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.”
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