During the early days of World War II, with the fall of France imminent, Britain faces its darkest hour as the threat of invasion looms. As the seemingly unstoppable Nazi forces advance, and with the Allied army cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the leadership of the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill [Gary Oldman]. While maneuvering his political rivals, he must confront the ultimate choice: negotiate with Hitler and save the British people at a terrible cost or rally the nation and fight on against incredible odds.
Directed by Joe Wright, DARKEST HOUR is the dramatic and inspiring story of four weeks in 1940 during which Churchill's courage to lead changed the course of world history.
Director Joe Wright assembled his favorite and most trusted collaborators to transport us into these crucial moments of 1940, particularly Production Designer Sarah Greenwood, Set Decorator Katie Spencer SDSA and Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran, and their dynamic teams. Once again they have elevated their respective fields, finding beauty and style in the realism of the times and immersing us in that milieu. It was a tired, worn London, a bit shabby, with cracks showing, yet venerable and still with underlying vigor and vitality, the “make do or mend” mindset that carried the British through the all-too recent war and the one to come.
“It was important to everyone to capture the isolation of Britain at this time,” Spencer notes. “The tawdry and dingy nature of London coming out of the 1930’s recession. There was a photograph of Edwina Mountbatten taken by Cecil Beaton that was a key inspiration. She looked tired and her elegant surroundings showed the chipped paintwork and fraying fabric.
It was also really important to show the idiosyncrasy of Churchill in private and public. It’s just a brilliant performance from Gary.
And huge kudos to Joe for taking a script that was essentially men talking and turning into something quite thrilling.”
Wright chats with SET DECOR and we then get further details from Greenwood and Spencer!
SET DECOR: Thank you for this film. You all make such an incredible team.
Director Joe Wright:
I know...I love working with them so much and I get terribly jealous when they go off and make BEAUTY AND THE BEAST or some such lovely film!
SET DECOR: Last time we talked, it was about ANNA KARENINA. Now we’ve moved over to actual history, let’s talk about that.
Well, one of the things I love about London is that it’s a living, breathing city. You can walk through the streets and just kind of scratch away a little bit at the surface and find history there waiting to be discovered. Sarah and Katie and I do a lot of that, basically wandering around looking at stuff, and then looking at old photographs and comparing the contemporary city to the historical city, trying to understand what’s happened and how it’s happened.
One of the things that’s happened to London these days is that it’s all been cleaned to within an inch of its life. They use these great kind of water blasting cleaners to blast the buildings and everything’s white, pristine and almost painful to the eye, whereas in 1940, everything was black with soot. It’s those kind of textural details that Sarah and I fight tooth and nail for and feel are very, very important.
SET DECOR: Thus the choice to film several locations in Yorkshire?
Yes, there isn’t so much that sense of history having been painted over... there’s still a kind of grumpiness to it, as I believe people lived in those times.*
SET DECOR: We remember in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and ATONEMENT, you liked the fact of peeling paint, felt was an important part of the look and the story.
I like dirt. I think dirt is to be celebrated. And I find it beautiful. I don’t feel comfortable in a clean, pristine environment.
SET DECOR: And thus the appeal of turning a derelict house into #10 Downing Street...
Yes! Well and then firstly, we got to shoot at the real Downing Street. The exterior is really Downing Street.
SET DECOR: So that beautiful shot through the filigree gates across from the door?
Yes. That was from the Foreign Office through, into Downing Street. We were able to shoot there for a morning, and that was really exciting. You’re not supposed to put any cameras in there, but we were able to have Gary as Winston
come in and out. And Sarah rebuilt it at our location, so he could actually go in and through.
The location was this incredible house in Yorkshire which had just been kind of left as it was found years ago when the last occupants passed away. So Sarah and Katie could make it into Downing Street, but still keep some of the decay to keep it realistic.*
SET DECOR: And then you moved into Buckingham Palace...via a neo-classical stately home also in Yorkshire...
