Joe Wright had just finished directing an installment of the acclaimed anthology series “Black Mirror” and was pondering what to do next. He was thinking his seventh feature should be a drama but, after already adapting acclaimed literary works such as “Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement” and “Anna Karenina,” what direction should he go? That’s when he was presented with Anthony McCarten’s screenplay for “Darkest Hour” and Winston Churchill entered his life.
“Anthony had written this screenplay that took something and a period of history and a character that I thought I knew and turned it into something extraordinary,” Wright recalls. “The humor was surprising and in a way the icon was taken down off this great cliff. And then I was moved by the kind of the crisis of confidence that he goes through and by the idea that doubt is a vital component to wisdom and leadership.”
While a number of living actors have portrayed Churchill recently, including Emmy Award winner John Lithgow in “The Crown” and Brian Cox in the appropriately titled “Churchill,” it didn’t take very long for both Wright and his producers to realize Gary Oldman was at the top of their list for this particular incarnation. The Oscar nominee for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was the proper age, but he’s physically slight compared to the hefty silhouette the former British prime minister was known for, and that was an issue they immediately had to address. They found the perfect collaborator in Oscar-nominated makeup, hair and prosthetics artist Kazuhiro Tsuji.
“Kazuhiro is a bit of a strange sort of mad scientist genius who is able to develop certain silicone materials that work in a completely different way,” Wright says. “So we spent about five months developing the prosthetic makeup to look like Churchill but also allow enough space and mobility for Gary to be able to shine through.”
Wright says that every actor is different but Oldman works particularly well with collaboration. He noted, “I like three weeks rehearsals before shooting. And that was something that Gary hadn’t done for many, many years. I think ‘Dracula’ was the last thing he actually had a rehearsal process on and he really loved that. We talked a lot about Churchill’s energy, the fact that he had this incredible dynamic, forceful energy. He never stopped moving and never stopped thinking and, in fact, possibly thought himself to collapse at times in his life.”
Churchill’s unique sense of humor was also something Wright really wanted Oldman to bring out in his performance. What was important for the audience to experience was “That twinkle behind his eyes, the fact that Churchill used humor really as a defense against the darkness that was coming in, as we all do really I think.”
And darkness was indeed encroaching. Churchill was caught between capitulating to Hitler and hoping for good terms for England, as the rest of Parliament seemed to support, and standing up to evil against great odds.
The film, like many of Wright’s projects, frames “how we as humans connect and engage with each other or often don’t engage and don’t connect and don’t find some arena in which to communicate.” And, to that point, much of the picture chronicles how Churchill was disconnected from the general populace, who were not getting the entire picture of the country’s position in the war, to eventually becoming the true voice of a nation.
“At the beginning of the film, I liked the idea that he was in this bubble in this car, driving through the city, and they were all right there but he was unable to connect,” Wright says. “And then slowly through the course of the movie he reaches a point of intimate connection.”
Wright didn’t intend to create any kind of contemporary commentary on the current political climate, but says the enormous levels of resistance he currently sees in the world give him hope and optimism.
“Churchill, you know, resisted when it mattered most. He kicked and he screamed, he got a lot of things wrong in his life, but when it mattered most he resisted the tide of bigotry and hate that was working its way across Europe,” Wright says. “I guess what I take away from the movie and what kind of empowers me really is that sense of resistance.”