The Darkest Hour and shooting locations in Moscow
Taglines: The invasion begins Christmas Day.
Principal photography on The Darkest Hour began on July 18, 2010 inside a modern skyscraper in New Moscow City overlooking the Moskva River, an area highlighting the new capitalist spirit rampant in the Russian capital.
The thriller was the first Hollywood film to shoot entirely in Moscow using cuttingedge 3D technology. The international production with American, Russian, English, Australian, Swedish, Czechoslovakian and German cast and crew came together to face a multitude of challenges shooting in the Russian Capital including: temperamental technology; shooting iconic locations in a dense metropolitan area for a story requiring the city to appear desolate; language barriers; and shipping complications (the main characters’ wardrobe was stuck in customs for over 3 weeks and missed the first day of shooting); plus an unprecedented heat wave and subsequent fires that made global news.
Filming the alien invasion epic took place at several iconic landmarks including Red Square in view of the Kremlin and the GUM department store; the Patriarch Bridge leading to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour; and the beautiful Art Deco Mayakovskaya Station in Moscow’s famed Metro Subway, one of the finest examples of pre-World War II Stalinist architecture.
Other Moscow locations included the Lenin Library and Square, Sheremetevo Airport, Nachimovsky Institute, and the Academy of Science Plaza Cathedral Square, plus various sights along the Moskva River including and the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building, one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters skyscrapers.
The Zvezda Nightclub, the lamp store, and Sergei’s apartment sets were constructed at MyStudio. Other sets such as the US Embassy rooftop, the Metro platform, the underground storeroom, and parts of the riverboat were built on the stages of Russian World Studios, which is located on the Zil Car Factory property, where filmmakers also used the vast industrial area for the exciting third act electrical trolley bus action sequence.
“Making a 3D movie in a place as foreign as Moscow and learning the 3D part was hard, because we made a decision very late in prep to go 3D. It’s relatively new equipment that’s based in the US, so taking all that technology to Russia and servicing it very far away from the production center of the camera was a technical challenge,” shares producer Tom Jacobson. “Plus even though the local production support in Moscow was fantastic, but we wanted to do things that hadn’t necessarily been done in Moscow before in terms of the scale and closing these things down. In the U.S., it’s common to easily get a permit to close a street or plaza, and it’s a quick yes or no answer. Here it takes a long time to get those permissions.”
Production worked many early mornings and late nights to shoot real locations that are normally bustling with activity. “When the characters come out of their hiding place to devastated empty city, they have to make a journey across it and the massive wide ring roads that are ten lanes across,” describes Jacobson. “It’s scary to be in this open city where they know it’s occupied with this dangerous and invisible enemy.”
To accomplish this aesthetic, the director insisted on shooting perennially congested spots like Garden Ring Road and Red Square. “Chris was adamant,” remembers executive producer Monnie Wills. “I wish I had a picture of our Russian location manager’s face on the first day of scouting. Where we explained to him where the cameras would be, what traffic would have to be shut down, the permits that we needed… I didn’t know someone could turn that pale. But it was very important to us that if we were going to be in Moscow, we had to really shoot Moscow.”
“The advantage of our time in the city is it really mirrors the experience of the characters in a lot of ways,” comments Rachael Taylor. “I found myself having that lost in translation experience more here than I have anywhere else in the world I’ve been, including Japan. In some respects, Russia is a more foreign environment.”
“The Moscow factor was very appealing for me and I think, all of the cast,” adds Max Minghella. “That guaranteed that this was going to be a new experience. Being in a foreign land adds suspense and makes it more exotic but also in the sense of alienating these characters, on top of what they’re already experiencing. We’re feeling that exactness since we’re all from different places. We all feel a little bit like strangers here.”
For centuries, Moscow’s Red Square has been the heart and soul of Russia. Historical sites surrounding the cultural square include the world famous architecture of the 16th Century St. Basil’s Cathedral; the Kremlin – the seat of the national government and center of power for over 800 years; the constructivist pyramid of Lenin’s Mausoleum; the GUM shopping mall; and many museums.
The first scene shot in Red Square was a pre-invasion walk as the girls make their way through real crowds to a nightclub. “One of my favorite moments was working with Olivia Thirlby, who has become a very good friend of mine, when we shot in the middle of Red Square on a Friday night as the sun was going down in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral. It was a pretty incredible moment,” remembers Taylor. “I don’t think I’ve had a better filming experience in my life. It was really magical. We were there in the middle of Moscow… she’s American, I’m Australian, and we shot this scene in the middle of this international landmark.”
Thirlby adds, “I took so many pictures of the camera crane and the Kremlin behind it to send to my family. Look at where I am! How cool is that?” “Our goal was to make an epic journey of these people moving across the city of Moscow, almost like a reverse Wizard of Oz,” comments Jacobson. “It was important to us to create this contrast… at the beginning a sense of great population, action, and crowded plazas and boulevards, and then… nothing.”
“Moscow is so urban, there are a lot of people and the traffic is unbelievable… it’s incredible that our production team has been able to shut down parts of the city,” adds Taylor. “Culturally it’s very different to what we’re used to in, something about it is incredibly insular and you feel incredibly isolated. Look at Russia on a world map and Moscow is plum right in the middle. If you’re in New York, there is a massive big harbor and Europe is right across the pond. But in Moscow you’re incredibly land locked, which adds a really interesting tension to the whole palette of the film. You can’t help but not to be pseudo spiritual about it, feeling like that energy in some way infuses the project.”
Gorak adds, “The Kremlin is a place that’s never been surrendered. So when this alien invasion occurs we get a sense of the scope of the abandoned city and the ash represents the population of Moscow who have basically been reduced to ash. It’s a haunting memorial of what happened to these 14 million citizens in our story. To create a vacuum in a city like this is pretty incredible.”
“Our apocalypse isn’t about aliens destroying our planet, they’ve come for something, and they rid humans like ants at a picnic,” furthers Gorak. “It’s now an empty city and we have to make it feel desolate with dust blowing in the wind to represent the loss of human civilization as we tell our story. That’s more powerful than leveling the city. 28 Days Later is one of my favorite films and had a huge influence on me. It was a brilliant redefinition of a genre. To empty London was so inspiring, and if we can capture 10% of that, I’d be happy.”
Filmmakers employed a strategic battle plan shooting over five days in Red Square to achieve one three-minute classic suspense scene in the deserted square.
“Our gang of survivors have come to the corner of the GUM and they spot this police car where they hope to find a better map, in order to make their way to the US Embassy for help,” explains Gorak. “Sean and Ben run out to the center of the square to rummage through this car, but then an alien approaches and they have to cope with that. Timing and control is the biggest factors since Red Square is in the busiest part of the city and is the biggest tourist attraction.”
Originally the disturbing scene was written for a small side street. “Chris Gorak’s first point when he got to Moscow was let’s show the city. Let’s do the cop car scene right in the middle of Red Square. We were able to block off areas of the square on different days… shoot one sightline and then angle the other way… keeping in mind sunlight movement. Through editing we created the sense of complete desolation,” says Jacobson. “We’d shoot towards St. Basil’s and then in the afternoon we’d turn towards Lenin’s Tomb. The next morning we shot towards the GUM and so on.”
“On the last day, we were able to empty the entire square to shoot one big crane shot when the boys first run onto Red Square. The government gave us the supervision since a tremendous amount of crowd control was necessary, but we only had two hours. Of course there’s a hundred people standing right behind the camera and a thousand tourists right over there, but it was exciting filmmaking,” adds Jacobson.
“We planned everything,” agrees producer Timur Bekmambetov. “I’ve shot here with handheld cameras from the side, but we’ve never been literally been in the middle of Red Square. It’s good because it’s very unique shot… nobody’s seen Red Square on film from these angles.”
“Imagine shooting in Paris or Rome or London and wanting to shoot right in the center of town, right in the landmarks,” says Jacobson. “We had great cooperation from the city and to have it feel completely silent and empty for one shot… that was pretty awesome standing in the middle.”
“Growing up during the last part of the Cold War seeing Red Square only on the news, and then being here and shooting it in 3D is pretty fantastic,” comments Gorak. “I did have my moments standing in the middle of empty Red Square thinking what the hell am I dong here? With all the history and those famous images of parading nuclear missiles and I’m standing in the middle of it with my U.S. passport and some 3D cameras. It was a little surreal.”
