The challenge of sonically recreating the world of London in 1940 for Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” not only involved historical accuracy but subjective license. After all, the psychological warfare utilized by Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill to mobilize a reluctant Parliament against Hitler was crafted as a thrilling procedural.
“The first thing was to set the scene in 1940 sonically,” said sound editor Craig Berkey (nominated for the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” and “No Country for Old Men”). “The reality ranged from such obvious things as what a car or a phone sounded like, or the fact that church bells were not allowed to ring back then, only Big Ben. Or what the sounds of paper waving or foot stomping was like in Parliament.”
“The other part was to reflect what’s going on with Gary and his performance throughout the film,” added Berkey. “This part of the soundscape had to do with atmospherics, which we changed up depending on what was happening in the scene.”
The Sounds of Churchill’s World
Research dictated the events of the day in the War Room, and the sound team was able to figure out what people discussed in the background. “Even though it’s not featured, they were talking about actual events that happened that day, military wise, or what play they saw,” Berkey said. “These were little bits we put together to capture that vibe. We also recorded the footsteps for Gary in the actual War Room, so it’s how they would’ve sounded at that time.”
Meanwhile, there was a whole air conditioning system in the War Cabinet Room because they were underground, “and we had different layers of rumble air hiss that we could increase or decrease during Churchill’s discussion of a peace deal with [Neville] Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and [Viscount] Halifax (Stephen Dillane).”
Even a tense phone call with American President Franklin Roosevelt offered sonic tension when Churchill is refused the aid he requires as a result of American neutrality laws. “That’s a long sequence and we have interesting little sound effects playing,” said Berkey. “All those static sounds were put in one by one strategically. It’s played kind of musically even though there’s no music. It’s all done to build up to the end when he slams the phone down in disgust.”
The Sounds of Dictation
But some of the best sonic moments occur between Churchill and his young secretary (Lily James), especially when she breaks down after typing his dictated telegram to the commander of troops at Calais, informing him that rescue would not be forthcoming.
“We worked on the rhythm of her typewriter and that became part of her performance,” Berkey said. “How loud or soft the keys should be or the punctuation of the carriage return. We spent 30 minutes on the carriage return. Is the timing right? Is the perspective right? Does it ring off long enough?”
“A Symphony of Seats”
Uneasy about his presentation to Parliament, Churchill makes an impromptu trip to the Underground to query the public about continuing the fight against Hitler. Even though the scene is fictitious, it helps humanize Churchill and brings him closer to the people, who cheer him on.
“We called it ‘A Symphony of the Seats,'” said the sound editor. There are seat creaks played up or down every time someone stands up or sits down. And that was a tough scene because we had to put in the subway sounds so that it seemed like they were speeding up or slowing down. It’s only one stop. And all the background voices were important as they were responding to what he was saying. We spent a lot of time with the little girl so that it was natural that she was yelling at the end.”
A Visit From the King
The pivotal scene for Berkey, though, was when King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) visits Churchill in his bedroom. They’ve been at odds throughout the movie, so there’s great suspense about the king’s unexpected arrival. And there are only two sound effects in the scene.
“There’s a light bulb that’s amplified and the wood creaks are played up pretty loud for the sound of his footsteps because we don’t know what the king’s gonna say,” Berkey said. “So we play that up until the king sits on the bed and says he’s with him, and then everything sits back a bit. These are the subtle little pieces to help with that [tension].”