The Dunkirk director reveals the challenges of transforming documented reality into an experience fit for the multiplex.
Christopher Nolan is cinema’s billion dollar brain. For his monolithic brand of emotionally-driven blockbuster, the sky isn’t the limit – it’s the starting point. With his tenth film, he heads to the weather-beaten beaches of northern France to restage the 1940 military evacuation of Dunkirk. We spoke to the director in Burbank, CA about the art of the movie epic and what makes his immaculately engineered clock tick.
LWLies: Dunkirk is your first film about a real event. In the creation process, did you ever feel beholden to documented reality?
Nolan: It was very different for me to be dealing with documented reality. The closest I’ve ever come to it in the past was probably Interstellar, as the jumping off point for a lot of what we did in the film was established science. But this was an entirely new thing in that we were looking at real-life experiences and real events. And these events were described from a lot of different points of view. For me, the process of writing the script was very much one of reading, re-reading and absorbing a lot of the history and a lot of eye witness accounts. I just wanted to get a good grounding of the overall event – the shape of the evacuation. Also, I wanted to know how it looked and how it felt. And this was all done before I started to get my story into place.
Were books the central pillar of your research?
One of my first points of inspiration was reading the primary source accounts. There is something about listening to someone’s words as they’re describing what they saw – it has a real immediacy to it. When you look at newsreel footage, you’re interposing a camera between the audience and the subject. The essence of the experience is diluted. There’s something very direct about words on a page. The archival footage was mainly used to flesh those accounts out.
In the accounts you read, did you find people describing their feelings?
There are a lot of different voices. It’s a very well documented event and you do find a bit of everything in there. The thing that you’re constantly reminded of is that you’re dealing with almost 400,000 people, which is the population of a small city. You find all sorts of contrasting feelings about what’s going on, and all sorts of different observations too. You find people who speak about the great order and efficiency. You find people who talk about absolute chaos. Having gone and walked on and then filmed on those beaches, you realise that the beach itself is miles and miles long. It’s massively wide. It’s not one location, which was something that was key to point out to my crew in the planning stages.
How do you capture that vast setting in the script?
On the page, you tend to write a moment as an event that takes place ‘on the beach’, but it’s not one beach – it’s this massive expanse of sand. There are all sorts of localised events occurring at the same time. There’s a myriad of impressions and stories, and I’ve got to try and be inspired by that myriad nature. I want the film to give people an insight into the evacuation, but also feel what it was like to be part of it. I want them to be there. But, at the same time, I want there to be a constant reminder that there’s a guy in the corner of the frame who has his own story that we’re not getting to hear.Read more in LWLies 70: the Dunkirk issue
You told members of the crew to watch Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line before making this movie. Did you feel that this was a more impressionistic mode of filmmaking than you’re used to?
To be perfectly honest, it’s not the case. I’m a huge fan of the film. And yes, we screened a print of it for the crew. There’s a timeless quality to the film that we wanted to aim for. But beyond that… The Thin Red Line is a very poetic film, and that’s one of the things I love about it. And yes, it’s impressionistic to the point of skirting the abstract. Yet we wound up going a very different direction with this film.
This is actually a very grounded, concrete film about physical processes. It’s what I call a ‘present tense narrative’. It throws you into the moment. It gives you very little extraneous information. It engages you in physical dilemmas. How do two soldiers carry a stretcher between a bombed-out gap in the mole, which is this marine structure – like a jetty – that the boats were pulling up to? Can you escape from a sinking vessel? It’s being in the moment. It’s very suspenseful. There’s almost a thriller quality to the sense of time and with the enemy closing in. It’s people in life or death situations.
Are there moral questions when it comes to depicting historical reality, especially in reference to war?
Setting out to tell a true story during wartime was very daunting. I have not fought in a war. Frankly, it’s my worst nightmare to do so. And I have nothing but respect and admiration for people who have been put in that position. I had to approach Dunkirk not as a war film, but as a survival story. That was the only way I felt confident in my ability to be able to address the material. The emphasis of the film is very much on individual, physical, geographical dilemmas. It’s about that moment of trying to survive against all the odds. I also didn’t want to speak of any one real individual’s experience. That would not have felt appropriate. I wanted to give an audience who had never encountered these events a representative experience of Dunkirk without claiming to speak for any real individuals.
What did Warner Bros think about a film which de-emphasises characters and context?
The studio were very supportive of the visceral nature of this type of storytelling. While the subject matter is obviously completely different, and there had to be a real reverence for reality, they have had great success with films like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road – these are narratives that just throw you into a situation. They create tension and suspense through the concept of immediacy. I felt if we could give the audience the sensation of being there and seeing the things that they would have seen and having the information that they would have had, that felt very important for the way we were trying to tell the story. This is sensory cinema. This is about being on the beach, not back in offices in Whitehall watching generals pushing things around a map. It’s experiential storytelling.
A lot of your movies can be interpreted as being about the process of filmmaking. Do you feel this epic story about the line between organisation and chaos is another one?
I would say not actually. I think it would be glib to say it was. I have made movies in the past that do reflect the filmmaking process, such as The Prestige and Inception. I think standing there, on that beach, at the same time of year that the evacuation actually happened – we had real boats come over there and recreate the journey of the volunteer sailors – there was a very humbling sense of how much simpler and smaller what we do as filmmakers is. Especially compared to anything that happens in the theatre of war. It’s very humbling. It gives you a true sense of perspective on what you do.
You shot Dunkirk in 70mm IMAX. Visually speaking, how do you keep yourself in that 70mm headspace while you’re making the film?
