The Q&A Debrief: Gary Oldman
On Thursday 25th January 2018, we held a Q&A for Joe Wright's Winston Churchill biopic, Darkest Hour. Curzon Mayfair was visited by two of the film's producers Eric Fellner and Douglas Urbanski, Prosthetic Make Up Supervisor David Malinowski, screenwriter Anthony McCarten and the man of the hour, Gary Oldman.
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Wright was able to secure four weeks of rehearsals ahead of production, which is practically unheard of on a production of this scale. During this time, Gary visited Blenheim Palace, Downing Street and, of course, Churchill's War Rooms where he sat in Churchill's chair. Gary described the feel of the armrests, full of divots and scratches made by Churchill's rings and fingernails, signs of the wartime Prime Minister's anxiety and stress still living in that chair.
Most significant in the creation of his Churchill, Gary explained, was the contact he had with his director during that rehearsal period and the opportunity he had to discuss ideas. Together, Gary and Joe would collaborate on a vision of the character informed by what they read and saw in archive footage. Talking about the typical process of making a film, where it's not unusual to meet the director for the first time day one of the shoot, Gary joked that he is often amazed that films are any good considering what a scramble they can be. Darkest Hour was a marked exception to this.
FINDING GARY'S CHURCHILL
Preparing for the role, Gary read a number of biographies about Churchill, and was guided to specific historical text by Wright. Footage of the late Prime Minister was vital to the realisation of the character and allowed Gary to form his own interpretation of Churchill free from the influence of those who've played him before such as Albert Finney and Robert Hardy. Once he was able to discard the commonly held vision of Churchill, Gary found a tremendous energy and dynamism that is rarely seen. Churchill is a curmudgeon in legend, but in the archive footage Gary saw a man who would bound around freely and always with a twinkle in his eye.
Churchill Never Did Ride the Tube
In it's closing act, Darkest Hour features a scene in which Winston Churchill (having earlier declared that he had never taken a ride on the London underground) abandons his carriage and makes for the nearest tube station. With the help of a young woman who points him in the right direction, he boards a train for Westminster and takes a seat among his constituents.
Churchill strikes up a conversation with his fellow tube passengers, and is soon asking them what they would say to the prospect of the British government making a peace deal with Adolf Hitler. The entire carriage erupts in a chorus of "Never Surrender" and Churchill alights the tube at Westminster, certain of his plan to lead a campaign of resistance.
This never happened. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten speaks frankly about the fact that this scene was fabricated for the film, and is intended to represent the spirit of Churchill. While Churchill perhaps never did ride the tube, or consult with the British public in such a direct way, he believed wholeheartedly that he had read the pulse of the nation and indeed by many accounts he had. The scene on the underground is a dramatisation of Churchill's inner rationale. He believed that he spoke for the people, and that what he said was an honest and true expression of their mood.
Kazuhiro Tsuji is a prosthetic make up artist of cinematic legend. His credits include How the Grinch Stole Christmas (for which he won a BAFTA), Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Looper. During his short career he was nominated for two Oscars and two BAFTAs but in 2011 he retired, leaving the film industry to become a full time sculptor.
Convinced that Kazuhiro was the only person who could achieve the authenticity required, Gary made his participation in Darkest Hour conditional on Kazuhiro coming out of retirement. Thankfully, he did, and he earned himself a third Oscar and BAFTA nomination for his work.
While Kazuhiro conceived the suit and the look of Churchill, Gary needed a prosthetic make up supervisor in the UK (Kazuhiro lives and works in Los Angeles) and so recommended David Malinowski with whom he had worked previously on The Hitman's Bodyguard.
The process of applying the prosthetic took four hours every day and comprised of a complete "snood" wrap around for his neck, left and right cheeks, a chin and a nose piece. Gary shaved his head each day to allow easy application of the wisps of hair atop his head, and at the end of the day it would take another hour to remove everything. Gary spent an average of 18 hours on set each day. He would be the first person on the set and the last person to leave, so for the entire shoot most of the crew never saw Gary Oldman, they only saw Winston Churchill. He thanked his wife Gisele Schmidt for her daily support, without whom he insists it would not have been possible.
Darkest Hour is playing on our screens now. It is nominated for nine BAFTAs including Best Film and Best Actor in a Lead Role, as well as six Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor.