Dunkirk, the next film by Christopher Nolan, is based on the true story of the evacuation of Dunkirk after allied forces were surrounded by the German army, and so far it’s received a wealth of attention and buzz. Just recently, Nolan presented some new footage of the flick at CinemaCon, and now he’s finally sat down to discuss the WWII film at length.
“It’s one of the great human stories, and it’s one of the most suspenseful situations that I had ever heard of in my life,” Nolan told Fandango in the very first extensive interview he’s given about the film. “You have 400,000 men – the entire British army – trapped on the beach at Dunkirk. Their backs to the sea, home is only 26 miles away and it’s impossible to get to. The enemy is closing in, and there’s a choice between annihilation and surrender. I just think it’s the more extraordinarily suspenseful situation. That, I think, speaks to a lot of things that I am interested in with film.”
Shot entirely on 65MM, Dunkirk is “a game-changer for the IMAX format” according to Nolan.
Really, I think Dunkirk represents the culmination of all of these experiences we’ve had over the years [with IMAX]. How to work with that format, and how to really try to give the audience the most visceral experiential two hours that they can hope for.
As part of their filming technique, the Dunkirk team also went out of their way to create some aerial combat scenes unlike any audiences will have ever seen before.
Oh yeah, I don’t think anyone’s ever tried to do aerial combat the way we’ve done it and photographed it in this film. My DP, Hoyte Van Hoytema, just never gave up. When we would look at how you can’t fit a camera in the cockpit and fly the plane, we would build a special kind of snorkel lens and put the camera there. We’d work with the pilot and plane owners to really just go for it, and do as much of it for real as possible.
These visuals and the visceral storytelling approach have made for a movie that’s light on the dialogue.
Yeah, you know it’s the kind of film where the visual aspect of the film is dominant right from the get-go. There’s dialogue in the film, but we really tried to approach the storytelling very much from a visual point of view, and an action and suspense point of view. Trying to create suspense visually — a visceral sense of what it would be like to be confronted by this awful paradoxical situation.
And as for why Nolan was drawn to making Dunkirk his next film?
Well, one of the things I loved about the real-life story is it involved so many different aspects, and so many different geographies. You had troops on the ground, on the beach, trapped and facing a choice between annihilation and surrender. You have people coming across on boats, braving the waters of the English Channel. You’ve got the Navy on their Destroyers – all these different things to explore visually. It was just a lot to dig your teeth into, frankly. And then trying to technically create the action in a way so that you really feel the intensity of it — you really get inside it. That to me was an interesting challenge, and one I spent a lot of time developing.
Ultimately, Nolan is excited by the visual nature of the storytelling and the challenges it brought to filming.
I think the visual nature of the storytelling is something I’m excited about. It’s something I value in films and film history; I’m an incredible lover of silent films. The challenge of taking on what I call a present-tense narrative – that is to say, we don’t learn a lot about the people we’re experiencing this with. We really just try to live in the moment and experience it with them, and look through their eyes. That was the challenge of the film, and as it is shaping up I think that, for me, is the thing that I challenged myself the most with and I am excited about that.
“Dunkirk” opens as hundreds of thousands of British and Allied troops are surrounded by enemy forces. Trapped on the beach with their backs to the sea they face an impossible situation as the enemy closes in.
The film stars Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Harry Styles.
Dunkirk his theaters July 21.