There have been extensive doom-and-gloom scenarios about the demise of movies lately, but writer-director Christopher Nolan isn’t among those sounding the death knell. Last summer, as the box office and attendance careened toward their lowest levels in decades, Nolan put his artistry where his optimism was — delivering a jolt of pure cinema with “Dunkirk.”
The picture thrusts viewers into one of the turning points of World War II, recounting a moment when British forces faced total annihilation at the hands of the Nazis. Shot with Imax cameras and presented in 70mm, it also serves as a potent reminder that some things are best delivered on the widest screens possible. “Dunkirk” not only garnered massive critical acclaim, but audiences around the globe flocked to see the film, which grossed $524 million worldwide.
“At a time when there’s all kinds of storytelling around, movies that gravitate toward things that only movies can do carve out a place for themselves,” Nolan tells Variety during a wide-ranging interview at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. “As a director, I try to show people things they’ve never seen before.”
Nolan, decked out in a black sports jacket and slacks and wearing a Buddhist charm bracelet he picked up during a family excursion to the Far East, looks like a mix between a country squire and an elocution instructor as he sits in a suite at the Shangri-La Hotel. Between long digressions on movie history and the technical challenges of making “Dunkirk,” he pauses to top off his mug with tea from a chrome thermos. He has come to Canada to reintroduce “Dunkirk” to Academy voters, showing the movie on an Imax screen and doing a Q&A afterward. The film wasn’t made with awards in mind, he says, hence the decision to release it in July instead of at the end of the year with the other plaudits hopefuls. But armed with rapturous reviews and powered by a dearth of front-runners, “Dunkirk” increasingly looks like the film to beat on Oscar night. At the very least, it should give Nolan his first nomination for director.
“We saw it as a blockbuster,” explains the maker of juggernauts like “The Dark Knight,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Inception” and “Interstellar” as well as the indie breakout “Memento.” “It’s a strange [term] to use in relation to the subject matter, but we saw it as an entertainment, albeit one that’s intense and suspenseful. We wanted it to reach the widest audience possible, and that happens in summer.”
With “Dunkirk,” Nolan has crafted a different kind of war film, one that owes more to kinetic thrillers like “Gravity” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” than to such classics of the genre as “Paths of Glory” or “Patton.” Instead of documenting vast troop movements or drilling into the intricacies of military strategy by cutting to shots of generals around a desk planning their next attack, Nolan drew an in-your-face portrait of war that zeroes in on the grunts pinned down against the ocean. There are spitfire battles and capsized destroyers, to be sure, but throughout the action the camera remains fixed on the youthful faces of soldiers as they struggle to find safety. It’s one of the first war films to be as interested in the minutiae of military life — the search for food, boots or a place to go to the bathroom — as it is in clashes between armies.
“I didn’t view this as a war film,” says the director. “I viewed it as a survival story.”
Before embarking on his mission to dramatize the saga of how middle-aged citizens formed an armada of motorboats and yachts, traveled across the English Channel and ferried their army back home to safety, Nolan turned to his friend Steven Spielberg for advice and aid. He asked the director to lend him a pristine print of “Saving Private Ryan” that had only been run a half dozen times, so that he could show his crew how Spielberg had orchestrated the battle at Omaha Beach. Spielberg did more for Nolan than give him his print.
“Knowing and respecting that Chris is one of the world’s most imaginative filmmakers, my advice to him was to leave his imagination, as I did on ‘Ryan,’ in second position to the research he was doing to authentically acquit this historical drama,” recalls Spielberg.
Viewing “Saving Private Ryan” helped Nolan understand how to differentiate “Dunkirk.”
“The film has lost none of its power,” he says. “It’s a truly horrific opening, and there are later sequences that are horrible to sit through. We didn’t want to compete with that because it is such an achievement. I realized I was looking for a different type of tension.”
Spielberg’s memorable nearly 30-minute opening to “Saving Private Ryan,” with its blood-spurting bodies, torn limbs and cries of agony, remains a virtuosic display of battlefield carnage. Nolan knew he couldn’t match what his friend had done, so he ratcheted down the gore. “Dunkirk,” for all its relentlessness, is nearly bloodless.
“I needed suspense, and the language of suspense is one where you can’t take your eyes from the screen,” he says. “The language of horror is one where you hide your eyes. You’re looking away. It’s a different form of tension. We constructed our set-pieces not around violence, not around blood, but around physical jeopardy.”
To do that, he thought back to a boat trip across the Channel that he and Emma Thomas, his wife and producing partner, took decades ago with a college chum. What was billed as a pleasure cruise turned into a 19-hour battle with the elements.