“Getting to be at some of these really famous Russian locations is a lot of fun,” adds Emile Hirsch. “While doing this action sequence hiding from this alien, at one point Max and I were under the car laying there and Red Square is completely deserted and we’re huffing and puffing. I just caught his eyes and we just burst out laughing so hard. The scope of this is really ambitious.”
“Besides the landmarks, we also shot a lot of places that you haven’t seen in pictures but are amazing locations like the Lenin Library,” comments Jacobson. “I don’t think many Americans or Europeans have seen it but the outside has scale and power and it’s clearly here in Moscow. In fact, when we shot there many members of the Russian crew were amazed because they’d never been inside.”
“We were interested to explore other areas that might not be in the tourist books,” agrees Wills. “The Lenin State Library is the largest library in Russia and is where Matvei has made his camp. We really wanted to show the grandness of the architecture, especially in 3D, to really bring audiences into that experience.”
Jacobson adds, “The same is true of a little street where we shot a little scene. It’s called Serebrennechky Street and it has a little curve to it and has a Russian Orthodox little neighborhood church at the end that’s painted blue. That’s not in Rome. That’s not in Detroit. That’s clearly here and that’s what we tried to capture is the texture of Moscow. There’s a lot of history here from pre-Soviet Russia, Czarist Russia through Soviet times and into the post-Soviet boom times. We wanted to capture those contrasts.”
The Cathedral of Christ the Savoir is another challenging landmark chosen by the filmmakers. The massive church was originally built in the 1800s, but was demolished in the 1930s during Soviet times. The Russian Orthodox Church rebuilt the cathedral in the 1990s and the building is an impressive symbol of post-Soviet Russia and the tallest Orthodox Church in the world. “We shot this incredible scene on the Patriarch Bridge, which is a very famous Moscow landmark in front of this beautiful church,” describes Taylor. “It’s a stunning location, but it’s usually very, very busy, and we were able to shoot there in the middle of the day, and it was completely empty. That’s a once in a lifetime experience.”
“No other city in the world looks like Moscow… it’s neither East nor West,” adds Thirlby. “It’s incredibly old but also very new. There’s a Church from 1400’s standing next to a Colonial building from the 1800’s, standing next to a modern skyscraper. Wide boulevards with these massive blocks of buildings and single buildings that just stretch on and on, coupled with these little winding streets which look European, but then there’s something very distinctly not European about them.”
“You come here and you understand the gravity of the landmarks that you’re seeing, but some of the locations can be difficult because we are shooting a film in which very few other people are supposed to be alive. So it really doesn’t work when there’s a pedestrian wandering through the background of the shot,” laughs Thirlby. “But those challenges aside, it’s been really rewarding.”
The project marks the first American 3D production to film in Russia. The state-of- the-art 3D camera system is from Panavision in partnership with Element Technica. The two 3D camera rigs on the production each contained two cameras with mirrors, one camera is permanently set and the other is a convergence camera on motion plate to create depth perception. The largest rig weighs 54 kilos.
“That incredible camera is like a transformer to be honest,” laughs Taylor. “Not to state the obvious, but it really is the most incredible piece of machinery I’ve ever seen.”
While shooting, filmmakers could adjust the depth of field in each shot to increase the story telling power by focusing on things at different places in the frame. “This film is going to look really cool because we are shooting with real 3D cameras, there’s no conversion process so it’s going to look amazing,” adds Hirsch. “There haven’t been that many 3D movies yet which have been shot in this special technique with these super state of the art cameras… we have to put glasses on just to watch the playback on set. For me, it makes the frame of even normally static scenes much more interesting to watch. It’ll be cool to see that thriller aspect in 3D. Also you don’t see many real life 3D movies, most are almost all CG.”
“This is my first experience with a 3D movie, and we have the normal video village, except with this massive 3D monitor and 3D glasses. It’s very exciting, but I don’t think there’s anything more terrifying than seeing yourself in 3D,” laughs Taylor. “Chris is doing a very artistic job of using the 3D element to a really great effect, but it’s not 3D for the sake of 3D. It’s still about the characters. There are very few close-ups and a lot of wide shots, so you don’t ever feel like you’re too close to the people. Our film is 3D because it makes the story better, not just to exploit this new technology. It’s a very classy 3D film.”
Director Chris Gorak and director of photography Scott Kevan adjusted their filmmaking language to fit the 3D capabilities. “Filming in 3D did require a bit of a shift in the filmmaking process. You really want to give the camera time to find and explore its subject,” explains Wills. “With a place like Moscow that offers so many beautiful sights and such scope, we really wanted to shoot as wide as we could to really give the audience a sense of being there and being with our characters.”
“Chris and Scott are finding things visually that would be impossible in two dimensions, so we’ll absolutely create a more personal experience for the viewer,” comments Minghella. “We’re going to make it a fun ride. Everyday of this movie has been a pleasant surprise. When I read the script, I was really drawn to the characters and the story, but it was very hard for me to decipher what the film would look like initially. Everyday I’ve been delighted and surprised by a whole other layer of coolness, so that’s been a fantastic pleasure.”
Gorak comments, “3D is in its adolescent phase, but we embraced it and tried to push it to new levels and from that, a lot of technical issues arose. Right now in 2010, the equipment is very big and bulky, so it changes how you tell a story and where you put the camera. It’s a slower process, so you don’t get as many set-ups. Also, you don’t want to edit as much, so you stay in the environment longer, which has resulted in a lot of crane shots.”
“You have to get the 3D right or it could pop the viewer out of the story. However, if you get the 3D right, it’s more engaging for the audience because you’re pulling the story closer to the audience and pulling the audience into the story,” adds Gorak.
“Obviously there’s some growing pains and a learning curve with what we could and couldn’t accomplish. We adjusted the storytelling with the camera movements, but we were all very excited do to it in 3D because Moscow as a backdrop and some of the elements of the science fiction lend itself to a good 3D performance. It made a lot of sense to go 3D, but it changed our schedule, our approach, and it ripples through the entire process from camera to editing as well as visual effects.”
“Throughout development, shooting, and post-production we explored so many different variations of what the alien and it’s POV, shred, cloak, blasts, and tendrils would look like,” says Gorak. “We kept bringing it back to what are the constant visuals? How does the alien algorithm work and what we see in that wave energy? We kept true to those simple notions and visual effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier helped a lot out with that, building the alien from the inside out and figuring out how to keep all the rules within the same visual science.”
The production utilized many of the resources of producer Timur Bekmambetov’s Moscow-based film, commercial, and visual effects company Bazelev, one of several world-class visual effects vendors, including houses in Prague, Paris, Soho and Toronto, who worked on the effects-heavy project.
Bekmambetov sees this project as a steeping stone for the Russian film industry. “This is the first big Hollywood movie that will all be made in Russia. We’ve shot parts of western movies here – a few shooting days on Get Smart, a Bourne movie with a piece made in Moscow – but nobody has made a whole Hollywood movie in Russia. It’s very helpful and important for our production company Bazelev because people learn how to work in system. It will help me in the future to make more movies here in Russia,” says Bekmambetov. “In our visual effects area, we have young people working with American producers and visual effects supervisor. The young Russian guys are learning a lot and at the end, we will have a great team who can then make another movie.”
He adds, “During the last maybe 6 years, the Russian market became one of the ten biggest film markets in the world and we helped that. But it’s very difficult to make big movies in Russian because the market is still relatively small. You cannot make big movies with visual effects and recoup the costs here. We plan to shoot more movies here in English to be able to sell them outside Russia. It’s a strategic plan for not only our company, but in general for Russian filmmakers.”
Gorak’s art background helped overcome the language barriers when working with the Russian-speaking artists at Bazelev doing quick sketches to communicate his ideas. “In post, the alien POV grew as a tool to explain where the alien was in the shot and how the danger was approaching, because for a large majority of the film the aliens are invisible,’’ explains Gorak. “One thing that always remained true with the POV is the aliens saw their human enemy differently from how they saw the rest of the world. We always had it in the script that the aliens saw the electromagnet pulse of the human being and we came up with this very, clean monochromatic look, with the electromagnetic pulse being this amber glow that separates the humans from the environment.”
“The way aliens attack human beings – the shred – is very original. They’re after human energy and they have this sentient snake like way of seeking humans out. What’s really creepy about our aliens is you can’t even really see them. If aliens were to actually come to earth, I would at least prefer it to be some monstrous thing that I could see,” laughs Taylor. “The thing you’re most afraid of is not even really there. Chris, Timur, and visual effects have done an incredibly original and creative job of fleshing out these creatures that have no flesh. It’s a very tricky concept to get your head around.”
“When our characters figure out how to drop their shield so they can hurt the aliens, it felt like that should happen in levels. The first time we see a very small amount of the alien – just a hint that there is something back there. By the time that they learn how to kill one, we’re showing almost the entire alien, so that you can really get a good look at what our characters have been running from this whole movie.”
Gorak adds, “Developing the alien itself has been a long process working with Timur and Stefen and our creative teams, coming up with the idea that it is an invisible cloaking device on the alien. Depending on its actions, sometimes you see it and sometimes you don’t. My default scare movie is Jaws, so for me it was all about not seeing the alien. The idea of this enemy and danger being invisible but appearing every once in a while it felt like the dorsal fin of a shark, when it comes up and then recedes. That’s what we’re trying to create throughout the story. How do you see it? What part of its anatomy do you get to see at what point? The cloaking device slowly allows you to see more behind the curtain.”
All of the young cast was eager to do their own stunts in the alien thriller. Hirsch and Thirlby were flipped into the water and participated in a fight with an invisible alien on a speeding trolley bus. Minghella, Taylor, and Kinnaman harnessed up for various acrobatic work on wires.
“I have to give a lot of kudos all of them,” says Jacobson. “All the actors wanted to do their own things. Joel wanted to do his stunt because the camera was going to be looking right at his face and it’s a good death moment. We had some padding on the car, but he just threw himself into it. He just jumped up in the air, didn’t put his arms down, and just slammed his face right into the side. It’s in the movie and it’s great.”
“I tried to talk him out of it quite honestly. No, I want to do it. OK, climb that ladder and fall on this car. He was game for it, took a leap off and smacked his head. We did it twice. He definitely had a headache after that, but he agreed to it so I’m not going to take responsibility for any brain damage,” laughs Gorak.
“The more that the actors could do the stuff themselves, the better that it would ultimately be. To see Joel strap up and wear those green pants and to bang his head on the hood of a car as hard as he could to really sell it, was very cool and very scary,” adds Wills. “You’re standing two feet off camera wondering if this kid isn’t going to knock himself out. The same with Rachael Taylor who was totally gung ho to do her own stunts. There’s a wire that pulls her leg back and we had marked out maybe a two-foot wide space for her to fall within a hard metal grate with hard edges. If she had fallen a little to the left or a little to the right, she could have hurt herself.”
“Having actors do the actual stunt to the limit that they can do it, helps the realism of the film, especially when you’re doing science fiction. It just makes the danger, the excitement, the emotions feel more tactile and tangible for the audience,” adds Gorak. “With Rachel’s stunt, we’re on her face the whole time so the audience is connected to that character disintegrating before your eyes. It was one take with two cameras and Rachael did it. That’s the shot that’s in the movie.”
“Everyone always talks about whether actors do their own stunts. The reality is you are the more safe on a film set than anywhere,” comments Taylor. “There are a thousand precautions and rehearsals. If you want to experiment with anything remotely physical, the safest place in the world that you could do it would be on a film set. Plus we have this very cool and talented Russian stunts coordinator and Chris Gorak has a great sensibility for how to make things look scary.”
Taylor’s stunt work takes place within the Sergei apartment set build at MyStudio and was the last thing shot during production. “The sequence in Sergei’s apartment had a lot of script and it was a very claustrophobic space for all this dialogue as well as an action sequence. We really wanted the apartment to have a lot of layers and texture… a lot of visual eye candy. We wanted the action to feel claustrophobic with literally our actors backs up against the wall.”
Since Sergei has a power generator in his apartment, the set was unlike others in the post-invasion part of the story. “That set piece was all about layering, things on top of on the next. The Faraday Cage was a steel structure, but we also we’re able to add practical lighting that we didn’t have anywhere else in the film. It added another layer of excitement when this stuff was arcing and sparking, and flashing and blinking. Hopefully it’s exciting, even though we’re stuck in the small space,” adds Gorak.
“We always knew that Sergei’s apartment needed to be a special place because it’s surrounded by a Faraday Cage that blocks out external electrical fields. This is a point in the movie where our characters need a rest and someone to give them some information about what the heck is going on here. For the place to be safe, it needs to be constructed in such a way that will defeat the aliens’ technology. Watching our production designer actually build that apartment on a stage with all those pieces of metal was fascinating. Those are real pieces of scrap, lord knows where he got them. After pulling it all together, I’m sure it could have withstood an alien invasion. The space also really spoke to Chris’ design background… we can safely say we’ve never before seen something quite like Sergei’s apartment,” comments Wills.
“When they eventually meet Mister Sergei, who’s this crazy mad Martian scientist guy, he’s basically put together this microwave gun. He’s transferred the technology that you’d microwave food with into a gun. When you shoot the alien, the microwave force field disrupts its energy and takes their shield down for a moment, then you can just shoot them with good old-fashioned bullets. Then there’s a ton of bullets and explosions and all that good cinema candy… AK47’s and a real life flamethrower.”
Minghella’s big stunt takes places opposite a seeker alien in a subway trench built on stage at Russian World Studios. “That was complicated to shoot and we dragged Max for a lot of it, and of course he wanted to do most of it himself,” says Jacobson.
Hirsch and Thirlby took on the physical challenges of action scenes in the water plus a fight on a moving trolley bus. One exciting shot that started on a boat in the Moscow River, was actually shot in five pieces in two countries. “The boat flip is basically the climax of act two, so I felt like it was worth the detail and challenge to really make it exciting and different,” states Gorak.
“One element was done on stage and we shot at three locations in Russia and a water tank in Germany, so five locations for one boat flip. When the camera starts to flip, we’re actually on stage against green screen and we wipe up into the sky, and then we splash down into the pool in Berlin. Emile was in that pool and the other characters are swimming in the a lake near Moscow. All these different elements came together to create the one sequence,” adds Gorak.
“By this point in the movie, Emile’ character has made a connection with Olivia’s character, so you really wanted to sell this idea that they’re separated. To do that, we had to spin them around. It was a very technically challenging shot that, but it takes only seconds on screen,” comments Wills.
Jacobson adds, “Chris designed that shot. The aliens are making towers around the city and right on the shore behind them is a tower growing next to a building. They make everything unstable because they’re digging a huge hole in the center of the city. So pieces of this huge building tumble down slope to the river and smash through the embankment and knock the boat over, throwing all our characters into the river. They get separated. Chris wanted to do it in one cool shot where the camera flips with them.”
“That’s easy to do in pre-viz, but not in real life. First of all, the boat was in two different places because the embankment with the building, which we put in digitally, behind it was one direction, and the other direction was in a different location,” explains Jacobson. “We planned that they would fall past camera and the camera would keep going, which we did against green screen on stage. Then we took a second unit out to a lake, because you can’t swim in the Moscow River. That would not be good for anyone’s health. The shots of Emile’s looking at the Russians, bobbing in the water in the distance, we shot with 360-degree digital stills. Then at the very end of the shoot, we went to Germany for a day and we shot Emile in a 50 by 50 tank going under water. They just didn’t have the right water equipment in Moscow. Emile surfaces in the tank surrounded by a green screen. Then we took all those elements and put the shot together.”
Production on The Darkest Hour, which originally began on July 18, was suspended after three weeks of filming due to catastrophic wild fires raging in Central Russia. An unprecedented heat wave and drought gripped the region in the summer of 2010, causing numerous peat bog and forest fires. The resulting thick smoke shrouded Moscow and made shooting in the city impossible. Filming was put on hold to allow conditions to stabilize before resuming production on August 29.
Moscow’s average summer temperature is normally in the mid 70’s, but extreme heat dogged the filmmakers through the last weeks of prep and into shooting. “We had some challenges, not the least of which was the weather,” says Wills. “Then there were very serious fires all around Moscow, which were very scary and very real.”
