While the true WWII story of Dunkirk may not be a major part of American history, it is a story that is ingrained in the history of our friends on the other side of the pond. And now with writer/director/producer Christopher Nolan's epic theatrical presentation, simply entitled Dunkirk, blowing into theaters this Friday, we Yankees will know why this incredible tale is so much a part of English society. Featuring an interesting blend of veteran actors (Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance) established names (Tom Hardy, James D'Arcy, Cillian Murphy) and newcomers (Fionn Whitehead, Jack Lowden and One Direction's Harry Styles), Nolan and his wife/producer Emma Thomas have put together a film that is a celebration of the human spirit and, as Nolan puts it, "communal heroism." Recently, Nolan, Thomas, Rylance, Whitehead, Lowden and Styles gathered before the media to discuss all aspects of the filming, including Nolan's decision to shoot with IMAX cameras and release an amazing 70mm version, and the history behind these real-life events.
The Dunkirk Story
Christopher Nolan: Like most British people, Dunkirk is a story that I’ve grown up with. I don’t even remember the first time I was told about the events at Dunkirk. As kids we received the sort of very simplified, almost mythic fairytale version of what happened there. But, over time, and a particular experience that MRI [Maritime Rescue Institute] had about 20 years ago where we made the crossing with a friend of ours who owned a small boat and we made the crossing at about the same time of year the evacuation had taken place at Dunkirk. And the crossing was extremely difficult, the channel was very rough. It felt difficult and dangerous, and that was without people dropping bombs on us and heading into a war zone. So I came away from that experience with my respect and fascination for the people who had actually undertaken the real evacuation absolutely cemented. I’ve never understood why a modern film has not been made about it and as a filmmaker those are the kind of gaps that you’re wanting to fill.
Fionn Whitehead: I think we all knew about Dunkirk because, particularly in England, you learn so much about the second world war growing up, just because it is such a fundamental part of our history. And particularly Dunkirk is so integral to how the U.K. treated the Second World War after [the events at Dunkirk]. We often talk about “the spirit of Dunkirk.” I think that even if you don’t learn that phrase, it’s very present in history books and how it kind of set the tone for the rest of the Second World War with this coming together of people to get through such a crisis with such a community spirit. So I knew a bit, but after doing this film it’s just amazing to learn all the little details and the resourcefulness of the men and the desperateness of the situation.
Mark Rylance: There’s a museum in London called the Imperial War Museum and much to my delight they had a lot of audio recordings with Mr. Dawson [who Rylance plays in the film]. These were nice 60-minute or 90-minute recordings with these men and they helped me to understand how little they knew about what they were going towards. The government at the time was obviously keen not to frighten the English people who had only just gotten over the First World War and didn’t want to know just how terribly things were going in France at that time. So those recordings were very helpful to me.
Emma Thomas: The thing that I love about this story is that it’s the reverse of the traditional roles, right? Normally, in any film that involves war, [the military] are the heroes that come in and save the day and what’s incredible about the [Dunkirk] evacuation is that it’s the regular people, the ordinary people who came in and changed the course of history.
Harry Styles: It’s obviously something that you learn in school and like Chris has said it’s told in this kind of washed-over way. You’re often taught about the end of the war and I think it’s often overlooked just how pivotal it was. I think we all feel kind of lucky to be a part of something that gets to tell such an important story in a little more detail than it’s usually told in.
By Land, Air and Sea
Christopher Nolan: What I was hoping to gain was a way of maintaining a subjective storytelling approach, but still building up a coherent picture of the larger events of Dunkirk. So everything in the film is intended to be intense, suspenseful and subjective. You want to be on the beach with these guys seeing events through their points of view, but then you also want to build up a bigger picture so that requires a view from the air with a Spitfire pilot and from the sea with the people coming to help with the evacuation. That way you don’t allow the audience to step out of the movie or step out of the human scale perspective. I didn’t want to cut to generals in rooms with maps, kind of pushing things around. I didn’t want to give the audience knowledge that the characters didn’t have, other than through the interaction of these three distinct story threads.
The idea behind the structure of the story and the way in which we’ve told it is really by virtue of trying to tell it on a very human scale and a very intimate scale and create what I refer to as an “intimate epic.” You’re trying to stay in a very, very intimate point of view with each of the story threads, but have them gradually over the course of the film build up an accumulative picture of a very, very large event.
Working With Nolan
Mark Rylance: I don’t have a memory of Chris having a bunch of notes or a lot of talking or micro-management, which is something that I find really tiresome as an actor. I felt very trusted. Sometimes in modern films the director is a hundred yards away in a tent. Seriously, I’ve worked on films where you’re not sure the director is even watching what you’re doing. On the contrary, with Chris, he was very much there with us. You didn’t just feel him there physically, you felt him there emotionally with you, and very observant about what was happening organically between us. It should be the norm, but it’s actually a gift when you get that from a director.
It’s also a delight to have the same person who made the script also directing the film. If they can do both things, which Chris can, it gives him a flexibility when you’re filming a scene, because he knows the material well enough that if an idea comes up he knows whether it’s a valuable idea or not. Things always happen in front of the camera that are not prepared for, so you want someone in charge who’s strong and knows what they want to do, but is flexible about what is happening in the present moment.
Harry Styles: I think Chris creates this world around you where you don’t have to act too much; a lot of it is reacting. It’s more about not overthinking it or thinking about acting too much. I think the best thing is that Chris really puts you at ease and he creates an environment on set where you’re not intimidated by the scale of everything going on behind you. He makes it feel very intimate with you and the camera. He’s not really controlling you and that gives you a confidence to be as natural as you possibly can. Just being on a set like this, it’s hard not to be always learning. I feel like being around people that you’re a fan of just feels like a privilege and you try and soak as much of that up as possible. I just felt very lucky to be on the set of a man who I’m personally a fan of and with a group of actors who I’m also a fan of. So I just felt very grateful to be involved, really.
Fionn Whitehead: I agree with Harry. It’s far less about what Chris said to us and more about the way he works. It means you are kind of just sucked into this world and anyone who’s a fan of Chris’s films can see that the characters are grounded in such a sense of reality—even when they’re so obscure and kind of surreal—that you’re able to empathize with them so much easier. It was an amazing thing to be a part of, to be thrown into this world and just be reacting to the situations that were put in front of us. The fact that there wasn’t much dialogue in the script meant that a lot of the characterization was left to us, which is quite an amazing thing to have. It just meant that we got to work on ourselves, I guess, and when you stepped onto the set you had to kind of know your character, so you could respond to the situations around you accordingly.
Christopher Nolan: Well, in planning the aerial sequences it was very important to me that we try to achieve as much in-camera as possible. So we were able to get real Spitfires and a real bomber and really try to get the IMAX cameras in places we’ve never gotten it in before, and really try and put the audience in the cockpit of the plane with the pilot. So there was a lot of attention to detail, a lot of careful planning. We shot all those sequences on IMAX to make it overwhelmingly real. That was the intention and we bought a Yak [Yakovlev] airplane which is very similar to the size and shape of a Spitfire, but it has two cockpits so we could have a real pilot flying while we had our actor up in the air with a camera on the wing getting those close-ups. That was the kind of thing we really wanted to do to try and tell this aerial story in a way that we haven’t seen before.
Jack Lowden: There were parts of what I got to do, like when I’d go up in the plane with the IMAX camera on the wing, and we’d come back down and show Chris. It was kind of like shooting a short film in a way. Chris would have a look and we’d stick more film in the camera and up we’d go again and do something different that Chris had thought of after having a look. There were only three of us there when we were doing that—me, the pilot and Chris. So that part was a lot of fun.
Emma Thomas: I just want to add that with all these things—the Spitfires and the boats—there are a lot of people who are real enthusiasts for this era and for history and who do a great deal to keep the memory of it alive, and so not only did we have the Spitfires but we also had some of the real little ships that recreated the journey they made in 1940. There’s a group of passionate owners of these little ships and they regularly get together and memorialize the evacuation and we had some of them come to Dunkirk, which was an incredible thing and I really think it helped all of us to tell the story in a really authentic way.
Christopher Nolan on filming with IMAX cameras:
I’ve been working with IMAX for about ten years now and with each film we’ve tried to maximize our use of it and try to shoot more of the film that way. This film, more than any other I’ve made, felt like I needed to try and immerse the audience in the experience and really take them there. And IMAX is the best format to be able to do that. Obviously, it poses production challenges but I think it’s well worth it with the finished product.
The Physicality of Filming
Harry Styles: I think for everyone on the film, however tough it got [physically] during filming it was nothing compared to what happened [to the real people at Dunkirk]. I think the focus we all had was to do our jobs and be a part of telling a story, so there wasn’t really any room for personal discomfort or complaining. It’s also impossible to complain on a set where your director is going through the exact same thing as you. Like Mark said earlier, Chris is not hiding in a tent. He’s in the water with you, he’s on the sand with you. He’s the first one there and the last one to leave.
Deleted Scenes for Home Video?
Christopher Nolan: I have a great editor, Lee Smith (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk), and we find a way to just stuff more and more into the sausage. We don’t tend to leave anything on the cutting room floor, in terms of complete scenes that would be coherent as a “Deleted Scenes” feature. I think with Insomnia we had two Deleted Scenes on the DVD because they were two scenes that I liked very much that had to come out of the film for time. After that, I really tried to make those decisions on the page as a writer. Let me put it this way: making films is hard and you’ll do anything to not shoot something that you don’t have to. So I try to pull things out at the script stage that I don’t think are going to serve the narrative.
Building the Suspense
Christopher Nolan: We looked at a lot of suspense films. I really wanted the film to be driven primarily through the mechanism of suspense, which I think is one of the most pure cinematic forms. So we looked at Hitchcock and various influences, but I think the one that I’d point to most is probably [Henri-Georges] Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, which I think has a very, very distinct influence on various aspects of the film. But I like to cast a very wide net in terms of films to show the crew before we start. We looked at a lot of things. We looked at some David Lean films for the treatment of landscapes, like he did with Ryan’s Daughter with the treatment of the beaches in that extraordinarily visual film. But I think The Wages of Fear is the one we most honed in on as [capturing] that language of suspense.
The Ticking of the Clock
Christopher Nolan: The planning of the music started in pre-production before we ever started to shoot anything. [The ticking] is a recording of a watch that I own and I gave it to Hans [Zimmer, the legendary film composer] and we started to develop a rhythmic language and how the score would build up from there and fuse with the picture to create a sense of forward momentum for the whole film.
Christopher Nolan: If the story of Dunkirk has a particular meaning, for me, it’s about communal heroism as opposed to individual acts of heroism. I think it’s about the cumulative effect of small acts of human heroism and what we can achieve together rather than individually.
Dunkirk arrives in theaters this Friday.