Okay, after watching The Darkest Hour on DVD I hafta agree with the folks at metacritic. com (16/100) and rottentomatoes.com (12% approval rating). On the surface this alleged sci-fi thriller about five young and improbably telegenic Americans trapped in Moscow and fighting off alien invaders is – to put it charitably – less than thrilling.
And yet …. and yet … when I flipped over to the DVD extras the commentary track by American director Chris Gorak was, for my money, more engaging and informative than anything I saw onscreen.
According to Chris, the original story was set in the States and switched to Moscow when Timur Bekmambetov came on board as producer. If the name isn’t familiar, he’s the Russian auteur behind Night Watch and Day Watch, two of the strangest sci-fi thrillers in recent memory. (Okay, I plead guilty. I own a copy of Day Watch on DVD.)
In the opening scene of The Darkest Hour two brash young Internet entrepreneurs (Emile Hirsch, Max Minghella) are flying to Moscow. The director tells us the action was shot on an actual plane at an actual airport with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
” … where, normally, you might shoot a scene like this on a set in an air-conditioned studio, we were in a sweltering hangar and the plane was up at a certain height and the lighting and grip department were challenged to light the scene.”
That’s right. It was so hot …. Well, you supply the punchline because making a movie in Moscow during the hottest summer in a century was evidently no laughing matter.
“These bogs spontaneously combusted … and it created these fires around the city … some of these shoot days there was actually smoke on our stage set … when everybody started wearing gas masks off camera we realized it was time to evacuate … We were literally smoked out and evacuated for four weeks and came back and finished the movie … we had to take it out (the smoke) digitally in post production, pixel by pixel.”
The setting of the story wasn’t the only thing that changed prior to filming.
” Originally we were going to make (the movie) in 2-D. And the development process was happening right when everyone was looking to make 3-D. It definitely seemed the thing to do. But I also felt that if we were going to do it we were going to do it right and actually film in 3 D with 3D cameras.”
Filming in 3D came with its own set of creative and technical challenges.
“Originally I had a 2-D movie in my head … and then to shift (chuckles) probably a few weeks out to filming in 3D. It changed things for me a lot in terms of what the cameras could and could not do … and how, stylistically, we were going to approach the film.”
There were more complications when it came time to rent a chopper to film some wide aerial shots.
“Bit of trivia: there are no helicopters allowed over Moscow. Which I came to learn when I requested a helicopter for filming. But they did allow us to fly a remote controlled helicopter over the river … these high wide shots that we have in the film were filmed on a miniature helicopter.” (Apparently the 3D cameras were too heavy for the mini-copter.)
The shoot was still in progress in early fall which meant the cast and crew
had a whole different set of temperatures to contend with.
“It was so cold you can see the actors’ breath, so, naturally, that had to be removed.”
The language barrier led to “some interesting moments.”
“I would be talking to the cinematographer in English but, during the shot, if he was talking to the crane operator, the crane operator would be talking to a translator who would be radioing in Russian to the guy who was actually operating the boom of the crane … sometimes left turned into right and right turned into left and we had to cut and do it again.”
Don’t get me wrong. Mr. Gorak delivers all of the above comments in a matter-of-fact tone of voice and has something nice to say about everything and everybody. The actors are “extremely talented”, the crew is “fantastic” and the creative and technical challenges were “a lot of fun to figure out”.
Shooting on what was obviously a modest budget? No problem. (“Less is more and I think it works really well.”)
That also applies to the concept of the (mostly invisible) alien invaders which he talks about with great enthusiasm throughout the track. The aliens – when we see them – are “a bundle of wave energy” who disassemble humans by “shredding” them. No blood also means the film could stay within the parameters of a PG-13 rating. (Come to think of it, those “shredding” scenes look awfully similar to the manner in which the names of the cast and crew digitally disintegrate in a behind-the-scenes feature on the Day Watch DVD. Probably just a coincidence.)
Working in Russia was a pleasant surprise for the boomer filmmaker.
“Growing up in the Cold War and seeing Moscow, just through the newspaper and the news, or what was told to us, and in all our cinemas at the time and during the Cold War, Russia was always the bad guys. The Russians were the double agents and so forth. And so, to go there, knowing that our characters were going to embrace the Russians and the Russians were going to embrace us as a film crew, it obviously opened my eyes to a culture that I don’t think American audiences have ever experienced from the inside out.”
The director wasn’t even fazed when Ms. Thirlby fractured her foot during a running sequence and Mr.Hirsch contacted a head cold. (“It just adds to the realness of being on the run.”)
There is only one moment, and that is during an interview clip included in the obligatory behind-the-scenes DVD featurette, that the director even hints at the hassles he must have encountered while making the film.
“We had so many hurdles to overcome. Every movie has its challenges, every movie has its compromises … finishing it was the greatest accomplishment … That’s a hundred different little victories, I think … to make that one victory.”
Yes, Mr. Gorak says he would be willing to film in Russia again. In fact, the director (who has one other feature to his credit, 2006’s Right at Your Door) would seem to have the positive attitude, resourcefulness and skill set to helm any number of small movies with big dreams (and a PG-13 rating. As the director says,” It was a lot of fun to walk that fine line between horror and a commercial rating”) If you don’t believe me, just listen to the commentary track on The Darkest Hour DVD.
Are you listening, Roger Corman?