Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas: Making Dunkirk

July 11, 2017
The husband and wife filmmakers open up about the highly anticipated historical epic.

So, what in particular about the Battle of Dunkirk attracted you to it?

Christopher Nolan: Like most British people, we’ve grown up with the story. I don’t want to speak for you, but I don’t remember the first time I heard about the events of it. So, it’s sort of there in the back of your head and Emma and I took a trip with a friend of ours that owns a small boat about 20 years ago…

Emma Thomas: Mid ‘90s, yeah.

CN: Mid ‘90s. And the crossing was horrible and difficult. It felt life threatening and dangerous. That was without people dropping bombs on us. For me that cemented it, my fascination with what’s the reality, what amazing respect we have to have for the people involved in that evacuation.

Any other particular resonance for you?

CN: It’s just such a great story. As British people, it carries a very special resonance, there’s no question. My father, who passed on a few years ago, was understandably obsessed with airplanes, and every time he saw a film that had World War II air combat in it, he would complain vociferously about all the things they got wrong and explain what they got wrong and knew all about it and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of it, so I think for me, yes there’s something special about being able to tell this story. I hope my dad would approve of the detail we got right and what we chose to do wrong in the pursuit of clarity for the audience, but I feel a responsibility to our families. In taking on Dunkirk, we can’t help but feel some responsibility, some sense of that for the culture, generally, of Britain. But it feels like a film that hadn’t been made that should be made.

How was it to shoot at Dunkirk, because at first you were not quite sure you were going to be able to do it over there. What did you get out of shooting over there that you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t?

ET: I think the obvious answer and the thing that really made the location incredibly important to the filmmaking process is the fact that the events had actually happened right there at that beach. There were the obvious ways in which it was great to shoot there because, of course, we didn’t have to mock up anything about them. The bones of it were there and there are some areas of Dunkirk that have been completely destroyed in the war that we built, but much of the sea front is very much as it was in 1940… Beyond that, just on a psychological level, it was really special to stand on that beach and know that we were in exactly the same place that these events happened. Because of the weather and the logistics of when the French summer holiday was going to be, we ended up shooting on the 76th anniversary of the evacuation. And so, it was quite humbling and put everything that we were doing into perspective.

To be on that beach and think that was the place where these events happened and it’s a town which you very much feel the history when you’re there. Next to the mole when there’s a very low tide there’s still a shipwreck that you can see of one of the boats from 1940. There’s all sorts of artifacts coming to the top of the sands at various points, like buttons and buckles and so on. I think that just psychologically, for all of us, it was an incredible thing to be on that beach.

This film stands in marked contrast to a lot of blockbusters. It’s a rip-roaring, wonderful ride. Did you ever think about how to contextualise historical stories among a blockbuster world populated by robots and monsters?

CN: I think with every blockbuster we’ve done, I think back to doing Inception – in particular, when you’re doing original material – but even when we were working on The Dark Knight, if you look too much at what’s around you, it’s frightening, because you realise you are trying to do something different, you’re flying in the face of what everybody would think that they want. I’ve come to have faith that an audience judges a film on its own terms. If you can get them interested, if you’ve got a story that hooks them, if you’ve got a campaign, and I think Warner Bros. is doing a great campaign. If you’ve got a campaign that can get people into the cinema, I think as audience members we judge each film on the terms of the storytelling. I don’t think we sit there going, “Hey, how come there aren’t giant robots.” And that gives you confidence. You want to have blinders on, a little bit. You run your own races, as they say. What I did feel confident of, is I think this is one of the greatest stories there is. I can say that because I didn’t write it, for once. I’m talking about a real story and I really think it’s amazing. We really tried to put a lot of production value and a lot of spectacle into the script.

You’ve worked with Michael Caine so many times and I know you wanted to populate this with a British cast, was there any role for him?

CN: Not really, I spoke to Michael early on and we talked about it, but we wanted to be true to the ages of the people involved in the real events, in particular with the leads. We didn’t want to preserve the Hollywood convention of 30-year-olds playing 19-year-olds. We wanted to find kids who were 18, 19. And that’s what we did with the casting. Michael was very understanding about that. He has a little bit of a presence in the film, sometimes people notice, sometimes they don’t, but I’ll leave it at that.

ET: You’ll have to watch it again.

Harry Styles blends in very well, was that a leap of faith?

ET: I think that any casting process, when you’re casting unknowns or people who haven’t acted before there’s a certain amount of faith, but we went through an extremely exhaustive casting process whereby we really put everyone through their paces and Harry, as with all the other guys – Fionn [Whitehead] had never been in a film either and Tom Glynn-Carney, who plays Peter, he actually left drama school early to come and shoot with us. I think we counted as part of his coursework, but we brought them all in and looked at many, many different actors and pared it down and pared it down, and then brought them in day after day and they ran the scenes in different combinations, and so by the time we made the decision of who to cast in each role, we felt very strongly that they were the right actors for the part.

Was the freshness something that you were going for in the casting?

