Sound helped create the real world of Darkest Hour, the story of Winston Churchill’s historic decision to go to war with Germany.
“Just like you have your props, your sets, your costumes and everything, we’re doing the same thing with sound. We’re dressing it as 1940. All the different rooms had different sounds playing,” stated supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer, Craig Berkey, who has worked on five movies with director Joe Wright.
The sound crew used room tone to support the dramatic intent of scenes. Because they were underground, the war rooms had whole ventilation systems set-up. The filmmakers would use the air conditioning, and then shut it off, affecting the vibe of the scene by creating a dramatic pause type of moment. At the end of the scene in which Churchill (Gary Oldman) concedes to Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) that he will attempt a peace deal, as the camera pushes in, all the mechanics and machinery in the background increase in volume.
“These are all subliminal, subtle things,” commented Berkey. “We’re using these simple sounds to help tell the story.”
Audio needed to be authentic to 1940, but the other consideration was manipulating audio for the purpose of story. The phone call with Roosevelt exemplifies storytelling with sound. Static and interference build up as Churchill becomes more agitated until he finally slams the phone down, with the “big payoff” being silence at the end.
When sound cuts off, that lack of audio becomes noticeable. Taking Churchill from a noisy corridor into a room that is silent once the door closes, allows his breathing to be heard. It becomes a moment alone with Churchill as he gathers himself for a confrontation.
“There are little pieces like that throughout,” said Berkey. “He goes into this room. Pause. Pause. Breath. And the door opens and it’s back into the noise. That was kind of fun to play with that.”
Foley was recorded on location in the war room, so Churchill’s footsteps actually sounded like they were in the war room. Two or three different mics were set up to record the typewriter. A typist came in. Gary’s lines were played over headphones, so she could type what Churchill was actually dictating. With the different perspective shifts on the typewriter, Berkey could change up the sound accordingly.
“Really, I don’t think anyone would notice, but we notice,” shared Berkey. “It’s another one of those little bits you put in that adds on. It builds something authentic.”
For London exteriors, the lack of certain sounds also played into the design. One of the devices used in period pieces are church bells. There were no church bells rung in London at that time, only Big Ben.
During the Churchill’s drive through the streets of the city, no sound was use during the slow motion sequence, only music. Having music from composer Dario Marianelli before production helped the sound team make decisions that avoided conflict with the score. Although street sounds were prepared for the driving scenes, the filmmakers realized those scenes were more emotional with only music telling the story because it better reflected Churchill’s inner feelings.
“Because we had music early on, we could make that choice. A lot of times when we’re mixing, we get all that material at the final mix. We figure it out then. When we get to the final mix with Joe, that stuff’s been figured out, and now it’s time to play,” revealed Berkey. “We’ve got it down. We can experiment more. That’s the fun part.”
Berkey’s favorite scene was Churchill’s radio speech that played across various visuals from different rooms, to the battlefield and a dead soldier’s face, before cutting back to the prime minister at the end when the recording light shuts off. Although there was the continuity of Churchill talking, each environment needed to sound different. “There is something poetic about that scene,” said Berkey.
The Parliament scenes, particularly the first which played like a montage and included a big music cue, were the most challenging with the two parties at different times excitedly making noise, waving papers, and stomping feet. The sound crew worked hard to create the full environment while reflecting which party was reacting. Panning reactions and setting levels were very important and took a lot of time to mix.
“Joe loves working with sound, so it’s an absolute joy to work with him. Not only is he enthusiastic, but something really interesting always happens on his films soundwise.” Berkey concluded, “We don’t know what it is when we start, but when we finish, it’s pretty neat.”