“I have no idea. I really don’t,” said Darkest Hour director Joe Wright when asked him about the recent pop culture resurgence of Winston Churchill, who has appeared in a number of biopics as well as Netflix’s The Crown in recent months. “I could give you some kind of guess of an answer like, maybe in times of uncertainty we need to look back at history and see what lessons we can learn. I’ll go with that. It’s a guess. I have no idea really.”
Not only has there been a resurgence in interest in Winston Churchill, but also the events that occurred at Dunkirk, with Darkest Hour being the third excellent film this year that deal with the massive evacuation in one way or another. “I haven’t seen Their Finest, but I saw Dunkirk and think it’s a classic. I think it’s an amazing film, a brilliant film,” Wright said of Christopher Nolan’s film.
Front and center in Darkest Hour as the acclaimed Prime Minister is Gary Oldman, whose transformative performance has placed him at the forefront of the Oscar conversation.
“Well, he kind of basically gave himself over to Churchill for a year. He prepared for four months, five months. Every day in his studio out back, pacing up and down practicing being Churchill,” the director said of his leading man.
“We spent six months developing the makeup, the prosthetics,” Wright continued. “Many, many iterations. At first we went too far and it looked like a big lump of plastic on his face. And then we slowly sort of found the sweet spot where he looked enough like Churchill but there was an accessibility to Gary’s performance. During shooting, he’d spend about four hours a day getting into makeup and costume, so the level of dedication is extraordinary from Gary.”
It wouldn’t be unusual for a prestigious drama about a historical figure to be a bone-dry by-the-numbers piece of Oscar bait, but Wright doesn’t succumb to blandness and injects Darkest Hour with plenty of cinematic verve. The reason is simple: “I love cinema,” the director said with enthusiasm. “I love all the tools that cinema offers me – camera, sound, actors, colors, sets. I try and create as dynamic an experience for an audience as possible. I think cinematically and hopefully what the audience experiences is an inherently cinematic experience.”
Politically speaking, Winston Churchill was quite conservative in his politics, but history has left him as a figure admired by both sides, something exemplified by a recent screening of the film in Washington DC attended by members of Congress from both sides of the aisle.
“It was really interesting. I find it amazing how Churchill is a very unusual character in that he’s kind of appreciated, if not loved, by both sides of the house,” Wright said of the experience. “It’s kind of the same in the UK as well. He’s such a kind of individual character – he is bipartisan, really. I find that really inspiring.”
We’re in a bizarre moment politically. Neo-Nazis have moved from the fringes of political conversation and into the mainstream with a number of prominent conservatives unwilling or unable to condemn these modern fascists. Churchill, however, was unwavering in his opposition to fascism and all it stood for. “What I find interesting Churchill in this moment was that he resisted,” Wright said of how Churchill’s political resistance to fascism can inform the present. “I’ve been travelling around the country and watch the news and travelling around Europe as well, and I what I see happening is an amazing level of resistance that fills me with hope and optimism, because I haven’t seen that before. I haven’t seen that for many, many years. I think that gives me hope and this is the story about one man against the incredible kind of power and wave of intolerance, bigotry, hate, Nazism, he resisted. Also one of the things he used in that resistance was language. He used language as a weapon. One of my favorite lines in the film is when someone says he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. If anything, I hope that audiences will be inspired to take back the language and use it to resist.”
Throughout his political career, Winston Churchill made a number of mistakes that he survived only because he was willing to adapt and change. “The very final line of the film is those who don’t change their mind never change anything,” Wright said of Churchill’s sense of adaptation. “I hope we’ll get some of those conservative voters in and they hopefully might be faced with a version of Churchill that they haven’t considered before and maybe consider their own position in terms of their relationship with leadership.”
For Wright himself, coming off on of the most trying moments of an otherwise illustrious career, he was able to learn how to move forward after adversity. “I think I learned something and then wanted to bring that to Churchill,” the director said. “I was going through a period of extreme self-doubt and what I discovered in this movie is that doubt is important as an attribute as an aspect to the attainment of wisdom. Doubt is good. Doubt is important. It’s important to have those moments where you engage with your conscience and sense of principle and then move forward from there. I get really worried when people, leaders appear and claim to have no doubt. ‘I know this is right. This is definitely right. I’m right. I have no doubt.’ I don’t buy that at all. I don’t think there’s much wisdom in that.”
When I asked Joe Wright about his plans to follow up Darkest Hour, he asked me if I had ever read Stoner by John Williams. I had not. “Fuck, man, I can’t understand it,” he said with a bit of incredulity. “It’s the greatest American novel from one of the great American novelists and no Americans have read it!”
Wright provided me with a quick rundown of his planned follow up. “It’s a book called Stoner written in 1965 by a guy called John Williams about a university lecturer called William Stoner – it has nothing to do with getting stoned – between 1909 and 1956 and it’s very beautiful novel and I hope to be shooting that later next year.”