“It was disaster after disaster,” remembers Thomas. “There were appalling waves and winds. But it crystallized the courage of ordinary citizens who got in these small boats to rescue people. Crossing for us in peacetime and with the prospect of a slap-up French meal was terrifying, and these people were sailing into war.”
To capture that feeling, Nolan stripped the “Dunkirk” script of backstory. Viewers know little about Tom Hardy’s pilot or Mark Rylance’s boatsman. They’re not even given full names, with the two billed only as Farrier and Mr. Dawson. What mattered to Nolan was not whether his characters had wives or girlfriends back home but how they responded as bombs dropped around them. Biography is unimportant in such circumstances.
“We’re thrown on the beach with these characters without knowing much about them,” says cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. “Everything comes at you, and it’s immediate and visceral. We took away anything personal or sentimental.”
Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of “The Master” and “There Will Be Blood” and an admirer of “Dunkirk,” hails the film’s economical quality. He notes that there’s very little dialogue, which contributes to its power. “Its practically wordless structure was so exciting to me,” Anderson tells Variety. “It’s stripped down to bare essentials.”
Editor Lee Smith, sound designer Richard King, producer Emma Thomas and DP Hoyte van Hoytema flank Nolan. “It’s important for me to work with him,” says King. “He makes me better.”
There’s something else revolutionary about “Dunkirk.” The film plays with three different time frames and unfurls across three separate settings that intersect in the final act. In one section, Rylance plays an ordinary British citizen tasked with using his sailboat to rescue soldiers from the French beaches. His story unfolds over the course of a day. In another, Hardy’s Spitfire pilot battles dwindling fuel reserves and Nazi aerial fighters in the span of an hour. The third section, featuring Fionn Whitehead as a private stranded on the shores of Dunkirk, transpires over the span of a week.
The focus throughout is on the tactile experience of war, which Nolan achieves by concentrating on banal details. Most movies skip the journey from point A to point B, but “Dunkirk” luxuriates in the logistics. It wants audiences to think about how you pilot a plane with less than a full tank of gas or what it takes to muster the energy to fight the Channel’s swells and swim to a rescue boat. For Nolan, it’s all about immersion. That’s something that cinema, with its big budgets and expansive canvas, can uniquely achieve, and it’s a way of distinguishing film from television. Let “Game of Thrones” or “Stranger Things” bury itself in labyrinthine plots, which the small screen with its hours of programming is better qualified to do. With “Dunkirk,” Nolan delivers something tighter, tenser and more consuming.
“I view movies and television as different, and the conventional thinking right now is that they must converge and become the same thing,” he says. “A scenario in which movies and television become more similar elevates television but diminishes movies.”
It’s tempting to see Nolan as cinema’s last great defender, barricading himself against a rising tide of digital disruptors and watercooler television shows while insisting on the sanctity of the theatrical experience. He has, after all, refused to work with Netflix and accused the streaming giant of trying to shut down theaters, calling its decision to forgo cinemas for a straight-to-subscriber launch “mindless.” But he’s since softened his tone, insisting he chose his words poorly during a media tour for “Dunkirk.” He went so far as to email Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos an apology.
“I should have been more polite,” admits Nolan. “I said what I believe, but I was undiplomatic in the way I expressed it. I wasn’t giving any context to the frankly revolutionary nature of what Netflix has done. It’s extraordinary. They need appropriate respect for that, which I have.”
There’s one point on which Nolan is immovable. For months studios and theater owners have been negotiating a possible deal that would enable movies to be available on-demand within weeks of their big-screen debuts. In return for allowing a film’s home entertainment bow to intrude on the customary three-month period of exclusive access afforded big studio movies, theaters would get a cut of the rentals. Nolan thinks the plan stinks.
“My entire adult life they have released straight-to-video films,” he says. “As a filmmaker, when I was starting out in the ’90s, your nightmare was the straight-to-video release. There’s nothing new about it — what’s different and new about it is selling it to Wall Street as innovation or disruption.”
“A scenario in which movies and television become more similar elevates television but diminishes movies.”
Nolan likes seeing movies in the theater, hailing the communal experience of watching a story unfold with an audience. He also believes that there are economic reasons not to muck with a distribution model that’s lasted for generations. He noted that book publishers still release hardcover copies before debuting paperback versions as a way of maximizing revenue. That same kind of windowed approach — one that differentiates between a theatrical release, a home entertainment launch and television licensing — ultimately grows the pie, he reasoned.
“Every other industry, whether it’s the car industry or whatever, controls when a product is launched. The idea that the film business should forget that and just throw everything together at the same time makes no sense,” Nolan says. “It’s not good business, and people will realize that eventually.”
