Director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour takes a look at Winston Churchill’s defining first months as England’s prime minister just as the country was entering WWII, with an incredible performance from Gary Oldman.

The film is a glorious piece of filmmaking, a period piece steeped in rich décor and accurate representations of the such historic sets as Churchill’s infamous War Rooms, along with what Buckingham Palace looked like at the time.

ScreenPicks was fortunate enough to spend a lovely afternoon on the Queen Mary, docked in Long Beach, California, to commemorate the film and celebrate Winston Churchill. The Queen Mary was Churchill’s preferred way of travel, and he spent much time on the ship making historic decisions as England’s prime minister.

We were able to attend a panel with Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn (who played King George VI) and Churchill’s grandson, among others, as they discussed making the movie, which is sure to be an Oscar contender in many categories, including cinematography and production design.

The best part was sitting down for exclusives chats with the film’s director of photography, Bruno Delbonnel, production designer, Sarah Greenwood, and set decorator, Katie Spencer, and we learned these three things about what it took to bring this story to life.

Discovering Churchill:

Bruno Delbonnel: Joe really wanted to show duel personality of Churchill. A confused mind and a very doubtful person. He was interested in showing this, more than about Dunkirk and how he could find a solution… The flamboyance and to put on top of that, what England was and the 1940s. That’s why we came to this, the double personality, the black and white, light and shadow kind of idea.

Sarah Greenwood: It was trying to tell a story we haven’t seen yet. We all seen a lot of Churchill and a lot of the period, but we were trying to capture the essence of what Gary was going to bring to it and Joe, so to go slightly left field, slightly different. Trying to recreate the world that told the story of this moment, the five weeks that we were in. It was incredible.

Katie Spencer: It’s a film about Churchill and you knew with Gary playing Churchill it was going to be something quite special. I just think he’s such an exceptional actor, but you say Gary is playing Churchill and it twists it. [His performance] is not something you don’t quite expect at all. South Londener, skinny little guy and then he turns into that.

Greenwood: We met him first but after that, we never saw him without his makeup. And the fat suit. So sometimes he’s there, talking like Gary Oldman but looking like Churchill. Other times it was really like being in the same room with Churchill. Quite spine-tingling.

Churchill’s War Rooms:

Delbonnel: The War [Room] scenes were the most challenging to make them interesting because firstly, it’s a very chaotic set by nature. All those corridors, with a lot of extras walking because that’s what it was. Low ceilings and the War Cabinet room was just only twice the size of this one, with 17 guys sitting and talking. So this was challenging to find something which works. When we established the sun outside with Buckingham Palace, we found the balance with the War Cabinet. It became sort of a musical score, where we went from the very dramatic black and white to a very subtle, faded, dirty cabinet.

Buckingham Palace:

Delbonnel: We came with this idea of a very high contrast. Everything was based on the real thing. Buckingham Palace was totally boarded up, the windows boarded for the Blitz. Plywood panel in front of every window at Buckingham Palace, with just small openings to let in daylight. So we started with this idea, having this only shaft of light. It suited this general idea we had, of the double personality, and Churchill walking through the shadow and light. In trying to hide but being caught by the light again… it’s also in this moment, that England is changing, and this is the basic idea behind it.

Greenwood: We had a great reference to that [room] and it gave a very specific look which added to the gloom that we were trying to create. One of the things we pushed for was not to go to the stock locations in London but create something that had its own atmosphere. So we went to an empty house in Yorkshire that had nothing in it. We put up the shutters and the furnishings.

Spencer: I had never been to Buckingham Palace, prior to this movie, and I went around after. It looks like an oligarch lives there now. Everything is highly guilded. But back then, not so much. When Edwina Mountbatten is standing in front of this very ornate fireplace, and everything is a bit tarnished and chipped. So this house in Yorkshire also had this terrible history itself. It was neglected and abandoned. That was our template.

Greenwood: All the furnishings we got, instead of upholstering it in gold fabric, we upholstered in mustard, so it’s taking it down levels. Everything tonally was bringing down to those levels. The mood palette was kind of old and dirty, failure, fading. End of empire. It was a failing nation because we really were failing at that point, and we needed to portray that.

Darkest Hour is a must-see this award season… check it out in theaters today!

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