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‘Style Is a Difficult Word for Me’: Joe Wright on His Winston Churchill Drama “Darkest Hour”

Good news: Joe Wright is back. The director of Darkest Hour, which stars the evidently Oscar-bound Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in his early days as prime minister, exploded onto the film scene around a decade ago with two beautiful, hugely successful works: In 2005’s Pride and Prejudice and 2007’s Atonement, Wright took what could have easily become prestigious, sober, tradition-of-quality literary adaptations, and infused them with a fevered sense of style and movement, and even dashes of surrealism.

His bold use of film form hinted at his eclectic inspirations: his parents’ puppet theater in the London borough of Islington; his work on stage shows with electronica bands; his music videos; and his own cinephilia. Later movies, like 2011’s Hanna and 2012’s Anna Karenina, expanded Wright’s style even further, though they didn’t get quite the same level of acclaim. Then he went the blockbuster route with 2015’s Peter Pan tale Pan, which…well, flopped. Mightily.

But with Darkest Hour, Wright has returned to the kind of filmmaking that put him on the map: taking serious, potentially somber material and reinventing it for the screen through intricate, inventive cinematic technique. (At times, it feels like we’re watching a musical, even though nobody sings in the film.) I spoke to him recently about his conception of Churchill, the perceived conflict between form and content, and how he finds the right actors to convey his curious visions.

 

I was not a big fan of Pan, and after the failure of that film, when I heard you were doing a Winston Churchill movie, I thought, “Oh no, Joe Wright’s wings have been clipped, and it’s just going to be a straightforward, play-it-safe biopic.” But then I saw Darkest Hour, and those opening moments with the camera swooping down on Parliament, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Well, Pan was a very interesting experiment for me. It was an experiment that didn’t go so well, but we possibly learn more from the things that don’t go well than we do from the things that do. And I realized after making that film that what really interests me — what I love, the reason I got into cinema in the first place, really — was cinematic drama. And hopefully that’s what I’m good at too. So, it’s lovely to be back making that kind of work.

When we think of Churchill, certainly in the U.S., he is a god. But you present a Churchill who nobody likes. He’s a mess, wracked by self-doubt. And it’s not like suddenly he isn’t and he changes. It’s that within all that self-doubt and all that turmoil and all that constant criticism and conspiring, he —

And you wonder why I wanted to make this film after Pan! [Laughs]

I’m glad you said it and not me!

Yeah, I mean that’s what happened. What I love about the story is that it’s about the importance of doubt in the search for wisdom, and the importance of wisdom in leadership. And so, when I first read the script, I knew that he wasn’t the popular choice. In Britain as opposed to America, we’re much more used to conversations about his failures and the policies that he got wrong, which are numerous prior to the war; he’d had a very long career before he became prime minister. But when I read the script, I discovered this wonderful humor. It made me laugh and it made me cry, and then it made me consider doubt as something really positive — which is kind of what I needed at the time.

You’ve talked in the past about your influences — your parents’ marionette theater and things like that — but I’m always curious about where you draw the line. At what point does style become too much, too burdensome? I love the fact that Anna Karenina was just awash in cinematic technique and elaborate, surreal set pieces. Here, it’s still quite present, but more subdued. How do you make that decision of how far to go? Is it just intuitive?

It’s partly intuitive. What happens is there’s an intuition, and then one goes back and examines the intuition, and almost tries to post-rationalize it. And if you can’t support it, then it’s possibly not the right idea, and if you can, then it is. “Style” is a difficult word for me because it denotes something surface, and I think I prefer the word “form,” and playing with the nature of cinematic form, and finding the correct form for the specific material. And so, at the time it felt to me that the kind of very Brechtian form, if you like — or Meyerholdian form — of Anna Karenina was the correct one for that specific story. With this, I wanted something that was more realistic. And I use “realistic” as opposed to “naturalistic” pointedly. There was a point where we had the shots tracking through the walls, we’re kind of cutting outside of the room or outside of the elevator with the telephone call to Roosevelt with the elevator going up, and I had to consider those very carefully and to make sure that there was substance behind those stylistic or formal choices. And I felt that they would convey the claustrophobia of the story, and so therefore they were justified.

Gary Oldman and Joe Wright on set.

Do you find that sometimes people distrust cinematic form when it’s too forward, or pronounced? I feel like it maybe changes and goes through periods. There was a long period I feel like when it seemed everything had to be gritty and handheld and down to the ground…

But it’s still an affectation, you know? I mean, that’s the thing about it. Naturalistic acting is as affected as any other form of acting, any other style of acting. And so my job is to find the nub of the drama and then express that in as cinematic a way as possible. I’m not interested in necessarily replicating the appearance of reality. I’m interested in expressing the essence of reality. And that means that it’s not necessarily, you know, vérité in style, but hopefully reaches an emotional truth. God, I sound fucking pretentious, don’t I? But that’s the way I feel about it, you know.

