If Chris Gorak’s name is immediately familiar to you, consider yourself one of the lucky ones: his directorial debut Right At Your Door came and went commercially, but it lingers on as a great example of independent genre filmmaking. His next film goes from the microfocus of his debut to the macro of a global invasion and back again: The Darkest Hour (see our Comic-Con presentation coverage here) is an adventure starring Emile Hirsch, Max Minghella, Rachael Taylor and Olivia Thirlby, about a group of Americans stranded in Russia after the planet is attacked by aliens. Movies.com sat down with Gorak in San Diego after a Summit presentation of the trailer for The Darkest Hour, where Gorak discussed the prospect of making an unconventional thriller in a foreign land, and explored the challenges of balancing epic sweep with intimate humanity.
Movies.com: Having done a film prior to this that had a fantastical conceit but was primarily contained to one location, what did you pitch to the producers of The Darkest Hour that gave them confidence you could bring this to life?
Chris Gorak: There’s a lot of themes in The Darkest Hour that relate to Right At Your Door – obviously an unexpected apocalypse and surviving. Part of my presentation for The Darkest Hour was that I really wanted to lock the perspective to these characters – to understand what they’re going through, and as they learn, we learn. I think that gave the studio confidence, because that’s what I did in Right At Your Door – I stuck to their perspective, and it became claustrophobic and intense and felt epic at the same time. So instead of being in one location we worked in one storyline, and moved through that one storyline no matter where we were filming.
Movies.com: Yours is not the first film to shoot in Russia, but why do you think that’s becoming a more viable destination for film projects?
Chris Gorak: I think one [reason] is our producing partner Timur Bekmambetov coming out of Russia with Night Watch and Day Watch and then coming over here and doing Wanted. I think it’s opened up the door pretty wide to take a look over there. But it was quite a challenge – we did our entire movie there, where other films just do a couple of scenes or a sequence. We went and did the whole thing, and it was a story about people stuck in Russia, it was about Russians, and it had to do with the location. And all of the challenges that it presented (laughs).
Movies.com: Timur’s films operate on a massive scale. What did he bring to this film, and how did you strike a balance between that aesthetic and your own?
Chris Gorak: It was important to us all that we connected to the characters, and that came down to the casting. I think we cast great actors, and a unique group of actors that you don’t see in a movie like this. So their feet are on the ground, and if their feet are on the ground, then the effects are real and everything comes together – and if everything feels real, then it’s scary and it’s believable. And I think all of that stuff is interconnected. Timur and his group bring that kind of Russian flavor into it all, and his visual effects team bring in a lot of that kind of creative wackiness that comes with the Russian tone. So at some point we’re moving this kind of story, and as we get deeper into Russia, it kind of takes this left turn and it gets even stranger. And it’s a lot of fun that way.
Movies.com: The idea of the aliens being energy-based is a great, great idea. How easy was that to get a grasp on what the design and use of them was going to be for the film?
Chris Gorak: It was difficult. I mean, designing a creature I think is one of the hardest things to do, because one, there’s so much history of film with creatures that you don’t want to reference any other film or comic book or whatever. But two, I think humans like to categorize things and put things in boxes; like, that thing looks cool, but it looks like a cricket. Or that thing looks like a lion. So to shake all of that history and shake all of that kind of leading design reference points is a hard thing to do. So we came at it from an angle where it was like, what’s the science? Let’s build this piece by piece: It’s got an invisible shield made up of lethal wave energy. Something’s got to generate that. So it was kind of architecturally put together.
Movies.com: At the same time, do you have to think about a degree of anthropomorphization or recognizable physicality so that audiences won’t be thrown off?
Chris Gorak: Yeah. You do want to see the eyes of the enemy. So at some point, you want to see in their soul somewhere, and I think we do that in classic fashion. But you want to believe that there’s a thinking creature behind that. And one way we also do that is we cut to the aliens’ perspective, where they see our electromagnetic pulses, and you know there’s a thought process of them understanding us and what we are.
Movies.com: How carefully do you have to balance that omniscient perspective so that you’re not taking away from the intimacy or humanity of the main characters’ story?
Chris Gorak: We stick to our characters’ journey, and the only perspective we cut away to is the monster’s perspective when he’s in the vicinity. Other than that, we don’t cut away to the President, we don’t cut away to what Putin’s doing, or anything like that.
Movies.com: How easy is it to create an environment that’s absent of energy and even life?
Chris Gorak: Shooting this apocalypse was unique in that there was no technology, no power, and everything was dead, so the hardest thing to do was to shoot at night, because there’s no light, or no motivated light. And we’re not used to seeing a city with no lights, so it’s a very strange image, in a good way. Those are the good challenges, and during the day it’s a little easier – you don’t see lights on and things like that. But the emptiness of the city during the day is the hardest [to pull off] - clearing and controlling, that aspect, stuff like stopping traffic.
Movies.com: How tough is it to create suspense when you’re shooting suspenseful sequences during the day?
Chris Gorak: One thing that attracted me to this project was that once I realized that these aliens could turn on electrical devices, be it a light or a car or whatever, I realized that we’re going to flip the genre on its head – daylight is scarier than night. So that trope of night is safe. So yeah, we’re going to tell more stories during the day, because we can’t see the danger when it’s coming. I hope it comes through in the film, but it was something that we embraced early on and tried to capture as opposite to what most films of this kind do.
Movies.com: How much participation have you had in the packaging of this film? Do you have specific thoughts about how much you want or don’t want revealed about the movie?
Chris Gorak: You know, it’s great when you’re able to work with a great marketing team like the one at Summit and Fox International. They definitely know what they’re doing, and when they come into the process, they come in later. I’m really close to the process, so they’re looking at things very objectively, and they present things very objectively to an audience so I trust them in that. I’m probably more like, tease the audience as much as possible; give it to them, but not all of it. Tease, tease, tease. When I see a teaser, I get excited as a moviegoer, because I’m a moviegoer too. And if I see a trailer, and I’m like, “wow, what’s that about? I’m in,” that’s very seductive.