About The Production (Continued)
Despite his many years in Parliament, Winston Churchill was not seen as a likely
Prime Minister. That would seem to have changed on May 10th, 1940, when King
George VI named him to the post - except that when he assumed power, he still
had little support from his own party, the Conservative Party (a.k.a. the
Tories), or the British establishment.
While he immediately invited the most recent Prime Minister, Neville
Chamberlain, and Viscount Halifax (known as Edward) into his War Cabinet,
Churchill was well aware that Chamberlain still held sway over the Conservative
Party and that Halifax had been the likely choice of many for Prime Minister -
including the King.
Emmy Award winner Ben Mendelsohn, cast as the King, notes that "Darkest Hour
explores George VI's feelings about Churchill and about the war. It was a time
of enormous pressure on both of them, and there was such a narrow path that they
had to navigate together.
"I was delighted, but surprised, when I was asked to play His Majesty. I thought
portraying an English figure of this stature was a challenge too promising to
walk away from."
Lisa Bruce reports, "It was Joe Wright's idea to cast Ben. As an Australian, Ben
had to master the accent including incorporating the vestiges of the King's
stutter - which he did. Physically, the match was even stronger."
Joe Wright explains, "Right from the beginning I knew I wanted Ben to play this
role. I had admired his performance in Starred Up , and I saw how he has this
wild energy that can go to an intense point of concentration. There's a lot
going on under the surface with Ben, which imparts a charge to the scenes
between the King and Winston."
Ivana Primorac notes, "Joe will always choose the best actors for the roles, and
Jacqueline Durran and I and our departments will collaborate with the actor to
create the character.
"Ben could almost have gone in front of the cameras the way he is, but we needed
more of a sense of regalness. We did him up, including his hair, to
the proportions of King George VI and that made Ben stand in a different way and
move in a different way. He totally embodied the role.
"When you see Churchill and the King together, it's wonderful because Churchill
is a very important character and suddenly he seems small - untidy and all
wrinkled - and the scenes surprise you."
Gary Oldman remarks, "Colin Firth [playing the role in The King's Speech ] was a
hard act to follow - but Ben did it brilliantly. He has a very unique take on
"Ben called up Joe and said, 'There's too many r's in my scenes.' He was
sensitive to how people who stutter - which we know the King did - avoid certain
words in favor of others. Ben had gone through the script with great specificity
and what he was proposing made complete sense. So those changes were made to our
Mendelsohn offers, "You never want to leave anything behind in what you're
doing, in terms of the effort that you bring to it. While I was not setting out
to do an impersonation of King George VI, I was setting out to do an
interpretation, and there are certain things that one wants to get right.
"It was a great honor to be asked to play against Gary Oldman, as he is an
actor's actor. Look, this was the closest any of us were going to get to being
in a room with Winston Churchill."
While Churchill and the King's relationship evolved during the spring of 1940,
the opposing strategies and opinions Churchill had with Chamberlain, Halifax,
and others were documented in the minutes that Anthony McCarten had read; many
unfold verbatim in Darkest Hour.
For Wright, the War Rooms scenes "are centerpieces of the movie, and central to
the story we are telling. The dialogue in Anthony's script for those scenes was
taken from the meetings' minutes, where great drama played out. I wanted to try
and stage those scenes in a cinematic way, what with 17 actors in one space.
Often people think of cinematic as being sweeping wide shots of landscapes,
whereas for me cinema is about the intention rather than the canvas.
"Some of the blocking was done for me - by Winston. He would have people in the
War Rooms who opposed him facing him. This prevented them from talking behind
McCarten notes, "On the one side were those in support of appeasing the Nazis
and on the other were those urging that the nation stand and fight Hitler.
Winston's conflict with Halifax crystallized these arguments, and seeing and
hearing them the audience too must consider what the UK and Churchill were up
against." Wright elaborates, "We didn't want to make a film that simply said
Churchill was great. We felt that the audience should actually hear the
arguments and ponder them. What was essential about Churchill is that he himself
would do just that; as a leader, he listened and considered other people's
points of view and then made a decision. We show this more than once in Darkest
"In the scenes, I hope the audience will hear Halifax out and consider his
position carefully; if Britain hadn't won the war, might Halifax have been
right? Also, Churchill would then not be the hero. Winning a war is made up of
so many choices and so much luck, tragic and otherwise."
He notes with relief, "History has proved Churchill right and that is worth
celebrating. But in May 1940 there was validity to exploring the avenue of a
negotiated peace, not least because Britain didn't have an army any more; the
ground force was trapped at Dunkirk, on the other side of the Channel. If they
were going to be wiped out the UK would then not be able to defend itself at
For Halifax, an aristocrat with deep religious faith, Wright felt he needed an
actor who could convey authority and conviction rather than caricatured
antagonism. Tony Award winner Stephen Dillane's name came up as a casting
suggestion, and the director was intrigued.
