International Dunkirk Junket Q&A

Christopher Nolan got together with the cast of Dunkirk to discuss the film, its themes and “the spirit of Dunkirk”
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN (Director, Writer, Producer)
EMMA THOMAS (Producer)

What attracted you to Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan: Like with most British people, Dunkirk is a story I grew up with.  As children, we received a very simplified, almost mythic, fairytale version of what happened there. About 20 years ago, my producing partner and wife Emma Thomas made the crossing across the English Channel to Dunkirk with a friend of ours, who owned a small boat. It was about the same time of year the evacuation had taken place.  The crossing was extremely difficult. It felt difficult and dangerous – and that was without people dropping bombs on us and us heading into a war zone. I came away from that experience with respect for and fascination with the people who had taken part in the real evacuation. I’ve never quite understood why a modern film hadn’t been made about it, and as a filmmaker, those are the kind of gaps you’re looking to fill.

Can you talk about how you choose projects? 

CN: It’s always about finding a story that hooks me, that I have an emotional connection with, and which will sustain me through the years of making the film. I’m very single-minded; I’m not very good at planning what I’m going to do next. So, I dive in and I concentrate on one film for two or three years. 

I’m curious about your editing process. How long was your first cut of Dunkirk, compared with the finished film?  

CN: I have a great editor, Lee Smith. We don’t really leave anything on the cutting room floor, in terms of complete scenes. With my film Insomnia, we did have two deleted scenes on the DVD because I liked those scenes, but they had to come out of the film, for running time purposes. I now try to make those decisions on the page. Making films is difficult, and you’ll do anything to not shoot if you don’t have to. So, I try and pull things out at the script stage, that I don’t think are going to serve the narrative.

It was an interesting choice to have the three different stories going on – land, air and sea. What inspired that and what were you hoping to gain from those perspectives?

CN: What I was hoping to gain was a way of maintaining a subjective storytelling approach, while building a coherent picture of the larger events at Dunkirk. 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 construct this bigger picture, which also requires a view from the air, from a Spitfire pilot, and from the sea, from people coming over to help with the evacuation. That way, you don’t allow the audience to step out of the movie. I didn’t want to give the audience knowledge that the characters didn’t have, apart from the interaction of these three distinct story threads.

For the actors on the panel: Given the fact that there wasn’t a lot of dialogue in this movie, what was your experience reading the script?  

Harry Styles: Chris’s films lend themselves to multiple viewings, and you learn new things each time you watch them. It’s very much the same when reading the Dunkirk script; I learned new things that were exciting, and I enjoyed it more and more with each new reading.

Fionn Whitehead: Since there wasn’t much dialogue in the script, a lot of the characterization was left to us, which is quite an amazing thing to have.  

Mark Rylance: It’s always helpful not to have to try and convince an audience that a bit of exposition is something you really need to say as a character. Even in Shakespeare plays you get exposition sometimes and you must work hard and twist and turn to make it sound like it’s something you would need to say. There was none of that in the Dunkirk script. It was easy to see the need behind the words and behind the situation, so that’s a delight.  

Jack Lowden: It’s a very lean script, which makes it a great script. I enjoyed the fact that most of my dialogue was technical jargon. The military loves shorthand.  

What’s the best note you got from Chris?

HS: Chris creates this world around you, which really helps you not overthink things. He puts you completely at ease. Chris creates an environment on set where you’re not intimidated by the scale of everything surrounding you. He makes it feel very intimate.

FW:  Anyone who’s a fan of Chris’s films can see that the characters are grounded in a sense of reality, and that you can easily empathize with them. It was amazing to be thrown into this world and just be reacting to the situations he was putting in front of us.

Barry Keoghan: Chris creates an incredible world for you. I’ve not been on a film before where you have Spitfires come over you, and battleships beside you. With all that happening, you don’t have to act. The world Chris created made it a lot easier for us.

MR:  Chris made me feel very trusted. He always felt like he was there with us; at times, he would be rocking the boat behind the camera. You didn’t feel him just there physically; you felt him there emotionally with you and very observant to what was organically happening between the actors. His notes were very gentle and never felt like I was being asked to do something other than to try and bring as much of my own humanity as I could to a scene. It’s a gift when you get that from a director.

How did you work to make everything seem as real as possible?

