Editor Valerio Bonelli read the script for Darkest Hour in early 2016 when he was doing another project with director Joe Wright.
“At first I thought, ‘Why is Joe making a film about Churchill? There have been so many stories about Churchill,’” shared Bonelli. “Then I read the script and realized it wasn’t really just about Churchill. It was about 20 days when the world could have been changed radically. If this man did not stick to his ideals, the world would have been a different place.”
For most of production, Bonelli, his assistant and the director lived and worked in the same rented house in Yorkshire. He would cut during the day and show edited scenes to Wright at night after the director returned from the set. They would also comment on the dailies, performances and how the film was shaping up.
“It was a really good way of working,” stated Bonelli. “I feel that way of working is kind of lost right now. People don’t watch dailies.”
Oldman’s performances were varied, but constant, according to Bonelli. All takes were good, but Oldman gave different levels of intensity in his acting. Most important, from take to take, the actor worked on the details that shaped the performance–the way he delivered a line, or moved the cigar, or took a breath.
The most challenging scenes to edit were the war room sequences that had as many as seven pages of dialogue. For Bonelli, some of those scenes were like Sergio Leoni westerns, where characters were studying each other, trying to figure out their next step. Along with the picture’s dark, monochromatic look, those moments helped create suspenseful, thriller elements in the film. The filmmakers did not want the story to play as a straight historical drama.
“When you read a script, you have dialogue and description. When you shoot close-ups or medium shots, the lines are there, but what is in the middle of the lines is something completely new. It is material that you use to do the final writing of the film,” explained Bonelli. “Sometimes I was doing cuts of the sequence where I would focus particularly on reactions. I knew for some of those crucial scenes, the reaction shots were as important as lines of dialogue.”
Editorial received seven pieces of music from composer Dario Marianelli, inspired by reading the script before seeing any picture. Bonelli would cut a scene, then add original music without needing any temp tracks. They would send cuts and music back and forth, adjusting as needed, making the process of putting the film together organic.
“It was such a rewarding way of working,” said Bonelli. “It was a real collaborative ping-pong. What comes out is an original score.”
Bonelli loves working with sound and getting his assistants involved in the creative end of editorial. First assistant, Tommaso Gallone, built temp tracks. The editor previewed cuts for the assistants and sometimes gave them things to edit so they could think of the whole of the film, not just the technical aspects.
“The craft of learning film editing is not gone, but the way it was passed on has changed radically,” commented Bonelli. “When you were an assistant on a film, you were in the room with the editor and the director, physically assisting them, pulling trims. You would see the process of cutting the movie. Now adays that doesn’t happen. I think that’s a big problem.”
With 20 years in the industry, Bonelli realized early on that Darkest Hour was a special project “because of the way of working, the sense of family, and seeing this amazing performance shaping up, and because of the incredible responsibility as an editor to be honest and create a relationship with the director that was new. I was trying to be supportive and at the same time challenging. You’re the first audience to look at the film.”