If Dunkirk and Joe Wright’s World War II drama Darkest Hour are two sides of a coin, the former film would be the war; the latter, the war of words. Centered on famed orator and robust wit Winston Churchill—Prime Minister during one of Britain’s most trying moments—Darkest Hour isn’t afraid to wield its sharp dialogue, any more than Churchill was himself.
Somewhat daunted by the notion of a dialogue-heavy film, it took detailed conversations with Wright for Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel to find his way in, and find his visual concept. Notably high contrast, with a 1940s color palette of blacks and browns, Darkest Hour tracks Churchill’s reluctant journey from shadow into light as he overcomes the Nazis, despite the odds, and all the naysayers in his path.
Here, the French DP Delbonnel discusses his central visual idea for the film, two awe-inspiring scenes in the House of Commons, and his particular approach to shooting a period piece.
What did you see in Anthony McCarten’s script that got you excited about Darkest Hour?
It was not really the script. It was more about talking with Joe first, because I kind of hesitated. There were so many dialogues, and I was a bit nervous [about whether] I could achieve something. I met with Joe a couple of times, and his approach was interesting.
What did Wright communicate to you about his vision for the film?
It wasn’t really about the light itself. It was about the concept that he had about the movie, because he was aware of the dialogue, as well. He said something about a guy playing with soldiers on the map, like a kid, and I thought it was an interesting idea. He said, “I’d like to do some shot where there’s maps and it’s a top view, as if a guy is looking over Europe.” This was interesting, and then we discussed a bit more about the nature of the script.
In preparation for a project, do you tend to look to certain photographers for inspiration?
No, not anymore. I do a lot of research. The thing is, especially for those kind of periods, what you get is basically black-and-white photography, so you can only guess what the color would be. That’s always the problem with a period piece. It doesn’t mean anything, basically. In 1940, the light was exactly the same as it is [now]. So for me, it’s more about discussing with the production designer and finding the right thing from the ‘40s. When I did Inside Llewyn Davis, people would say that it was a beautiful period movie, but I did nothing. It was coming from the production designer.
It seems, though, that there’s a certain craft in bringing a sense of immediacy to a period piece, and that often stems, at least in part, from the photography. In Darkest Hour, there’s no sense of artifice.
I think it’s usually a big mistake, for a period piece, to say, “OK, we’re going to do Kodachrome.” The only references you find—from the ’60s, for example—all the pictures you’re going to find are Kodachrome. So you’re going to try to copy what a Kodachrome would be, and there’s no way you could do it. It’s kind of ridiculous in some way. It means that the only recollection we have is coming from a technology, you see? The technology of the time was Kodachrome, and it was probably a bad thing. When you look at Kodachrome pictures, the colors are totally wrong. I don’t want to emulate this because then people will feel uncomfortable watching it.
So, it’s more about feeling the period, more than anything. It’s not following what the technology would have been.
I imagine you’ve looked at the artistic process whereby artists can colorize vintage photographs. This practice seems related to what you’re attempting with a period film.
Oh yes, that’s totally fascinating. But when you see those colorized, that is a guy who colorized pictures. It wasn’t just like now. He took a black-and-white photo of Abraham Lincoln and colorized it. The colors are absolutely gorgeous, but it’s absolutely wrong. It’s only speculation.
It looks like a painting, but it’s not what it was. There are a lot of nuances which are missing because he is working [from] the black-and-white picture, where a lot of nuances are missing.
What was the thinking in terms of color when it came to Darkest Hour?
The color palette was kind of obvious. It was really brown and black; all those guys were wearing black costumes, black suits, so we didn’t change that much. That’s really the color palette that we had. That was the actual 1940 kind of color palette.
You elected to shoot digitally. What camera and lenses did you land on for this film?
At the very beginning, we wanted to shoot with an Alexa 65 with medium format lenses, but you need so much light just to get enough depth of field that I convinced Joe that we should go with the regular Alexa, with Cooke lenses. Because then, I could work with not such a big amount of light.
I like a very big depth of field, and I think the depth of field was interesting. In order to get enough depth of field, I couldn’t shoot with the 65.
What was your concept when it came to lighting?
The approach on this film was about this character going from shadow to light in some ways, and he was reluctant to do it. Churchill was not liked, and he failed so many times before. That’s why in the very first shot of the movie, the light is not on the Tory side. There is no light there. Then, at the end, there is a lot of light on him. It’s this idea of him going from being not liked to being liked with light.
At various points, central characters in the film are seen in blown-out white light. What inspired that visual choice?
That’s at the second point of this movie, in terms of light ideas. Spring of 1940 was the sunniest of the decade, so there was sun every single day. And the thing was, Buckingham Palace was totally blacked out—they boarded the windows, and there was only a sliver of light, a very small opening. Even on set, I went bigger than the actual one.
Basically, I lit through those slivers, and he was walking through the light and out of it. That’s why when he’s walking into the shaft of light, he’s totally blown out, and then goes to darkness again. And it goes with the general idea we had with Joe about this guy, with his frank kind of persona.
How did you define your approach to camera movement?
The approach was trying not to move the cameras much. We knew that 20 minutes of the movie was happening with guys sitting in the war room and discussing, and there, the actors were not moving. So we said, “OK, what if we don’t move the camera there?” But then when we have the opportunity in the war cabinet, just to move around those corridors, it could balance the whole thing.
How would you describe Gary Oldman as a collaborator? It must be mesmerizing, watching him work.
Gary is the most fantastic person. He’s a gentleman. He was waiting when he needed to wait, and he was always ready to go. Very friendly. I was shocked by the performance. I was always amazed every time he delivered his line. It was astonishing.
What went into realizing the extraordinary scenes that bookend the film, in the House of Commons?
Sometimes, shots come when you block a scene. So suddenly, we had all those guys with the handkerchiefs. You have 500 extras in a room, and you have this big speech, which is kind of the most known speech that Churchill delivered. You’re trying to find a way to express this with the camera, with the lights, everything. It seems like what we did was the right way to do it, but you could say it was not planned, it was just like, “OK, wow. Something happened there, and how can we communicate this?” That was the question.
What were the biggest challenges you faced on this project?
I think the biggest challenge was to keep a consistency with my idea—this idea being light and darkness, very high contrast. It was hard sometimes just to keep this idea when you don’t want Kristin Scott Thomas to look ugly. You have to kill the contrast a little bit, but you want to keep the consistency. That was a big challenge.