Max Minghella and Olivia Thirlby THE DARKEST HOUR On-Set Interview

     December 6, 2011

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, Joel Kinnaman, and director Chris Gorak, it’s time for the final on set interview and it’s with Max Minghella and Olivia Thirlby.

During the interview they talked about filming in Moscow, the 3D, who they play, working in the sci-fi genre, the weapons, whether or not they watch playback, and so much 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:

  • The main characters meet in a club scene towards the beginning of the film.
  • Minghella’s character becomes the de facto leader of the group after things start to get hairy.
  • Minghella’s character and Emile Hirsch’s character have known each other since they were young and are both from Seattle.
  • The Moscow setting adds a sense of desperation for the characters wanting and needing to know if things are alright back home in the United States.
  • The film’s stereographer told them that in 3D, actors are under a microscope. A little goes a long way, because everything is more detectible in 3D since the contrast is so much greater.
  • The 3D was a integral part of the way they were thinking about making the film.
  • One of the things they had to focus on in every shot was keeping the energy level high. In each scene, they had to keep the energy level and alertness high so that things don’t fall flat in the middle of the movie, given the dire circumstances the characters find themselves in.
  • Thirlby was the first person cast on the project.
  • The film takes an optimistic approach to humanity, in that the character don’t necessarily turn on each other when stress gets high. Regardless of nationality they all work together.

Question: Is this your first night shoot?

Olivia Thirlby: No, we did them all last week. So just as we finally got on the night schedule, then yesterday they gave us one regular day, just to completely screw everything up. And now we’re back on nights for pretty much the rest of the deal, right?

Max Minghella: Yeah.

I’m curious, how is that? To adjust to the [time change]?

Minghella: It’s just like jetlag.

Thirlby: Yeah, it’s like jetlag. And then once you adjust, then it’s like you’re on a different time schedule. At least it’s regular, but it’s very difficult when it’s inconsistent between nights and days, because then it’s like being constantly jetlagged.

olivia-thirlby-imageCan you talk about your characters?

Minghella: Yeah. Olivia, would you like to start?

[Olivia laughs]

Minghella: We should describe each other’s characters. Olivia plays like a beautiful action heroine. And we don’t know too much about our characters before we get them, and we’ve obviously probably all invented our own versions of our various backstories. But you know, the film gets into the action fairly quickly. We all meet in this club scene, and that’s where the majority of the character development happens. We’re also stranded in Moscow for various different reasons, and Olivia’s character has come with Rachael…[to Olivia] I’m speaking for you. I’ll let you carry on.

Thirlby: Yeah, I’ll speak for you now. (laughs) Max plays a handsome action hero, who becomes sort of the de facto leader of the group after things start to get a little scary and dangerous and crazy. And actually, sort of towards the beginning of the film when our characters first meet, I’d say my character quite has the hots for him, and says many times that she thinks he’s cute, cuter than his friend.

Minghella: It’s a mutual feeling, even though I don’t [say] it vocally, I’m thinking it.

emile-hirsch-the-darkest-hour-imageThirlby: And yeah, do you wanna talk about some of your made-up character back-story?

Minghella: Well I mean, I think in both cases with both our characters, we have very long-standing friendships with our co-stars. So in my case it’s with Emile’s character Sean, in Olivia’s case it’s with Rachael’s character Ann. And I think a lot of it is about how these friendships sort of shift and change in this incredibly dramatic circumstance, and how the dynamics of the group survive. In terms of back-story, we’re both – Emile and I – both from Seattle, and we’ve both known each other probably since we were four or five years old. So a lot of the work we’ve been doing is just trying to sort of make sure that that’s believable, and truthful, and that you feel that there’s some sense of history there.

Thirlby: Yeah, it’s um…Rachel plays an Australian character, so our characters met the very beginning of college, and have been best friends since basically, love at first sight. And I decided that my girl Natalie is from a sort of affluent suburb outside of Washington, D.C. and raised by a single parent, and she’s sort of a very proper girl, traditional values. These are all things you don’t really find out in the movie, but they’re things that I like to think about as I’m running in fear. [Laughs]

As opposed to shooting in your native city and being able to go home every night, does it help to be in this environment with everyone else, and how is that friendship been developing as actors?

Thirlby: We’re in a bubble, that’s for sure.

olivia-thirlby-the-darkest-hour-movie-imageMinghella: I always prefer shooting on locations, because when I’m at home it’s harder to sort of get lost in the world of whatever you’re making. It does, it does force this bond and community amongst a group.

Thirlby: If we were shooting in L.A., Max and I definitely wouldn’t be friends.

Minghella: We would never…yeah. But here we’re sorta…[Laughs] But definitely, I think it forces concentration, yeah, and it’s much more like, feels more like summer camp.

Thirlby: And Moscow’s like…

Minghella: It’s an extraordinary place to be.

Thirlby: Yeah, and you definitely get the sense that you’re very far from home. 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.

Minghella: And in terms of the film itself, I think it’s gonna become such a big part of this movie, the location of it. It’s a character unto itself. But yeah, it’s an extraordinary-looking place, as you’ve probably seen.

People keep saying it’s a character unto itself. What kind of character does Moscow play? A hero, a villain?