“Because of the smoke, we did have to leave Moscow, but it really brought the crew together because we were all in the same boat together. The Americans were very concerned for our Russian counterparts who were staying, and they were very concerned for us. It broke our hearts to leave and we were all very excited to come back and see each other and get back to work,” adds Wills.
“I didn’t know that Russia had this slightly superstitions culture and what happened to this production is pretty spooky,” shares Taylor. “We were all in our hotel rooms with wet towels under the door and it felt like we were filming in an apocalypse, which is perfect for the movie.”
“It was ironic,” agrees Kinnaman. “It was very scary when the whole city filled with this thick, white smoke. It was about a 105 degrees, with humidity of about 90 percent, and the visibility was about a 120 feet… absolute hell on earth. When the smoke came in, it was like we were living in the movie were trying to make. It was definitely intimidating. In some of the nightclub scenes we did in the studio, you could actually see the smoke. It was everywhere. It wasn’t from our movie explosions blowing up the nightclub’s bar or fish tank. That’s not fake smoke, that’s Moscow burning.”
“When we got here it was very hot and humid, the worst heat wave in Russia in like a thousand years. We were shooting in Red Square when we started to hear news about these fires all around the country,” remembers Hirsch. “The fires really threw everybody off because smoke began filtering through the whole city of a period of several days. Eventually, you couldn’t even see to a building across the street. I’ve never been on a film that had to shut down because of a disaster before. It was really scary. We were wearing gas masks to work, people were getting sick. It was pretty traumatic. I was really nervous for a lot of people. We shut down and they flew us home. It was pretty crazy getting to Los Angeles and feeling that air is clean.”
Hirsch adds, “A couple weeks later, a crazy cold front came into Moscow and when we came back it was practically freezing, with lots of rain and wind. Definitely some very radical weather that we grappled with in Moscow.”
“It seems to be the way of films in production, they’re cursed by extreme weather circumstances,” agrees Minghella. “We endured the hottest summer in a thousand years and we’re about to head into the coldest winter in two hundred, so the movie gods are frowning down upon us, but we’re surviving. It was a shock when we were told that we weren’t going to work the next day. But creatively it was actually a helping hand. For me personally, it gave me time to go home and really think about the movie and realize how much I wanted to be in it. I returned with a resurgence of energy and passion for the film, and I realized how attached I had become to it.”
Taylor agrees, “This is the only film I’ve ever worked on that’s been shut down, but we realized how lucky we were to be here in Moscow, how good this movie was, and that we really wanted to finish it here, because Moscow really is a character in this film. This is such a great opportunity to make a English language western feature shot entirely on location in Moscow, and we just didn’t want to miss that.”
“Finishing the film was probably the greatest accomplishment because we had so many hurdles to overcome,” says Gorak. “Every movie has their challenges and compromises and we set forth to take 3D cameras into Moscow and come back with a coherent story of an alien invasion… and we did it with a limited number of days and no additional photography. It was a thousand different little victories to make that one big victory.”
“When you have a finite amount of resources you have to be more creative, because you’re forced to make certain choices and stand by them,” adds Wills. “That really helped our film because it gave a real energy and a rawness to the film that speaks to the experience of our characters in the movie. They don’t have a lot of resources or time, and that energy that the production created found it’s way on screen.”
“Having the bleeding edge of 3D technology with us in Moscow for the first time caused so many technical ghosts in the machine. Camera rigs would go down and we would have to adjust our shots. We’re going to do a scene handheld, and the handheld camera fell apart,” laughs Gorak. “Anywhere else, we would have just switched to another camera, but when you’re in an isolated city like Moscow, you don’t have all of those resources at your fingertips. Moscow has made a lot of films, but we were the first soup to nuts American 3D film to be made there beginning to end.”
“Chris and our director of photography Scott Kevan have really done a great job making Moscow look beautiful. But for me personally, I’ll never forget coming here and meeting people who are very different culturally and really coming together with the very talented Russian filmmakers, craftsman, and artisans here to make something that we couldn’t have done on our own,” says Wills. “We absolutely could not have done this by ourselves, so I think that collaboration has been personally and professionally very satisfying for all of us.”
The Darkest Hour wrapped principal photography on October 15, 2010 on the Sergei’s apartment set at MyStudio in Moscow, followed by one day of shooting in a specialized water tank in Berlin, Germany.