CN: It’s funny to remember when audiences went to see the first Alien in 1979, they had no idea who Sigourney Weaver was, they had no idea who was going to live and who was going to die in the film. When you try to create a suspense thriller, a survival story, if you’re going to have fresh faces and unknowns who don’t carry any particular baggage, there’s no expectation on the casting. So, that frees you up. At the first shot you see these men in the street. You don’t know, even with the poster you have and the amount of press we’ve been doing, you don’t even know which of them is going to be the person you follow. That’s a wonderful opportunity for the filmmaker.

How different was filming entirely in IMAX?

CN: I think my first conversation with Hoyte [van Hoytema, the cinematographer] after we wrote the script was, what format should we use? We hadn’t really determined that. I’d been shooting on IMAX a lot over the last ten years, and I always liked the idea of doing an entire film that way. But, I think our first thought was, “well the beach is very horizontal, perhaps Cinemascope, there’s different ways of looking at it.” At the end of the day, we keep coming back to this thing that the larger your negative, the clearer the image, the more you feel like you’re there. The ground, the colour, the texture. It’s just such a wonderful imaging format that you just get drawn back into it. Having to handle all these huge cameras, I involved him in the decision, because I didn’t want to take responsibility for having to make the film in this way. But, you fall in love with that image. You go and watch dailies at the Science Museum in London and you’re looking at this vast screen and there’s just no other way to get that image.

There are different timelines in this film, and time was also important in your other films like Inception; why is it important to you to portray this perception of time?

CN: I think cinema has a really fascinating ability to influence or manipulate the audience’s feeling about time as they’re watching it. Compared to every other media, you sit there and watch a film and have a very, very different idea of what the timescale of a film is. You can have films that take place in real time, you can have films that take place over millennia, so I’ve always seen it as an interesting tool in the toolkit to use it to tell a story, and in the case of this story, I knew I wanted to always be subjective, but I wanted the audience to have a coherent picture of the larger events of Dunkirk. So, I knew I needed different viewpoints of the events that would contrast and build up a story, and one of those viewpoints is somebody flying in a Spitfire and he’s only there for an hour, and one of these viewpoints is people stuck on the beach for a week. And so, those stories have to run on different timescales and interact with each other in interesting ways. That was the logic behind doing it, and I think manipulation of time in cinema is just one of the tools that a filmmaker has at their disposal.

The dogfight scenes in this are absolutely amazing. Was it important for you to break new ground in the area, and what kind of thinking went into visualising how to separate the dogfight scenes from ones we’ve seen before?

CN: It was very important to break new ground. These kinds of things have been done a lot in films. If you look at the history of dogfights in movies, and I have over the years, it’s a very interesting curve where you start off with Wings and Hell’s Angels, and they’re some of the best that’ve ever been done. You go to The Battle of Britain, which Michael Caine was in and it’s amazing, and then they gradually get worse and worse and worse as the technology gets better because what happens is people stop going up in real planes. They start shooting planes from the ground and then putting the actors in a green-screen stage. We wanted to go back to first principles. We wanted to go back to saying, ‘okay let’s get Spitfires, let’s get real Messerschmitts, let’s get real bombers. Get up in the air and really shoot these things.’

The one thing that was clear to me, looking at the history of it, was very often the cockpit shots let things down, because you have to control more, you have to get in on the actors. I said, “Well let’s find a plane.” and our stunt coordinator Thomas Struthers found us a plane we could buy, not a Spitfire but similar in shape, a Yak, it’s a Romanian plane with a double cockpit, so we could have a real pilot fly the plane, mount the camera on the wing, put the actor up in the air for real and get them flying. Shooting on IMAX, which is the highest resolution film format ever devised, finding a way to work with Panavision and IMAX themselves, trying to figure out lens masks so we could get the huge camera off set but get the lens right where the head of the pilot would be and really see what part we’d be seeing. These are things we spent months and months of R&D on, but we felt like we really wanted to give the audience the feeling of what it would be like and how difficult it would be to be up in there, the claustrophobia, the danger, and also, the pacing of those things.

When you look at dogfights that are done with CG, the temptation to violate the laws of physics is just too great. The planes move too fast, everything is just too close to camera, too crazy or whatever. What I said to everybody is, “We don’t want to treat this like it’s a car chase, we want to treat it like it’s a chess game.” So, you would see the strategy involved, you would see the difficulty of trying to pull ahead, go into a bank, shoot ahead of the other planes, you would see the tracer fire and hit the other plane. I really tried to involve the audience in the detail of that. So, that was something that was very important to us and I think the guys did a tremendous job, I’m very happy about that.

Do either of you have any relatives that were in World War II?

ET: I don’t have any relatives who were in the war, I just have always loved history, but no personal connection.

CN: My grandfather was a navigator on a Lancaster bomber, but he did not survive the war. While we were filming – he’s buried in France in a military grave – we took the kids to see his grave. I think my fascination with planes and that aspect of it is partly due to that. But I never knew him.

Dunkirk is in cinemas July 20, 2017

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