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33 Things We Learned from Joe Wright’s ‘Darkest Hour’ Commentary

“I imagine Churchill’s lips to be quite wet.”
Commentary Darkest Hour Joe Wright
By  · Published on March 7th, 2018

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Darkest Hour was nominated for six Academy Awards this year and took home two — Best Actor for lead Gary Oldman and Best Achievement in Makeup for Gary Oldman’s face — but there’s more to the film than just Gary Oldman. For proof, we spun up the film’s recent Blu-ray release and gave a listen to director Joe Wright’s commentary track.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for the Academy Award-winning…

Darkest Hour (2017)

Commentator: Joe Wright (director)

1. He didn’t originally plan on opening the movie with archival footage, but “the main antagonist, Adolph Hitler, doesn’t really appear in the film.” He felt the Germans needed “a presence” in the film, and this opening solved that.

2. Wright “works as hard as possible” to open his films with a shot that “sums up as much as possible the main drive of the narrative.” Here it’s the overhead that spins down to reveal the two political parties on opposing sides.

3. They tried but failed to secure permission to film in the real House of Commons, but they had to settle for a set.

4. He intentionally delayed Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) arrival onscreen instead choosing to introduce him through the opinions and asides of other characters.

5. John Hurt was originally set to play Neville Chamberlain, but Ronald Pickup was cast when Hurt fell ill. The legend passed away during production.

6. Churchill’s lighting of a match in our first glimpse of him is a nod to Robbie Turner’s death in Wright’s Atonement (2007). This is a spoiler for those of you who have yet to see Atonement.

7. Oldman’s makeup took six months to develop and perfect, and while Wright doesn’t know as much while recording this track it was time well spent as the film won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Makeup. It’s prosthetics from the cheeks down, including the nse piece, but they tried to balance between performance and appearance. It all took four hours to apply each morning and one hour to remove.

8. The cigars used are Churchill’s preferred brand, Romeo y Julieta. “Unfortunately for Gary he was smoking about twelve of them a day.”

9. Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) is a real person, but her character here is a conflation of several of Churchill’s secretaries.

Lily James

10. Churchill wrote more words during his lifetime than William Shakespeare, although to be fair, Shakespeare never quoted Churchill.

11. The tracking shot around the 14:00 minute mark showing the POV from Churchill’s car is bookended with one later in the film, and it serves a dual purpose. One, it’s meant to highlight Wright’s love of people, and two, it signifies the disconnect between Churchill and his subjects — they’re visible, but they’re silent.

12. Casting King George VI was more difficult than it needed to be due to “the shadow cast by Colin Firth,” but after much thought Wright realized that Ben Mendelsohn actually resembles the real King George VI. He also liked that he’s Australian and removed from the baggage of the monarchy.

13. They were also refused filming access in Buckingham Palace, but they are the “only production to have ever been allowed to shoot outside the real Downing Street.” Apparently Oldman was the only one allowed to go in and out of the actual front door, so they cut to a different interior.

14. As he did on Pride & Prejudice (2005), Wright asked composer Dario Marianelli to write some music based solely off the script.

15. Those aren’t Oldman’s legs at 25:20.

16. Oldman spent four months preparing for the role and would send Wright phone recordings of him performing and practicing the speeches.

17. He’s still amazed that the makeup didn’t require digital touchups as the lamps used to light numerous scenes were very hot.

Oldman Makeup

18. He enjoys when actors overlap their dialogue as it helps craft a rhythm between them. They find it in rehearsals and then bring it to the screen.

19. Another of the film’s themes is about “the power of words to shape and change history.”

20. Churchill really did have a fake toilet (aka water closet) that was actually a small booth with a direct phone line to the White House.

21. The conversation between Churchill and FDR was originally conceived as cutting between Oldman and an actor playing the American president, but after shooting Oldman’s side Wright realized that performance was all the scene needed.

22. David Straitharn is voicing FDR.

23. He’s quite fond of the wide shot at 59:30 — and rightfully so — of Churchill in the small phone room. The frame extends well beyond the walls of the room highlighting just how cut off Churchill feels at that moment from those around him.

24. Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me (2000) taught Wright a technique that he’s since used here and elsewhere involving cutting between two people in a conversation and then jumping to a wide shot when the interaction grows quietly awkward “to give that silence space.”

25. The shot showing the commander in Calais receiving the fateful telegram was accomplished by moving backward with the camera as the actor walked forward (1:15:52), attaching the camera to a cable when the actor stops (1:16:22), and then having the grips release the camera (1:16:32) so it could be pulled upward and remain in camera until cutting to CG (1:16:49).

26. Several times in the film the scene cuts from Churchill to a “god’s eye view” suggesting his grand status as overseer, but when the situation sees him realize he’s on the brink of negotiating with Hitler at 1:29:18 it’s flipped to reveal that he’s the mortal being looked down on from above.

27. He loves that King George VI would rather support Churchill than go to Canada.

28. One of the most common questions he got at Q&As for the film is whether or not the scene of Churchill taking the subway ride on the underground with the regular folk really happened. “It did not.” It’s instead a more appealing way of bringing into the film that Churchill had been studying public opinion polls and realizing that the working class were very supportive of continuing the fight.

29. He intentionally cast the subway scene with people from all over the British empire “from Londoners to Northerners to Irish to the Caribbean… I wanted them to be as broad a representation as possible.”

30. Oldman is actually walking over a plaque at 1:45:30 marking the spot where Churchill was laid out in state.

31. Churchill reportedly referred to Hitler as either Herr Hitler or “that man.”

32. Oldman was late for filming the big end scene, his speech before parliament, so Wright led the extras through a rendition of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”

33. He loves Oldman’s final walk toward camera. “It’s like a right south London geezer.”

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“Three of the greatest speeches in political history were written by Winston Churchill in a four week period.”

“One of the main themes of the film is doubt.”

“And here we have Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, perhaps the greatest honor of my career has been to work with Gary.”

“I did literally try to cast a baby that looked like Winston Churchill.”

“I hope I haven’t bored you or indeed put you to sleep. If I have I hope you had a nice sleep.”

Buy Darkest Hour on Blu-ray from Amazon.

Final Thoughts

It’s true that Darkest Hour‘s most memorable accomplishment is in Oldman’s performance (and makeup), but the film itself is a solid little glimpse of history with its own merits. Wright’s film hits emotional beats even within the confines of its narrow focus, and his commentary reveals intentions that were met through his filmmaking. It’s a solid listen for fans of the film and/or director.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.