me. God, I sound like a fucking c**t. I don’t know, I just love making films, and to be frank, the product is far less important to me than the process, and the response is far less important to me than the process. There is nothing that beats that moment when you’re sitting next to the camera, and you’ve designed a shot to express a feeling, and you’ve spoken to the actors, and you’ve asked them to capture an expression, and it happens. And the light happens, and the image happens, and the actors happen. And then you know that you’ve got something that is true, and you call “cut”. That feeling is second to none.
It’s interesting that you talk about designing a shot to express a feeling. It felt to me throughout Darkest Hour that you were aiming to hit the tone and the feeling, the emotional truth, rather than the historical truth. It struck me as almost impressionism.
Yeah, impressionism or expressionism. One of the challenges that I had with this wonderful screenplay was that it was a bunch of old white men sitting in rooms talking to each other, and I had to find a way of turning that into something cinematic, and engaging, and enthralling. So I try and think about what the intention of every moment is, and then try and realise that intention cinematically, be that through camera, camera movement, sound, atmosphere, what’s in front of the camera, and how that is shot. That’s my job, that’s what I do, and that’s what I love doing, yeah, maybe it is impressionism.
The moment that suggested that to me was that you made Parliament so very dark.
That’s two things. One, is that it’s a set. Parliament – or the House of Commons, rather – was bombed during the war, and it was rebuilt. And the whole thing was rebuilt with much lighter wood. The original Parliament in 1940, the original House of Commons in 1940 was much, much darker.
And also one of the problems I had was that the film, as you know, was set in May 1940, which was one of the hottest Mays on record, and yet we were shooting in December and January, so I couldn’t go outside – or I certainly couldn’t show any leaves or trees – so I had to get an atmosphere of that kind of heat without showing the sun. So what [cinematographer] Bruno Delbonnel and I tried to achieve was the sense of these dark, dark shadows, and these very hot spotlights of sun coming through the window to create that feeling of exterior and interior heat, and also claustrophobia as well. So that was fully intentional.
I don’t know if I’m reading it the way other audiences read it, but in light of Nolan’s Dunkirk movie, most audiences are going to come into Darkest Hour with knowledge of what it was like on the beaches, and of what’s coming.
Dunkirk was a very expensive second unit!
That’s dodgy, I probably shouldn’t say that! Yeah, it’s really interesting. Obviously one didn’t set out with that in mind, and we knew nothing about Nolan’s movie. Once we discovered it was being made, the only thing we knew was that Churchill wasn’t in it. We set out to be very specific, and tell our very specific story. It’s interesting that they’ve both come along at the same time, I think Dunkirk is a really good film. Hopefully it’s interesting for audiences. They’re very different films though.
They are, although there’s something that you and Christopher Nolan do, which is the impossible shot. Every so often you have shots in your films that seem a little like magic. For instance, the moment you track onto a man’s face, which becomes the landscape, how do you achieve that?
That one’s cheating, because the landscape is CG, so that’s cheating. We basically had the actor in place, I’d already shot the radio broadcast scene with Churchill, so I knew that was all lit in red. So when we came to shoot the soldier, I put a tiny spotlight of red in his eye to create that kind of visual rhyme, and then I just literally had a macro lens, and I shot the soldier, and I tracked onto his face, then I had the CGI guys track his face so it became part of the landscape. That’s kind of a cheating one, though, really.
There was a very specific reason for doing that. Again, it’s about the intention of the scene. It’s about the idea that I wanted the shock of seeing the soldier there for the first time, and shocking the audience into the realisation of Churchill’s responsibility.
Which shots aren’t cheating?
The beach shot in Atonement wasn’t cheating. That was all in camera.
Anna Karenina, there’s a shot where the entire room flies away, and I’ve been trying to work that out since I saw the film.
The set was on flies, it’s an old theatre gag. So basically, those pieces of set were designed to work like that. It was on wires, and we just pulled them out of shot, and we just rehearsed it and planned it.
Onto a blue screen?
Onto the actual set.
As you do.
It was fun though, I really liked doing that film.
As someone who doesn’t really enjoy that kind of thing, it was nice to have an element of it that I did enjoy. To my mind you’re to editing and fun transitions as Michael Bay is to explosions.
Thank you, I take that as a great compliment.
There’s a shot in Darkest Hour where you pull up from a soldier, into almost infinity. That wasn’t with drones or anything?
No. That was fun. First of all we walked back along a corridor. There’s a new piece of kit called a Stable Eye, which is really interesting. It’s a kind of stabilized head, basically. So the grip was carrying the camera back on the Stable Eye, through the corridor, walking backwards. That was tricky. And then he passed the camera to a stuntman – there’s a slight pause as he passes it to the stuntman – and the stuntman has a wire on his back. So the stuntman takes the camera, and then a crane pulls the stuntman up on a wire, while he operates the camera, and it shoots up into the sky. And then at a certain point where we couldn’t get the stuntman any higher, then it becomes CG.
That was fun, that one. That was a lot of takes, but we got it.
It sounds like it would be an interesting experience, being your AD.
I like to scare them.
