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SET VISIT: The Darkest Hour (Part 2: Interviews with cast and director)

11.15.2011by: Eric Walkuski

A few months ago, I shared with you a sample of my experience hanging out on the set of this winter's THE DARKEST HOUR, a 3D sci-fi/action epic in which humanity will have a close encounter of the most horrific kind when intruders from beyond the stars descend upon the Earth with a murderous intent. (Read part 1 of my set report HERE.) The focus was predominantly on a chat with the film's two high-caliber producers, Tom Jacobson and Timur Bekmambetov, and we also shared some very cool concept art; now we'll give the cast and director their due.


Emile Hirsch, Rachael Taylor, Olivia Thirlby, Max Minghella

Shooting on THE DARKEST HOUR took place in Autumn 2010 in Moscow, Russia under the direction of Chris Gorak (RIGHT AT YOUR DOOR). The city certainly provides a fresh location for sci-fi mayhem – after all, how many more times can we watch New York or L.A. get leveled? (As one of the actors put it, Moscow looks like no other place on Earth.) Our protagonists are primarily American - a stranger-in-a-strange-land scenario even before electric aliens crash the party. Shawn (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella) are two young businessmen attempting to close a deal, which subsequently goes south. Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor) are two tourists traveling across the continent. It's the coming together of these four that precedes the extraterrestrial attack, and it's these four that we'll follow as they attempt to survive what could very well be the extinction of the human race.

When meeting the young stars of the film, our home base for the day was the Skylunge Restaurant, located at the top of the Russian Academy of Sciences. (Not a bad place to spend a few hours, I must admit.) Shooting was actually taking place downstairs as we spoke; the sequence involving a frightening encounter with the invisible villains. Though the lovely Ms. Taylor was unfortunately unable to attend, we did get some face-time with Hirsch, Minghella, Thirlby, director Chris Gorak and Joel Kinnamen, who portrays a shady Swedish businessman who encounters Hirsch and Minghella's characters before and after the aliens strike.


Emile Hirsch

Emile Hirsch is Shawn, a software designer who Hirsch describes as “not taking his life that seriously when we first meet. That’s not in a particularly destructive way, he just hasn’t really found his purpose you could say.” However, Shawn evidently undergoes a change of character once things get insane. ”Whereas he’s a little too easy going in the beginning, those qualities later on end up helping him survive. He can keep his head a little bit easier than some of the other people in the group who get really freaked out under pressure.”

When asked what made him interested in working within the sci-fi genre, Hirsch replies with an answer that we hear more than once on this set: AVATAR. “I saw AVATAR and it just blew my mind and I walked out of the theater after I saw it and was like 'I would really love to make a science fiction movie in 3D.' I literally said that, I was like 'That’s what I want to make.' Then this script came along and I didn’t know it was going to be 3D at the time, but it still really excited me and then I found out it would be 3D and that just blew my mind...”

Regarding what it's like acting with the knowledge that his performance will be accentuated by the film's 3D, Emile is rather unfazed. “I would say that honestly shooting in 3D hasn’t really affected the way I work as an actor that much. Maybe that’s not a good thing,” Hirsch says with a laugh, “Maybe I’m not being diligent enough, but I really like watching the playback back sometimes, because you just get… Even just a normal shot I find is that much more interesting, because of the 3D. It’s like a shot of a couple of cars and us walking and it’s like 'Oh wow, this is 3D. I’ve never seen this before!' But you know, maybe it makes us more still in certain shots or closer shots, but certainly the way that they shoot the actors is a little bit different.”


Max Minghella

Max Minghella is indeed a fan of the format. The actor, who is perhaps best known right now from his role in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, thinks 3D is perfect for THE DARKEST HOUR, though he's not blindly a supporter of it. “I’ve seen movies where I thought the 3D really enhanced the experience, and sometimes where I thought it just detracted from it. And one thing I will say from looking at the shooting, and actually physically shooting these scenes, is that I think 3D will…because it’s such an integral part of the way we’re thinking about making this film, I think it will have a depth to it that wouldn’t have been possible without that technology.”

For her part, Olivia Thirlby appears to simply be more concerned with nailing the horror her character feels during the intensity of this event: “One of the things that we are constantly trying to focus and re-focus ourselves on is the energy that we bring to the picture. And you know, the stakes are really high for our characters. And even if we’re shooting a scene like we were yesterday, where we’re just moving along a street, it’s very important that even from a wide shot, that the energy registers. That we don’t look like we’re just kind of moseying along because then it falls flat, the whole movie just wouldn’t be believable. So we spend a lot of time thinking about ways to convey a sense of alertness and high energy even on the wide shots.”


Olivia Thirlby, Emile Hirsch

That said, the actress is ignorant about the challenges 3D imposes: ”Our stereographer said something really interesting the other day, which actually brought on like a slight panic attack but then I got over it. He said that the difference between film and theater is that in film, an actor is sort of under a magnifying glass and everything that they do, just the smallest movement, is very detectible. And he said with 3D, an actor is under a microscope. And it’s true, the contrast is a lot greater. Like, darks look darker, and light things look lighter, and it’s been kind of a challenge to keep that in mind, of, you know…especially when you’re playing with emotions that are kind of pure as fear, which is the predominant emotion that we’re playing, it can be challenging and fun also to keep in mind that just a little bit goes a long way.”

