The Prime Minister seated at his desk in the No 10 Annexe Map Room, May 1945.
The Prime Minister seated at his desk in the No 10 Annexe Map Room, May 1945.
© IWM

How the Darkest Hour Filmmakers Recreated Winston Churchill’s Secret Underground War Rooms

The Prime Minister seated at his desk in the No 10 Annexe Map Room, May 1945.
The Prime Minister seated at his desk in the No 10 Annexe Map Room, May 1945.
© IWM

Darkest Hour, the new film starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, shows the iconic leader in some famous places familiar to plenty of Anglophiles and history buffs, locations like 10 Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament. But a portion of the film also takes place in a lesser-seen though just as history-soaked site: a stuffy bunker, the secret underground location of Churchill’s World War II operations from 1940 to 1945.

Today, that bunker is a popular tourist site, Churchill War Rooms (called the Cabinet War Rooms during its use for World War II), part of England's Imperial War Museums.

The Cabinet War Room as it’s seen today within Churchill War Rooms.
The Cabinet War Room as it’s seen today within Churchill War Rooms.
© IWM

As war dawned and Churchill took the reins after the period of appeasement led by his predecessor Neville Chamberlain, the humble underground government storage space was hurriedly converted into a military information hub. Located underneath the Treasury building in Westminster, it covered about 3 acres and accommodated up to 528 Cabinet and supporting staff members.

The Darkest Hour crew spent three and a half weeks filming scenes that take place in the War Rooms, recreated by production designer Sarah Greenwood and her team at West London’s Ealing Studios.

Greenwood came to Darkest Hour as a longtime collaborator of director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice). With the exception of 2015’s Pan, she has worked on every feature that Wright’s directed, plus two of his miniseries.

“We argue a lot," Greenwood tells Mental Floss, laughing, of their longtime collaboration. "We’re like siblings, actually. I’m like the older sister. We’ve been together too long.”

Oldman as Churchill, Lily James as Elizabeth Layton (Churchill's secretary) in the Map Room
Gary Oldman and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton, Churchill's secretary, in the recreated Map Room in Darkest Hour (2017).
Focus Features

Wright has spoken about how Greenwood often helpfully challenges his choices, but her plans for the War Rooms were an unusual instance of immediate agreement between the two filmmakers.

“I designed [the War Rooms set], drew up the rough plans and everything over a weekend, and when I showed it to Joe, he was just like—and this is very rare—he was like, ‘Yep, that’s great.’ There were very few changes that we made to that,” Greenwood says. “And I think that came from knowing what it was going to be like. Because we’d been to the real War Rooms, we knew what we were trying to capture.”

Greenwood, along with other members of the art department, visited the Churchill War Rooms about half a dozen times. She remembers being most struck by how apparent it was that this all-important nerve center of war operations was “cobbled together at the 11th hour, [with] furniture brought in from home. There’s this forest of beams from when they brought in a Naval architect to shore the whole thing up when they realized that it was not bombproof.”

The recreated typists' bay of Churchill's War Rooms
The recreated typists' bay, on the set of Darkest Hour at Ealing Studios.
Sarah Greenwood

Greenwood noted the War Rooms’ contrast to the Nazi sites for World War II operations depicted in the 2008 film Valkyrie: “It’s very sharp and organized and clear and cold colors,” she says.

“One of the most important things to understand about the Cabinet War Rooms is they’re an extremely improvised space," Ian Kikuchi, senior curator, Second World War at Imperial War Museums, tells Mental Floss. "The war is not necessarily a surprise, but the War Rooms are not a lavishly purpose-built facility. You can see its kind of lack of bombproof-ness everywhere you go, especially when you look up into the ceiling and you can see the gigantic layer of concrete that they had to add to the ceiling in order to try to improve the protection.”

The closest the War Rooms came to being directly hit was in September 1940, when a bomb fell on Clive Steps, leaving a small crater near what is now the visitor entrance to the site.

The Map Room as it’s seen today within Churchill War Rooms.
The Map Room as it’s seen today within Churchill War Rooms.
© IWM

“It was a stroke of luck, really, that the War Rooms were never hit,” Kikuchi says. 

The film brought to bustling life a space that Kikuchi and his colleagues are accustomed to seeing frozen in time. 

“It was a real thrill actually," he says. "These corridors that I’m so familiar with—to suddenly see them on the big screen—I was really struck at just how right it all felt.” 

However, Kikuchi did, of course, recognize any deviations from reality that Darkest Hour made with its set, the most noticeable being a rearrangement of the rooms. For example, in the film, the BBC equipment room is right next door to Churchill’s underground bedroom, where he delivered four wartime speeches. At the real site, the equipment that transmitted these speeches is further down the hallway. 

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in 'Darkest Hour'
Gary Oldman, as Winston Churchill, delivering a speech at the desk in his bedroom in the Cabinet War Rooms.
Focus Features

Greenwood intentionally took some artistic license with the layout of the War Rooms, creating a more labyrinthine feel, unlike the real-life stretch of rooms along a long corridor. 

Within each room, though, the art department meticulously recreated the environs of that wartime bunker. 

Darkest Hour's Map Room and "Beauty Chorus"
Darkest Hour's Map Room and "beauty chorus."
Sarah Greenwood

Though items from the 1940s tend to be readily available to filmmakers, Darkest Hour’s art department custom-made several props, since the technology and furniture in the War Rooms is so distinctive (and recognizable to the tens of thousands of tourists who visit the site each year). The telephones in the Map Room weren’t a simple, standard black; the so-called “beauty chorus” were bright reds and greens, color-coded and connected to a specific military department or intelligence service. Graphic designer Georgina Millett recreated whole wall-spanning maps specific to the era after several research trips to the British Library. 

The props team also built a replica of the wooden chair that Churchill sat in during tense meetings in the Cabinet Room. On a visit to the War Rooms with fellow cast members, Oldman had the rare privilege of sitting in the very chair from which the iconic leader conducted these meetings. “That’s something that you normally have to be a president or prime minister to get to do,” Kikuchi says. 

The Cabinet Room, at Ealing Studios.
The Cabinet Room, at Ealing Studios.
Sarah Greenwood

Today, on the ends of that chair’s armrests can be seen scratch marks, evoking the nervous energy of its occupant. Close-up shots in Darkest Hour depict Churchill making those gouges with his right-hand fingernails and with the signet ring on his left hand.

Darkest Hour also required some imaginative mystery-solving, alongside the historical research.

“One thing that nobody [among the historical consultants] would ever say, or couldn’t ever give us a real answer on, was whether there were tunnels linking 10 Downing Street to the War Rooms,” Greenwood says. “‘We don’t know' was the answer. I think it’s still a secret actually. I personally think there were tunnels between Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament and everything. But of course, nobody will admit to it.” 

Darkest Hour's switchboard
The War Rooms' switchboard, recreated for Darkest Hour (2017).
Sarah Greenwood

So Greenwood and her team created a dimly-lit set of tunnels stretching from their War Rooms to a small elevator that lifted Churchill back into the famous home of Britain’s Prime Ministers.

Since Darkest Hour takes place over the course of less than a month, beginning in early May 1940, the film doesn’t capture what it was like to spend prolonged amounts of time in the War Rooms. Sleeping in the cramped, rat- and cockroach-infested sub-basement (called “The Dock”), never shown in the film, was a necessity during periods of intense bombing for all but higher-ranking officials (who had bedrooms on the upper levels). Later during the war, 12-hour shifts underground meant that some staff members went weeks without seeing daylight.

Ben Mendelsohn and Gary Oldman in 'Darkest Hour' (2017)
Ben Mendelsohn, as King George VI, with Oldman as Churchill in Darkest Hour (2017).
Jack English/Focus Features

But Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel still crafted a space with a clear lack of natural lighting, in contrast to the film’s scenes that take place aboveground during daytime, where large, bright beams of sunlight stream into screen versions of 10 Downing Street, the House of Commons, and other historic locations. The stark sunlight also evoked the weather of Churchill’s first month as PM, which was one of the hottest Mays on record. 

Today, the Churchill War Rooms bear an unassuming, modest entrance that’s easy to miss, though it has become an ever-more popular tourist destination since its opening as a museum in 1984. In 2017, the Churchill War Rooms welcomed over half a million visitors, “a number that I’m sure would amaze anyone who ever worked there,” Kikuchi says. 

Map Room Officers at work in the Cabinet War Rooms, 1945.
Map Room Officers at work in the Cabinet War Rooms, 1945.
© IWM

And as for what Churchill himself—a man who has eloquently written and spoken about the importance of studying history—would think if he could see the Cabinet War Rooms as a popular tourist attraction today? Here’s what Kikuchi had to say: 

“Churchill was a man born in the 1870s. There’s all manner of things about life in the 21st century that he would be amazed and baffled by. Churchill, in his memoirs, he talks about the moment of becoming prime minister, feeling like he was ‘walking with destiny.’ He was a man who was very conscious of his place in history. And I think he would be proud and gratified that his War Rooms still exist and are reminding visitors from around the world of that crisis moment in 1940 that you see dramatized so effectively in Darkest Hour.”

Darkest Hour is in U.S. theaters now and will be released in the UK this Friday. Churchill War Rooms in London is open daily.

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The Prime Minister seated at his desk in the No 10 Annexe Map Room, May 1945.
Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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The Prime Minister seated at his desk in the No 10 Annexe Map Room, May 1945.
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

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