Christopher Nolan: The Making of “Dunkirk”

Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan discusses the making of his first real-life event epic, Dunkirk and how he created such a visceral experience for the audience…

INDULGE: This is your first real-life event movie.  Why Dunkirk?

NOLAN: As for most British people, Dunkirk is a story we grow up. I can’t even remember the first time I was told about the events and as a storyteller you’re always looking for gaps in the culture or cultural record, stories that should’ve been made into modern films and haven’t been.  Dunkirk is certainly one of those. I think it’s one of the great stories of human history and it hasn’t been addressed in modern films until now.

The director Christopher Nolan on the set of “Dunkirk.” Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.

INDULGE: The film seamlessly weaves together the timelines from the different perspectives of land, sea and air. Why was this important?

NOLAN: I wanted to tell the story with an intense subjectivity. Dunkirk is a survival story. It’s the story of 400,000 men trapped on the beach with the enemy closing in on all sides and a desperate race against time to get these guys home. I wanted to put the audience on the beach with these guys. I wanted to put the audience in the cockpit with spitfire, battling the enemy in the air, and I wanted to put them on the deck of a small boat with civilians coming over and trying to help these guys, and so, to do that, I decided to tell the story subjectively but from three different points of view so that over the course of the film, as these stories braid together, you get a more coherent picture of the larger events of Dunkirk.

Center, from front to back, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles and Fionn Whitehead in the film. Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.

INDULGE: You’ve been vocal about using real effects instead of CGI. Tell us how this effects the viewers.

NOLAN: We tried to do as much in camera as possible. We want the film to feel tactile, physical and authentic and we wanted to play in the present tense so that the audience feels like they’re there and there’s no screen between us and the events of 1940. To do that I felt very strongly that we shouldn’t use too much visual effects, we shouldn’t use too much in the way of computer generated imagery so we really tried to do as much with the camera as possible by sourcing real planes from the era, real boats and putting the actors as close to the reality as we could.

INDULGE: What was it like to fly in an actual spitfire?

NOLAN: I had the opportunity to ride a spitfire in pre-production and I got my Director of Photography and my Production Designer to do the same thing because we knew the task of the film was putting the audience in that seat and by experiencing it ourselves, it actually gave us a series of insights to what that would feel like and how we could get the camera into a particular position so that audience could get the same experience.

INDULGE: What was it like filming on the actual beach where the events took place?

NOLAN: Filming in the real location seemed like the best way to get close to the truth. When you walk that beach, you feel the history there, you feel the pull of the place.

INDULGE: What does the “Spirit of Dunkirk” mean to you?

NOLAN: People in Britain talk about the “Dunkirk spirit.” I think the resonance of the story is different for different people. But really, I think the story is one about communal heroism in the face of adversity, not so much a story about individual heroics as it is about a communal effort and how as a society we can achieve so much more than individually.

Dunkirk (WarnerBros) starring Tom Hardy, Mike Rylance, Kenneth Branagh  is playing in theaters now. Get your tickets here.