Interview with DARKEST HOUR Screenwriter Anthony McCarten
Last week we had a chance to chat with screenwriter, Anthony McCarten, who wrote the screenplay for the upcoming Churchill/World War II drama Darkest Hour. The movie, one of my favorites of the year out of the Telluride Film Festival in September, is set to open this weekend behind strong critical reviews and serious Oscar buzz—certainly for its star, Gary Oldman.
In Telluride, I actually shared a gondola ride with Anthony, whose film work you know from The Theory of Everything, and with producer Lisa Bruce who also worked on that film. Meanwhile, Darkest Hour is directed by Atonement director Joe Wright with a fantastic score by Dario Marianelli, who won an Oscar for his musical score in that film over ten years ago. Read on as I talk to Anthony about how things have gone since that gondola ride over the Colorado Mountains all those weeks ago.
The SplashReport: Hello Anthony, how are you? Since we rode the gondola together in September you and Lisa were discussing the Oscar chances for your film. All these weeks later and on the verge of getting some serious award precursors, it seems like Darkest Hour is poised to do well during the awards race. Can you describe what emotions and thoughts are going through your mind given these developments?
Anthony McCarten: It has been very exciting to be supported by your peers. The film has had an emotional impact on audiences that have understood the message about the power of words to move and unify, and it is resonating a lot today with everything that is happening in the world. The film seems to have exactly the reception we had hoped for which is to get audiences to understand the amazing power of the spoken word and how Winston Churchill channeled it.
TSR: With Churchill being such a well-known orator, how do you go about picking which of his famous lines to use and how do you approach speaking on behalf of such a well-spoken historical figure?
AM: It was very challenging but fascinating to work on. The idea actually came to me about ten years ago and it took six years to get it into development. Churchill was a master wordsmith and it seemed presumptuous of me to put words in his mouth. And don’t forget he’s sacred ground in Britain so to speak to him comes with even greater responsibility and peril. I addressed all this by doing meticulous research on his speeches, reading the letters that he wrote, basically a process where you dig and dig. Then you just become a ventriloquist for him. And the idea is to be responsible and sensitive to the different facets of the characters. You want to be as three dimensional as you can and that’s what we strove or.
TSR: Do you think we have someone as gifted as Churchill with words today, or how does Churchill reflect on today’s politicians and public figures?
Winston Churchill was stubborn, romantic, and capable of being full of doubt. We wanted to portray all of that. The movie is set in 1940 during a crucial period in which his position on the issue of entering into some sort of peace agreement with Hitler changed by the day and by the hour. We wanted to give that 360 degree portrait. And don’t forget that Churchill was also a writer and by the end of his life he had written more than Dickens. He knew how to use rhetoric as a device, he knew how to captivate people’s minds and he was good at it. He knew all of what captured people’s minds.
Today what we see is flippant and lazy use of language, everything has to be walked back, every statement has to be retracted. Churchill had almost a physical inability to mislead or to tell a falsity. That candor is awesome. And he had a big heart and even some nostalgia. Those attributes are lacking in our leaders today.
TSR: So, after all you learned about Churchill, do you ascribe to the “Great Man” theory of history, or do you believe they are simply a product of their environment?
AM: Every good leader needs a bit of luck. They need to have challenges that are commensurate with their talents. Churchill was faced with incredible, immense challenges and proved that he had the talents to live up to and conquer them. You could do a lot worse than have a talent for words and Churchill certainly did not.
TSR: After you wrote the script, what roles did you take on with the movie?
AM: Well I quickly had to put on my producer’s hat as well and got together some of the Theory of Everything team including Lisa [Bruce], Eric [Fellner] and Tim [Bevan]. We went to Gary Oldman with the script and he responded very favorably to it. The director, Joe [Wright] was not immediately available and then when he did become available we had our team together and then things finally started moving rapidly.
TSR: Did the film turn out sort of aligned to your vision?
AM: Well the movie is somewhat of a thriller. There are several levels of intrigue going on. All of these layers of complexity are very well executed. In my movies dialogue takes the place of car chases, that is where the fireworks are. It is what we use to make you be on the edge of your seat and I think thanks to the amazing cast and crew that is what the film does. To write that tension though you need it to be about something significant and of course it is hard to find something with more at stake than the freedom of the Western world. It is hard to beat these stakes.
TSR: At Telluride you talked about the scene were Churchill rides the tube and how that was a bit of an artistic license. Tell us more about how you got to that scene?
AM: That is in some ways the most truthful scene in the whole movie and it is my favorite. We are very proud of that scene because we thought it brought together all the ways and reasons in which Churchill finally made up his mind that he would not transact with the Nazis. People forget that he was full of doubt about this but it was when he spoke to the people that all the other factors in his mind came together. It was the working class that convinced him, he was a working class hero. And it was very characteristic off him to go off and disappear and then pop up somewhere else so this is why we did it this way. It was a perfectly characteristic scene to explain how he arrived at the decisions he did.
TSR: Thank you Anthony and best of luck with the awards season melee!
Darkest Hour opens in limited release tomorrow, November 22, with expansion coming through the rest of the year and early 2018. Anthony McCarten is currently working on a number of projects including one he described as a “Papal Smack Down” between Benedict and Francis (a Netflix project) and a Yoko Ono/John Lennon film.
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