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‘Darkest Hour’ Director Joe Wright Describes How His Production Team Re-Created WWII

Focus Features is just starting to roll out “Darkest Hour,” the Joe Wright-directed look at Winston Churchill in the early days of World War II. The film, written by Anthony McCarten and starring Gary Oldman, has been gaining buzz, and Wright spoke with Variety about the artisan contributions of his colleagues.

Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel

We had never worked together, so it meant everything had to be rediscovered — relearning the relationship between the cinematographer and director, which is so pivotal. Bruno and I spent two weeks together going over the script, page by page, figuring out the intention of each scene and how to express it cinematically. The film is set in May 1940, which happened to be one of the hottest Mays on record. We couldn’t convey a sense of heat with many exteriors, so we had to create it with interiors. There are many photos of that time when the sun almost seemed like a spotlight through the windows. Bruno did a great job of doing that, which helped create the atmosphere.

Production design: Sarah Greenwood; Set decorator: Katie Spencer

Sarah has worked on everything I’ve done since 1998. She and set decorator Katie Spencer and I have a kind of understanding; it’s now impossible to work out which idea was whose. Sarah is tough and dogmatic, always challenging me on my choices, which is great. The three of us are a sort of triangle. We worked with the early location scouts; they were part of the core group from the beginning. One of the difficulties was that in 1940, the whole of London was blackened by soot of coal chimneys; now, the buildings are all scrubbed and gleaming white. We wanted to show the dirt and grubbiness; sometimes it was done with CGI, but sometimes it meant going to different parts of the country. We filmed a lot in Yorkshire, because there’s not the same level of renovation to stately homes as in London. And looking at war rooms of that period, we were struck by how homemade everything seemed. Even the maps they charted were marked with bits of knitting wool; everything they were working with had a make-do texture. There was a homemade aesthetic, which was important to that period.

Music: Dario Marianelli

I got him to start composing before we started shooting; I wanted him to feel the tone of the film. I showed him pictures of Gary [Oldman] during makeup tests, and full shots of Gary walking. Gary had a tremendous energy, which is accurate. In current day, we think of Churchill as heavy, slow and lumbering, but he actually had a quick energy; he thought fast and moved fast. I needed a quick tempo with some of the music. I was listening to minimalist music, and I wanted a contemporary meter, with minimalist energy. Dario is Italian and has a very romantic heart. So he blended the minimalism with romanticism.

Editing: Valerio Bonelli

I always like editors to come to the set, but there’s often not time. On “Darkest Hour,” we rented a house and moved the cutting room into the house, and we all slept there. So Valerio would come to set, and at the end of the day, I would go back, and his assistant would cook, and we’d sit and edit. It was exciting. I think the trickiest scene was the first war cabinet scene. It is maybe seven minutes and is basically men sitting around the table talking; there’s a lot of vital information, but the scene can’t be just talky exposition. Valerio took that and expertly created oppressive tension and made the scene build.

Sound mixer: John Casali; Supervising sound editor: Becki Ponting; Re-recording mixer/supervising sound editor: Craig Berkey

John is the most refined sound recordist imaginable. In the big Parliament scenes, I needed energy from the extras, but I also knew we would have to do ADR. John is such a pro. Becki’s worked on every movie I’ve done. She’s meticulous in the recording of breathing and human sounds; those things always create intimacy in a film. And I first worked with Craig on “The Soloist.” I sent him material in Canada, where he works, and he came over for the final mix. It’s a strange distance, but I trust him implicitly. He knows my love of sound. The cinematic experience is 50% sound, 50% image. We’re taught how to be image-literate in film, but sound can affect the audience in so many subtle ways.

Prosthetic makeup & hair design: Kazuhiro Tsuji

He, Gary and I worked for five months on this. Kazuhiro is a fine artist. He lives in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles. He’s like a mad scientist, working with silicon that’s aerated and moves in a different way from heavy prosthetics. There’s not a shot that looks like makeup. He is also incredibly sensitive to the performer, making sure Gary was always able to express himself. I think he’s the only prosthetics artist who could have achieved this miraculous transformation.

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