"Stephen is a rigorous actor whom I knew could really put across those arguments
in a way that would compel an audience to consider them," says Wright. "He
conveys moral gravitas, and I do think that he will persuade filmgoers that
Halifax might have a point. His was a valid argument."
McCarten comments, "One could never turn a deaf ear to an argument for peace,
but Churchill's knowledge of history told him that those countries which
surrendered abjectly never came back strongly while those that fought lived to
To embody Halifax, Dillane worked closely with Primorac - including, as she
says, "shaving half his head" - and found in his research that he had his work
cut out for him. He notes, "It was difficult to find anyone willing to put in a
good word for him. Halifax has become the figure on the wrong side of history,
and it's hard to examine that with objectivity rather than with myth-making.
"What was interesting to consider was how and when he believed he could be
leader of the Tories [party] and whether there would be military action."
Lisa Bruce reflects, "Stephen brought to bear a studied perspective on the man
and did question every aspect of Halifax, the different sides of him. He's put
layers into his characterization of Halifax, making a stronger counter to
Churchill and making the War Rooms scenes more powerful."
Veteran actor Ronald Pickup stepped in to portray Neville Chamberlain after the
passing of actor John Hurt, who was originally cast in the role. "I felt
privileged to be in Darkest Hour," says Pickup. "It is a suspense story that is
"Neville Chamberlain was in favor of appeasement with Hitler, and the House of
Commons rejected that and forced his resignation. But he remained leader of the
Tories, and still had quite a bit of influence. He wore a uniform, essentially
being an Edwardian."
Douglas Urbanski offers, "What Ron brings to the part is a combination of
vulnerability and strength. Through his performance, just in his eyes, you see
so much in Chamberlain as these weeks progress.
"Many have the idea that Churchill and Chamberlain were rivals. What most people
don't know is that Churchill gave a beautiful eulogy following Chamberlain's
death before the House of Commons."
Pickup found that acting with Oldman "was both spine-chilling and moving in that
Gary somehow embodied Winston, had the life force in his performance. I think
he's one of the great actors because he does it without any comment.
"Anthony's beautifully written script was very non-judgemental. Joe kept us away
from excesses, and he loves his characters."
Bruce notes that every member of the cast benefitted from Wright's dedication to
being "very specific about details. I'd never been on a movie where the director
held two weeks of full rehearsal with actors, allowing them to really find who
the characters were. Many of the actors spoke about how rare that truly is."
Oldman reveals, "That was 10 weeks for me - an absolute joy, as I'd not
rehearsed so much since my stage days."
Bruce adds, "Joe brought in researchers and historians to confer with the
actors, organized field trips to different locations, invited into the process
Churchill family members...
"He's a different level of filmmaker because of this way of working. It's
evident in the final movie because you don't feel like you're watching something
simulated; the preparation of his interpretation is exquisite."
Setting the Scenes
The backdrop to Darkest Hour is that of a frayed Britain. WWI had taken its toll
on the country's economy and manpower, and two decades on the nation was still
not the industrial or military force it had once been - and was girding for
further austerity as WWII loomed.
To depict the state of the nation, Joe Wright availed himself of the venerable
creative partnership of Academy Award-nominated production designer Sarah
Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer. He remarks, "We make films as a unit,
and Sarah and Katie are vital to that process. After so many films together, we
have a great shorthand."
As part of that shorthand, the team engineers sets that are circular because
Wright favors that flexibility for his camera and his actors.
Wright gave the duo the guidelines that "London in 1940 didn't look like it does
now; it was dirtier and grubbier. So we avoided classic London locations."
Muted yellows, faded blues, frayed sofas, and worn carpets were trafficked in.
The interiors of the Prime Minister's base at 10 Downing Street had the color
palette dialed down in line with Academy Award-nominated director of photography
Bruno Delbonnel's mandate with Wright.
Which suited Greenwood fine; she reveals, "This period can sometimes look a bit
twee on-screen. We all fought hard against that on Darkest Hour.
"When it came to depicting the inside of 10 Downing Street, we were lucky enough
to find a derelict Georgian house in Yorkshire that we could, to some extent, do
with what we wished - including applying the circularity that Joe wanted."
The art department was not asked to make a carbon copy of No. 10 - in part
because there is little documentation of how it looked at in 1940. So the team
used that to their advantage.
Greenwood smiles, "It allowed us the freedom to create our own - it feels like
10 Downing Street but is nothing like No. 10! The stairs go in the wrong
direction, for example."
Buckingham Palace was doubled at another location, Wentworth Woodhouse, an
imposing neo-classical house that holds the title of the largest privately owned
home in the UK.
Delbonnel lit scenes in the interior through tiny holes because Greenwood and
her team "covered the windows with these massive shutters that had only slats.