There are a few things that help you in terms of keeping in that headspace. The cameras themselves, the sheer noise and the weight and the excitement of them, frankly, constantly remind you of the scale of what it is you’re doing. It pushes you towards a very tableaux style of filmmaking. It keeps you grounded within the larger frame. We were able to watch dailies in France as we had a very good 70mm projector which we took around with us.
We also had 35mm projection for IMAX reduction prints – it wasn’t really practical to have an IMAX projector on set. They looked very good, but the 70mm stuff was absolutely beautiful. So we’re able to get a really good idea of what we’re doing. You’re watching dailies from a few days before as it takes a while to get them processed and back to set. But it’s constantly inspiring. You’re out there battling the elements, then at the end of the day you grab a plate of food, sit down in a darkened cinema and project what you did three or four days before. And when you see that you got something you were going for, it’s tremendous.
When you’re shooting on a format that gives you so much detail, so much texture, so much information, does it make the editing easier? Because everything is already in the shot.
It allows you to hold shots longer. Capturing detail in a frame is a powerful storytelling tool. When you’re cutting it together, there is the feeling that you want to give the audience time to scan the whole image. You tend to cut a little bit slower, let things play out a little bit longer. Combining that with a very non-verbal script – that is to say, there’s not as much dialogue in this as in my previous films – it’s very much more of an image-based type of storytelling. The large format with minimal dialogue pushes you in an interesting direction editorially. This was a very different film to edit, and a very enjoyable one too.
When you’re thinking of ideas for movies, do you ever try to imagine what stories would look good in 70mm, almost as an excuse to use the format?
Probably not consciously. Having written the script, I then sat down with my director of photography, Hoyte Van Hoytema, and we talked about what format would work. Having used IMAX on Interstellar, we threw out a lot of ideas, like 35mm anamorphic which chimed nicely with the horizontal nature of the beach. But then at the end of the day, we knew how to use this format which has the highest image quality of any visual format ever invented. We did wonder what would it be like to take those cameras to the beach. I try not to think about these questions too early on. I try and save those conversations for when we have the words on the page.
Do you treat film as a precious material? Does it make the shoot harder?
I wouldn’t say it makes the shoot harder, but it does help you to focus. The interesting thing about working with wide-gauge formats is that the digital revolution hasn’t altered the production process in the slightest. There are still as many people on the set and schedules haven’t got any shorter. The truth is, on a large scale film, the type of camera you’re using tends to be a fairly small consideration. In Dunkirk we rebuilt a massive section of the mole out onto the water. We had marine construction involved. When you’ve done things like that, whether you’re going to shoot on this format or that format is a fairly minimal consideration. The difficulties that come from having a larger camera are insignificant compared to the forces you’re marshalling and the money you’re spending to mount a large scale production. Having gone to all this effort in building these things and putting thousands of extras in uniform on the beach and assembling a crew and getting a real destroyer in the sea, I then feel a huge responsibility to capture that in the best possible way.
“I got in touch with Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, we spent a lot of time talking about what can be done to save film”
Paul Thomas Anderson released Inherent Vice in 70mm, and Quentin Tarantino made The Hateful Eight in 70mm Cinerama – are you guys in a 70mm club? Do you meet up and trade secrets about shooting in this format?
Absolutely. We all learn from each other. In the last few years, photochemical process has come under threat from electronics companies and studios. I got in touch with Quentin and Paul and we spent a lot of time talking about what can be done. I had a lot of inspiring conversations with JJ Abrams about shooting in IMAX. I actually have a very good IMAX lens that helps to shoot at night which I lent to JJ. I also lent it to Zack Snyder for Batman v Superman. There’s a lot of interesting collaboration that goes on. As photochemicals come under such pressure and such threat from economic forces – those not wanting to deal with it from a business or an industrial point of view – filmmakers have had to stand up and be counted.
Is the thinking behind that threat a fallacy? Is digital really cheaper?
As far as the cost, it’s a complete fallacy. I’m making my films cheaper than anybody working at the same scale on digital. There are no efficiencies to be gained there and no money to be saved. There’s been an aggressive fight against photochemicals by companies who make money by change. They make money by selling you new equipment and building new equipment. The studios saw an opportunity to stop paying as much for release prints and follow more of a television model where you’re broadcasting films rather than physically shipping them. But all of that’s irrelevant. I gave a speech some years ago where I was asked to defend film, and I said that I felt like a stonemason defending marble. It’s ridiculous. This is why we’re all here. It’s what we do. This is film. Every digital format so far devised is just an imitation of film.
You talk a lot about how you immerse yourself in a movie for years when you’re making it. Is it difficult or even sad to have to move on and leave a subject behind?
You leave it behind, but only temporarily. All that information, it never quite leaves you. One of the great joys of my profession is that you get to fully immerse yourself in a subject for a couple of years, and then you move on to something else. But you carry an affection and a fascination with you always. It’s the same with locations you’ve been to – sometimes you want to go back. We went back to Iceland for Interstellar having shot Batman Begins there. We continually go back to locations we like in London or Los Angeles. There’s an interesting relationship between the films you’ve made in the past and the one you’re making in the present. A lot of our aerial work, which is a huge focus in Dunkirk, builds on things we learned making The Dark Knight Rises. So you’re not saying goodbye, it’s more you’re ling it away. Over time, you make connections between the films. Knowledge you gain from one film helps you out later in ways you might not have predicted. The experiences form a pattern.
Read the full unabridged interview in our latest print edition.
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