How Joe Wright Brought Winston Churchill to Life in Darkest Hour

It wasn't easy.

Focus Features 12.04.2017

Joe Wright is the rare filmmaker who can do it all and who has mostly done those things for Focus Features. Throughout his career, he has established himself as a bold director who can turn virtually anything, whether it's a classic novel (Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice), modern literary phenomenon (Atonement) or wholly original concept (Hanna), into a stunning, singularly conceived experience that is both a brilliant work of art and a wholly immersive tour de force. And his latest is no different.

Darkest Hour, based on an original screenplay by Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten, is the story of the early days of Winston Churchill (played brilliantly by Gary Oldman) and follows, over the course of a few days, as his volcanic energy and keen strategizing helped usher the United Kingdom into the global combat of World War II. It's a movie of historical drama that moves with an undeniably modern energy. In other words: it's a Joe Wright film.

"I was sent the script and making a movie about Winston Churchill was never on my wish list," Wright admitted during a recent chat. Instead, he was inspired at the character and the condensed moment in time. He was also rived by "how close we came to utter disaster and how Winston Churchill used language and words to inspire a nation and mobilize the world."

It's true – this is, very much, a movie about the power of communication. And Wright admits that this was part of the appeal of doing the movie; both a challenge and a call to arms. "I wanted to do something stripped back but at the same time intensely cinematic," Wright explained. He later expanded upon this idea: "I was trying to create a movie that, while a historical drama, played like a political thriller."

Of course, the biggest challenge of Darkest Hour was the creation of Winston Churchill, a beloved historical figure that pretty much everyone knows. And Gary Oldman, an actor with a chameleonic knack for becoming the character, was the first on everyone's list. "When I first started thinking about the project, Gary came to my mind because you could either cast someone who has the right look for the character or you could cast someone who has the right acting for the character," Wright said. He went on: "The Churchill that was presented to me and that I saw in my research was this vital, dynamic, kinetic almost manic character who had this kind of intensity. His brain worked at 500 miles an hour and people found it very difficult to keep up with him. So I needed an actor with that kind of intensity and Gary, as you've seen throughout his career, has an extraordinary ability to invest intensity in everything he does. He had the essence of the character."

After Oldman signed on, Wright began the conversations with make-up wizard Kazuhiro Tsuji. The filmmaker admits that the process was a "trial and error." The trick was creating a believable facsimile of the character while also allowing the actor to show through from underneath. Early versions were too heavy and mask-like, while some didn't have enough of the prosthetics. "The development continued until we hit the sweet spot between looking like Churchill and maintaining accessibility to Gary's performance," Wright said. And, truly, it's a performance for the ages, full of bluster and nuance and great humanity.

But Darkest Hour isn't a hermetically sealed time capsule. And Wright knows this. When we asked what he wants contemporary audiences to take away from the story, he was very straightforward: "My greatest wish is that audiences will be inspired to debate. My job as a director is not to be didactic. It's not to tell people what to think. My job is to, through the medium of storytelling, ask questions. And hopefully those questions are urgent and relevant and vital enough that an audience will then take those questions out into the street and debate them and discuss and see if they can find the answers. That’s my greatest wish." Churchill couldn't have said it better himself. 

Sign up for the Focus Insider newsletter to be first in line for free advance screenings, world premiere travel packages, weekend set visits, and so much more!

Follow Focus Features on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter.