Dunkirk: Christopher Nolan’s Immersive War Experience

The visionary director of The Dark Knight, Inception and more speaks out about his epic telling of a crucial moment in World War II.

Two British soldiers (Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles) try desperately to find a way off a French beach where they are trapped with more than 330,000 other Allied troops by the approaching German army, as Luftwaffe planes strafe them from overhead; two Royal Air Force pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) battle the odds and the elements to knock as many German craft out of the air as possible; and three men in a tiny boat — a fisherman (Mark Rylance), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young local boy (Barry Keoghan) — make their way across the English Channel as part of a flotilla of small ships in a seemingly impossible attempt to evacuate the troops and prevent an almost incalculable loss.

Those are the three main plotlines of Dunkirk, writer/director Christopher Nolan’s epic telling of events that may have changed the course of World War II. We cannot even imagine what might have happened if those men — the bulk of the British Army — had not gotten off that beach and went home to defend the U.K., and yet this pivotal chapter in the history of that catastrophic war has only been told once before, in a 1958 British movie, and certainly not in the way that the director of projects like The Dark Knight, Inception and Interstellar tells stories.

Shooting most of the film with IMAX cameras, paring back dialogue and exposition to a bare minimum, and pacing the film to the literal sound of a ticking clock, Nolan has fashioned a war film that is different from most of the genre. Dunkirk plays more as a suspense film that a “war movie,” although the threat of the enemy is omnipresent and the stakes are clearly defined. And even if the film doesn’t always connect in some ways — as critics (including this one) have pointed out — Nolan as always deserves credit for a truly “visionary” approach to making his film as immersive and vast in scope as possible.

At a press conference for the film held recently in Los Angeles, Nolan — who does not give a lot of interviews, even while promoting the release of a completed film — discussed the inspiration to make Dunkirk, how certain sequences were achieved, working with his cast of unknowns and established actors, and what the film means to him personally. Since he rarely speak to the press, we’ll follow the example of the film itself, just get out of the way and let this master filmmaker speak.

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On what attracted him to the story:

“Like most British people, Dunkirk’s a story I’ve grown up with. I don’t even remember the first-time I was told about the events at Dunkirk. As kids, we received this very simplified, almost mythic fairytale version of what happened there.

“In particular, (there was) an experience that Emma (Thomas, Nolan’s wife and producer) and I had about 20 years ago, where we made the crossing with a friend of ours who owned a small boat. We made the crossing at about the same time of year the evacuation had taken place. The crossing was extremely difficult. The channel was very rough. It felt difficult and dangerous, and that was without people dropping bombs on us, that was without heading into a war zone. I came away from that experience with my respect and fascination for the people who had taken part in the real evacuation absolutely cemented.”

On how he chooses each project:

“For me, it’s always been about story. It’s always been about finding a story that hooks me, that I feel that I can have an emotional connection with, that’ll sustain me through the years of making a film. I’m very single-minded, I really only do one thing at a time. I’m not very good at planning what I’m going to do next, so I dive in and I concentrate on one film for two or three years, usually. It has to be a story that I feel is going to hook me emotionally for that period of time and keep me enthusiastic about it.”

On whether there are deleted scenes from his films that will one day resurface:

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“No, they’re all in the films. I have a great editor, Lee Smith, and we find a way to just stuff more and more into the sausage. We don’t tend to leave anything on the cutting room floor, in terms of complete scenes that would be coherent on a deleted scenes feature.

“If you look back at my past, Insomnia, we have two deleted scenes on the DVD there because we had two scenes that I liked very much that had to come out of the film for time. After that, I really took the view of trying to make those decisions on the page. Being a writer/director, I don’t come to the floor with things that — well, let me put it this way: making films is hard. All these people here can attest to that. It’s just difficult. You’ll do anything to not shoot something if you don’t have to, so I try to pull things out at script stage that I don’t think are going to serve the narrative.”

