How 'Darkest Hour' Producers Finally Found a Winston Churchill Story "Worthy of Turning Into a Film"

Courtesy of Focus Features

Eric Fellner reunited with the star of his first film, Gary Oldman, to create a thriller about the former British prime minister's battle to save stranded Allied troops.

Darkest Hour, the World War II thriller set during a five-week period when the fate of Europe, if not the world, hung in the balance, saw Eric Fellner of powerhouse U.K.-based banner Working Title (which he runs with fellow nominated producer Tim Bevan) reunite with several old — and not so old — friends. First came the script from Anthony McCarten, who penned the Oscar-nominated screenplay for 2014’s The Theory of Everything. Then director Joe Wright, who helmed Atonement (a best picture nominee in 2007), was brought on board. But the cherry on top was Gary Oldman, who hadn’t just helped Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to three Oscar nominations in 2011 but, for Fellner, had been there at the beginning (on Fellner’s first film, Sid & Nancy) more than 30 years ago.

For Darkest Hour, Oldman transformed into Winston Churchill, portraying the British prime minister in 1940 as he wrestled with conflicting views over whether or not to go to war while Hitler’s forces swept across Europe.

Fellner, 58, who nabbed his sixth best picture Oscar nomination for Darkest Hour (he’s nominated along with Bevan, Lisa Bruce, McCarten and Douglas Urbanski), describes the thrill of watching Oldman give his first speech as Churchill and how they managed to shoot where few other features had gone before.

How did Darkest Hour come to you?

For decades, Tim and I have wanted to make a film about Churchill because he’s a phenomenally interesting and powerful part of our cultural history. But we’d never been able to find the story that actually seemed worthy of turning into a film. We didn’t want to make a straight biopic, so when Anthony talked about making his film and had a rough script of this particular story, it just leaped off the page.

What was it that made Darkest Hour’s story different?

It’s a piece of history I didn’t really know that well and was fascinated by it. And it plays out in Joe’s hands like a thriller — not just a series of historical events pieced together. It’s a clock-ticking, thrilling piece of narrative that also just so happens to be true.

Was Gary Oldman always in your mind as Churchill?

My first film was with Gary, which was Sid & Nancy, back in 1984. It was my first film as a producer, his first film as an actor. And ever since then, I’ve been trying to find something that was as demanding — where he could immerse himself in a character — and have never been able to find it. And when I read this I immediately thought that he’s the guy who should be Churchill.

What do you think convinced Oldman to do it?

I think the combination of Joe, and Anthony’s script, plus us at Working Title. We’d all operated in this arena. But I’m sure Joe was the real reason. Actors like [Oldman] love working with strong, powerful and visionary directors.

Were you worried about his appearance, given that he looks nothing like Churchill?

That was the first big test. [Oldman’s manager and Darkest Hour producer] Urbanski told us about this phenomenal makeup designer Kazuhiro Tsuji. He was in retirement, but they persuaded him to come out. We went to L.A. and saw the first results of their work on Gary. And that was the moment when we all looked at each other and said, “OK, this could work.” But it was high risk because by that stage we were in production.

How was it when you first saw him give a speech as Churchill?

It was extraordinary. The speeches weren’t until very late in the schedule — we’d already had the opportunity of living with Gary’s Winston for a couple of months. But when he delivered the first “blood, sweat and tears” speech in the Parliament set that we’d built — with 500 extras, all in period clothing — it was very emotional. After the first take, these jaded extras who turn up every day to play a different role in a different movie, they just leaped to their feet in instantaneous applause.

Your team secured a rare permit to shoot on Downing Street itself. How did that happen?

We have always had a good relationship with whoever is in power — we try to make sure the film business is well regarded by the government. They kindly let us film there, and it was quite exciting. They also let us film in Parliament itself, in St. Stephen’s Hall. There’s a scene where Gary walks right through the hall and up the steps, and he’s walking over a plaque on the floor which marks where Winston’s body lay in state. It was kind of chilling.

Did you know much about Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (also nominated for best picture), which covers the same period of history, when you were making Darkest Hour?

We knew nothing about the film other than the title. We knew that [Nolan] was doing a lot of action sequences but didn’t know that the film would be purely contained on the beaches. So, yeah, I was quite nervous to see whether or not both films were dealing with exactly the same things. When I saw Dunkirk I was thrilled, not only that it was a brilliant movie but that it was completely the opposite to our film. I thought they were very complementary to one another. And I think as a history buff it’s fascinating to see both films.

This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.