Between now and the Oscar nominations on Jan. 24, EW will speak to numerous contenders in below-the-line categories about their work and craft. This week, four-time Oscar-nominated production designer Sarah Greenwood talks her latest collaboration with director Joe Wright, Darkest Hour, which saw her sifting through Britain’s grim history for fresh inspiration in constructing a uniquely intimate portrait of Winston Churchill’s early tenure as prime minister, when the iconic leader was tasked with inspiring a nation to resist the impending threat of German troops. Greenwood’s impeccable aesthetic is bolstered by flipped locations and constructed sets that exude the essence of 1940s Buckingham Palace and Downing Street, emphasizing her signature thematic embellishments without painstakingly recreating well-known locales in stock environments. Her work conjures the spirit of a down-and-out society searching for a lifeline at a harrowing crossroads, tied together by Gary Oldman’s thunderous performance as the man at the center of it all.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: For a film so deeply rooted in history, the aesthetic here feels so fresh and original. What was your initial approach?
SARAH GREENWOOD: It’s history we know quite well. A lot of gaps had already been filled in, but this film is about capturing the mood. One of the things that struck me about the script was something I didn’t know about this period of history: how close [Britain] came to complete fiasco. That’s a counterpoint to everything we do know, so I wanted to show a secret side of history: what happened underneath [with Churchill] in the bunker and the war room. I also tried to capture [the tone] of London coming out of a depression; it was such a grim place, and it was on its uppers — even Downing Street, Parliament, and Buckingham Palace — everything was shoddy, lean, and stingy. There’s also the counterpoint to the downfall: the look of something like Valkyrie. The Nazi [aesthetic] was sharp, organized, and finished perfectly, and their uniforms were immaculate; everything [the British] were doing was the opposite. [Churchill was] in a war room in a basement… It was such a hodgepodge environment, but out of that came this incredible victory, this heart in the bowels won the war! In that one room, they ran the war, so we tried to capture the ad-hoc quality that also had a warmth to it, [but] it was a real mess, actually, so that’s what we wanted to get across, and not glamorize it at all!
Is it limiting at all to do a film that must, to a certain extent, replicate real people and settings?
I wasn’t interested in recreating, verbatim, that world. For Downing Street, I didn’t want to go to the standard locations, so we went up to Yorkshire and Manchester. The Downing Street set is actually a derelict estate. It hadn’t been lived in for 40 years, and they allowed us to do anything we wanted, and we completely created a Downing Street that looks nothing like Downing Street; The real stairs aren’t in the entry hall [like ours are], and [our cabinet room] isn’t the real cabinet room, and it wasn’t supposed to be! It doesn’t look like Downing Street, but it has the feeling of Downing Street. It has the grim essence of fadedness, and I much preferred creating [that mood myself] than going to a stock location where it’s all dressed and prepared, so we started from scratch.
We did the same thing with the war room. There an incredible museum [for the real war room], but, obviously, one can’t shoot there, but there’s so much inspiration there. We took that inspiration and created our war room on a set of two stages. Joe likes cameras to go through walls and such, so even though it was a claustrophobic space, we had to have space to move. The real war room was very linear, long, and thin, but that didn’t work for us, so we created a kind of maze, basically. You never knew quite where you were.
The same goes for Buckingham Palace. Again, there are houses in London that are always used for Buckingham Palace, but we went to another poor, old derelict house in Yorkshire, which was empty. All the plasterwork was there, but again, it felt like it hadn’t been touched for 70 years. It felt shabby, so we did a complete retouching of the paint, so when it came to [set decoration], Katie Spencer did all the furniture, reupholstering every piece so it all matched… but [shifting away] from what you think the royal family would go for. That meant using muted tones and taking it all down a level… we had complete control over the palate, as opposed to the cheaper option, which is in London and doing it in a more conventional way…. We’re not a documentary: we’re telling our story with our atmosphere and our feelings for the subject!
Of course, the other big elephant in the room is Dunkirk, which, of course, [Christopher Nolan] did quite well… and we’re the bookend! We’re the politics and the intimate detail [to their action]… but we can’t compete! Though we did use the same five boats that Dunkirk used.
Wait, people have drawn so many comparisons between these films, and you’re saying you guys used the same boats that appear in Dunkirk?
Yes, we did! I’ll tell you why. There’s a little boats association [in the U.K.], and they literally have the boats from Dunkirk. They’re still there and they’re kept historically correct, so yes, of course if you’re doing a Dunkirk movie, you go to these guys and they provide these wonderful historic boats. Dunkirk used them for months on end, and we had them for a day.
That’s such a nice bond the two films share.
Totally, and this is my whole thing: I love Dunkirk. It’s amazing, and we’re the bookend. We aren’t in competition with it because we can’t be, and, likewise, they can’t compete with us. I think the two should be seen together, particularly for kids in education. They should watch them both, because [between us, we’re showing] what it was like, the horrors of Dunkirk. [Darkest Hour shows] why it happened and what was going on back in the bunker at that time the soldiers were on the beach [in Dunkirk]. There’s an amazing togetherness, really. In years to come, it will be a great thing to see them together.
I also love how intricately character develops through Katie Spencer’s set decoration. How did you work with her to craft the items we see in Churchill’s physical spaces?
Churchill was a man of habit and superstition. We know he had this amazing watch, so we had his watch made by the same company that made the original. Our cigars were the same cigars Churchill actually smoked. We went through almost £5,000 worth — a huge amount of cigars that poor old Gary had to smoke… It’s also a lot about the color pink. Joe uses it a lot, and it’s a dangerous color to use on film, but Churchill’s bedroom is pink, his pajamas are pink, he’s like this big pink baby! Something about that captures his vulnerability… everything came from the story and the characters… so the more control we had over that, the better, hence we didn’t go to stock locations… that’s what we fight for, and that’s why we fight producers a lot [Laughs].
Darkest Hour is in theaters now.