On splitting the story of Dunkirk into three different plotlines, each starting at a slightly different time in the course of the events:

“What I was hoping to gain was a way of maintaining a subjective storytelling approach, but still building up a coherent picture of the larger events of Dunkirk. Everything in the film is intended to be intense, suspenseful and subjective. You want to be on the beach with these guys, seeing events through their points of view; but then you also want to build up this bigger picture that requires a view from the air from a Spitfire pilot, on the sea from people coming over to help with the evacuation; and that way, not let the audience step out of the movie, step out of the human scale and perspective. I didn’t want to cut to generals in rooms with maps, kind of pushing thing around or whatever. I didn’t want to give the audience knowledge that the characters didn’t have, other than through the interaction of these three distinct story threads.

On how he planned and directed the aerial sequences:

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“Planning the aerial sequences, it was very important to me that we try to achieve as much in camera as possible. We were able to get real Spitfires, real bombers, real Heinkels (German WWII bombers). And we really tried to get the IMAX camera in places we never got it before, really tried to put the audience in the cockpit of the plane with the pilot. There was a lot of attention to detail, a lot of careful planning. We shot all those sequences on IMAX and overwhelmingly for real, that was the intention. We bought a Yak (made by Russian manufacturer Yakovlev) airplane that’s very similar in size and shape to a Spitfire, but has two cockpits, so we could have a real pilot flying while we had our actor up in the air with a camera mounted on the wing getting his close-ups. That was the kind of thing we really wanted to do to try and tell this aerial story in a way that we hadn’t seen before.”

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On casting One Direction’s Harry Styles and whether there was concern that his pop star status would overshadow the rest of the cast:

“My job as a director is to see the potential in the people we’re thinking of casting. Whether you’re talking about somebody who’s never done a film before, like Fionn or Harry, or whether you’re talking about somebody very experienced, like Mark Rylance or Ken Branagh, you have to see the potential for them to do something they’ve never done before; that’s really the ideal. You try not to cast people who’ve done exactly what they’ve done, because they won’t feel challenged, they won’t get anything out of the experience. You can’t worry too much about previous roles that Mark has done, or Harry’s celebrity, or whatever. I think the audience when they come to a film, if we all do our job right, they become invested in the world that you’ve created and they take it on its own terms.”

On shooting almost the entire movie in IMAX and films that influenced the project:

“I’ve been working with IMAX for about 10 years now, and with each film we’ve tried to maximize our use of it, shoot more of the film that way. This film felt, more than any other I’ve made, that I needed to try and immerse the audience in the experience, create what I call a ‘cinema of experience.’ You know, really take them there. IMAX is the best format to be able to do that. Obviously, that produces production challenges, but I think that’s well worth it in the finished product.

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“As far as influences creatively on the film, we looked at a lot of suspense films. I really wanted the film to be driven primarily through the mechanism of suspense, which I think is one of the most cinematic film forms. We looked at Hitchcock. We looked at various influences. The one I would point to most is probably Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, which I think has a very distinct influence on various aspects of the film. I like to cast a pretty wide net in terms of films to show the crew before we start. We looked at a lot of different things. We looked at some David Lean films for the treatment of landscape. We looked at Ryan’s Daughter, the treatment of the beaches in that extraordinarily visual film. But I think Wages of Fear was the one that we most honed in on as that language of suspense.”

On whether there is one scene in the film that gets to him the most emotionally:

“Sometimes it’s a little bit awkward to talk about my own response to the film we’ve all made, but for me, personally, there’s a very small moment, a look that’s exchanged between Mark’s character and Tom Glynn-Carney’s character at a key moment. It was something that I overlooked, hadn’t even included in the script, in terms of the response to something that had happened. Mark pointed it out to me and very much worked with Tom and Barry about what would be happening outside, in terms of the script; what would be happening between the scenes that I had actually written. What that produced was something that you dream of as a director when you bring on great talents like Mark, like Tom, like Barry. You’re hoping for moments that you didn’t anticipate, that actually come to define a particular part of the story; and that’s what that is for me.”

On what the “Miracle of Dunkirk” evokes in him and what he feels the film is ultimately about:

“If the story has a particular meaning, I think for me it’s about communal heroism, as opposed to individual acts of heroism. I think it’s about the cumulative effect of small acts of human heroism and what we can achieve together, rather than individually.”

Dunkirk is out in theaters today (Friday, July 21).

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