Joe Wright on Creating a More Realistic Winston Churchill

The director of Darkest Hour talks about working with Gary Oldman and avoiding the typical pitfalls of a World War II biopic.

Joe Wright on the set of 'Darkest Hour' with his star Gary Oldman
Joe Wright (right) on set with his star Gary Oldman (Focus Features)

Given that Oscar season is upon us, it’s hardly surprising that Darkest Hour is being pushed, first and foremost, as an awards showcase for Gary Oldman, who excels in the thunderous role of Winston Churchill. But the film works so well because of the care its director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina) takes in balancing the British prime minister’s big, theatrical public presence with his more tormented inner life.

Darkest Hour follows Churchill in May 1940, his first month in office, as he seeks to balance the desires of his political party, which wants to avoid mass bloodshed on the scale of World War I, against his own resolute belief in resisting Nazi Germany at all costs. Churchill was seen by the party (and by Britain’s King George VI) as a warmonger responsible for the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign in the last war. But he doubted himself, too: Wright depicts the leader wondering if his demands of “victory at all costs” from his country were too much.

The Atlantic talked to Wright about crafting a fresh portrayal of Churchill’s character, the typical pitfalls that come with making a biopic of a well-known public figure, and whether audiences might see any present-day parallels in Darkest Hour. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

David Sims: Recently, there’s been such a glut of Winston Churchills on screen. Were you worried about that at all going into Darkest Hour?

Joe Wright: I wasn’t, because they hadn’t happened [yet]. When I started working on the movie, it was like January 2016, and so The Crown hadn’t aired, Dunkirk hadn’t happened, a Churchill movie hadn’t happened, and so I felt like I was being quite original, really. It seemed like one of those ideas, like Pride & Prejudice, that was so obvious it was surprising. Because there hadn’t been a Pride & Prejudice movie, there’d just been the TV series, and there hadn’t been a Churchill movie. But really, I just responded to the screenplay and the story, about a man who is placed in this impossible position where no one wants him, and who suffers a massive crisis of confidence and doubt. And through doubt, he discovers wisdom. I responded to that on a personal level, and then, it’s Churchill.

Sims: But it is interesting to think about his interiority—that’s not something Churchill stories usually touch on as much.

Wright: Especially in England, Churchill is this giant bronze statue sitting on a plinth 15 feet high. [This was] the opportunity to bring him down from that plinth, and instead of facing the icon, facing the man who has been reappropriated by so many different parties. He’s become a kind of icon of British nationalism, and I don’t think that’s who he was at all. So I wanted to reclaim him as an individual, and say this man was deeply flawed, profoundly complicated, and at this point in history he kind of saved the world. Those flaws are integral to the man and to his achievements, and that’s what I find really interesting—the idea that our flaws and our virtues are kind of the same thing.

Sims: By his flaws, do you mean his stubbornness, and his bellicose nature?

Wright: Yes, and his extraordinary will, really. Will is a dangerous thing, and can be detrimental as well as a virtue.

Sims: The image you’re talking about, him as this iconic symbol of Britishness … I didn’t really know that [when he took office] he was greeted with such suspicion in Parliament.

Wright: He was one of the first great [public-relations] prime ministers: The whole look, the hat, the cigar, the “V” for victory, was all carefully considered. We have this idea that he was always the embodiment of the bulldog spirit, but actually that’s not the case. That’s one of the things I think people might find interesting and new about this movie: how suspicious his own party was of him, and that it was this moment that turned and defined him, and defined our history.

Sims: Because he’s an unproven person coming into office, in a lot of ways.

Wright: He’s not trusted. He’s made a lot of mistakes. He’s had a long parliamentary career; he’s been in Parliament since his 20s. His policies on women’s suffrage, his policy on Indian independence, and what happened in the Gallipoli Campaign [of the First World War] was a complete disaster. The invasion of the Dardanelles was a great idea militarily, but time slipped away from [British forces] and they didn’t act quickly enough. And when it became apparent that things weren’t going to go as planned, he should have withdrawn, but his will forced it forward and caused many deaths. That’s what I mean by will being a detriment as well as a benefit.

