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.