In September of 2010, straight from the Toronto International Film Festival, I got to do something very cool: I went to Moscow and visited the set of Summit Entertainment’s alien invasion movie, The Darkest Hour. Normally when I say I got to visit the set, it involves going to a huge soundstage and sitting around conducting interviews. However, The Darkest Hour was a bit different: the production was filming in 3D on the streets of the city and in and around some of the most famous landmarks on the planet. It was a set visit unlike any I’ve ever been on and it should make for some awesome visuals in the finished film. While I already posted the group interview I did with producers Timur Bekmambetov & Tom Jacobson, Emile Hirsch and Joel Kinnaman, it’s time for the one with director Chris Gorak.
During the interview, Gorak talked about how he got involved in the project, working with a bigger budget, filming in Moscow and in 3D, how his design background influenced his choices on the film, the cast, and a lot more. Hit the jump to check it out.
Before going any further, if you haven’t seen the latest trailer, you should watch that first. The Darkest Hour gets released Christmas Day.
And here’s a few things to know from the interview:
- He was drawn to the project by the concept of the danger being invisible for the majority of the film. He liked the idea of finding out how to creatively visualize the invisible aliens.
- When the idea of 3D arose, they realized a lot of parts of the project lended themselves to the format: experiencing Moscow on a 3D scale, the powers of the alien, the shredding, the lightening, etc.
- They approached the film like a war picture, and the architecture of Moscow aids in that.
- The tone in the film shifts towards more fantastic/fun once the group meets up with the Russian survivors and soldiers.
- When scouting locations they started at Red Square and worked their way out.
- They flipped the genre in the film, as daylight is scarier than night for the survivors. When the lights turn on in this film it gets scarier.
- The film alternates between action sequences and suspense sequences.
- Gorak was influenced by such recent sci-fi films as District 9 and Primer.
Question: Are you an online junky? Do you hear what people say?
Chris Gorak: In this company, unfortunately I’m not. I apologize. Not an online junky. I think it’s my kids that keep me busy.
Gorak: Oh wow. [I’m a] huge sci-fi fan. 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—I’m not sure how much you guys know.
We know a little bit.
Studio Rep: You can talk about the electricity
Gorak: The 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. For example, here tonight the alien arrives and turns on all the lights as it approaches, and I think that is something very unique to this kind of genre.
It’s quite a large step in terms of budget from your first brilliant film – how has that been to deal with? You obviously have experience on big sets as an art director and production designer; how is it to be in charge of it as well?
Gorak: It’s been a challenge, it’s very exciting. The jump up as a director, it’s definitely a great leap, but having worked in other, larger productions, I think that helps tremendously in terms of understanding how the film will come together and what everyone’s responsibilities are. How to manage that and having managed big crews, it’s just managing it from a different creative perspective.
Gorak: Oh yeah, you always fill the limits of the budget, because I think as storytellers we always reach to the limit and are pushed back by the parameters, financially. You always think you want more, but I actually enjoy being – not enjoy, but… I like the challenge of working within the parameters to tell the best story within the limitations.
How about the 3D? Has the 3D been any problem for you?
Gorak: When we first started developing this film with Tom 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.
How does your design background influence your choices on this film, and what kind of look can we expect?
Gorak: Having designed so many different types of films, one thing I’ve learned through the design process is story comes first. And design is just part of storytelling. So this is very specific to the alien invasion, Moscow, the signs of this danger, so the design – it’s form follows function all the time for me. 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.
You mention war and the political history of the city; traditionally, when the alien invasion genre really took off, there was a fear of communism, it was an American genre, fear of communism. Are you playing with that at all, are you aware of that, are you turning it around some how?
Gorak: We are aware of it, I think it definitely finds its way through, and I think just being here and working with Russian soldiers now and all the Russian dialogue, it’s going to find its way into the fabric of the film. We’re not standing up and making a conscious point of it.
How much do the Russian creative team bring to the film, Timur and the Russian crew, how much do they bring to the tone and how do they inform the film?
Gorak: 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. Finding all those different ways to tell this particular story.
Will there by a slightly different tone than we’re used to from the Hollywood invasion movie?
Gorak: It’s unique in that, we have our Americans who come here, which is fish out of water, which is typical, but the idea that they’re settled in Moscow I think is very unique, and at a certain point in the film the Russian survivors – the Russian soldiers – appear, and I think at that point there is a tonal shift that becomes a little more fantastic, a little more fun, and there’s a lot of fun we have from that point forward in the film. So we should have a great balance of tone.
As a filmgoger, as a filmmaker, what do you look for that gets your excited?
