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Why the epic Dunkirk was the hardest film Christopher Nolan has made

TheJournal.ie sat down with the director and his co-producer (and wife) Emma Thomas to find out more about their epic film Dunkirk.

Bodega Bay Christopher Nolan on set with actor Kenneth Branagh. Source: Melinda Sue Gordon

BRITISH DIRECTOR CHRISTOPHER Nolan has a wild imagination.

It’s brought us a labyrinthine world of dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams in Inception and conjured up a darker dimension to Batman in the Dark Knight trilogy.

But where to go for his next movie? Instead of turning to an even more fantastical topic than in his last film Interstellar (think space exploration with an intense maths-meets-philosophy lesson mixed in), Nolan has embraced the past.

In Dunkirk, released this weekend, he tells in epic form the WWII story of when over 338,000 Allied troops (198,000 of them British) were evacuated from a beach in France as the enemy surrounded them.

Source: Movieclips Trailers/YouTube

Due to the shallow waters at the beach, and the onslaught of German bombing that was picking off ship after ship, the British put out a call for help – from civilians.

Under Operation Dynamo, Britons were urged to donate their small crafts to the evacuation race, and some of them even ended up travelling to the harbour to help with the rescue.

A pivotal moment for Britain during the Second World War, and one which led to the notion of the communal power of the Dunkirk Spirit, it’s a story that’s haunted Nolan for decades. (He once attempted the Dover to Dunkirk crossing in a boat himself – and after hitting a small storm realised the difficulties that could be encountered in such a stretch of water.)

But it took until now, when he can command $20 million a film and rake in hundreds of millions at the box office, for him to be able to make it. And as it turns out, the film was also the most difficult the 46-year-old had to make so far in his career.

‘Let’s put the audience in the troops’ place’

Dunkirk Photocall - Dunkerque Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan in Dunkirk. Source: Lefevre Sylvain/ABACA

In a London hotel, Nolan and his co-producer and wife, Emma Thomas (the LA-based pair met at university in London), outline to TheJournal.ie just what it took to make the movie – which was shot on IMAX, 70mm and 35mm and serves up almost all of its special effects in-camera.

For Nolan, it was the simple message of Dunkirk that made it a story he wanted to adapt. “It’s that simple idea of an event in history that relies less on individual heroics than on a sort of communal heroism that develops over the days of the evacuation,” he says, calling it “a defeat within a victory”.

Rather than focus on “generals in rooms pushing symbols around on maps”, Nolan decided to get subjective.

It’s about OK, let’s try and put the audience in the place of people who are actually going through these events.

The only way he could do that, he felt, was to have multiple points of view.

So, he broke the film into three parts: land, sea and air, all with their own timeline. It’s a very Nolan thing to mess with linear storytelling, but he doesn’t go all Memento on us here.

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It’s an armrest-gripping watch: even though you know the ending, the fact that Nolan (who wrote the script) focuses on the micro-stories of individuals involved in the evacuation means the tension can – and does – get dialled up to 11.

Often described as an auteur, Nolan has a singular vision for his movies. ”What I admire the most about what Chris does, and I can’t imagine how anyone else can do it, is the way he holds everything in his head,” says Thomas.

“He has an extremely clear idea of what the film is going to be in the long run and he knows so much about everybody else’s jobs, it’s actually kind of incredible.”

Britain Dunkirk World Premiere Cork's Cillian Murphy at the London premiere. Source: Vianney Le Caer

Irish actor Cillian Murphy plays a soldier in Dunkirk, and is similarly effusive in his praise of Nolan (who he’s worked with on five films, after going to audition for the role of Batman in the first Dark Knight film).

“I think he’s one in a million,” he tells TheJournal.ie of Nolan’s “staggeringly confident filmmaking”.

And I’ve always said that I think he’s quite old-fashioned in the best sense because I think he believes in storytelling that is sophisticated – that demands attention from its audience.

Nolan himself describes the move from fiction to real-life storytelling as “quite reinvigorating” to his own creative process. Sipping tea – most likely – from his own flask, he describes how crafting fiction demands that he construct an entire world.

“And then you’re trying to follow characters through that as you write the script,” he says. “So, it’s like you build the maze of the narrative and then you work your way through it. In this case, that world, that maze was already there.”

The weight of history

Bodega Bay Source: Melinda Sue Gordon

Telling a real-life story like this – one which directly inspired Winston Churchill’s ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ speech – is not a small task. Did he feel the weight of history pressing on him while making the film? “I certainly did,” acknowledges Nolan.

Thomas nods. “It’s a big and important story. And so, the pressure involved in that was quite something – it’s a privilege to tell the story but it’s also incredibly intimidating at the beginning,” she says.

Screening the film for Dunkirk veterans “was probably one of the scariest things we’ve done in our lives”.

The pair feel that the veterans “were just really pleased that someone was paying attention to them, not forgetting,” says Thomas.

Dunkirk Dunkirk veterans Arthur Taylor and Garth Wright meet Prince Harry at a reception hosted by Prince Harry ahead of the Dunkirk World Premiere at Kensington Palace in London. Source: Eamonn M. McCormack

Historical consultant Joshua Levine was key in helping Nolan and Thomas bring the story of Dunkirk to life in an accurate way (although Nolan divulges that a Dunkirk veteran noticed that in one scene an officer gives a salute while not wearing a beret – something that’s a rare misstep in Nolan’s meticulously constructed on-screen world).

The grand scale of what occurred in Dunkirk was part of what drew him to the story. But it was also the importance of what the evacuation meant. “There are a lot of different moments in history you can look at and say ‘everything hinges on that’. Dunkirk is absolutely one of those,” he says.

He and Thomas also read first-hand accounts of the evacuation, which helped them create believable profiles for the fictional characters.

France Dunkirk Premiere Left to right, Tom Glynn-Carney, Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and Jack Lowden, who all have starring roles in Dunkirk. Source: Michel Spingler

Remarkably for such a powerful director, Nolan decided not to rely on Hollywood stars to carry the film. Those fictional characters are, for the most part, played by relative unknowns or up-and-comers in the film world.

Ireland’s Barry Keoghan, Scotland’s Jack Lowden, England’s Fionn Whitehead (whose first-time-on-screen face looms large on all the promotional posters) and even former One Direction member Harry Styles, were all brought on board – and will help to draw in younger audiences.

Keoghan, who hails from Dublin 1, felt honoured that Nolan gave young actors such a huge opportunity.

“He beat your own imagination, your own imagination is the best and Chris seems to beat that,” he says of Nolan’s take on the film.

“He’s treating the audience with a lot of respect in that he thinks, yes, there are some stars in this film but for a large part of the film you’re following complete unknowns and he treats you with utter respect,” says Whitehead. “He doesn’t think you need to see someone famous to understand all points in the film.”

Bodega Bay Source: Melinda Sue Gordon

According to Tom Glynn-Carney:

He gave the impression on the first day that we were all in this collaborative process together, all aiming for the same end product: we want to make a good film, essentially. And that is exactly what we did.

Adds Styles, who proved that he has an unexpected level of acting chops in his debut movie role: “Obviously getting to work with Chris is amazing – just being around him, getting to watch him work is a massive learning curve. So I felt very lucky to have been involved really.

“I think it’s such an important story and one we all wanted to do our little bit to try and tell.”

Dunkirk spirit

BB-Day29-0076.dng Source: Melinda Sue Gordon

Nolan says he doesn’t even remember when he first heard about Dunkirk as “it’s just such a part of the culture” in Britain. “People talk about the Dunkirk Spirit. It’s not just history, it’s a living part of the culture. And World War II weighs very heavy on British culture in all sorts of ways,” he says.

His own father lost his father, an Air Force navigator, in WWII.

He describes the Dunkirk spirit as being, as he understands it, “about a coming together in the face of adversity and just getting on with things really”.

Bodega Bay Source: Melinda Sue Gordon

Watching the scenes of soldiers being evacuated from the beach would make some reflect on the current refugee crisis. “You never want to be too literal in connections, or too conscious of things, but you try and you make films in the same world you live in and you’re affected by the same things,” says Nolan when asked about this.

He says it struck him that the same questions that plagued Dunkirk – “how do you get these guys off the beach, how do you load them onto boats, how do you physically achieve this evacuation” – still hang over people in 2017. “This isn’t something from 1940, this is the same physics, the same reality that people unfortunately have to deal with today.”

Special effects

shutterstock_426390067 Filming on set in Dunkirk. Source: Shutterstock/IDN

Having a focus on trying to complete most of the special effects – such as underwater scenes, air flights, and dogfights – on camera meant that Nolan, Thomas and their crew were undertaking a number of massive projects at the same time.

For the five months of the shoot, they were either spending days on the real beach in Dunkirk, battling the elements (which were tearing strips off the newly constructed mole that plays a huge part in the film), out on board a small craft at risk of huge waves, blowing up ships, or filming using real-life Spitfire planes.