The scene on the subway — as I was watching it, I thought to myself, “This is a musical number.” The way that the movement and the action of the people around him develop. At first it’s kind of a cacophony, and then suddenly they’re regimented, and then they’re in unison, and then suddenly you cut to the little kid, and I really felt like I was watching a musical number. Even though they’re not technically singing, their interactions with Churchill are kind of structured like a song.  

Ha! Yeah. I guess there’s certainly some wish fulfillment in that scene. That scene didn’t actually happen, although it represents something that happened. And it also is representative of Churchill going to the people as he often did and seeking their counsel and so on, rather than just the counsel of the aristocrats. And so it felt like there was something slightly, as you say, musical about it. In terms of a wish fulfillment scene, that felt like the correct form.

You’re quite a cinephile as well. Before you make a film, do you go back to other films, other influences? Do you draw from other things like that?

After Pan I went back and I rewatched all the films that made me fall in love with filmmaking in the first place. And so I had a kind of fresh relationship with my love of those movies. I certainly thought about Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped with this film because of the claustrophobia and the shooting in pretty much one space. And Bresson is always an inspiration. I keep his Notes on the Cinematographer next to my bed when I’m shooting, and I read, like, one daily reflection each morning. I also thought of Downfall as well, which is a film I really, really admire. What worries me about being too referential to other movies is that there’s a kind of cannibalism that happens and they stop being true. What I’m always trying to achieve is a kind of human truth, really. So what I try to do more is be inspired by the details and the specifics of the place, the time, and the history, and the characters, and try and find an emotional response to time, place, and people. And then figure out the most cinematic way I can represent those things.

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In that context, what do you look for in an actor?

Casting is the most important decision a director can make, and I guess, having been brought up in a puppet theater, where the characters are designed on the drawing board, there’s an element of my casting process where I imagine the characters if they were a puppet and what kind of character would they be. What would they look like? What’s their essence? And that final question, though, becomes the most important one, and this does lead into Gary Oldman. You have a choice. You can either cast the person who looks best, or you can cast the person who has the right essence to convey that character. And all the research I did, watching film and reading, about Churchill, I felt like I began to see a man who had this incredible, almost manic energy, both physical and mental. And that intensity of energy was what I was interested in finding in the actor. Gary Oldman has that intensity, you know, as we’ve seen in all his great characters. They’re always very intense people. I cast Gary based on that latter concern — the essence of his intensity.

He strikes me as someone who does a lot of research.

Immense amount of research. One of the lessons I’ve learned from the great actors I’ve worked with — and even those I haven’t worked with, like Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep — is that the geniuses work really hard. And Gary spent four months working really, really hard in preparation. Every single day he’d be out back of the studio practicing being Churchill. I mean literally. And I find that extremely gratifying because a lot of actors, younger actors or actors who aren’t as good, think that inspiration is some kind of divine thing that happens — an almost romantic notion coming from the romantic poets. This idea that the inspiration is a divine gift that is bestowed upon you at the given moment and you will arrive and you will be brilliant. And it’s not true. It’s a myth. There needs to be that foundation in hard craft, and then you get on set, and then inspiration at last.

Ben Mendelsohn also strikes me as having quite a challenge here. The way he portrays King George at first as this meek, almost sniveling little character, and eventually he turns out to be the one who helps Churchill buck himself up — without ever losing his persona. That was a very interesting trajectory.

Yeah, he has a great arc, George. The problem with casting that character was that he’d been played with so much success by Colin Firth, and so any English actor would probably have been a kind of watered-down version of that, so I had to make quite a bold choice. And Ben’s always a bold choice, you know. He’s a bold man. But to have someone who wasn’t English, an Australian, play that role was really, really useful. Ben Mendelsohn is fucking nuts in the best way possible. He has this crazy energy that bursts out of him, and is irrepressible. And he arrives on set singing and shouting — good-humored shouting, and laughing, wild. Singing his breakfast menu, you know. Or very rude, very, very rude ditties. And very generous. And then you call “action,” and somehow all of that energy becomes concentrated into a kind of laser beam of focus, and it’s magnetic. And then you call “cut,” and the energy goes everywhere. Working with Ben was an amazing revelation. Also what was great is that Ben and Gary respected each other immensely, and really enjoyed each other, and so they were able to have some fun. And I think actors having fun is fun for an audience too.

