Why did you choose to focus on such a short period, in May and June 1940?
What we discovered was that three of the greatest speeches in political history were written in a four-week period. The exercise was to look and think about why those speeches had been written, and how they’d been written –what prompted such amazing erudition. Churchill wrote his own speeches, and he was one of those leaders who believes in the power of words to change the world and the course of history. He believed that he should speak his truth, and that’s what he was trying to do.
How do you think Churchill’s public persona differed from his private one?
I think Churchill was one of the first politicians to really understand the power of branding himself. He was very good at it, and he put across this idea that he never waivered, never doubted – never thought for a second that he might lose. But in actual fact, he did doubt. Everyone else doubted him, and then he doubted himself. That’s different from what’s generally put across.
Who were his doubters?
Everybody! In particular, his own party – figures like Chamberlain and Halifax. He’d made a lot of mistakes in his life. He had a very long political career, and made some terrible misjudgements, not least Gallipoli. There was also the Norway disaster right prior to his appointment as prime minister, which was partly his fault.
What sources did you use to build up a picture of the man ‘behind the scenes’?
Everything we could get our hands on. Churchill wrote more words than Shakespeare, and there’s probably twice as much written about him by other people. It’s impossible to read everything, but nevertheless one tries to read as much about him as possible, especially by those closest to him, be they his secretaries, or security, and so on.
I often find that it’s the details that are most telling. When I went to the War Rooms, I saw on the arm of his chair in the cabinet room a huge gash in the wood where he nervously attacked it with his signet ring. That speaks volumes to me. I also visited Blenheim Palace, where he was born and where his family came from. I also went to Downing Street, to Parliament, and to Chartwell [his Kent residence].
Lastly, how did you recreate wartime London?
We filmed the exterior of the House of Commons, and we were the first film to ever be given permission to shoot outside Downing Street. So we shot there, and then we built the interior of the House of Commons on a big set. We built the War Rooms on a film stage too. We tried to create that ‘make do and mend’ atmosphere, so it was grubby, and almost improvised.
Darkest Hour comes out in cinemas nationwide on 12th January.