Writing about historic figures is nothing new for Anthony McCarten. He previously wrote the screenplay for The Theory of Everything, about the life of Stephen Hawking. However, he hesitated before taking on the legendary Winston Churchill for Darkest Hour, feeling somewhat daunted by the momentous period when Mussolini and Hitler threatened Europe. It took McCarten awhile before he felt he was ready to dramatize the phenomenal story of Churchill’s own doubts about a premature peace treaty with Nazis and Fascists which would place Great Britain at the vanguard of leading allied forces to victory.
McCarten chose to show us a side of Churchill rarely seen, focusing on aspects of the Prime Minister’s personality that he believes are lacking in previous portrayals. With wit and charm and even a dash of romance, Darkest Hour presents to us a legend whose leadership style was built on the depth of his intelligence and the breadth of his humanity.
You’re taking on a giant with Winston Churchill. What are some of the challenges you met?
You’re obliged when you take on someone of this stature to do him justice in the first instance. With him, his range of wit, of rhetoric, the magnificent gesture, requires you to impersonate him at a high level which is what you’re doing when you’re writing these stories.
It was so daunting that I actually put it off. I didn’t feel I was ready to tackle it and was so intimidated by the prospect. I had such a happy experience with The Theory of Everything that I was emboldened.
Around four years ago, I met with a friend in a pub and it was around Christmas and I told him what I might do next. He signed off on the idea of Churchill. I wrote it extensively for him, not sure if I’d be able to pull it off. I remember sending it to him, I told him I had written it and it was in his inbox. A few weeks after that I sent that off to a few other people.
You mention his wit, what else stood out when you were reading about him?
He’s been well served in cinema. I think entire dimensions of him had been left out in those portraits and I wanted to rectify that. There were elements I hadn’t seen enough of were his wit, his romanticism and his self-doubt. He’s presented to us as a piece of mythology rather than a human being. A lot of the portraits played along with that as if he were born an old man smoking a cigar in a bad mood. Even the small amount of research I did showed that he was a man of infinite jest. He had huge mood swings and his mind was anything but made up on certain issues, in particular the peace deal with Hitler. My research showed that his position changed greatly by the day in May 1940 and sometimes by the hour. I found that so heartening because he suddenly became this three-dimensional being instead of this product of the British tourist industry.
What was your process in writing Darkest Hour?
I want to know how it’s going to end before I start. I knew my ending and knew he would reach a decision on this critical issue. I knew I had these three tentpoles that would hold up the whole tent and it would be three of the greatest speeches ever written. Then it became a case of putting dramatic flesh on the bone on the skeleton of history. History is always incomplete. It’s a road washed out at intervals, and you have to fill the gaps in what we don’t know and you have to immerse yourself in the research so that you can speculate. If we don’t know what he said or what he felt, what was he likely to have felt. That was the process that I used for this. I knew where I was going to start, on the first day that he became Prime Minister and I knew where I was going to end it.
Was there a particular scene that you were excited about to see transition to film?
I was excited by the idea of a great actor speaking the great speeches. I was just as excited by the idea of a great actor speaking the lines I had given Churchill to augment what we didn’t know. When I saw Gary Oldman fill that role as I don’t think it’s been filled before, it’s almost like a vacancy where a lot of people had applied for it but he’s the only candidate who fit the bill and that was completely thrilling to see a different kind of Churchill come alive. For all those years, he was still young for 65. He had a twinkle in his eye and skip in his step and he was capable of doubting himself and he was reliant on his wife.
Gary Oldman’s performance is transformative. All of the performances were.
They were. It was like a metamorphisis and the actors were lost inside their roles.
I’m sure you’ve heard this, but people are saying the perfect partner to Darkest Hour is Dunkirk. How does that make you feel even to the point some people are saying there’s going to be a perfect edit one day of the two films joined together?
It’s funny and entertaining that somewhere in the future there’s going to be this vast supercut of the films.
I’m sure it’s going to happen.
It absolutely amuses me, but I can tell you it won’t work. The only real thing we have in common with Dunkirk is the date. We don’t share the characters. Dunkirk is about evacuation of soldiers on a beach. Our film is about a portrait of leadership conducted mainly through words and the spoken word in a series of meetings that happened over a very short period of days. As much as it makes me laugh, I think it might not make a satisfactory mashup, but it would make an interesting double bill at some point.
Did you ever think that we’d be watching this at a time when we need a leader like Churchill when you wrote it?
Well, my feeling is that we’ve always needed great leaders. I started this before Brexit and the crazy world of Donald Trump. It was present when I wrote it four years ago and it was present now. We have always needed great leaders, but the question is, what defines a great leader. Hopefully this movie adds something to that conversation.
You’ve also written the book which is out now in the UK and soon to be published in the USA.
That’s right. There was just so much research that I wanted to say about leadership that I couldn’t squeeze into the film and I tried being a historian. The period and ideas of leadership were just so interesting.
Darkest Hour opens on November 22 and is released by Focus Features.