Good news: Joe Wright is back. The director of Darkest Hour, which stars the evidently Oscar-bound Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in his early days as prime minister, exploded onto the film scene around a decade ago with two beautiful, hugely successful works: In 2005’s Pride and Prejudice and 2007’s Atonement, Wright took what could have easily become prestigious, sober, tradition-of-quality literary adaptations, and infused them with a fevered sense of style and movement, and even dashes of surrealism.
His bold use of film form hinted at his eclectic inspirations: his parents’ puppet theater in the London borough of Islington; his work on stage shows with electronica bands; his music videos; and his own cinephilia. Later movies, like 2011’s Hanna and 2012’s Anna Karenina, expanded Wright’s style even further, though they didn’t get quite the same level of acclaim. Then he went the blockbuster route with 2015’s Peter Pan tale Pan, which…well, flopped. Mightily.
But with Darkest Hour, Wright has returned to the kind of filmmaking that put him on the map: taking serious, potentially somber material and reinventing it for the screen through intricate, inventive cinematic technique. (At times, it feels like we’re watching a musical, even though nobody sings in the film.) I spoke to him recently about his conception of Churchill, the perceived conflict between form and content, and how he finds the right actors to convey his curious visions.
I was not a big fan of Pan, and after the failure of that film, when I heard you were doing a Winston Churchill movie, I thought, “Oh no, Joe Wright’s wings have been clipped, and it’s just going to be a straightforward, play-it-safe biopic.” But then I saw Darkest Hour, and those opening moments with the camera swooping down on Parliament, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Well, Pan was a very interesting experiment for me. It was an experiment that didn’t go so well, but we possibly learn more from the things that don’t go well than we do from the things that do. And I realized after making that film that what really interests me — what I love, the reason I got into cinema in the first place, really — was cinematic drama. And hopefully that’s what I’m good at too. So, it’s lovely to be back making that kind of work.
When we think of Churchill, certainly in the U.S., he is a god. But you present a Churchill who nobody likes. He’s a mess, wracked by self-doubt. And it’s not like suddenly he isn’t and he changes. It’s that within all that self-doubt and all that turmoil and all that constant criticism and conspiring, he —
And you wonder why I wanted to make this film after Pan! [Laughs]
I’m glad you said it and not me!
Yeah, I mean that’s what happened. What I love about the story is that it’s about the importance of doubt in the search for wisdom, and the importance of wisdom in leadership. And so, when I first read the script, I knew that he wasn’t the popular choice. In Britain as opposed to America, we’re much more used to conversations about his failures and the policies that he got wrong, which are numerous prior to the war; he’d had a very long career before he became prime minister. But when I read the script, I discovered this wonderful humor. It made me laugh and it made me cry, and then it made me consider doubt as something really positive — which is kind of what I needed at the time.
You’ve talked in the past about your influences — your parents’ marionette theater and things like that — but I’m always curious about where you draw the line. At what point does style become too much, too burdensome? I love the fact that Anna Karenina was just awash in cinematic technique and elaborate, surreal set pieces. Here, it’s still quite present, but more subdued. How do you make that decision of how far to go? Is it just intuitive?
It’s partly intuitive. What happens is there’s an intuition, and then one goes back and examines the intuition, and almost tries to post-rationalize it. And if you can’t support it, then it’s possibly not the right idea, and if you can, then it is. “Style” is a difficult word for me because it denotes something surface, and I think I prefer the word “form,” and playing with the nature of cinematic form, and finding the correct form for the specific material. And so, at the time it felt to me that the kind of very Brechtian form, if you like — or Meyerholdian form — of Anna Karenina was the correct one for that specific story. With this, I wanted something that was more realistic. And I use “realistic” as opposed to “naturalistic” pointedly. There was a point where we had the shots tracking through the walls, we’re kind of cutting outside of the room or outside of the elevator with the telephone call to Roosevelt with the elevator going up, and I had to consider those very carefully and to make sure that there was substance behind those stylistic or formal choices. And I felt that they would convey the claustrophobia of the story, and so therefore they were justified.
Do you find that sometimes people distrust cinematic form when it’s too forward, or pronounced? I feel like it maybe changes and goes through periods. There was a long period I feel like when it seemed everything had to be gritty and handheld and down to the ground…
But it’s still an affectation, you know? I mean, that’s the thing about it. Naturalistic acting is as affected as any other form of acting, any other style of acting. And so my job is to find the nub of the drama and then express that in as cinematic a way as possible. I’m not interested in necessarily replicating the appearance of reality. I’m interested in expressing the essence of reality. And that means that it’s not necessarily, you know, vérité in style, but hopefully reaches an emotional truth. God, I sound fucking pretentious, don’t I? But that’s the way I feel about it, you know.
