How Christopher Nolan crafted his WWII masterpiece, Dunkirk
When studio executives sleep at night, they dream of Christopher Nolan movies. It’s visions of a superhero movie grossing more than a billion dollars worldwide and winning Oscars that dance in their heads. But since polishing off the Dark Knight trilogy and breaking away from Hollywood’s “one for you, one for me” model — which allowed him to make The Prestige and Inception — Nolan, 46, has continued to make blockbuster movies like 2014’s Interstellar on a sprawling scale and budget level, seemingly because he can.
Now there’s Dunkirk (out Friday), a World War II story not well-known in the States. The film stars Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, and Mark Rylance, alongside a cast of newcomers — most notably Fionn Whitehead and Tom Glynn-Carney. And it puts viewers on the beach, in the air, and on the sea during the evacuation of 400,000 desperate Allied soldiers from France in 1940, before America entered the war but after Hitler’s war machine had blitzed Western Europe.
Allied soldiers were trapped in the small French town of Dunkirk, pinned down as German forces closed in from all sides. A 50-mile swath of water, the English Channel, separated them from home and survival. The film re-creates that white-knuckle tension in breathtaking detail. From moment to moment, no one is sure of who will reach them first: the ragtag armada of military and civilian boats journeying to deliver them across the Channel — or the bombing Nazi Luftwaffe.
While Nolan is quick to admit that Dunkirk is an unlikely story for a summer studio release, it’s one he sees as central. “I have the opportunity right now to marshal very large-scale resources to something that perhaps is more obscure or wouldn’t get made otherwise,” he says.
Sitting in a nondescript house that serves as an office for his production company at the base of the Hollywood Hills, Nolan sipped tea and spoke with EW about how he uses his creative power, how fatherhood has affected his filmmaking, and the surprising movie he watched three times last year.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Among directors making studio films, you have a rare level of freedom. How do you decide what to do with that?
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN: I’ve always felt the responsibility to try to do something that I consider to be very vital. In the case of Dunkirk, this is one of the greatest stories in human history, and it’s never been told in modern cinema. When you look at what the event actually is, there’s no small version of the film. That requires the backing of a major studio. That requires the American film industry. There are no Americans in the film. It’s about a defeat. Yes, it’s a victory within a defeat, but it’s a defeat. There are a lot of reasons that no one had been able to do this film before, and I had the opportunity to do it.
The evacuation of Dunkirk is something that has fascinated you for years. When did it become something you wanted to make into a film?
A long time ago, 25 years ago now, [my wife and producing partner Emma Thomas] and I made the trip [across the English Channel]. A friend of ours had a small sailboat, and we did the crossing from England to Dunkirk. It was extremely arduous. It took way longer than we thought. The weather was terrible. The Channel was very rough. That stuck with me as admiration for the people who participated in the civilian component of the evacuation.
Why was now the right time to finally make it?
The specifics of how to structure the script, how to actually approach the storytelling, had eluded me for a long time because there are so many different ways to do it. It’s such a huge event. In the end, the key for me was reading a lot of firsthand accounts of the people who were there. It became apparent to me that the subjective approach — really putting the audience on the beach with the characters, putting them in the cockpit of the plane, putting them on one of the boats coming across to help — that was going to be the way to tell the story and get across this much bigger picture.
You also use a structure I’ve never seen on film. You tell three story lines — one on land, one at sea, one in the air — on three different timescales. One story takes place over a week, another a day, and one just an hour.
It became apparent to me that if I want to be in the shoes of somebody on the beach but also someone in the cockpit of a Spitfire who’s on a mission that would really last only an hour of fighting time, those two stories were going to have to function on two different timescales. The audience begins to understand fairly early on that [those three stories] are going to meet. The anticipation of that becomes part of the tension of the story.
Even the sound — the actual audio — of Dunkirk is unlike your other movies. There’s much less dialogue. How different did this script look?
It was about half the length. It was a 76-page script, a very short script. I really wanted to be telling the story through images, first and foremost. For me, this film was always going to play like the third act of a bigger film. There have been films that have done this in recent years, like George Miller’s last Mad Max film, Fury Road, or Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, where you’re dealing with things as the characters deal with them.
This is your first feature since Interstellar, which was dialogue-heavy. Is Dunkirk an intentional reaction to that film?
You try not to be too reactive to what you’ve done, but at the same time you don’t want to repeat yourself. You find things in a film that you want to keep expanding on. For example, at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, where Bane is introduced, we did a complicated aerial sequence. I wanted to build on that for this film.
It seems like you get to make whatever you want. What are your major creative constraints now? What do you end up pushing against?
You have all kinds of physical and logistical challenges with each film. With Dunkirk, you’re trying to re-create a historical reality that doesn’t exist anymore. For example, there are no British destroyers left, so you have to look for boats that can be dressed to look like them or you give up and go the CG route. We actually found a French destroyer of a similar type that was a few years later and slightly longer, but we were able to dress it like a British destroyer.
What do you think audiences are looking for when they go to a blockbuster?
I’ve never felt it was appropriate to condescend to the audience. I am the audience, and I go to see lots of movies. With Dunkirk, we’re making a large-scale blockbuster, so we’re trying to speak in a very universal language, but we’re also trying to challenge that. We’re trying to do that in a different and — hopefully — adventurous way. We try to not allow the audience to feel too familiar with what the film is. We’re trying to give them something new and something different, which I think is important in the world of blockbusters. People sometimes see that as a risk, but I think that in truth the audience has always demanded freshness.
Has your taste in movies changed as you’ve gotten older?
The one thing that I did notice changing from when I was a kid is, it’s very rare as an older person — I’m almost 47 now — that I’ll go back to see a film because I enjoyed it in a theater. [Though] I did with La La Land; I went back to see that a couple of times. That basic joy of the possibility of a new movie and being there on opening night with a crowded audience — I don’t think that ever changes. That’s just a magical experience.
Why did you see La La Land three times?
Why did I go back? I think I almost went back to see if it was as good as I had thought, and it was, if that makes sense.
Dunkirk is your first story to focus on really young men. Did that feel new?
It felt very new. When we cast [20-year-old] Fionn Whitehead, we grabbed some food and had a chat about the script. It was definitely the first time in my career where I was like, “Wow, this guy is not really much older, maybe three years older, than my eldest kid.” Suddenly, you feel that you’re in a much more paternal situation. This is the first film I’ve made where I felt a very different kind of responsibility to the young guys at the heart of it.
Did you make a different Dunkirk than you would have 10 years ago? You’re the father of three boys under 18 now.
Oh, very different. Ten years ago, I don’t think I would be viewing Fionn and Tom [Glynn-Carney, who plays a young civilian sailor] as boys. I would have viewed them as young men. For me making this film, they’re very much boys, and that’s an important part of the film and what the film is.
You cast former One Direction’s Harry Styles in a small but pivotal role, but you haven’t promoted that at all, really. Why?
We’re not trying to oversell Harry in the movie for the specific reason that it’s an ensemble. We don’t want people who are huge fans of his being disappointed that he’s not in it enough or whatever. I think what he does is extremely subtle because it’s very real. It’s not cartoonish. [His performance] almost risks being missed because of what it’s actually doing.
At this point in your career, what still excites you about making movies?
The danger for filmmakers, somebody in my position, who obsessively throws himself into the experience of filmmaking, is that the realities you create are very important to you, and you live in them. And you wallow in them. That’s a lot of fun. For me, the experience of diving into an alternate reality and trying to make it everything you want it to be and involving a large group of people in it — so that they share your delusion — is a lot of fun. I’m completely addicted to it.