'Darkest Hour' Director Joe Wright On Humanizing Winston Churchill [Interview]

Joe Wright has been subverting expectations since he made his feature directorial debut with Pride & Prejudice. With his period dramas and adaptations, unlike many others of their kind, the word "stuffy" is not applicable. Even in his newest film, Darkest Hour, the camera has a sense of freedom in a movie that consists mostly of dialogue-heavy interior scenes.

After making the biggest film of his career, Pan, and his lush adaptation of Anna Karenina, Wright wanted to "go back to basics a little bit," as he recently told us. The filmmaker, who was his typical personable self as he rolled and smoked a fine-smelling cigarette outside on a nice and breezy day, also had plenty more to say about Gary Oldman's transformative work as Winston Churchill, his love of a good close-up, and more.

Below, check out our Joe Wright interview.

I saw the film last week and really enjoyed it.

You know, I'm very gratified when I meet young people who enjoy it because I get worried that it's an old audience's movie, but I think young people were responding well once they get in there.

The movie has an energy to it, like Atonement and Pride & Prejudice, and it moves.

And also, I hope that the film ... You know, I wanted the film to play like a political thriller. And thrillers are accessible for all audiences, really.

There is a sense of propulsion in the movie.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely. And we worked quite hard to achieve that, it's like, this kind of urgency, even down to the speed at which Gary Oldman walks, you know, had this kind of propulsion, as you say.

When you say you all worked hard to achieve that feeling, what does that entail? How'd you create that effect?

I guess I was trying to...after the kind of baroque aesthetics of Anna Karenina and then, Pan, I wanted to go back to basics a little bit, and try to strip everything back and find an aesthetic that was somehow almost minimalist, really, and simple and clean, and very direct rather than trying to fill the frame with flourishes.

I can see that. There's some really effective simple touches, like cutting from a dark room to the sunny scene in the rose garden – that contrast of light and dark. 

Well, one of the problems we had, and often these kind of creative choices are the result of logistical problems. And one of the problems we had is that the film, as you know, is set in May 1940, which was the hottest May on record, right? But we were shooting in December and January, so we couldn't really go outside. The scene in the Rose Garden was shot during post, in fact, it was shot much, much later. So we wanted to create a feeling, an atmosphere of the heat, of the period, without being able to see any sunshine.

And also, though, we wanted a kind of darkness, a kind of sticky darkness, claustrophobia. And so, [cinematographer] Bruno [Delbonnel] and I together, came up with this lighting aesthetic that was basically very dark, deep shadows, a majority dark frame, and then these very hard spotlights of sun coming through windows, that kind of glared and give you a sense of the heat outside.

How did that opening shot come about? What'd you want to communicate?

I don't know, I just thought of it, really. No, I think I'd already gone through later passages in the film and started thinking about this idea of leaders being like gods, looking over maps and playing with civilians, or military lives, and the idea of scale, the idea of the closeup of Winston, with an extreme wide shot of what a map is, basically. But also, maps are somehow the representation of reality, a very exact representation of reality, but they're not in any way emotional, that's not there. So he can be dislocated from the people that he's playing with there.

And so, that was the original conception of all those vertical aerial shots. And then once I'd figured that out later, I went back to the opening shot, and therefore, it seemed clear and obvious to me that the opening should be that direct top shot, and then it was just a matter of kind of pulling back and revealing the scale of this space and the warring factions on either side of the House. And then pushing in to the subject of our film, that being the quest for leadership.

I know you liked to play all kinds of music on the set of your films, like playing The Clash on Anna Karenina. What were you playing on the set of Darkest Hour?

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Been playing a lot of Max Richter recently. Do you know Max Richter?

Yeah, he scored The Leftovers. Great musician.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Especially an album called The Blue Notebooks.

I have not listened to that.

[Makes a nod like I should listen]

[Laughs] Great. Every time we speak I like that you always recommend some album, movie, or something.

There you go. And also, have you read a book called "Stoner"?

I have not.

By John Williams. Read it. One of the greatest American novels you'll ever read.

I'll read it. You've talked before about how you have a few images in your head that you get pretty close to with the finished film. What were those shots in this case?

Yeah, I guess that opening shot, ending on the hat at the end of the first scene. Winston in bed in the dark lighting a match, and then revealing him with the opening of the curtains. The shot that goes over the landscape to the closeup of the human eye, that was an early one. So yeah, it's always still that kind of idea.

darkest hour trailerAfter you show the leaders looking like gods, the first shot of Churchill in the bed, like you said, lighting the match.

Yeah. We humanize him.

Yeah, which right off the bat isn't what I expected, just thinking of the towering figure he was portrayed as in history class. 

Same. I mean I, for growing up in London, you know, Churchill is this giant statue on top of a plinth, overlooking Parliament Square. And the idea for me with the movie, was to bring him down off that plinth and address him as a human, and therefore, learn from him. You know, because I don't think it's very useful to lionize people to that extent, they stop becoming human, and therefore relatable, and therefore teachable, or teaching us. So, I don't think it's useful to lionize people, and I also don't think it's useful to demonize people.

I remember when, this is a bit of a tangent, but I remember when George Bush, when the thing in Abu Ghraib happened, the abuse in Abu Ghraib happened, and George Bush said, "These people are sick, they have sickness in their souls, they are evil." Therefore, they are not us, therefore, they're not our responsibility. And I don't think that's useful. I think it's far more useful to look at humanity and try and understand it from a human perspective rather than from a lionizing or demonizing perspective.

I was just reading about Churchill in Keith Richard's "Life," and he wrote that he seemed to have a huge effect on entertaininment, like embodying this Churchill idealism.

Yeah, that's really interesting. Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I'm a little bit younger than Keith Richards [Laughs].

[Laughs] Right, but looking back on movies or anything growing up, did that ever stand out to you?

And I think Keith's generation, they were born during the war, or just afterwards, and so their parents would have lived with the trauma of that experience and would have tried to turn into something positive for their children, maybe. Whereas, when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, we were really the children of the Stones generation, who had in a way, become kind of cynical, and so, there is less of ... there was a kind of kick against the Churchillian idealism, as typified by the horrendous Margaret Thatcher.

But what I find interesting about Churchill, is that he's been co-opted by so many different factions of the political spectrum, and actually he was far more bipartisan than, certainly, the conservatives would like us to think. He spent many years on the benches of the liberal party, he founded the social security system. He was certainly much more of a humanist than the conservatives are now, and yet, they try and claim him as their own. And one of the things I wanted to try and do was kind of re-appropriate him, reinstate him to his rightful position, which is somehow a bipartisan position, a position that operates purely from personal principles, rather than from party allegiance.

He got a lot wrong, I mean Churchill ... The thing I find interesting about Churchill, you know, there's so many of his policies throughout his 50-year Parliamentary career, so many of his policies I think are absolutely dreadful. His opposition to women's suffrage in the early years of the 20th century, his opposition to Indian independence, his ordering of army ... the Gallipoli campaign, these terrible catastrophes. But somehow, he was someone who was able to learn from those, and I think often, politicians these days refuse to accept their responsibility in terms of mistakes, and refuse to, therefore, learn from their mistakes.

You've discussed this before, but I like the idea of those flaws basically giving him the strength to succeed during this time.

Absolutely. And I love the idea that our greatest flaws are also our greatest attributes. I identify with that. But Churchill had this extraordinary will, and it was a will that led to the catastrophe of the Gallipoli campaign, for instance.

The Gallipoli campaign was a good idea that Churchill had, but then, everyone dillydallied for too long, they lost the element of surprise, but because of his will, Churchill pushed on regardless, and that meant the deaths of thousands of men. But that will that pushed that through was also the same will that resisted the wave of hatred, bigotry, and Nazism that was sweeping across Britain. And so, his greatest attribute is also his greatest flaw.

Despite how big of a personality he is, Gary Oldman just finds all these nuances and has the quiet scenes speak just as loudly. What was your collaboration like early on? What was discussed?

There was a lot of discussion. Yeah, there was a lot of discussion, but really it's a matter of layering. You can have big broad discussions, and we did, but the work is what matters, and so, the very first note I gave Gary was, think about your breathing, which was during a makeup test, and he was just kind of trying the makeup and seeing what it felt like to be in character in that makeup. So we started with the idea of how Churchill breathed, and then we moved into how Churchill walked, and the walking, for instance, is vital, as I said before, because it's about that kind of manic drive that he had that then- there's an urgency there, you know.

The closeups of him in the film are fantastic.

I love closeups. I mean, I hear a lot of directors say, "Oh, I love this wide shot, or that wide shot, or that developing shot," you know. For me, one of the most spectacular tools in cinema is a closeup of the human face because it's the only time you see the face like that, blown up to that scale, and going right the way back to Trial of Joan of Arc, the human face and closeup is, for me, one of the most extraordinary things in cinema.

But also, with Gary, the great thing is is that you can do that. You can land on a closeup and hold it for as long as you like. There's never a point in Gary's performance where I would have to go, "Oh, shit, that's no good, I'll have to cut to something else," you know, it gives you that freedom to be that bold.


Darkest Hour is now in theaters.