CN:  In planning the aerial sequences it was very important to me that we try to achieve as much in camera as possible. We were able to secure real Spitfires, a real bomber, real Heinkels, and tried to situate the IMAX camera where we’d never tried before. It was all about putting the audience in the cockpit of the plane with the pilot. It was a lot of attention to detail, and a lot of careful planning. We shot all those sequences on IMAX and overwhelmingly for real. We bought a Yak airplane that’s very similar in size and shape to a Spitfire, but has two cockpits, so we could have a real pilot flying, while we had our actor up in the air with a camera mounted on the wing getting his close-ups. We really wanted to tell this aerial story in a way we hadn’t seen before.

Emma Thomas: We also had some of the real little ships from the Dunkirk evacuation, which helped us recreate the journey they made in 1940. There’s a group of very passionate owners of those little ships and they regularly get together and keep that experience alive. That really helped all of us tell the story in a very authentic way.

Harry, what drew you to this project? And, Christopher, what made you think of Harry during your casting process?

HS: When I heard that Chris was making the film, my first reaction was that I was excited to see it. Of course, I really wanted to be involved when that became a possibility.  

CN: My job is to see the potential in the people we’re thinking of casting. And whether you’re talking about somebody who’s never done a film before, like Fionn or Harry, or somebody very experienced, like Mark Rylance or Ken Branagh, you have to see the potential for them to do something they’ve never done before. You can’t worry too much about previous roles that Mark has done, or about Harry’s celebrity, or whatever. If we do our job right, the audience becomes invested in the world we’ve created and they take it on its own terms.

How did you maintain the balance between the story’s epic scope and more intimate and human elements? 

CN: The idea behind the structure of the story and the way in which we’ve told it is to create what I refer to as an intimate epic. You’re trying to stay in a very intimate point of view with each of the story threads, but have them gradually create a cumulative picture about a very, very large event.

For the actors, what was your awareness of the real-life event, and did you do any research once you were cast?

FW: I think we all knew about Dunkirk, particularly in England, where you learn so much in school about the Second World War because it is such a fundamental part of our history. We often talk about the spirit of Dunkirk – this coming together of people to get through a crisis.  But in doing the film, it was amazing to learn all the little details and the resourcefulness of the people involved.

What were your cinematic influences on this film?  Also, this is a game-changer for moviegoers, because of the IMAX experience.  Will you continue to shoot with IMAX cameras?

CN: 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 shoot more of the film that way.  For Dunkirk, I felt that I needed to try and immerse the audience and create what I call a sort of cinema of experience. You really take them there. And IMAX is the best format to do that.  Obviously, that poses production challenges, but I think it’s well worth it in the finished product. As far as creative influences, we looked at a lot of suspense films. I really wanted Dunkirk to be driven primarily through the mechanism of suspense, which I think is one of the most cinematic of film forms; it’s pure cinema. So, we looked at films from Hitchcock, as well as Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, which has a very distinct influence on various aspects of Dunkirk.  

Harry, what did you learn from your fellow cast members?

HS: On this set, I was always learning. Being around people you’re a fan of is a privilege. I tried to soak up as much as possible. I felt very grateful to be involved.

The evacuation or Miracle of Dunkirk evokes something different in everyone.  What does it evoke in you, collectively, and why did you want to tell the story?

CN: For me it’s about communal heroism as opposed to individual acts of heroism – of what we can achieve together rather than individually.

ET: What I love about this story is that it’s a reversal of the traditional roles. We’re used to watching films about war in which the heroes come in and save the day. What was incredible about the evacuation at Dunkirk was that the heroes were regular people, who changed the course of history.

A ticking clock is a big part of the soundtrack. Did you use that sound during production? 

CN: Our set was complicated enough without trying to introduce the element of playback. But the planning of the relationship between the music and picture started in pre-production. The genesis of the track is a recording I made of one of my watches. I gave that recording to our composer, Hans Zimmer, and we started to develop a rhythmic language of how that would work with the score, fuse it with the picture and create a sense of forward momentum for the entire film.

What was the most physically difficult or memorable scene to shoot and act in? 

HS: We were all aware that no matter how challenging things were on set, it was nothing compared to what happened at Dunkirk in 1940. We focused on doing our jobs and telling a story, so there wasn’t any room for personal discomfort or complaining. And we always knew that Chris was right there with us.   

CN: It’s sometimes a little awkward to talk about my own response to the film we’ve all made, but there’s a scene in which Mark’s character and Tom Glynn-Carney’s character exchange looks at a key moment. It was something I hadn’t even included in the script.  That kind of moment between the two characters is something you dream of, as a director.  

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