One day before the Christmas release of director Chris Gorak’s The Darkest Hour, we bring you the third and final chapter in Chris Eggertsen’s report from the film’s Moscow set.
This installment features a description of one of the film’s action sequences as it was being filmed, as well as interviews with Gorak and lead actor Emile Hirsch. If you’re still on the fence about whether to see the movie this weekend, check out the full report inside – it could just help you in making your final decision. Emile Hirsh, Olivia Thirlby, Max Minghella and Rachael Taylor run across the Russian Academy of Sciences plaza in Moscow (doubling as a city square), their faces ashen from the effects of the recent alien attacks on the city. Behind them an outdoor light begins to flicker, signalling the approach of one of the invisible extraterrestrials. They turn around to look, horrified, when just then an armed man on a horse approaches. The animal is covered in some strange makeshift armor that we will later learn is called a “Faraday cage” – protection from the deadly electrical charges used by the invaders to instantly disintegrate living beings. Around them, the empty shells of blown-out cars stare out from shattered eyes.
And then more men riding on Faraday cage-clad horses arrive, and that’s when the flamethrowers unleash – spewing long arms of fire across the square. The four petrified young adults back away, expressions frozen in a numb sort of terror. Their invisible enemies hover somewhere in the chilly September air, silently.
I and the group of journalists accompanying me stood around the edges of the set, looking on through the numb fog of last night’s vodka binge in the swanky downstairs bar of our hotel. We’d sung the lyrics to “Wind of Change” as performed by the Scorpions – “I follow the Moskva/Down to Gorky Park/Listening to the wind of change…“ – and eyed the scattered, quiet groups around us in the tipsy haze of the early morning. After I’d left to retire to my room and coddle my flu-ravaged interior, I was told a former Russian general had subsequently joined the group and told them rousing stories about the old days. Later, as I imagined them laughing around a crisp bottle of ultra-premium vodka and clamping their arms around one another’s shoulders in solidarity, I couldn’t help but feel the sting of disappointment that I hadn’t been there.
But regrets are things best not harbored and agonized over, for they can prove as destructive and merciless as…well, as a malicious, invisible alien force, let’s say.
“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,” said director Chris Gorak, bearded and soft-spoken, when he drifted over to answer a few of our questions during a break in shooting. “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.”
Gorak – who began his career as an art director and production designer – came to the attention of Hollywood when his first film, the independent dirty-bomb thriller “Right at Your Door”, earned praise in its debut at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Made for a small budget, it was snapped up for a price of $3 million by Lionsgate, which for whatever reason gave it only a perfunctory theatrical release the following summer. “The Darkest Hour”, a moderately-budgeted studio film (it reportedly cost $40 million to produce), won’t have any such distribution problems, though it also lacks the sort of heat that would point to big grosses in its impending Christmas Day debut. In any case, the vault in scale from “Door” to “Hour” was a big one for Gorak.
“The jump up as a director, it’s definitely a great leap, but having worked in other, larger productions [as a production designer or art director], I think that helps tremendously in terms of understanding how the film will come together and what everyone’s responsibilities are,” he told us confidently. “How to manage that and having managed big crews; it’s just managing it from a different creative perspective.”
“The Darkest Hour”, of course, was shot in 3D, a consideration that didn’t initially occur to Gorak and the film’s producers during the development stages. In the wake of “Avatar”, however, it became de rigueur for action films to be conceptualized in the format. Unfortunately it was a wave that also forced each and every filmmaker helming one of them to dress up the obvious financial considerations behind the 3D juggernaut using artistic reasoning. Gorak was no different.
“When we first started developing this film with [producer] Tom [Jacobson] over a year ago, we all had a certain 2D movie in our head,” he told us. “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 [themselves] to 3D storytelling. But there is an added challenge of all that extra technology – time set-up, and [the] possibility of more technical difficulties.”
The film’s other main producer is Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”, “Night Watch”), whom we interviewed previously and who was invovled in the project’s development prior to Gorak’s arrival.
“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,” noted Gorak. “Having [him] as a sounding board, and also a leadership in the creative [department], has been fantastic.”
The most famous modern-day Russian director on an international scale, Bekmambetov was clearly looking forward to showcasing the stunning capital of his home country in the film – and with scenes taking place in several of Moscow’s most famous locations, Gorak and screenwriter Jon Spaihts clearly took advantage of the sense of spectacle the city had to offer.
“I think we started at Red Square and worked our way out,” said Gorak. “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 that we could control.”
The city’s tumultuous history, as noted by Gorak, provided a narrative undercurrent all its own.
“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,” he said. “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.”
The war-like aliens are obviously what most members of the prospective audience will be interested in – “The Darkest Hour” is a science-fiction movie, after all – and on that front, “The Darkest Hour” is unique in that its attackers are invisible beings whose presence can only be inferred through the effect they have on electrical light sources.
“How the alien[s] effect 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 illuminated lightbulbs,” said Gorak. “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.”
With a $40 million budget – a drop in the bucket compared with a film like, say, Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” – “The Darkest Hour” isn’t meant to be a wall-to-wall action/special-effects spectacular either. As Gorak pointed out, part of his attraction to the project resulted from the way it utilized good old-fashioned suspense in service of heightening the resulting histrionics.
“We really kind of shuffle the deck on that,” he said. “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.”
Arguably the most prominent name in the film’s cast is Emile Hirsch, whose last venture into action-movie territory was with the Wachowski Brothers’ ill-fated 2008 anime adaptation “Speed Racer”. A notorious flop, the film made less than $100 million worldwide and cost a reported $120 million to produce. One brave journalist in our group actually had the balls to ask Hirsch about it.
“I don’t know, it’s one of those things where I really liked the movie and I think a lot of other people did too,” Hirsch told us when he was asked how he processed the film’s box-office failure. “I mean obviously not the whole world. It didn’t do that well financially, but I think that as long as you try to make films that you like and believe in and would want to see yourself, you kind of can’t second-guess stuff like that in a certain sense.”
Luckily “The Darkest Hour” cost around $80 million less to produce than “Speed Racer” and also came with less baggage. As opposed to the latter film, “Hour” had a relatively unknown director at the helm and wasn’t based on an established property with a built-in fanbase. While that of course makes it a riskier prospect in other ways, Hirsch seemed to enjoy the idea of making a film with more limited resources; having starred in mostly independent movies during his career, it’s also a way of working that he’d probably grown accustomed to over the years.
“This is a smaller budget movie for this kind of movie…It’s that spirit,” he said. “It’s like independent filmmaking spirit on a little bigger scale. I really like that; it’s kind of dirty and grungy and there’s a sense of adventure to it. I like the way that it came together.”
Hirsch, an affable and engaging presence who thankfully lacks the noticeably over-inflated ego of some of his young peers, previously worked with Gorak on the 2005 skateboarding film “Lords of Dogtown”.
“He was the production designer on that, but we didn’t really know each other that well – he was just the bearded guy who would loom in the shadows,” he laughed. “He literally would loom, like he would be on set and he would just be in a corner with the beard and not say anything.”
“He sounds like a pedophile,” someone in our group responded.
“Or a quiet genius,” Hirsch grinned – though perhaps a better description for the director would be “ambitious workhorse”.
“He’s just such a hard worker,” he added later. “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. Do you know what I mean? He’s got the will.”
Another thing about Hirsch that came off refreshing was his downplaying of the amount of stunt work he performed; while there are, of course, a few actors who legitimately do a good portion of their own tumbles and plunges, more often egos get in the way when it comes down to fielding questions from the press about it. Hirsch, on the other hand, never attempted to overstate his involvement in shooting the film’s more difficult action sequences. He did, however, get to take part in one relatively precarious set piece that, had he stepped wrong, could’ve seen him flirting with the murky bottom of a river.
“They built half of a submarine, and there’s this net that I climb up with out of the water, I have this alien gun on my back, I have my bag that I’m holding, I’m like totally soaked in water and the camera is next to the submarine looking up and seeing me climb it,” Hirsch told us. “But it was one of those things where I lowered myself down against the river holding this net, and it’s a pretty good climb up, and this alien gun which is strapped to me weighs several pounds. It’s like twelve pounds, maybe more, so it was one of those things where it was kind of scary, because I realized if I slipped I could have sunk into the river like a stone. So that was a challenging stunt with actual consequences if I were to mess it up.”
Hirsch also fired automatic weapons for the first time while filming “The Darkest Hour” – an experience that could’ve aptly been titled “Happiness Is Not a Warm Gun” as far as he was concerned.
“When the blanks go off… even though they are blanks, that’s really scary,” he told us. “. “I was hiding behind a rock when they first were firing the guns, and then they blew out the back of this bus in one sequence and they were like, ‘Do you want to be on set for the explosion?’ I was like ‘No… I’m going to pass this one…’ Then I’m sitting in the little trailer reading and then all of a sudden it’s like ‘boom.’ It was an Ichabod Crane moment, you know, and the explosion was way bigger than they thought it would be. A couple of guys got pelted in the face with glass and stuff.”
Still, Hirsch’s character – a young American software designer who moves with his best friend (played by Max Minghella) to Moscow in order to make his way in the world of Russian business – is required to overcome his fears and move into “action-hero” mode by the final act. Given the actor’s slight physical build (he’s a reported 5’7″ and probably weighs no more than 130 lbs.), it’s a role he hasn’t been given the opportunity to play much throughout his career.
“My agent…doesn’t normally send me action scripts or science fiction scripts,” he told us. “There are just not very many of them that get made, in general, where there are parts that I could play. And he didn’t tell me anything [about 'The Darkest Hour'] in advance; he just goes, ‘Just let me know what you think. This is kind of insane.’”
So if “The Darkest Hour” does well, will it represent a new frontier in Hirsch’s career? It’s hard to say if he’ll ever be taken seriously as an action hero – but then Hollywood is nothing if not an unpredictable town behind the scenes. As for Moscow…
“There’s a certain sense where it’s kind of like the wild west a little bit,” he said of the city. “There’s this sense where anything can sort of happen.”
I believe it was our final night in Moscow when we had the chance to take a dinner boat cruise along its eponymous river (“I follow the Moskva/Down to Gorky Park/Listening to the wind of change…“), during which I drowned my flu-ridden discomfort in a glass of wine or two and watched through the floor-length windows as the orange lights of Moscow drifted by, shining harshly upon the black expanse of water. Through the haze of my slightly-state, I still found it hard to believe I was there. Halfway across the world, drifting through an alien city I’d never seen and might never see again, and just now realizing how lucky I was to be there.
Later, I climbed a narrow set of stairs to the upper deck of the boat to join a few of my traveling companions topside – people I felt a certain kinship with, though I didn’t know any of them well. I remember posing for photos with some of them. I remember laughing a little together at the unlikely place in which we’d found ourselves.
But mostly I remember it being cold, and that at one point I stood for a long while by myself at the railing of the boat, staring down into the impenetrable surface of the water below and suddenly feeling a pang of fear at what might lay beyond it. I was haunted by that. Sometimes, I still am.