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Making The Past Present: A Q&A with Sarah Greenwood

Darkest Hour’s production designer lays out how she captured Britain’s wartime mood 

Focus Features 12.19.2017
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For Darkest Hour, Joe Wright brings to the screen a historical moment that changed the fate of mankind. As Nazi Germany invades France and closes in on the British Army trapped at the coast by Dunkirk, the newly appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) must rally his nation to fight for an uncertain future. To give these dire times substance and shape, Wright turned to his longtime collaborator, production designer Sarah Greenwood. Having already worked with him on such classics as Pride & PrejudiceAtonement, and Anna Karenina––and been nominated for an Academy Award for each––Greenwood set out to show off not the glamor, but the grit, that defined this period of unprecedented crisis. In designing the fragile world that Churchill inherits, “Greenwood finds new ways to bring this familiar WWII era to life,” writes The Playlist. We speak with Greenwood about the War Room, wallpaper, and the world that Winston Churchill inhabited

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The official trailer for Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour's production designer Sarah Greenwood

As a production designer, what did you want to capture in Darkest Hour?

It’s an amazing story. People at the time didn’t quite know what was going on. So we wanted to capture the trepidation the population felt about falling into this terrible war. And what was happening in the very internal world occupied by Churchill and the War Department. For this, we did a lot of research into the War Room. What it was like, how it evolved, and how they lived there. The War Room was literally a basement built under what is now the Foreign Office. But it wasn’t very safe. 

You’d worked with Joe Wright on Atonement, which also covers World War II. What is different here?

Atonement was about contrasting three moments in time: from England before the war, then during the war, and then after. This is more about the mood in Britain at the time. To capture the war in Darkest Hour, we needed to find a language to capture all the things that were happening, from Dunkirk to the citadel in Calais. We came with the idea of using maps. Either looking at them straight in front of you or at 90 degrees beneath you, they could transform into landscapes and seascapes. In the War Room, the men were looking at maps all the time. They weren’t on the battlefield, but they were there in their mind’s eye. 

How did you design iconic locations––like Buckingham Palace where Churchill meets King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn)––to showcase the film’s mood?

For Buckingham palace, we used Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire because it has this really tired air. It was perfect in capturing how even Buckingham Palace was struggling under the weight of the war. The gilding was all tarnished and sooty. It hadn’t been painted in some 50 years. It had that air of neglect. We put up these massive shudders at the windows and we upholstered the furniture in fabrics that were not glitzy or lovely—it was very tawdry.  

Eleven Downing Street, which is the Prime Minister’s official residence, also had that feeling of being under renovation. What did you do there?

We shot that in another derelict house in Yorkshire. I love the fact that its walls are really shabby. At the time, Downing Street was almost condemned because it was falling down. You could not have more than 15 people in any room at one time because the floorboards would just give way. For the exteriors, however, we were allowed to film the real Downing Street residence, though we had to do a lot of work in dirtying it down.

Outside of 11 Downing Street in Darkest Hour

How did you handle the House of Commons?

We almost got to use the real place, but there was a condition that we could not sit down on the benches. So we had to build our own House of Commons. The place you see on TV now was built in the late 40s, early 50s. The original building was bombed and destroyed around 1941. For a period of time, the House of Commons sat in the House of Lords, and the House of Lords was placed elsewhere. When they rebuilt the House of Commons, they decided to make it much lighter—the whole thing is completely different. We built a set that matched the old House of Commons, keeping all the measurements and parameters the same. That is what gives those scenes a sort of grim air that hangs over everything. 

Shooting the House of Commons in Darkest Hour

Recreating the War Room is a remarkable achievement. Did you have a model for how to lay out the underground spaces? 

Part of the war room––the map room––still exists. We used that as a model. You would never believe that it was like that—a table with 20 telephones in bright green, white and red. Generally what we built was something completely out of our imagination, although based on a lot of reference photos. We wanted it to feel like a maze, but we also needed it to open up so we could bring in cameras. And we kept as many details as we could.  For example, Churchill really did have a toilet there from which he would make phone calls. 

How did you design it to feel at once massive and claustrophobic?

We partially accomplished the claustrophobia by putting ceilings on everything, which didn’t necessarily make it easy for director of photography Bruno Delbonnel to get a light in for shooting. The sense of expanse came from the design. Basically the War Room is two very long corridors with a tunnel at the end and five cross corridors, so you can always see through to the other side. 

The War Room in Darkest Hour

While much of your design showcased the world in which Churchill lived and work, you also created moments that show what London was like for the rest of the population.

Katie Spencer and her team really came into play in creating visual stories of what was happening in London at the time. As Churchill drives by, you see a toll man and a man clearing the streets and a little bit of everything. All these moments tell little stories of what life was like. And some moments––like the little kid wearing a Hitler mask running across the street––are quite striking.  You see these streets, and then think of the terrifying decisions being made below them in the War Room. Joe is very poetic in the way he captures all of it. 

What would you like people to come away with after seeing Darkest Hour

When I first read the script, there was so much I didn’t know. I had no idea how close we got to such a desperate situation––within a hair’s breadth of capitulating. Now we think of Churchill as being exactly the right man for the time, but during that period many of his colleagues had no respect for him. For Darkest Hour, you have to put away your preconceived ideas of him and really see him and what happened. 

Get a sense of what life was like in the War Room by visiting this 360-degrees VR video

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