I was brought up in the Little Angel Theatre in London.

My parents founded the puppet theater in 1959; they wrote the scripts, painted the scenery and made the puppets. When at capacity, the theater held an audience of 120 adults and children, and shows were performed every Saturday and Sunday morning and afternoon. My family lived under the tyranny of what we called the Booking Book. The telephone would ring any time—day or night, 365 days a year—and we would answer by saying, “Hello, Little Angel Theatre” and hopefully take a booking, crossing off the empty seats in the booking book. If the page for that week was full we ate lamb chops; if not we’d have cornflakes and curry powder.

One evening my Dad was taking a booking when the customer asked, “Before we book tickets, we’d like to know if there’s any audience participation involved in this show, because we don’t like audience participation.” Dad replied, “Yes, madam. There is the participation of the imagination.” I’ve thought about that sentence ever since, and have tried understand what he meant, and what it means to my own work in cinema.

Film is a series of 24 still images projected onto a screen, one after another. There is no such thing in film as the “moving image.” Movement when watching a film is created in the mind of the observer, so immediately there is the participation of the imagination. There is something called the persistence of vision, and that persistence allows one to meld the last image with the one you’re seeing at the time and create movement between the two.

English moviemaker Joe Wright directed such features as Anna Karenina, Hanna, The Soloist and Pride & Prejudice. Photograph by Laurie Sparham, courtesy of Focus Features

Early films were told in wide shots—you’d film a wide shot of a scene, and the actors would enact a story, and very much like a piece of theater, the audience would be allowed to choose where they looked. It was only later that close-ups were employed and films started to be edited, creating the illusion of a temporal reality.

In the 1910s and 1920s Lev Vladimirovich Kuleshov (1899-1970) developed the famous “Kuleshov Effect” which revolutionized cinema. He took an impassive close-up of a man’s face and intercut it with a sequence of images: a bowl of soup, a dead child, a beautiful woman. The important thing was that the shot of the man was the same between each image. The discovery that Kuleshov made was that the audience perceived the man’s expression to change when juxtaposed with the emotive images either side of him. So when the film cut back to the actor after the shot of the soup, the audience saw hunger in his face. After the child in the coffin, they saw grief. After the beautiful woman they saw love.

The participation of the imagination: The audience is required to actively engage and project onto that face.

One of my first short films was about a little girl going on a trip to Brighton with her mum who was going through a divorce, and it was all seen from the kid’s point of view. Everyone who saw the film commented on what an extraordinary performance I’d gotten from that kid. What I’d actually done was tell her to keep a straight face, and then look in various directions. That was the Kuleshov Effect, the projection of the audience’s emotions onto the girl’s blank face that created the required emotion.

In Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman plays British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II. Photograph by Jack English

I used to do some acting when I was a kid at a place called The Anna Scher Theatre, a drama workshop for local kids. An instance arose where we had to learn a modern monologue and perform it for the rest of the class. I chose Barbarians by Barry Keith: The character was a young teenage boy who narrates the story of his mum performing on stage at a pub, singing “Goodnight Irene” as her colostomy bag fills up and she dies. I thought this was going to blow people away—I was just going to chuck buckets of emotion at the delivery of this speech.

So it came to doing it, and I began the speech, and a little way in I could feel my heart rate picking up a bit. I thought, “That’s a good sign.” And then a little later I felt my lip quivering. I thought, “This is good.” And then I felt the first tears coming, and I thought, “Marvelous, they’re going to love this.” And the tears came, and I was weeping, and sobbing, and finally I was singing “Goodnight Irene.” People couldn’t understand what I was saying. I thought, “This is fabulous.”

At the end of the speech there was this slow, lukewarm response. I was really confused. Anna Scher, brilliantly, said, “Well, very good, Mr. Wright, very good… I want you to do it again.” I replied, “I don’t think I can. I’m spent.” She said, “No, I want you to do it again, and I just want you to say the words. Just speak the words, and tell me the story.”

So I sat there and I told the story, and at the end of that rendition I wasn’t crying, but all the audience was. It was an enormous lesson for me in directing actors, but also just in human response. In the first delivery, I had taken up all the emotional space and left no room for the audience, but in the second version I had taken up none of the emotional space, and left it all for the audience to project their own emotions onto the situation—to participate with their own imaginations.

Film grammar has developed over time. In ’40s film noir, the end of a scene would be marked by a fade to black and the first shot of the next scene would then fade up. And that would, in the film grammar of the time, tell the audience that one thing has come to an end—we’re moving location, jumping ahead in time and starting a new scene. It was radical when filmmakers started experimenting with hard cuts between scenes, but audiences were ready for a development in cinematic grammar and so accepted them.

I remember seeing the famous cut in David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia—from the burning match to the desert sunrise—for the first time and it blew my mind. One of the reasons why I love it and can watch it repeatedly is because it encourages my own poetic imagination to project its self into that space between shots. I can see it just as a cut forward in time; I can also think about it in terms of Lawrence’s masochism. I can see it as being about the fire of the match being the micro of the macro desert sun. I can read all sorts of things into it, and there are as many different meanings for that single cut as there are people who will watch it, and that to me is magic.

Music is filmmaking’s closest relation. Tarkovsky called his cinematic memoir Sculpting In Time. Time for a filmmaker is malleable; you can play with it. You can use rhythm to build tension and then release it just like a composer or DJ. You can slow it down by using slow-motion, or repeat an action from multiple angles, or you can speed things up by breaking the continuity of time and jump ahead through a series of actions. Sometimes the audience is aware of this manipulation; other times they are not, and playing with that awareness is fun.

Joe Wright and crew shoot a scene from Darkest Hour. Photograph by Jack English

There’s a specific sequence in my latest film, Darkest Hour, which ties the afore-mentioned threads together. Toward the end of the film, Winston Churchill is bereft of options and is being driven to Parliament, looking out of the window at the people outside. He can’t help but feel a sense of dislocation at the very moment where he needs to embody the sentiment of the British public. He decides to escape his car, break out of his bubble, and go to meet the people.

First, I used a slow-motion shot of civilians outside Winston’s car to express the weight and significance of those people. By using slow-motion I ask the audience to really examine them and perhaps even to feel some love for them. Then I employ the Kuleshov Effect by cutting to an impassive close-up of Winston. He says nothing. It’s up to the audience, given what they feel for the people they’ve just seen, to project their own emotions onto Winston’s face. Then Winston makes his decision to escape the car. By breaking down Winston’s exit into a series of fast-cut specific images, I was able to speed up this process and create a kinetic urgency that expressed the dramatic tension as the narrative unfolded.

For most students of film, what I have described above will not be news. But every time I make a film—Darkest Hour is my seventh—I am required to relearn the craft and to find a specific language to express the specifics of the story I’m attempting to tell. Film, like literature, is a meaningless series of signs and images, but with a thorough understanding of its grammar, it can describe and convey revelatory experiences that will change minds and live forever.

Long live cinema. Long live the participation of the imagination. MM

Darkest Hour opens in theaters November 22, 2017, courtesy of Focus Features. Featured image photograph by Alex Bailey. 

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2018 Complete Guide to Making Movies, on newsstands now.