Also, Buckingham Palace is not quite sparkling during those tense times - given
the national mood, it is far more subdued."
Reflecting what consumed Churchill's time during the four weeks depicted
on-screen, Darkest Hour would be most characterized visually by two hero sets,
the House of Commons and the War Rooms - and in these authenticity would be
The actual War Rooms have been preserved as museum pieces and could not be
filmed in. The production did have measurements and photographs taken there.
Gary Oldman spent hours taking it all in, and was allowed to sit in Churchill's
For the recreation, months of planning and further research yielded a stunning
recreation of the low-ceilinged bunker in which Churchill and his War Cabinet
strategized and debated. The set was housed at the UK's storied Ealing Studios,
the world's oldest film studio, where such classics as The Ladykillers and It
Always Rains on Sunday were made. Nothing was left to chance, not even the type
and color of the map pins.
Oldman adds, "The pins were in the right places. It was eerily like the actual
War Rooms, certainly among the best-designed sets I've ever been on.
"The detail was staggeringly good; I opened up a couple of books that were
'lying around' and they were remarkable recreations of logs and journals."
Lily James confirms, "It was amazing. I opened up a drawer, and there were sugar
rations as well as pencils ground down from use."
Historical advisor Phil Reed curated the real-life War Rooms for 23 years, which
he calls "probably the best 23 years of my life." Reed gave his seal of approval
to the recreations by Greenwood and Spencer's department. He remarks, "The brick
work, the girders, and even the air supply are just like the original. For some
elements, the scale had to be different because cameras had to get in and so
"But the atmosphere and the feel, they have gotten so right and brilliantly
The art unit had overseen the creation of a living breathing hub of 24-hour
activity, teeming with banks of phones, growing piles of paper, maps of Europe,
and ruffled sleeping quarters. The overall picture is one of organized chaos, as
the unit recreated the progress of the underground space rather than its
Greenwood offers, "The War Rooms are like an evolving mess -- from which came
Churchill's foresight of what to do. They were all down there in a
bunker underground, burrowing in - in more ways than one. Joe wanted a guiding
sense of 'make do and mend.'
"The dialogue in the script conveys so well their holding explosive knowledge
and deciding how much and when to share with the nation."
James offers, "It's a bit of a maze down there, and you can see how people might
go stir crazy. Joe and Bruno got these great shots of us that will surprise the
Douglas Urbanski reports, "The art department's spectacular sets had these thick
walls - and yet sometimes the walls could be removed so that Joe could get at a
different angle, get closer to the characters with Bruno's unique palette."
Wright notes, "Since a good portion of the movie takes place down there, we also
wanted this claustrophobic atmosphere, the pressure on the people, but also the
sense of perseverance. There's nothing high-tech about the War Rooms and that is
all the more impressive when you think of how people were working with quite
basic materials. I find that moving as well."
In deliberately and heightened contrast to the hive of activity below, the House
of Commons towered above. The recreation of the Commons, as it stood before the
London Blitz hit just a few months later in 1940, was a huge set constructed at
Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden, in southeast England.
Greenwood admits, "Building the set allowed Joe and Bruno more leeway. At one
point we were going to shoot in the real House of Commons, even though it was
latterly rebuilt and wouldn't have been correct as such, but we were told that
we - or any actors - couldn't sit on the benches."
Wright laughs, "Only members of Parliament's behinds are allowed on the benches
of the Commons! So we had to build our own. We did opt for a richer, deeper,
darker wood, making it more Victorian."
Greenwood assesses, "It was a big, tricky set, and [supervising art director]
Nick Gottschalk carefully worked out how far we could go -
including budget-wise. But it was worth it in the end to give us that scope and
scale allowing Bruno to light it and the camera to move within it.
"Bruno is a master with light; he also has a great naturalism to his work,
knowing when to let story and performance speak for themselves."
Wright remarks, "The whole script builds towards what happens there - Winston's
unforgettable speech on the 4th of June, 1940."
Some 450 background players, representing both Conservative Party and Labour
Party members, were costumed from head to toe by Jacqueline Durran's unit. They
filled the set to feed off of Oldman's energy - and to give some to him in turn.
"Having real people there, not computer-generated crowds, made for very exciting
days," remembers Wright, who kept the momentum going between takes by having
music including The Beatles' "Hey Jude" played for the crowd.
Urbanski remarks, "The crowds were encouraged to react to Winston's speeches -
cheering and making noise."
Greenwood marvels, "There were so many moments when Gary was saying those words
and you would be amazed, whether in the bunker or the Commons. You would feel
you were there witnessing history being made."
Following the Footsteps
In Darkest Hour, when Churchill strides through St Stephen's Hall and doffs his
hat and raises his cane to the statues of Prime Ministers past, Gary Oldman is
in fact traversing the actual floors of Parliament.
