Q&A: Christopher Nolan on the craft of ‘Dunkirk’

February 2, 2018 GMT
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows director Christopher Nolan, left, on the set of "Dunkirk" with actor Kenneth Branagh. Nolan is nominated for honors at both the Directors Guild Awards on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, and the Academy Awards next month. (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows director Christopher Nolan, left, on the set of "Dunkirk" with actor Kenneth Branagh. Nolan is nominated for honors at both the Directors Guild Awards on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, and the Academy Awards next month. (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — When “Dunkirk” was washing into theaters, Christopher Nolan spoke to The Associated Press at length about its making, being a “grand-scale” filmmaker and why he doesn’t want to direct a “Star Wars” film. Here is that interview in full:

AP: I can’t really remember a movie with such sustained suspense. How did you go about creating it?


Nolan: It was very much the challenge I set myself at the screenwriting stage. What I wanted to do was experiment — which is a tricky word to use on a big studio movie, but it’s the honest word. I wanted to experiment with a new rhythm to film. What I wanted to do was take what I call the snowballing effect of the third act of my other films, where parallel storylines start to be more than the sum of their parts, and I wanted to try to make the entire film that way and strip the film of conventional theatrics. I felt with Dunkirk, because it’s inherently conflated with emotion and risks being easily sentimentalized, I wanted to approach this as a survival story. I wanted to approach it as a relentlessly suspenseful experience for the audience.

AP: I was struck by the propulsion of the opening sequence only to realize it essentially doesn’t stop.

Nolan: The screenplay was written with a musical principle which is something I’ve used in my soundtracks before, starting with Dave Julyan’s score for ‘The Prestige.’ It’s a device called the Shepard Tone. What it is is an audio illusion whereby you have an ascending scale in a piece of music. As the notes get higher and higher, they’re played more quietly and the incoming lower notes are played louder. And done just right, you have a never-ending rise in pitch. So I wrote a script where I took these different timelines and they climax in a circular way. I wanted to have a film that feels like it’s continually intensifying. There was difficulty in every stage, particularly in editing, in modulating the rhythm the audience needs. The pauses, modulating that within the relentless narrative. So the script was the shortest script I’ve ever written. It was 76 pages, which is half the length of my normal scripts. I really wanted to strip it down and do this in as lean a way as possible and not exhaust the audience too much.

AP: Mark Rylance probably provides some of that calmness just by his presence.

Nolan: Yes. That’s the thing about modulation. It’s sort of like, if everything is at this fever pitch, then it can just be a slightly longer shot of Mark Rylance in his calm demeanor giving it that pause, that breath, that grounding. That was really the gamble we took on this film, to try to create a new rhythm and hope the audience will be up for that journey.

AP: Part of that rhythm is from the perpetual ticking, which came from your watch. How did that happen?

Nolan: I made a recording of a watch I have and I sent it to Hans (Zimmer) and said: This is seed of the musical track we’re going to need. I showed him the script and explained to him the musical principles I used to construct the narrative. I said we’re going to need to reflect that in the score not just in the Shepard tones but also in a rhythmic way so we can keep this relentless pace going and going and going, and a constant reminder to the audience that time is running out.

AP: What kind of fascination does time hold for you as a filmmaker? It’s a sometimes underrated element of the medium, isn’t it?

Nolan: It is and it’s a misunderstood element of the medium. Conventional film grammar has an unbelievably sophisticated approach to modulating an audience’s sense of time. The films I’ve made, I’ve tried to grab a hold of what in most films is a subtlety. It’s there but the audience isn’t particularly conscious of it. I’ve tried to take it and use it for the tool that it is because I think it’s a tool that’s unique to cinema. The idea that we can go to the same movie theater, look at the same screen for the same period of time, and we could be watching something that represents hours or we could be watching something that represents millennia, and we’re fine with that. Cinema has this amazing ability to change and manipulate people’s feelings about time while they’re watching a film.

AP: People often praise the serial, ongoing nature of television, but the finality of a movie is part of what makes them great.