The water work even necessitated a call to Steven Spielberg for advice.

Bodega Bay Fionn Whitehead. Source: Melinda Sue Gordon

“We always take a sort of point of view of planning for the worst and assuming the weather will be bad and this sort of stuff, and so sometimes – and I think this was true of the marine unit – it was frightening and it was daunting, but we were prepared for it,” says Nolan, outlining the huge amount of preparation that went into Dunkirk.

We worried about it for so long, in a funny way it wasn’t that it felt easy, but it felt it went very smoothly anyway.

Cillian Murphy says that Nolan is “always so in control over everything and so calm” during demanding projects like this.

“Anytime you go and shoot stuff on water, and I’ve done one other water movie and everything is slower, everything is more difficult, everything gets shut down if it’s dangerous, so it’s really hard and it makes everything takes longer – so that must have been a challenge for him,” he says.

The ticking clock

shutterstock_426390034 The set in Dunkirk. Source: Shutterstock/IDN

If the sound of Dunkirk could be summed up using one thing, it would be that of a ticking clock, each tick emphasising the encroaching threat of the enemy.

Long-time Nolan collaborator and composer Hans Zimmer was called on board to bring that sense of urgency to the film’s score, and his approach contributes hugely to the tension that grips you while watching.

Nolan explains that the script was written according to certain musical principles and structural principles. He showed it to Hans very early and asked for “a very particular approach to the music, that’s to do with rhythm and echoing the rhythm of the suspense, essentially to do with the ticking clock to be very literal about it – it’s one of the great ticking clock stories of all time.”

The director made a series of recordings of watches that he owned, and sent one with a very insistent ticking to Zimmer for use in building tracks.  It helped to get across the mounting suspense, without resorting to “any kind of arbitrary cinematic emotionalism”.

Nolan says that with this film he believes “there’s a tighter fusion of sound effects and music and image than we’ve ever been able to achieve before”.

That the film has minimal dialogue helped to leave even more space for the soundtrack to ramp up the tension.

Ignoring the impossible

shutterstock_461766751 With crew on the way to film in Dunkirk. Source: Shutterstock/fokke baarssen

Nolan is not a person to accept when things get difficult: on each of his movies he and his crew do something (or some things) thought to be impossible.

For example, he was determined to “try and put the audience right there in that cockpit” during Dunkirk’s flight scenes. But how to get a huge IMAX camera into the plane?

His director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema “came up with this really brilliant solution of reorienting the camera so you can sort of sit it upright but have a lens attachment that puts the lens in the right place”, working with IMAX and Panovision to engineer things from the ground up.

plane Source: YouTube

Then there was the film’s stunt coordinator Tom Struthers, who helped ease Nolan’s mind about shooting the in-air fight scenes, by finding a plane that looked just like a Spitfire – but had two cockpits, enabling them to film in-flight.

“All the aerial stuff, all the dogfights I’d looked at in other movies, it was always the shots of the actors that let it down, it didn’t feel real,” says Nolan. Now he didn’t have to worry about that.

‘We weren’t able to make this film until now’

shutterstock_449590081 Some of the water scenes were filmed in the Netherlands. Source: Shutterstock/fokke baarssen

All of this is testament to how much work needed to go into making Dunkirk – and how such a mammoth task wouldn’t have been possible in previous years, even with Nolan’s budget and experience.

Plus, Nolan points out that, traditionally, American audiences “like stories about America”. But no doubt his profile helped to show Warner Bros that his take on Dunkirk – a topic which hadn’t appeared on film since 1958 - would appeal to an international audience.

“There’s somebody giving you the money and letting you do it, and then there’s can you actually do it. And I don’t think we could have made this film [before],” he says.

Adds Thomas: “One of the main reasons it hadn’t been made was it’s an expensive film. It’s a big film to make and yet being an English story, a story that requires a cast that’s probably going to be unknowns because a lot of them are very young and all British.”

Is it the most difficult film they’ve ever had to make? “I would say so. Definitely, yeah,” says Thomas.

Difficult? In their world, that’s nothing.

Dunkirk, Cert 12A, is in Irish cinemas 21 July. Check out our longer interviews with Harry Styles, Barry Keoghan and Cillian Murphy this Saturday morning on TheJournal.ie.

Read: This true-life sinking of a whaleship by a ‘monster’ inspired Moby Dick>

Read: ’The Taoiseach and Housing Minister really need to see this film’>

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