'Darkest Hour' Writer on the Struggle Between "Artistic License and Artistic Licentiousness"

Anthony McCarten joined THR's Writer Roundtable to discuss his Winston Churchill film.

British writer Anthony McCarten, whose film Darkest Hour is generating Oscar buzz for star Gary Oldman, sat down with The Hollywood Reporter for the Writers Roundtable alongside Aaron Sorkin, Jordan Peele, Emily V. Gordon, Darren Aronofsky and Fatih Akin. 

Darkest Hour follows Winston Churchill's decision to enter World War II, and McCarten talked about the difficulty in both staying true to history and telling a good story. 

"There's a really fine line between artistic license and artistic licentiousness, and history is a lousy filmmaker. It doesn't give you all the ingredients you need, no story will quite fulfill that three-act structure," he said during the roundtable. "However, you're compelled to apply your imagination to a real-life story, and if you don't, it will be inert or just vast action sequences of the known, and it won't tell you anything we don't already know from documentaries."

The writer said that for his portrayal of Churchill, he tried to get the historical facts right because "he is too beloved, he is too iconic." 

McCarten, who was nominated for two Oscars for writing and producing 2014 hit The Theory of Everything, said that it is important in his writing process to have the perfect ending in mind before he starts on a script. This allows him to play with the audience throughout a film, fading in and out from the conclusion and creating a narrative. He also values showing two sides of any story, and said, "It's one of my big main ambitions to enter complex situations where there seems to be obvious answer and put two opposing ideas into conflict."

He added, "You might enter a project thinking, 'I have this fixed position, this my object of this particular project,' and then when you create an antagonist, and charge that antagonist with ideas that are virile and strong and convincing, you start to unhinge and crack open your own certainties, and when you've done your job really well as a writer, the perfect emotional state to end up in is uncertainty yourself."

In a dream dinner with any three guests, McCarten said he would choose to dine with Shakespeare, Napoleon and Churchill to "find out how close I got." 

To see the full Writers Roundtable conversation, click here