It’s an extraordinary room, that finished set. What I love about the stately homes in Yorkshire is that they’re kind of these hidden gems that people don’t normally get to, and so that’s kind of exciting to us.
And then, Katie is an amazing storyteller. You can walk around any set and she’ll be able to give you a kind of narrative of every object. How they arrived there, why they’re there and who brought them there. And she had the two Stubbs paintings redone for it. She and Sarah really envisaged that palace set as being a domestic environment. You know, it’s somewhere where people lived, rather than being a kind of show home.
SET DECOR: Yes, we noted the King seemed comfortable living there even though this was such an overwrought elegance.
Exactly. And in a way, I felt like the set ended up, especially with the metal shutters and those windows, with their high aperture, it ended up feeling almost like a prison, a kind of gilded prison. So the King is as much a prisoner of the institution of monarchy as the subjects are prey to the institution of the monarchy.
SET DECOR: From there, we obviously must go to the House of Commons—we’re told that you insisted on building the House of Commons on stage...
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I was fairly dogged about that one. Sometimes I get a bee in my bonnet and well...I just thought that a film with not a lot of grand scale needed those moments of ceremony, really. We tried for a while to gain permission to shoot at the real House of Commons. Actually, we got permission, but then they said, “You can shoot in there, but you’re not allowed to sit down on any of the benches.” Apparently only democratically elected bottoms are allowed to sit on those benches, so that wasn’t going to work for us at all. And really, it was newer, having been rebuilt after a bomb struck it in 1941, so ours had the richer, deeper, darker wood, making it more accurate to the day.
SET DECOR: Those opening and closing shots were just fabulous.
Thank you. The whole script builds towards what happens there...Winston’s unforgettable speech on the 4th of June, 1940.
SET DECOR: The other incredible set/sets...The War Rooms...
That was a very exciting set to me. And I think it was nice for Sarah and Katie as well. It had a lovely shape and movement to it. Sarah is very, very good at designing movement into sets. And so, you know, we have the War Rooms in London, the real ones, and they’re fantastic. But we weren’t able to shoot in them. So we built something that worked better to our requirements, but also had that kind of claustrophobic feel...that that the walls are moving in on Churchill.
But also, we wanted to convey the sense of perseverance. There’s nothing high-tech about the War Rooms and that is all the more impressive when you think of how people were working with quite basic materials. I find that moving as well.
What Sarah and Katie and I really loved was the kind of make do and mend nature that has been kind of lost from our relationship with objects in contemporary culture. If you get a little tear in your trousers now, you throw them away and buy a new pair, whereas in those days, they would have mended them. And everyone knew how to sew. And the same applied to the War Rooms
. They mapped the movement of these giant armies with drawing pins and bits of colored wool. And the fact that they managed to run this giant global war with these kind of rudimentary household objects, I find amazing.
Check the before and after photos above and enjoy the details Spencer and Greenwood share below...
Yorkshire and locations...
Spencer notes, “Yorkshire and the north stood in for a lot of the locations that were meant to be in London. Joe and Sarah were very keen that we didn’t just revisit locations that are used time and time again.”
#10 Downing Street...
was re-created in a derelict Georgian house in Yorkshire. A complete transformation similar to the houses in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and ATONEMENT,” says Spencer. “As you know Joe loves his 360 locations.” Greenwood adds, “It was empty and it had not been lived in for 40 years, so they allowed us to do everything we wanted to, which then allowed us to give Joe his 360. We had room to move around and give Joe and the actors freedom and flexibility.”
“Interesting about Downing Street, from the time it was first established in the 1700s, the Prime Ministers were all posh...they had their country houses and city houses...and they brought in a lot of their own furniture. So when they were thrown out of power, they would take all their good pieces, and the ones that got left were bits of lower quality, less interesting pieces. And this is still the case. So when Churchill moved in during this crisis, they were left with a really odd mixture of furniture.” Spencer adds, “The things left would have become unfashionable then, so it was a different look than you might expect. The more interesting pieces are what they’ve brought in. You’ll recognize that some of them came from Chartwell, their home in the country.”
“And then there’s the attic room, which we kept as such. Churchill used to collect all these amazing little soldiers, so that’s how we left it dressed for him...
He still played with his soldiers. So in the scene where he’s on the sleigh bed, it was like he had gone back to his childhood, somewhere he felt safe. He was hiding, basically, hiding from this world and the heavy decision he had to make. Originally this scene with the King
visiting was to take place in the drawing room, but that wouldn’t have been as interesting. Joe loved the attic’s peeling wall and how the room captured Churchill at his lowest ebb.” Spencer points outs, “It was a big, full of emotion scene, massive really. And Gary and Ben gave it so many layers within that frame.”
“You know, there is no way on God’s earth Clemmie would have ever taken the King in there,” Greenwood smiles. “That’s the bottom line. But it’s those things that add depth. That’s why we’re not making a documentary. We’re making a film. You bend rules in places. This is the whole thing about the way we presented this film – it’s an atmosphere, it’s a ‘feeling of’. You’ve got the absolute perfection in the performances and in the way they present themselves, and we give them accuracy mixed in with atmosphere.”
“And, interestingly, when we were trying to find out where Churchill’s study in Downing Street was, we were told that every single Prime Minister moves around, that Churchill liked to work in the Cabinet Room. Nobody could give us a straight answer exactly where he was! Even historians at Downing Street couldn’t say. All they could say was that he used to like to work at the big long table because he would spread out all of his stuff. So what we’ve done is kind of a hybrid.”
“But,” notes Spencer, “all of that stuff...his papers, newspaper, his books and other accouterments were accurate. At any point Gary could pick up a book or paper and it would be exactly what Churchill had, and accurate to whatever date that scene was to have taken place.”
“Loved this set and its end of empire feel, with the electric lamps a glaring moment of modernity,” says Spencer. “Again re-created in a neglected stately home in Yorkshire, with it's own dramatic history. We upholstered all the furniture a tired gold, we painted the giant Stubbs paintings and gave them, together with the drapes we made, to the house afterwards as we all felt so sorry for this much maligned house.”
House of Commons...
“It was a big, tricky set,” Greenwood says. “And Supervising Art Director Nick Gottschalk carefully worked out how far we could go. It was worth it in the end to give us that scope and scale allowing DOP Bruno Delbonnel to light it and the camera to move within it. Bruno is a master with light. He also has a great naturalism to his work, knowing when to let story and performance speak for themselves.”
The War Rooms...
Spencer imparts, “This was a complete build over 2 stages, and had to sustain a lot of shooting. A microcosm of life above ground. Really clever design from Sarah. Brilliant. A lot of work, a lot of detail and not much money. And a massive big job for graphics as well. Absolutely massive, especially for Georgina Millett, our Graphics Designer." Greenwood points out, "Georgina spent months at the library just finding the maps." Spencer adds, "The maps and all the details and all the paperwork...it’s brilliant, actually." Greenwood succinctly describes the set and the atmosphere,“The War Rooms
are like an evolving mess, from which came Churchill’s foresight of what to do. And there was a guiding sense of ‘make do and mend.”
Gary Oldman has said, “Even the pins were in the right places. It was eerily like the actual War Rooms, certainly among the best-designed sets I’ve ever been on. The detail was staggeringly good; I opened up a couple of books that were ‘lying around’ and they were remarkable recreations of logs and journals.”
Lily James, who plays his secretary, Elizabeth Layton
, confirms, “It was amazing. I opened up a drawer, and there were sugar rations as well as pencils ground down from use.”
Historical advisor Phil Reed, who curated the real-life War Rooms for 23 years, gave his seal of approval to the re-creations by Greenwood and Spencer’s departments. “The brick work, the girders, and even the air supply are just like the original. For some elements, the scale had to be different because cameras had to get in and so forth. But the details, the atmosphere and the feel, they have gotten so right and are brilliantly evoked.”