Summer 2017

WWII on a Grand Scale

Christopher Nolan mixes formalism and sponteneity to create a 'you are there' experience with Dunkirk


Director Christopher Nolan confers with actor Kenneth Branagh while on location during the filming of Dunkirk; (Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.)

This is how obsessed Christopher Nolan has been with the epochal World War II event known simply as Dunkirk.

Twenty-two years ago, Nolan and his then-girlfriend (now wife) and producing partner Emma Thomas, hired a small yacht to take them across the English Channel and retrace the journey of the hundreds of military ships and civilian seacrafts that rescued nearly 340,000 British and French troops on the beaches of the northeastern French coastal resort town of Dunkirk from a closely advancing German Nazi force.

"We did it at the same time of year to get a sense of what it was like," Nolan says, "and it turned out to be an incredibly dangerous experience. And that was with no bombs dropping on us."

During the end of May and early June 1940, Allied troops had to flee from a German blitz sweeping across Benelux and into a collapsing France, and finally escaping to Dunkirk's harbor and beaches. The corridor created by defensive Allied units was eroding as 10 days passed, with boats of every shape and size plucking desperate troops waiting on the shore like sitting ducks under relentless Nazi bombardment.

Though technically a military defeat—France surrendering, the U.K. retreating from the European continent, Germany consuming Western Europe—Dunkirk became a moral victory that altered the war's course. Disaster was averted, Hitler failed to definitively defeat Britain, and the new British prime minister, Winston Churchill, became an almost messianic figure to his people. Many historians, such as Walter Lord, rank it as a key moment in the 20th century. In his lively account of the action, The Miracle of Dunkirk, Lord notes, "Dunkirk remains, above all, a stirring reminder of man's ability to rise to the occasion, to improvise, to overcome obstacles."

Which also might describe Nolan's making of Dunkirk.

"Dunkirk is in the DNA of my fellow Britons," Nolan says. "It's in our bones. Like all English people, I was raised on this story. I had quietly harbored for many years the desire to make a film on the subject since it's one of the great stories in human history."

In one of those quirks of moviemaking, the Dunkirk story has been dramatized just once, in a fairly forgotten 1958 Ealing Studios production, Dunkirk, starring John Mills and Richard Attenborough and directed by Leslie Norman. As far as modern cinema is concerned, Dunkirk has barely been depicted. Nolan observes, "As a filmmaker, you're looking for these kinds of gaps in the culture to explore."

After that rollicking ocean adventure, Nolan held on to the idea of a big Dunkirk movie—it had to be big—and then strategically went at it by making a chain of bigger and bigger movies, starting with The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Interstellar (2014). All of them blended grand Hollywood showmanship with the mind-warping storytelling style of Jorge Luis Borges. And for Nolan, all of them were building up his confidence in finally tackling his long-held dream: "It took me a long time to be ready to make this film just as a craftsman," he explains. "I didn't want to take it on until I had a lot of experience directing large-scale action with the mechanics of the blockbuster under my belt."

As Lord has noted, the amount of literature on Dunkirk could fill a warehouse. There are hundreds of documented firsthand accounts, each telling a different facet of a larger story that spanned three countries, land, sea and air, multiple armed forces and thousands of civilians. For Nolan unlocking his story meant covering events with characters "in various geographies and time frames. The key was to immerse audiences in the experience of Dunkirk. It would take you there to the beach, put you on the boat crossing the Channel, put you in the cockpit of a [British] Spitfire fighter plane, and show the evacuation from different points of view, which add up to a relatively complete picture of the physicality and geography of the events."

Nolan first worked out "a precise mathematical structure" for the story before writing the script, which he determined had to be driven by fictional characters inspired by, but not slavishly based on, actual eyewitnesses. This structure would later have a profound impact on the creation of the score by one of Nolan's many longtime collaborators, composer Hans Zimmer, which took a year to create since it had to work in exact rhythm to the suspense-driven editing Nolan composed with his regular editor, Lee Smith.

BEACHHEAD: (Top) A scene from the film; (Bottom) Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and Nolan work with actor Fionn Whitehead during the arduous shoot. (Photos: (Top)Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.; (Bottom) Warner Bros.)

Werner Herzog talks about 'ecstatic truth' in fiction, which I understand better now that I've worked in history," Nolan observes. "It's the idea that fiction can communicate something more truthful to audiences about actual events than documentary. By using fiction, I was able to explain various aspects of what happened in Dunkirk more efficiently and with more emotional clarity than by just following strict facts."

What Nolan calls the "liberation" of made-up characters allowed him, first, to write the script in his usual fashion of instinctive storytelling—even with an ending that's already known—and then cast in a way that blended a roster of veteran British actors (Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance, plus Irishman Cillian Murphy) with many young newcomers (led by Fionn Whitehead and including a supporting turn by ex-One Direction pop star Harry Styles).

Dunkirk naturally called for an ensemble cast, a new challenge for Nolan, who required that young characters be played by young actors—"none of this type of thing where 30 year olds play teenagers"—which sometimes meant having actors just out of school without agents. "It was a great pleasure," Nolan says, "watching the interaction between these young and incredibly talented actors and master actors with great experience, all of them working from a script that was primarily nonverbal. Great acting is about truth, and truth is to be found with or without words. Actors like Kenneth, Mark and Tom are geniuses, really, in the ways they can convey emotion or ideas through silence and simple presence, and both of these states are amply on display in their performances."

But Nolan also found something else with his actors, yet another of the firsts for him in making Dunkirk. True to the improvisatory spirit of the rescue mission itself, Rylance launched a set of improvs with the actors (including Murphy) who play civilians on a boat coming from England, making up scenes that might happen between the actually scripted scenes. "Nobody knows rehearsal and improvisation better than Rylance," said Nolan of the former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe theater in London, "and watching him create this atmosphere was fun and deepened the characterizations."

Nolan's well-chronicled dedication to celluloid was raised a few notches on this shoot, since he and his cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema, decided to film entirely on Imax and 70mm cameras. Dunkirk is Nolan's first project to fully shoot in these large formats, and required a refinement of lenses (care of both Panavision in Los Angeles and Imax in Toronto) so that they could film in ultra-low light levels and at night, when much of the Dunkirk drama played out. Hoytema also worked with Panavision and Imax to create tools such as a snorkel-like lens attachment for filming in the tight Spitfire cockpit sequences featuring Tom Hardy. Nolan had owned one of the few Imax-fitted lenses capable of a 2 F-stop, and had even lent it out to fellow directors J.J. Abrams and Zack Snyder. Now, he says, with a greater demand for Imax shooting, a wider range of faster lenses are being manufactured for the large format.

The director clearly views Dunkirk as a contemporary take on an episode that happened before 90% of his audience was born, but he also stresses that this was filmmaking done with classical rigor. "This is more of a suspense movie than a war movie, and made in the language of suspense, flowing from watching Hitchcock and onward, including Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose The Wages of Fear has never really been bettered for its use of suspense.

"It's a visual language, and perhaps the most cinematic of all genres. Lee and I had to cut according to a rigid structure in order to get the kind of suspense we were after—elongating time at points, compressing it at others—and I had to set up shots with that in mind. And this extended to Hans' work, which had to obey these structures, too. It was arduous, but incredibly rewarding."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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