The scene on the subway — as I was watching it, I thought to myself, “This is a musical number.” The way that the movement and the action of the people around him develop. At first it’s kind of a cacophony, and then suddenly they’re regimented, and then they’re in unison, and then suddenly you cut to the little kid, and I really felt like I was watching a musical number. Even though they’re not technically singing, their interactions with Churchill are kind of structured like a song.
Ha! Yeah. I guess there’s certainly some wish fulfillment in that scene. That scene didn’t actually happen, although it represents something that happened. And it also is representative of Churchill going to the people as he often did and seeking their counsel and so on, rather than just the counsel of the aristocrats. And so it felt like there was something slightly, as you say, musical about it. In terms of a wish fulfillment scene, that felt like the correct form.
You’re quite a cinephile as well. Before you make a film, do you go back to other films, other influences? Do you draw from other things like that?
After Pan I went back and I rewatched all the films that made me fall in love with filmmaking in the first place. And so I had a kind of fresh relationship with my love of those movies. I certainly thought about Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped with this film because of the claustrophobia and the shooting in pretty much one space. And Bresson is always an inspiration. I keep his Notes on the Cinematographer next to my bed when I’m shooting, and I read, like, one daily reflection each morning. I also thought of Downfall as well, which is a film I really, really admire. What worries me about being too referential to other movies is that there’s a kind of cannibalism that happens and they stop being true. What I’m always trying to achieve is a kind of human truth, really. So what I try to do more is be inspired by the details and the specifics of the place, the time, and the history, and the characters, and try and find an emotional response to time, place, and people. And then figure out the most cinematic way I can represent those things.
In that context, what do you look for in an actor?
Casting is the most important decision a director can make, and I guess, having been brought up in a puppet theater, where the characters are designed on the drawing board, there’s an element of my casting process where I imagine the characters if they were a puppet and what kind of character would they be. What would they look like? What’s their essence? And that final question, though, becomes the most important one, and this does lead into Gary Oldman. You have a choice. You can either cast the person who looks best, or you can cast the person who has the right essence to convey that character. And all the research I did, watching film and reading, about Churchill, I felt like I began to see a man who had this incredible, almost manic energy, both physical and mental. And that intensity of energy was what I was interested in finding in the actor. Gary Oldman has that intensity, you know, as we’ve seen in all his great characters. They’re always very intense people. I cast Gary based on that latter concern — the essence of his intensity.
He strikes me as someone who does a lot of research.
Immense amount of research. One of the lessons I’ve learned from the great actors I’ve worked with — and even those I haven’t worked with, like Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep — is that the geniuses work really hard. And Gary spent four months working really, really hard in preparation. Every single day he’d be out back of the studio practicing being Churchill. I mean literally. And I find that extremely gratifying because a lot of actors, younger actors or actors who aren’t as good, think that inspiration is some kind of divine thing that happens — an almost romantic notion coming from the romantic poets. This idea that the inspiration is a divine gift that is bestowed upon you at the given moment and you will arrive and you will be brilliant. And it’s not true. It’s a myth. There needs to be that foundation in hard craft, and then you get on set, and then inspiration at last.
Ben Mendelsohn also strikes me as having quite a challenge here. The way he portrays King George at first as this meek, almost sniveling little character, and eventually he turns out to be the one who helps Churchill buck himself up — without ever losing his persona. That was a very interesting trajectory.
Yeah, he has a great arc, George. The problem with casting that character was that he’d been played with so much success by Colin Firth, and so any English actor would probably have been a kind of watered-down version of that, so I had to make quite a bold choice. And Ben’s always a bold choice, you know. He’s a bold man. But to have someone who wasn’t English, an Australian, play that role was really, really useful. Ben Mendelsohn is fucking nuts in the best way possible. He has this crazy energy that bursts out of him, and is irrepressible. And he arrives on set singing and shouting — good-humored shouting, and laughing, wild. Singing his breakfast menu, you know. Or very rude, very, very rude ditties. And very generous. And then you call “action,” and somehow all of that energy becomes concentrated into a kind of laser beam of focus, and it’s magnetic. And then you call “cut,” and the energy goes everywhere. Working with Ben was an amazing revelation. Also what was great is that Ben and Gary respected each other immensely, and really enjoyed each other, and so they were able to have some fun. And I think actors having fun is fun for an audience too.