You mention the Stable Eye, and how that’s changed what you could do, is that the same on every film now? Something new coming along and giving you greater freedom?
Yeah, definitely. And I think that without the Moog synthesiser, there would be no house music. Without the electric guitar there would be no rock and roll, which came first I’m not sure, but new technology comes along, and artist find a way of using that technology to express their experience of the world.
When you’re planning these sort of set piece shots, do you come in with wild ideas and hope they’re achievable, or are they inspired by these new technologies?
No, I come in with the wildest ideas, and then we all figure out how to do it. And then those ideas develop as the technology allows. Or dictates.
So there’s always a level of compromise to them then?
Yeah, a level of compromise. Or sometimes a level of, the technology can liberate as well.
There’s something, as a Londoner, I need to pick up on: you have the longest District Line ride in history.
Yeah, yeah, I know. But that’s only because you’re a Londoner.
That scene in particular seems to sever a particular purpose to my mind, but I’m curious as to what your logic behind it was.
In one sense it’s a piece of wish fulfilment, which is why its shot like a social-realist musical, almost. It has quite a different aesthetic to the rest of the film, and that’s intentional. The casting of the people he meets on the Underground is vital to its success, because I wanted to make sure they were a very broad cross section of British society, so you have the bricklayer, and the mum, and you have the middle-class lady, but you also have the Irish, you also have the West Indian guy, and that relationship he’s having. So they’re a representation of the British subjects.
The scene is based in a kind of truth, which is that Churchill was looking at the polls at the time, and was discovering that the British public, especially the working classes were very supportive of the continued policy of war against Nazism. And then also, Churchill, not necessarily on this day – although there is a blank spot in the day where we don’t know what he did – he would go AWOL, he would disappear. And it would drive his secretaries and his security mad, when he would disappear for hours at a time. And then he would pop up at various random places around London and the country. Often he would go and visit victims of The Blitz. He would go and visit bomb sites. He would talk to people there, and he would often – he was a very empathetic person – and he would often end up crying with these people. And so I wanted to try to get something of that element into the movie, that element of his character into the movie.
Were there iterations of the film without that scene?
In the script stage we looked at taking it out, but then I put it back in. A lot of drama for me, and a lot of what I’m preoccupied by, is how we connect as human beings, and unfortunately so often are unable to connect as human beings. And one of the overarching themes of the film for me is Churchill, at the beginning of the movie, when he’s driving through the streets, he looks out of the window and sees the people in slow motion, there’s a kind of – he loves them, as expressed by the slow motion, kind of, weight of them – but he’s disconnected from them, as in, that he can’t hear them. And then it’s about how he grows to connect with them, and how he becomes, finally, the voice of the people.
There’s something there, in terms of Churchill, and his character – I know you don’t like talking about allegory – but I’m curious whether you’ve given any thought to what another bumbling British politician may take from the film?
Boris Johnson wishes he were Winston Churchill. Have you read his book on Churchill?
It’s basically a piece of self-promotion in the guise of a biography of Churchill. He wishes he was Churchill, but he’s missing the one central element that was most important about Churchill, and that was moral fibre, and principles.
I thought you might feel that way. Although I wonder whether people might misread it, because I don’t, for an instant, think you’re suggesting with this film that Boris would make a good Prime Minister, or that Britain would stand very well on its own outside of Europe, or any of these other political thoughts, but I do wonder whether some people may choose to read it that way. And I wonder what your thoughts are on that?
When I embarked on making the film it was January 2016. Brexit hadn’t happened, Trump hadn’t happened, the rise of nationalist leaders across Europe hadn’t happened, and there was no topicality at all. And then as we made the film, suddenly these dreadful things began to happen, and so I started thinking, ‘right, I have to write into the film contemporary political relevance’. So at one point I had Churchill looking out of the plane, and seeing the refugees, and saying something along the lines of “we need a unified Europe, this can’t go on”. And I shot him saying those lines. And what I realised was that it stank of didactic drum beating. I think even the most political of dramatists, such as Bertolt Brecht, refused to ever give answers. I think the dramatist’s political point of view should always be that of provocateur, and to try to present scenarios that question an audience, and then respect the audience enough to allow them to make up their own minds.
I’m interested in how bi-partisan Churchill is, and I’m interested in the fact that he has been co-opted by certain factions of the political spectrum that he wouldn’t have adhered to himself. If I had made a film about Clement Atlee, and the foundation of the National Health Service, it might have been good, and a lot of Labour supporters might have gone to see the movie, but I doubt many Conservatives would have bothered, and I doubt very many UKIP supporters would have bothered either. And so one of the things I find interesting about making a movie about Churchill is that, I hope both sides of the party political spectrum will come see the film, and if I’ve done my job properly, will engage in a debate.
And if that happens, I’ve done my job right. I have my own views on Boris Johnson, I have my own views on Brexit, I have my own views on how that campaign was led. There is a very important moment in the film where Churchill lies to the British people, and then lives to regret it. But that is looking at a very specific character, at a very specific time, and not necessarily a comment on contemporary politics.
Joe Wright, thank you very much!
Darkest Hour is in UK cinemas from 12th January.