Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel Discusses the Process Behind ‘Darkest Hour’

Bruno Delbonnel

Odds are you may not know Bruno Delbonnel by his name, but you’ve more than likely seen his work on the silver screen. The four-time Oscar nominated cinematographer has worked with the likes of Tim Burton, the Coen Brothers, and now his work can be found in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, which is receiving praise for the performance of Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. I recently got to chat with Delbonnel aboard the Queen Mary, and the French cinematographer was blunt about his process, working with Joe Wright, and how he doesn’t see Darkest Hour as a reflection of our current political climate.

“We have to trust each other, so it was a very special dance at the beginning,” Delbonnel said of his first collaboration with Joe Wright. “We spent three weeks together just to talk – talk about the script and about specific scenes that we had doubts about. It was a pleasure. He’s great. When he trusts you he’s open to any suggestions, and he’s looking for it. He’ll ask you what you think.”

The famed visage of Gary Oldman is unrecognizable in Darkest Hour, the acclaimed actor hidden under layers of prosthetics to transform into the legendary British Prime Minister. I wondered just what kind of challenges a cinematographer faces when capturing an actor under layers of prosthetic makeup, and the steps necessary to make sure the seams are visible on the screen.

“First of all, I was fortunate to have some testing with the makeup artists, and those people were absolutely brilliant,” the cinematographer said. “I think there was only one scene where we had a problem. Other than that, not many problems. It comes as well from the way I light. Even if it’s contrast, my light is very soft. I never go with an open-faced straight on. There’s a lot of diffusion. It’s more about the ratio of film light I’ve got to put just keep the contrast or emphasize it. Since it’s a soft light, it helped the makeup to fade.”

Another challenge presented by Darkest Hour is the fact that the film takes place in a lot of underground bunkers, dim meeting rooms where the cabinet of provide their estimations of the war effort. Working in close quarters provided Delbonnel with a chance to think on the fly. “Since I couldn’t do anything I worked backwards,” he told me.

“I came with an idea, which was a general idea, of what the war cabinet, or the war room, would look like, especially the room with 17 guys there,” Delbonnel elaborated. “In fact, there’s not much you can do. It’s not really practical there. It’s kind of all ahead, which is even with light. But I was able to kill some of the bulbs so it’s not so even and bring some darkness to the background. It was kind of a very, very soft high-low switch I was able to maneuver in different ways.”

One scene where Winston Churchill boards the subway provided Delbonnel a chance to fill the film with a bit more color. Yet the cinematographer was quick to assign credit for the lively color palate in the scene to the film’s costume department. “I don’t think it’s about the light in this one. Because the light is very simple in the carriage. It’s coming from the practical there and the windows are pulled down so I could put a light effect or whatever. It’s a very simple light,” Delbonnel said. “Everything is coming from the costume. I followed and worked with [costume designer Jacqueline Durran] just to bring more color to this scene than in the previous scenes. There was nothing I could really do. On top of it, it’s slightly more yellow than anything in the movie. So it’s more a collaboration with Jacqueline and the texture and the fabric, and bringing more life to this scene than the faded costumes we had in the previous scenes.”

Though Darkest Hour is a period piece, it’s still somewhat restricted by the standards of today. One example of this would be the film’s handling of tobacco, which aside from Churchill is often implied and not explicitly shown. “We were not allowed, even in Westminster, when we shot in Westminster, you can’t smoke there. Even though Churchill smoked five cigars a day,” the cinematographer explained.

“We’re working on an American movie – It’s an American movie and you’re not allowed to smoke in an American movie. So it’s as simple as this. They were smoking everywhere. In the war cabinet museum, the guy who ran the museum in London said, the first thing in every record of the people who worked there was sweat and smoke. It was smoky. Everywhere was smoking. We wanted that but you can’t smoke in an American movie, so we just put that in there even though you don’t see people smoking in [The House of Commons].”

For many, the rousing defiance of Churchill that Gary Oldman brings to life in Darkest Hour serves as a rallying cry to those dismayed at the current political climate. However, for Bruno Delbonnel, those comparisons are ridiculous.

“What was interesting in the script was the duality of his personality. That’s what drove me to the project. The historical thing, I’m not really interested in that,” he said. “I don’t even want to compare it to Brexit or what’s happening now because it doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s different. It’s 70 years ago and the world has change. It’s not the same world. I disagree with those that are like, ‘Yeah, Churchill is a good example of what we should do now.’ It was a very specific situation. You can’t compare it with what to do with Donald Trump. I’m not learning from Darkest Hour what to do with Donald Trump.”

I attempted in vain to get Bruno Delbonnel to dish out information about his next project, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the anthology series written and directed by the Coen Brothers which is poised to land on Netflix in 2018. “I’m done. We just finished it,” he told me. When I asked for more information, I was quickly rebuffed. “No, because it’s about Darkest Hour. We’re talking about Darkest Hour, not the Coens. It was fun. It was hard and fun.”

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