Minghella: I don’t think it’s a villain or a hero. I think it’s just a place with incredible history, an incredibly dramatic history, and that resonates in the environment and the way it looks. It’s so unusual –

Thirlby: And it really doesn’t look like anywhere else on Earth. There was, for a brief time, a question of whether we would be able to proceed filming here because there was a bit of a natural disaster that happened in the middle of our shoot, and I think it’s possible they were scouting some other European cities. And it was difficult, because even places that are relatively nearby didn’t look anything like Moscow. And it’s really true, there’s just no place quite like it.

Do either of you believe in aliens?

Minghella: I certainly do. I mean, I think it’d be pretty unrealistic to think we’re the only planet in the world with thinking beings. It’s kind of a strange conceit. Especially given how many universes there must be. Yeah, I definitely do.

Thirlby: Yeah, I would say that I don’t, I don’t know…I haven’t put too much time into thinking about it, but I’ve definitely heard way crazier ideas than aliens existing. There are other really crazy ideas that people regularly believe in, so…sure. It’s definitely possible.

Can you talk about working in the 3D environment, and how it is as an actor with longer takes, and more master shots, and how you prepare differently, and what you’ve been doing differently?

Thirlby: Well, our 3D tech guy… What exactly is his job title?

Publicist: Stereographer.

Thirlby: Stereographer, yes. 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, especially when you’re playing with emotions that are as 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. It’s all in the eyes, you know?

Does it make you more self-conscious as a performer when you watch playback, and you see every nook and cranny?

Thirlby: [to Max] Do you watch playback? I only watch playback on the wide shots. [Laughs]

Minghella: What I will say about the 3D on this film is that I think 3D can be an incredible thing on a movie and a terrible thing for a movie, depending on what kind of movie it is. And 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 what we’ve been 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. I think a sense of place, and a sense of experience that is really linked to that technology. So that’s an exciting thing to be a part of, and a very recent thing to be a part of.

I understand there’s a lot of master [cameras] going on, and I know [on most movies] actors [on certain takes] are like ‘ok, I’m in position, but who cares?’ But you have to be on in the first take. There can be no take where you’re not 100% there, right?

the-darkest-hour-movie-image-5Minghella: Right.

Thirlby: 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.

Minghella: Absolutely. I’ve certainly never been that calculating on anything when I’m working. I mean, you always try and give 100% on every take.

Thirlby: Yeah.

Minghella: Yeah, it’s self-preservation.

How’d you get on the project?

Thirlby: I…got cast.

the-darkest-hour-movie-image-4Minghella: Olivia was the first person cast…

Thirlby: I was.

Minghella: I remember hearing about that, that was the talk of the town, everyone was like, ‘Olivia Thirlby’s doing that alien movie.’

Thirlby: [Laughs] I met with Chris Gorak and Tom and Monnie, the producers, and that meeting was followed by a read, an audition, and then uh…good news. And that’s pretty much how it always goes. That’s the process.

Do you get to handle any artillery or firearms?

Thirlby: I don’t. I’m a girl, so I never get to play with [those things].

Minghella: It’s definitely fun for a boy, yeah. I think when you’re like five years old, and you’re running…you know, I think about my really early childhood a lot making this film. Because I certainly spent a vast majority of my infancy running around a room, pretending to run away from something and diving under stuff. It’s an amazing feeling to get to do it on the scale of so many people taking it seriously. It’s basically the exact same thing, except everyone is taking it really seriously and working really hard to help you. It’s such a blessing, and such a crazy thing to be able to do.

Thirlby: Totally.

Minghella: It’s like a total boy’s dream.

the-darkest-hour-movie-image-2How interested are you in sci-fi, and is that something that was part of your life growing up. Were you always watching sci-fi films?

Thirlby: Um…it’s an interesting question for me to address right now, because truthfully sci-fi has not been a big part of my life, aside from, you know, the occasional Star Trek, and some fiction, and maybe like Mystery Science Theater. But that’s not really sci-fi. But I suddenly feel like it’s taken this really big place in my life.

Minghella: Olivia’s about to do Judge Dredd after this.

Thirlby: Yeah. After this I’m gonna go do another 3D action/sci-fi movie, which I’m unbelievably excited about. So I’ve kind of gone from never thinking about it too much to it suddenly seems to be my entire world. And I like it.

Have you been watching classic sci-fi to brush up?

Thirlby: Um, I haven’t started yet, but…do you have any suggestions? [Laughs]

[someone recommends a Twilight Zone episode]

Thirlby: Do you know what it’s called?

darkest-hour-movie-poster-03It’s called ‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street’.

Minghella: That’s a good title.

That episode’s mostly about how people react under the threat, they don’t know what’s going on, but they just immediately turn on each other. And it’s a pretty harsh commentary on our society. Is there any of that in this film?

Minghella: I was thinking about this exact thing today. I think the film is actually optimistic about humanity. And I was thinking about how in the scene that we’re shooting today when we first meet the Russian soldiers, that there’s such immediate camaraderie, and it’s a very sort of positive outlook on how people would survive. And I’m very proud of that and happy about that. I mean there’s certainly…there’s a sequence where we go and hide in this bunker right after the attack, and I think that that’s probably a more complicated emotional time which we’re only privy to moments of. But I imagine that if that was the entire film you’d probably see some uglier parts of these characters. But fortunately the film chooses to focus on more empowering parts of humanity.

How much do your characters know about what’s happening in the rest of the world given that the power has gone out?

Thirlby: Um, we get sort of very small pieces of information that we’re able to puzzle together during the course of our journey through the city, and by the end of the movie, without giving too much away, we have a pretty good idea of what the global situation is.

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