“Words can and do, change the world.” This is precisely what happened through Winston Churchill in 1940,” said BAFTA Award-winning screening writer and producer, Anthony McCarten. “He was under intense political and personal pressure, yet he was spurred to such heights in so few days – over and over again.”
Below the Line’s recent screening of Darkest Hour gave the full-house crowd a chance to hear these words spoken by a transformed Gary Oldman (as Winston Churchill). This film is director Joe Wright’s vision of Churchill’s three pivotal speeches written by former journalist Churchill himself, and given during the critical period between May 10th and June 4th of 1940.
The panel, moderated by Timothy Blake, consisted of Bruno Delbonnel, cinematographer, Sarah Greenwood, production designer, Valerio Bonelli, editor, Jacqueline Durran, costume designer, Katie Spencer, set decorator and Craig Berkey, re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor.
Everyone on the panel had worked with Wright before which made for a great working relationship. Wright, Delbonnel and Bonelli all rented a large house together, so they could work on the film as it was shot.
“Working with Joe was very special. We didn’t use any new technology. We watched cuts together every night,” revealed Bonelli. When asked about the importance of the King to the storyline, Bonelli shared, “The scene of their first lunch together was great and it was the one scene that didn’t need to change – there was a very magical performance in that sequence.” Bonelli would cut early and often with composer Dario Marianelli’s score accompaniment.
When asked about the historical places she had to recreate, Greenwood mentioned, “Our goal was not to create exact replicas, but instead to convey the proper emotions of the story and the weight that Britain was on its last legs. We were not looking to make a period piece.”
The crew used a large empty house for Buckingham Palace. Greenwood shared, “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.” Wright favors sets that are circular for the flexibility that it offers for the actors and his cameras.
Spencer elaborated that the detail for the War Rooms was painstaking, down to the type and color of the map pins. She mentioned that historical advisor, Phil Reed, who curated the real-life War Rooms for twenty-three years, gave his seal of approval and said, “The atmosphere and the feel were so right and brilliantly evoked.”
Greenwood noted, “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.” She went on to say, “Bruno is a master with light; he also has a great naturalism to his work, knowing when to let the story and performance speak for themselves.”
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,” added Delbonnel.
When asked about the discussions made on the look of the film, Delbonnel reiterated that they were not interested in creating a period piece and then joked, “The lighting of the day is the same now as it was then!”
For the somber shot at Calais Citadel, Delbonnel shared that he and Wright had mapped out the scene for how the camera would start at a candlelit cross, a makeshift alter, 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 forty feet skyward to survey the scene below. From there came a seamless transition to the POV from the plane destined to drop a deadly payload. Delbonnel credited the beautiful shot to Wright.
Durran confessed, “When it came to dressing Winston Churchill, the key was to look closely at what he wore and try to replicate that accurately. What I was keen to do was to give Gary the tools to be the Winston that he wanted to be and to get the imagery that Joe needed.” There were very particular things that contributed to the look of Churchill: the cigar, the watch, the ring, the spectacles and the hats. Luckily, both the shop which made and supplied Churchill’s hats and shoes, as well as his original tailor, are still in business and they were able to go right to the source.
When Blake mentioned how much she loved Churchill’s pink bathrobe, Durran laughed and said, “We knew he had a dragon dressing gown, but it was hard to find any pictures of it to recreate it, so we did the best we could with what we envisioned.”
Blake next inquired about all the sound and Foley needed in the film. Berkey explained, “It was very important to me to make sure a lot of these sounds were recreated in accordance with history, such as the footsteps recorded in the War Room. We also made sure that any background audio you heard mirrored what was happening on the day portrayed in the film, based on the dates that were available to us.”
The scene that Berkey felt was the most important was when the King was visiting Winston in his home. “There were very few sounds in there, but they had to set the tone and unease of not knowing why the King was there, so there were only the sounds of a light bulb and the King’s footsteps. Everything else is amplified until he sits on the bed with Winston.”
Darkest Hour was released on November 22, 2017 by Focus Features.