Sims: So when the script comes to you, what’s the process like for casting Churchill? Because so many thesps have bitten into the role.

Wright: Which is the danger—I don’t want another thesp biting into it. A lot of those guys of a certain age kind of look right. But when casting, you can either choose someone who looks right or someone who has the essence of the character. And I always think it’s wiser to choose the latter. I always had this idea that Churchill should be a dynamo of energy. He walked fast; he was a little man.

Sims: You always think of Churchill as hulking.

Wright: Right, and from all the footage I was watching, physically and mentally he was incredibly energized to the point that you think he might short-circuit and collapse, and that’s probably when the depressions came. So I wanted someone with a kind of intensity, and Gary has always had, and still has, that intensity as an actor. So then the question became about the physical transformation, which is less of an issue to me than the character transformation. Gary and I talked, we discussed options, and we thought this guy Kazuhiro [Tsuji] would be the man to see. He was retired, living in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, making sculptures, and we went to see him. And over a period of five months, we developed the exact balance between looking like Churchill and getting Gary ’s performance.

Sims: Was it hard to win Gary over, or was Churchill something he was ready to sink his teeth into?

Wright: I think Churchill was like a dog in the corner that was always there, and that Gary was always kind of turning away from. And yet, finally, he had to address it. I felt that maybe he’d be the kind of actor who’d do his thing and I’d arrange everything around him. And that didn’t sound great, but I was interested to have a front-row seat to Gary’s performance. And then what I discovered is that he’s an actor who wants direction, and so it became a very close collaboration. We made the film together, we walked through it together, and it was one of the most gratifying creative partnerships I’ve ever experienced.

Sims: With Ben Mendelsohn as George VI, that’s another character who’s been recently done in The King’s Speech and The Crown.

Wright: The obvious choices were British, and the fear was that we’d get a lesser version of Colin Firth. So I knew it had to be a kind of off-center choice. I was looking at Ben, and they look kind of similar, in profile. And George had a temper, and Ben has that kind of vital energy. And the fact that he’s not British was actually kind of important to that.

Sims: Just because there’s less reverence for it?

Wright: Yeah, just because he didn’t come with the British baggage. I’m not necessarily a royalist. I’m not necessarily a republican in the British sense, but when dealing with the royal family you’re always dealing with the institution of monarchy. And actually, what Ben brilliantly brought to it was a sense of dealing just with the individual … this very specific individual in this very specific time in this very specific dilemma.

Sims: The dynamic between Churchill and the king in the film is interesting, because the accepted history is that they were so close.

Wright: To begin with, George certainly thought that Lord Halifax (played by Stephen Dillane) was a better option [as prime minister].

Sims: Because Halifax was him in politician form.

Wright: And also, Halifax’s arguments [to make peace with Germany]—and this was very important to me and Stephen Dillane—are really valid. In other wars, at other times, I’ve probably sided with Halifax: How do we avoid civilian and military loss of life? Surely that is our main responsibility and priority.

Sims: While Churchill is getting up and saying, “We’re going to throw our bodies into this, every ounce of energy will be spent.”

Wright: And that’s crazy! And Churchill could very well have been proven wrong, if Hitler had turned right instead of left, and gone straight to wipe out the British expeditionary force and gotten right in the boats to invade, he would have succeeded. It would have been very, very different.

Sims: When you’re making this film, are you thinking about the present day? Do you see these parallels to current events, consciously or unconsciously?

Wright: One sees the parallels, and it was very interesting, because as we were making the film, Brexit happened and [the U.S.] got a new president. So the parallels were there, but my job is to tell the story very specifically in the context of what was happening at that time. And to offer up scenarios and questions.

Sims: You’re not making an allegory.

Wright: I’m not making an allegory, and I’m trying very hard not to be didactic. And it’s up to the audience to discover their own answers. My job as a storyteller is to present questions, and the audience’s job is to find answers.