Nolan: It defines the experience. Not to be dissing television because my brother is doing great things in television. I’m very proud of him. But it’s something we joke about amongst ourselves. In truth, television works in such a way that each episode can end with what in a movie would be a second-act twist. They never have to land the plane, essentially. So you get series that run for years and years and then they try to end it and everyone complains about the way they ended it. The thing about cinema is it’s a very different medium. Yes, it has photographic cameras, actors speaking, it has music and it’s on a screen, but it’s the ending that defines the experience. Actually, as I think about it, in ‘Dunkirk,’ our ending tries to make that actually part of the text. What you’re watching at the end of ‘Dunkirk,’ is you’re watching characters try to understand what they’ve been through and trying to define it for themselves.

AP: Since you’re so associated with advocating the big-screen experience, I’m sure you’re often asked about the so-called death of theatrical. Is that tiresome to you?

Nolan: I will say it’s tiresome. The reason it’s tiresome is right now what I’m being asked isn’t about television, it’s about streaming services. So it’s always very specific. Last film it was television, 10 years ago it was video games. Look, video games are great. People love video games. But people also need and love washing machines and they sell a lot of those. It’s just not relevant. We’ve always had TV movies, we’ve always had miniseries, we’ve always had straight-to-video movies. We’re making movie for the theater. And theatrical experience isn’t just about the size of the screen or the technology behind, although that’s a big part of it. It’s about an audience, the shared experience. What cinema gives you, unlike any other medium, is this fascinating and wonderful tension and combination of dialogue between this intensely subjective experience you’re having of the imagery the filmmaker has put up there, and this extraordinarily empathetic sharing of that with audience around you. It’s a remarkable medium for that and that’s what defines it. What’s a movie? The only definition of a movie, really, is it’s shown in a movie theater.

AP: Your films, I think, are always partly an expression of a deep love for movies.

Nolan: Every film I make is an attempt to get back to something I enjoyed first as a child. I think Pauline Kael said it very wonderfully about sitting there and the lights go down and the audience’s hopes are concentrated up there on the screen. It’s just a magical moment as a film begins. These larger-than-life and extraordinary worlds I was shown as a kid, films like ’2001′ or ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ as a filmmaker, to me, that’s got to be your ambition: to try to give someone that feeling.

AP: Did you always conceive of yourself as a filmmaker drawn to epic and to scale — someone in the David Lean tradition?

Nolan: The IMAX format was invented the year before I was born. When I was about 15 or 16, I saw an IMAX film — it was actually an Omnimax film — and I was just mesmerized. I said why doesn’t Hollywood make features this way? It was an ambition of mine from then on and then on ‘The Dark Knight,’ I was finally able to be the first filmmaker to use IMAX cameras for a Hollywood feature film, and I’ve sort of built on that. I didn’t really think about what kind of filmmaker I’d be. Filmmakers all come to cinema through Hollywood, wherever they’ve come from in the world. They’ve seen those movies. As we enter into cinema as independent filmmakers, I think somewhere in the back of your mind as a filmmaker, certainly for me, there’s always this feeling that the highest aspiration when cinema is working at its absolute best is when it’s a grand-scale film that really works and does something you haven’t seen before. That for me is always the brass ring.

AP: I understand you looked at Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Wages of Fear” while preparing “Dunkirk.” Were there also war films you studied?

Nolan: ‘Wages of Fear’ was the most direct influence on how we went about shooting the film, in thinking about things in suspense terms. But we looked at a wide range of films. One film that was very important, Steven Spielberg very kindly lent us a print of ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ his own print. We screened it. It’s just lost none of its power. You look at the horror that’s presented in that film, and as a filmmaker you go: OK, we don’t want to chase that in any way because he’s done it definitively. You also say to yourself: The tension that I’m feeling watching ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is not the tension I want for ‘Dunkirk.’ It was really informative and interesting to look at. You say: We need this story to be about survival and suspense. What defines suspense is you can’t take your eyes off the screen. But what horror gives you is an aversion. You want to look away. So it’s a very different form of intensity and a different form of tension. It was really interesting to figure that out early enough in the process.

AP: But you saw the kind of suspense you wanted in ‘Wages of Fear.’

Nolan: ‘Wages of Fear,’ I think, is a tremendous example of that. Hitchcock as well has numerous examples of that. But it was even Jan de Bont’s ‘Speed,’ films that had attempted to really shift the feeling of time. And George Miller’s ‘Mad Max: Fury Road,’ as well. I was in the middle of writing the script when I saw that film and I took confidence from it. I took comfort from it. It’s not dissimilar in terms of the modulation I’m talking about. What if you made an entire film that was a car chase? Or Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Gravity,’ for example. There are examples that have pushed in the direction I was talking about.