One “character” that doesn't have to worry about how it looks in 3D is the city of Moscow itself; and yes, it's referred to as a character in THE DARKEST HOUR, and not just by this writer. Minghella calls it an extraordinary place to be and notes ”it’s gonna become such a big part of this movie, the location of it. It’s a character unto itself.”

“You definitely get the sense that you’re very far from home,” Thirlby says. ”And that has a lot to do with what the characters go through, is feeling like not only are they dealing with this kind of crazy, life-changing event, really world-changing, history-changing event, but they’re also so far from home that it adds a desperation of wanting and needing to know what things may be like back at home, and adds the impetus to move.”


Joel Kinnaman, Rachael Taylor, Olivia Thirlby

At a crucial point in THE DARKEST HOUR, our group will encounter Skylar, played by Joel Kinnaman (recently seen on AMC's “The Killing”). Skylar, having only recently screwed over Hirsch and Minghella's characters, is perhaps the most complex person in the entire film. At least, according to Kinnaman. “In the script I guess he’s written pretty much as a villain in the beginning at least, and I’ve tried to nuance that as much as I can, but that’s how he starts out, definitely as a bad guy,” Kinnaman says.”I play this businessman who is associated with Shawn and Ben who rips them off and steals their idea so they come here and end up empty-handed, and then unfortunately for them I team up with them when everything goes down so we’re all trying to survive together.”

On the subject of what makes the idea of the end of humanity so appealing to the general audience, Kinnaman has some ideas. “I think there’s always an appetite for that, the aliens coming, the great unknown coming to us, but then also with everything that’s happening, the climate changing, I mean we’ve seen so many tragedies this year, there’s a lot of stuff going on around us which shows us how fragile our civilization is. It becomes a metaphor for that. We think that we are so safe on and the right track, at least some people with decision making seem to still believe that we are, this is another way of showing how fragile our civilization is with something as easy as electricity, if electricity disappears we, all of these we’re so proud of they just don’t work it shows us just how fragile of a species we are.”

Contemplating the annihilation of the human race aside, Kinnaman seems to really be enjoying his experience, and a lot of it may be thanks to working with Gorak, whom the actor calls “incredible”. The director comes from a production design and art direction background, having helped forge the worlds of FIGHT CLUB, MINORITY REPORT and FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS – vivid places that are stuck in our memory. It's frankly hard to believe that DARKEST HOUR is only Gorak's second helming effort, considering the size and scope of the movie compared to that of his first, RIGHT AT YOUR DOOR which had a budget roughly the same amount of DARKEST HOUR's catering bill.

"He’s just such a hard worker," Hirsch says about his director. "That’s one of the things I really like about him, like he’s so not lazy at all, he’s always on. Even if he’s only slept like two hours the night before he is there with you every single moment and every single take. There’s never any defeatist attitude in him ever."

To hear Gorak tell it, he jumped at the chance to work on a sci-fi tale of this level: ”I always wanted to work as a director on a science-fiction movie, if not alien invasion. And when I first read this material, it was the concept of the danger being invisible for most of the film, and the enemy being based on...electricity. How that enemy is seen and not seen and then how we could cinematically tell that story of being chased by something invisible and now you see it, now you don't and all the opportunity that gives you in terms of storytelling.”

Talking about working with producer Timur Bekmambetov, Gorak is obviously enthusiastic about the collaborative process with the Russian powerhouse: “It's been great. They were part of the development process before I even got on board, so a lot of early concepts came out of Timur's offices and that's how I got excited about the project, seeing those and taking those further and developing them with Timur, and obviously his creativity speaks for itself. Having that as a sounding board, and also a leadership in the creative, has been fantastic.”

And, not unlike everyone else involved with the movie, Gorak is particularly pumped about the 3D, and the way it enhances the product. “When we first started developing this film with Tom [Jacobson] over a year ago, we all had a certain 2D movie in our head, and then this 3D tide turned and we started investigating that possibility of 3D and realized that so many different elements of this film lended itself to 3D storytelling. Like, for one, Moscow as a new kind of environment that I don't think the movie-going audience has experienced on such a scale. The alien itself, the powers of the alien, the shredding, violence and the lightning, and the alien electrical-charging, all the different elements really lend itself to 3D storytelling. But there is an added challenge of all that extra technology, time set-up, and possibility of more technical difficulties.”

Gorak then speaks plainly about what exactly we should be ready for when we sit down in the theater to let THE DARKEST HOUR electrify us: ”What to expect is something new and exciting and real and gritty; we always talked about it as sort of a war picture, so we're set in a great old historical setting and city with all this grand architecture and hundreds of years of history. All kinds of political history and to have the idea of an invasion here, I think there are so many things that can permeate through that you won't even predict.”

It's certainly going to be interesting to find out when THE DARKEST HOUR comes out on DECEMBER 25th.

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