 

 

 

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Secrecy

Few Americans would argue with Winston Churchill’s dictum: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” But the culture of secrecy that has developed within the Bush/Cheney White House has taken that admonition to dangerous extremes. The inherent tension that exists between the public’s right to know and the government’s need for confidentiality in the service of national security is the subject of Secrecy, a powerful documentary by Harvard professors Peter Galison and Robb Moss. In addition to historical footage, the film employs a series of pulsating animated drawings, with the white ink against the black background injecting an appropriately unsettling, even sinister tone. Arguments on both sides of the debate are presented, although the filmmakers have a clear point of view: that the current level of secrecy is harmful. Most chilling is the former CIA station chief who defends secrecy on the grounds that it “allows us the latitude of action to use methods that are not necessarily consistent with our values as a nation.”

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John Belluso’s The Poor Itch

Sadness pervades John Belluso’s The Poor Itch. Given that the play centers on Ian, a young soldier who returns to the U.S. from Iraq without the use of his legs, this isn’t terribly surprising. The piece’s poignancy is enhanced, though, by the inescapable sense that we’ve lost an important theatrical voice: Belluso left it unfinished when he died unexpectedly two years ago, at the age of 37.

In Itch, Belluso takes on the disabled-soldier-returning-home tradition and rips it into the 21st century. He uses familiar elements—Ian living back with his mother, dealing with awkward reactions from friends, and spiraling into drug addiction—but recasts them in a bracingly contemporary light. Additionally, what would otherwise be standard-issue flashback nightmares elevate the play to political fantasia: Current political leaders appear while Ian sleeps, as do Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia. Watching Lisa Peterson’s assured production, which becomes fascinatingly fragmented as it incorporates Belluso’s notes and unfinished scenes, can be like watching Born on the Fourth of July melded with Angels in America.

Christopher Thornton and Deidre O’Connell, playing Ian and his mother, provide exceptional performances in this terrifically complex human drama. Also notable are Susan Pourfar as Ian’s pre-service girlfriend, Marc Damon Johnson as his best buddy in the service, and Alicia Goranson as Ian’s visiting nurse. What will become of the play next remains unclear, but it’s unquestionably an important, haunting addition to the body of work responding to the war in Iraq.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Theater

John Belluso’s The Poor Itch

Sadness pervades John Belluso’s The Poor Itch. Given that the play centers on Ian, a young soldier who returns to the U.S. from Iraq without the use of his legs, this isn’t terribly surprising. The piece’s poignancy is enhanced, though, by the inescapable sense that we’ve lost an important theatrical voice: Belluso left it unfinished when he died unexpectedly two years ago, at the age of 37.

In Itch, Belluso takes on the disabled-soldier-returning-home tradition and rips it into the 21st century. He uses familiar elements—Ian living back with his mother, dealing with awkward reactions from friends, and spiraling into drug addiction—but recasts them in a bracingly contemporary light. Additionally, what would otherwise be standard-issue flashback nightmares elevate the play to political fantasia: Current political leaders appear while Ian sleeps, as do Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia. Watching Lisa Peterson’s assured production, which becomes fascinatingly fragmented as it incorporates Belluso’s notes and unfinished scenes, can be like watching Born on the Fourth of July melded with Angels in America.

Christopher Thornton and Deidre O’Connell, playing Ian and his mother, provide exceptional performances in this terrifically complex human drama. Also notable are Susan Pourfar as Ian’s pre-service girlfriend, Marc Damon Johnson as his best buddy in the service, and Alicia Goranson as Ian’s visiting nurse. What will become of the play next remains unclear, but it’s unquestionably an important, haunting addition to the body of work responding to the war in Iraq.

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Brave New Hamburger

Fifty years hence we will escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.


—Winston Churchill, 1932

You got up at dawn. You gulped a breakfast sliced not long ago from Chicken Little and washed it down with Coffiest.

The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, 1952

Take your protein pills and put your helmet on . . .

—David Bowie, 1969

In 1912, a surgeon named Alexis Carrel cut out a piece of a chicken embryo heart—still warm and living—and placed it in a glass dish in his laboratory.

He took good care of the little piece of tissue, feeding it well. The chicken heart lived for over three decades. When Carrel died in 1944, the heart was still alive and kicking.

Carrel’s Nobel Prize–winning work changed the course of medicine and biology forever—in all ways except one. If you could grow chicken hearts in a petri dish, couldn’t you grow chicken nuggets in a petri dish too?

In a recent article in the journal
Tissue Engineering, a small group of researchers outlined an ambitious proposal for ways to move forward with cultured-meat production—that is, meat made from animal cells, grown outside of the animal’s body. The basic idea is this: All meat is essentially muscle tissue marbled with fat. If you grew enough of these cells, you could theoretically make actual meat—without resorting to soy or slaughterhouses. Ideally, you could make thousands, if not millions, of nuggets from a single chicken using this method.