AP: The Dunkirk evacuation is essentially about living to fight another day. Do you think that holds any particular resonance today, given the political climate?

Nolan: I think Dunkirk sustains and will always sustain as an extraordinary resonant story for humanity is because it’s a bit of a Rorschach test. What was important to me, what I get from the story, and why I think it’s a very important story to tell now, I think we live in an era that overemphasizes individuality at the expense of what we can do together. Whether you’re talking about in American industry, the fetishization of the individual billionaire versus a union, just to give you one example. What Dunkirk shows you is: We can do so much more with communal heroism. That’s what makes it an unusual war story, of civilians and military coming together. But I think that’s why it resonates. We are stronger working together, and for some reason, that’s become unfashionable.

AP: Does it strike you that you’ve now made three films (“Dunkirk,” ″Interstellar,” ″Inception”) about going home?

Nolan: I think for me the concept of home, there’s nothing more universal than that. There’s nothing that transcends international boundaries or individual prejudices than that. As a filmmaker, I’ve become interested in primal ideas — ideas that are very simple and can resonate and speak to people in very simple ways but have complex roots to them.

AP: When you weigh your next film, is it a factor what a singular position you have in the industry? Are you more geared toward making something original than a franchise film?

Nolan: As you progress in your career, and I’ve been very fortunate in the progression of my career in a practical sense, you make films for different reasons with different tensions, if you like. When you’re at a point where the key question is: What do you do with the opportunity you’ve been given, that absolutely weighs heavy. With every chance I’ve been given really starting with ‘The Prestige,’ but certainly with ‘Inception’ following from the success of ‘The Dark Knight,’ I think with Emma and myself in each of these instances — and ‘Dunkirk’ is the latest in this line of think — we feel like we have an tremendous opportunity that a lot of filmmakers would kill for. So we feel a massive responsibility to do something that we really believe in and we feel couldn’t be made in any other way. In the case of ‘Dunkirk,’ it’s a British story. It’s not an American story but it needed to be made with an American studio budget. And we were in the position to make this film.

AP: You grew up a devotee of “Star Wars.” Does directing a “Star Wars” film have any appeal to you?

Nolan: Um, I’m very happy to go watch them. (laughs) The thing about making a film is that it’s so many years of your life and so much investment emotionally, you want to try to choose something you feel needs you and would only get made with you putting your weight behind it. I think the cinematic landscape has changed since I started making Batman films. When we were doing the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy, it was easier for a filmmaker in the position I was in to express a more personal vision of what they wanted to do in a franchise property. Studios are tightening the grip on the franchise IP that they own and I think it becomes harder and harder for a filmmaker to express themselves. I feel very fortunate to have made those films when I did.

AP: You make doing effects in camera a priority. This is partly because of the high resolution of the IMAX cameras you shoot on, but is it important to “Dunkirk” for other reasons?

Nolan: I talk about the tactile nature of imagery. Shooting on film, particularly large format film and where possible projecting it where you have analog color, analog gray scale. You’ve just got a better analogy than any video format or digital format can give you for the way the eye sees. It really helps the audience feel that they’re there in some way. Not in a gimmicky way, but in a way where they can sort of feel the way the wool on the uniforms would feel on their neck. I think it’s just a really powerful tool to bringing people there. But once you start shooting that way, the idea that you would have sections of the film that would be just created in a computer and spliced in, it’s not going to work. You need a consistency of tone, so you have to find ways to achieve the spectacle of the film in camera. We’ve pushed that further and further with each film. This is the first film I’ve been able to finish where there are visual effects shots in the film and I can’t even remember which ones are the visual effects and which ones are real.

AP: There were obviously challenges lugging around 50-pound cameras on location. But shooting on the French coast with planes and boats and swelling tides sounds kind of like a filmmaker’s dream.

Nolan: I loved it. It was a remarkable opportunity. The geography of the real place is so astounding. We had to rebuild a section of the mole, we had a lot of work to do. But the reality of being there, of being in nature, frankly, it frees you up as a filmmaker to just use your eyes, use your ears, and absorb it and try to capture what speaks to you.


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP


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