Gorak: I think for me to get excited is all of it. If I see a film or read a script and it’s like, “Damn I wish I would have thought of that.” Finding that new, creative idea and being able to stand apart from so much cinema and so much history of film, and how do you find that unique nugget that no one else has thought of?
How much are shooting Moscow during the film, like are they going to come out of the train station and be at the Kremlin and then they turn a corner and they’re here? Or are you guys playing it very realistically, the time it takes to go from place to place?
Gorak: We’ve mapped out a journey that hopefully feels realistic in the time span of the film, but I never had a full concept of Moscow and how it’s laid out; all I know is, it’s a huge city. I do now, but we are cheating some elements to capture the great areas and architecture of Moscow, so it’s not a straight line across the city, we do bounce around and cheat those elements to tell the story in the most exciting way.
I know that obviously you did location scouting before the film started; could you talk a little bit about the location scouting and what you found as you were doing that that you wanted to get into the movie?
Gorak: As far as the location scouting, I think we started at Red Square and worked our way out, you know, we went to the most famous place and said, “What scene can we put here?” and worked our way out and then started to understand the real big gems of the city and then put the story around those and then found the connective elements where we could control. Certain parts of the story, we require lots of control; for example, this location was originally called Cathedral Square, which was supposed to be a plaza, a city plaza. Well, we’re not going to control a city plaza at night and shut off all the lights and stop all the traffic, not in Moscow. This we found a 360-degree view, which is architecturally inspiring, and dramatic. We called this Academy of Science, “Academy Square”. You walk into it and it feels like a city plaza, so those kind of choices get made in order to have control over three nights to tell the story.
I understand in the film that darkness is sort of the area of safety, is that something you attached to when you were reading it?
Gorak: The flipping of the genre is something I got very excited about, which is daylight is scarier than night, where in most scary moments you want to turn on the lights. But when the lights turn on in this film it’s scarier, so it flips the genre on its head, which is one of those, “Damn, I wish I had thought of that.”
To that end, do you have ways of moving quickly through day to get to night scenes?
Gorak: Well, yes and no, because daylight is scarier, and if you see an expansive shot of the street in the day and the enemy could be there, I think that works to our advantage too, so we have a… I don’t know the exact balance, but it’s probably 50/50 on day and night.
The reason that we’re more scared of the night, you can’t see things, it’s a human instinct. How do you as a filmmaker deliberately make it so that light is scarier, which is not our inclination, you have to find a language to really put that fear to us?
Gorak: How the alien effects electricity is established very early on; I think the first thing we see is a police car, and when those lights and sirens start flashing and whirling, our characters quickly find out – or figure it out – that as it passes light, it illuminates lightbulbs by its wave energy. So I think it’ll be established early on, and from that point forward it’s understood. That becomes the dorsal fin of the shark: You see that light go on, danger’s coming.
Are we really thrown right into the action at the very beginning of the film, or would you describe it as more of a suspenseful, slow-build type of thing?
Gorak: The other great thing about the script that I was attracted to was, it really has a nice balance of action and suspense. We jump quickly into the story early in terms of the alien invasion, and that comes as a nice fun action sequence, and then it moves through suspense areas, and then kicks back in with some action. This scene we’re shooting now is a great transition; the sequence before is suspense, action to suspense, in between, and then an action beat, so we really kind of shuffle the deck on that. We’ll stretch out the suspense when we need it more, and I think having the suspense and tension in between makes the action that much more fun, and it pays off because I think they both can be just as satisfying.
Gorak: It came together in a unique way. Emile Hirsch, I think he’s perfect, he’s at the perfect time in his career, in his life for this character. We were looking for twenty-something people kind of transitioning in life and that instability of what they want to do with their lives, and then they’re thrown into this extraordinary circumstance. Emile blew my mind in Into The Wild, he’s a fantastic actor. Olivia Thirlby is a fantastic actress, and they’re the perfect match together. Rachael and Max, they both came in and auditioned and did a fantastic job, and obviously have great credits to their names. So it just kind of gelled and together it’s a great foursome. They really look great together.
You mentioned being a big sci-fi fan; are there any specific references to other sci-fi films or books that you are dropping in?
Gorak: There are some. I think nothing too off the beaten path, but you know, huge Spielberg fan, Jim Cameron fan, but even recently things like District 9, Primer and films like that. Any fresh idea beyond the big films I really find very inspiring. So things I’m putting in this film in reference to films like that… I don’t think there’s anything specifically, but it’s in there somewhere. Maybe I’ll see it in the end.