The production requested, and was granted, permission to shoot in the Houses of
Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster. Darkest Hour is only the
second film to have been given access there; the first was another Focus
Features movie, Suffragette . The filming approvals process spanned six months.
Security clearances were the highest that cast and crew had encountered on a
film shoot, as every piece of equipment and each vehicle had to be checked at a
special location; once cleared, they were tracked on a set schedule and strict
transport route to Parliament. Any deviation from said
route necessitated everyone and everything going back to the starting point;
fortunately, that only happened one time.
Houses of Parliament granted Darkest Hour access to St Stephen's Hall and the
Palace with no directives to change the script - and with permission for
Churchill's cigars to be smoked on-camera.
While interiors of 10 Downing Street were recreated, the exteriors were of the
actual No. 10. There too security measures were detailed and comprehensive, and
the production was only the second to go where previous films could not; until
recently, No. 10 had only ever allowed documentary and news crews to shoot
there. Once more, a months-long approvals process yielded access that enhanced
the on-screen verisimilitude considerably.
Background security checks on a streamlined crew and vehicles were required, but
everyone was thrilled that Bruno Delbonnel's camera would be following Oldman as
Churchill through the street and not just framing him at the entrance.
The most somber day for the production came on Remembrance Sunday 2016 as Calais
Citadel, under attack in May 1940, was recreated at Chatham's Fort Amherst. 110
background players clad in military uniforms filled out the scene. Wright
requested that Max Richter's "Sleep" be played to set the tone. The siege of
Calais saw combined French and British forces hold off heavy German attacks for
three critical days, allowing for the evacuation of troops at Dunkirk - but at
the cost of the destruction of this garrison.
Delbonnel and Wright had mapped out for the scene how the camera would start at
a candlelit cross, a makeshift altar, before following the path walked by the
Brigadier as he reads the telegram that seals the fate of his men. For the
single-take Steadicam shot, the camera operator was attached to wires so that
when the camera panned down to read the telegram, the operator was swept up into
the air via crane, ascending some 40 feet skyward to survey the scene below.
From there comes a seamless transition to the POV from the plane destined to
drop a deadly payload.
Wright remarks, "This was my first time working with Bruno, and it was great -
in part because he challenged me. He was instrumental to the realization of
Film editor Valerio Bonelli, on his first feature with Wright, was matched up
early on by the director with frequent composer Dario Marianelli; the Academy
Award winner wrote a lot of the score prior to the start of filming. Wright
would play Marianelli's compositions on the set while Bonelli would be cutting
early and often with the score accompaniment.
Wright adds, "It was perhaps appropriate that for this story about a turning
point in our world we had British, French, and Italian creative talents coming
Anthony McCarten acknowledges that "there are scenes in Darkest Hour where
Winston Churchill looks distinctly un-Prime Ministerial."
Joe Wright reports, "Daytime meals for Winston would often be accompanied by a
glass of white wine and/or scotch, and because of the hours he kept it was not
unusual for him to hold meetings from his bed, or even from his bath. He'd
dictate memos for the day from bed and receive visitors and talk about matters
of state wearing his dressing gown and nightshirt.
"Finally, no matter what was going on, he would nap every day at 4 in the
afternoon - and he kept a very small single bed down in the War Rooms. He was a
proper English eccentric."
McCarten remarks, "To get at the man behind the icon, it was important to
establish the character traits in Churchill. We're dramatizing specific moments,
but everything came from our research.
"Something that history books have not cited often, which is particularly
revelatory, is that he was the architect of the Operation Dynamo boat rescue at
Dunkirk, where civilian crafts and everyday people were called upon to help get
their countrymen home.
"The rescue at Dunkirk was Winston Churchill's idea, and it saved thousands of
lives - British and French."
Ultimately, the screenwriter wanted "to push the boundaries of our understanding
of him. With regard to Churchill, I feel his three-dimensional nature had become
buried under a veneer of history. The more famous a historical figure is, the
greater the sense of public ownership in them.
"Winston's weaknesses, foibles, and doubts have been airbrushed out of even the
most thorough biographies; he's now often portrayed as this completely resolute
character. I think we do him more justice when we present him warts-and-all. In
the last 10 years scholarship is starting to reveal other dimensions, so Darkest
Hour is part of that new school of thinking."
Phil Reed, OBE, Emeritus Director Churchill War Rooms was historical advisor on
Darkest Hour. He comments, "Winston Churchill is often seen as the man who saved
his country and the world. This film illuminates that period in his life when he
absolutely nailed his colors to the mast and went down a very certain avenue.
"The transformation was from being surrounded by people who didn't trust him or
respect him to being the leader who had to place his imprint on the government,
on his countrymen, on the world - and he made it."
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