On set, Nolan, like all great military chiefs, leads from the front. He eschews the director’s chair, and colleagues say he is in constant motion.
“The crew doesn’t have chairs, so for me to sit there when everyone else is on their feet would feel inappropriate,” he says. “The crew feeds off your energy. They feed off your pace. If I’m sitting around waiting for things to happen, the energy level drops.”
Whitehead, the English actor Nolan plucked from obscurity to play the lead role of Tommy, a battle-weary soldier, says the director embraced a hands-on approach.
“He does everything you do,” says Whitehead. “When we’d be in the water struggling up the side of a boat, we saw him right there too. He put himself through it all.”
Kenneth Branagh, who plays a steely commander, says Nolan is detail oriented. “He was at my costume fitting, supervised my haircut, inspected my costumes and generally brought a personal touch to all the minutiae,” recounts the actor.
Kenneth Branagh consults with Nolan on location in Dunkirk. “He was at my costume fitting,” says Branagh. He “supervised my haircut.”
Nolan’s a creature of habit too. He has a uniform, preferring to wear a blazer while directing, and surrounds himself with the same crew. His production designer, editor, composer and other key personnel have worked on nearly a half dozen films together. Van Hoytema is the newbie of the group, having first teamed with the director on “Interstellar.” He was tapped to join the band of brothers because Nolan’s longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister became a director. Nolan’s loyalty is returned.
“If I get wind he’s doing something, I clear out space,” says Richard King, “Dunkirk” sound designer. “I’ve turned down jobs because it’s important for me to work with him. He makes me better.”
As innovative as Nolan can be formally, he’s something of a traditionalist. He shoots on film, a rarity now that most moviemakers have switched to digital cameras that are cheaper and faster to use. And at a time when big-budget spectacles lean on computer-generated wizardry to deliver pixelated wonder, Nolan avoids green screens. He tasked his team with finding real battleships and planes, sending it to Latvia and Norway to track down period-appropriate weaponry. He built half-submerged destroyers, constructed a massive wooden breakwater and shot as many effects as possible in the camera frame instead of adding them in postproduction. It made things more realistic.
“We were in our own cacophony of noise, and while the real thing was unimaginable, Chris took the on-set experience to visceral limits that inspired our performances,” Branagh says.
Because Nolan believes that digital effects can look fake and gimmicky, he asked his production team to familiarize itself with older forms of cinematic trickery.
Production designer Nathan Crowley painted an army of 3,000 stick figures that looked like a force of real men from a distance, and employed smaller-scale versions of ships that could be substituted for a throng of destroyers.
“The older techniques are working better,” suggests Nolan. “With visual effects, after a while the contemporary tricks look cheaper. The audience’s eye is ruthless.”
To create a greater sense of verisimilitude, Nolan had the entire production decamp for the French coastline that had served as the setting for the moment of English heroism. On a scouting trip to Dunkirk with Crowley, he realized that the flat beaches, frothy sea-foam and dark, brooding horizon could not be easily re-created.
“He ditched his three-piece suit for shorts and T-shirt and a baseball cap so he could be incognito, and we walked along the 18 miles of beach,” says Crowley. “We came to the conclusion that we had to shoot there.”
Filming in Dunkirk, which still has unexploded ordnance buried in the sand, brought with it constant reminders of the men who died battling fascism.
“I was stopped on the street by a local one day, and he gave me a button from a British soldier’s uniform,” Nolan remembers. “It brings it all home in such an
immediate way. This button and not knowing what happened to the person who wore it. I’d like to think he made it home and carried on with his life, but there’s no way of knowing.”
The success of “Dunkirk” has been an outlier. In recent months, the likes of “Blade Runner 2049” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” failed to translate killer reviews into strong ticket sales. Put simply, flops have outnumbered hits, and blockbusters have been rare indeed.
Nolan, however, refuses to believe the downturn is systemic. People love going to the movies, he says. It’s just a question of scheduling. The lack of a “Suicide Squad” in August depressed box office returns, he argues, but another “Star Wars” film in December will help end the year on a high note. Yet he concedes that the drive on the part of studios to deliver consistent returns makes them cautious. It all leads to a glut of superhero franchises (a model that treated Nolan quite well with the “Dark Knight” trilogy) and not enough brave new things.
“You have to have a healthy balance,” he says. “Along with giving people what they liked before, you have to offer them surprise.”
That’s what happened with “Dunkirk,” with crowds turning out in droves for a film about a largely forgotten evacuation that took place 70 years ago. As the director freely admitted, there’s no easy formula for replicating its success.
“What does the audience want?” he asks. “Well, they don’t know what they want. They just know that they want it, and they’ll know what that is when they see it.”
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