The idea of a lab-grown chicken nugget might seem gross, but consider the way they’re already being manufactured. In
Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser tantalizingly describes them as “small pieces of reconstituted chicken . . . held together by stabilizers, breaded, fried, frozen, and then reheated.” Jason Matheny, a graduate student in public health at the University of Maryland and a co-author of the
Tissue Engineering article, argues that there’s nothing natural about a slaughterhouse, either. “It is unnatural, actually culturing things outside of an animal,” he says. “On the other hand, you don’t find intensively confined animals on antibiotics and growth promoters in the forest. I think part of the reaction to cultured meat is based on not knowing how their meat is produced. I think if most people visited what they call a ‘concentrated animal feeding operation’—a CAFO—they would be very surprised. Most animals are housed indoors in huge warehouses where they never see sunlight, kept at incredibly high densities living in their own filth, and fed a range of drugs in order to increase their own growth rate, which isn’t a very natural thing.”

It wasn’t until the 1990s that a few scientists put two and two together and tried to grow meat in vitro. Part of the reason why it’s taken so long is that cultured-meat research is a highly underfunded proposition involving a mere handful of researchers. The exception is Holland, where the government has enthusiastically devoted half a million dollars to the advancement of cultured meat. (Hank Heksmaan, professor of meat studies at the University of Utrecht, is one of the leaders of the field.)

Cultured meat even gets short shrift in the realm of science fiction. Outside of the vat-grown Chicken Little in
The Space Merchants, there aren’t too many spellbinding examples. “Sci-fi novels usually have something like those devices that
Star Trek has, where you push the button and out comes a fruit cocktail or something like that,” notes Morris Benjaminson, a professor in the applied-bioscience program at Touro College School of Health Sciences and co- author of several pioneering meat experiments. “Something that’s constituted directly from matter, whatever molecules happen to be available, can be hooked together to form whatever it is that you want.”

Benjaminson was trying to figure out a way to make fish available to astronauts. Astronauts on very long space missions are de facto vegetarians, since it’s hard to get fresh meat on board. In an article published in
Acta Astronautica in 2002, Benjaminson’s group took chunks of goldfish and put them in petri dishes with plenty of a standard nutrient medium. The goldfish chunks grew in size over a few weeks.

There was a problem, though. Standard cell culture technique, employed by bio labs everywhere, uses something called fetal bovine serum—taken from the blood of baby cows. It’s a nutrient-rich solution ideal for growing cells, but not for trying to make something that’s edible—and hopefully palatable. Benjaminson and his group tried the experiments again, using shiitake and maitake mushrooms. The goldfish tissue flourished in the medium made from maitake mushroom extract; maitake mushrooms are particularly rich in amino acids and other vital compounds. They sautéed the results in olive oil and garlic and presented it for a smell test. “We had a sniff panel made up of women who worked here at the school, and we had them check the aroma of the fish muscle before and after it was cooked, and they found it to be pleasing,” says Benjaminson. (No one ate the results, however.)

But the fish didn’t keep growing wildly in size the way that Carrel’s chicken heart did. It became obvious that the key to moving forward wouldn’t be to use slices of tissue, but to move down to the level of the cell itself, using a type of muscle cell called a myoblast. “You want something that will proliferate a million times in culture,” explains Matheny.

Vladimir Mironov, a researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina, is a key proponent of the myoblast method. He’s also very aware of the obstacles. “The problem is, if you want to do in vitro meat production, it must be very, very cheap; you can’t use expensive growth factor, cell culture media,” he says. “Problem number two is that myoblasts are attachment-dependent cells; if they’re not attached to something, they won’t survive.” The cells need to be attached to a scaffold, preferably an edible one. Then there’s the question of texture—meat has the texture it does because of the way the animal moves its muscles during its life. “I think that part of the texture problem will have to be solved through ‘exercising’ the cells,” says Matheny.

Despite the technical barriers, Matheny, Mironov, and their collaborators are very aware of the possibilities. Cultured meat could be engineered to have a very specific composition, for instance. “The taste of the meat depends on the fat—that’s already well-known; we can add lipocytes,” Mironov says. “You want 10 percent or 5 percent, it’s very easy.”

As of yet, no one knows whether or not cultured meat will, in fact, taste like chicken. “It’s not going to develop quickly,” says Peter Johnson, co-editor of
Tissue Engineering. “People aren’t going to see this in a supermarket in two weeks. It’s going to be a long time before this is in front of people.”