Total Film - - Contents - Words Matt May­tum Ad­di­tional re­port­ing Jane Crowther

Christo­pher Nolan’s WW2 epic: we in­ter­viewed them on the beaches, in the edit suite, and on the blower.

The evac­u­a­tion of Dunkirk is one of the piv­otal Bri­tish suc­cess sto­ries of World War 2, and it wasn’t even a vic­tory. To­tal Film jour­neys from the beach in France to the LA edit suite to find out why Christo­pher Nolan’s genre- de­fy­ing Dunkirk will be like no war movie you’ve seen be­fore.

As any­one who’s al­ready seen Dunkirk’s seven-minute ‘pro­logue’ (screened ahead of IMAX show­ings of Rogue One) can at­test, the sound de­sign is a cru­cial in­gre­di­ent of the sus­tained ten­sion. Hans Zim­mer’s tick-tock score. The rum­ble of dive-bomb­ing planes over­head. The clomp of boots on a nar­row wooden jetty as the sea splashes. The over­all ef­fect is so grip­ping, you don’t get a chance to stop for breath and con­sider ev­ery el­e­ment in play. Well, un­til to­day. To­tal Film’s get­ting a glimpse into the labours that led to that fin­ished sound as di­rec­tor Christo­pher Nolan and his eight-strong mix­ing team de­lib­er­ate over the minu­tiae of the film’s sound mix.

It’s April 2017 and we’re in Dub Stage 9 on the Warner Bros. back­lot as the fi­nal sound mix is laid down in the last weeks of pro­duc­tion. Laser-fo­cused, with eyes trained on the gi­ant screen be­hind the mix­ing con­sole, Nolan ze­roes in on spe­cific au­dio mo­ments (ex­plo­sions, splashes, screams) to en­sure every­thing is per­fect. Giv­ing notes to his team, Nolan muses, “Needs more an­tic­i­pa­tion…” as the place­ment of a sound ef­fect is tweaked within two frames. “It’s good, but it’d be nice to hear a thud,” he re­marks to his engi­neers, shortly be­fore pick­ing up on some ex­tra­ne­ous (and barely audi­ble) noise on the track: it’s dis­sected layer by layer un­til the ‘ka­boom’ he’s af­ter is flaw­less.

“You stop see­ing the wood for the trees,” Nolan tells TF of the process when we chat dur­ing a break from mix­ing. “As you can hear when you’re in there, it all be­comes about the trees, not the wood. It’s all about the de­tail.”

Set dur­ing the events of the World War 2 evac­u­a­tion mis­sion, Dunkirk is Nolan’s take on the war movie and his first pe­riod film since 2006’s The Pres­tige. Though, as you’ll have come to ex­pect from his genre-re­defin­ing work to date, this isn’t your typ­i­cal WW2 film. “You’re look­ing for some­thing that hasn’t re­ally been ad­dressed in movies,” says Nolan.

“And Dunkirk’s a story I’ve known, ob­vi­ously, since I was a boy.”

The 1940 mis­sion (Op­er­a­tion Dy­namo, to give it its full name) to ex­tract 400,000 sol­diers from the coast of Dunkirk in north­ern France is fre­quently re­told in Bri­tish class­rooms, though it’s not as well-known around the world. Nolan and his wife/pro­duc­ing part­ner Emma Thomas have per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of the ar­du­ous cross­ing from the UK to Dunkirk, hav­ing trav­elled there in a friend’s boat dur­ing the ’90s. Read­ing some first-hand ac­counts from Dunkirk fur­ther piqued his in­ter­est.

Ini­tially sur­prised that the story hadn’t been told on film in modern times, Nolan came to re­alise it was not an easy thing to put into a Hol­ly­wood pack­age as, a) it’s not a vic­tory, b) it doesn’t in­volve Amer­ica and, c) it re­quires block­buster storytelling “on a colos­sal scale”. That was all part of what made it an at­trac­tive prospect for the di­rec­tor, though, and it be­came the lat­est in his trade­mark line of huge-scale block­busters that refuse to make a trade-off be­tween in­tel­li­gence and thrills.

Nolan ad­mits it’s im­pos­si­ble to en­com­pass the en­tire story, given that there were 400,000 peo­ple on the beach, but his re­search re­vealed that: “You find a bit of every­thing… You find chaos. You find or­der.

You find cow­ardice. You find no­bil­ity. It’s all there.” While it seems, on pa­per, rel­a­tively straight­for­ward – sol­diers (mainly Bri­tish and French) are trapped be­tween a rock and a hard place in a single lo­ca­tion, their only ob­jec­tive to get the hell out of there – it wouldn’t be a Nolan movie with­out some con­fi­dent jug­gling of time­lines and per­spec­tives.

“My at­tempt is to ad­dress var­i­ous dif­fer­ent essen­tial ex­pe­ri­ences,” he ex­plains of his par­tic­u­lar ap­proach to Dunkirk. “So the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing on the beach, of be­ing trapped there; the ex­pe­ri­ence of com­ing to aid those peo­ple on one of the lit­tle ships; the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing in the air and fight­ing peo­ple in the air bat­tle above them. Those seem to me to be three as­pects you could grab hold of.” And so Nolan set about mak­ing a per­spec­tive­jug­gling epic that’d see his predilec­tion for au­then­tic, prac­ti­cal ef­fects-driven spec­ta­cle and large-for­mat cam­er­a­work pushed to the limit in pur­suit of the ul­ti­mate im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence.

Rewind to March 2017 and TF gets its own first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of the air/land/sea per­spec­tive that Nolan is bring­ing to Dunkirk. First, we head to the Savoy Pier on the Thames, where Emma Thomas and marine co­or­di­na­tor Neil An­drea give us a tour of the Moon­stone, a small mo­tor yacht that’s one of the key sets of the film. Built in the ’30s, the Moon­stone wasn’t used in the ac­tual Dunkirk evac­u­a­tion, though 12 of the pro­duc­tion’s real boats were. In the film, the Moon­stone be­longs to Mark Ry­lance’s char­ac­ter, and the Os­car­win­ning ac­tor ac­tu­ally drove the boat ev­ery day of the six or so weeks it was used for film­ing.

Lead­ing us into the cramped quar­ters (at about 6ft by 6ft, there’s barely enough room to swing a kit­ten), Thomas ex­plains there was a full-scale pro­duc­tion go­ing on within this tiny liv­ing space, with Ry­lance, Cil­lian Mur­phy and new­comer Tom Glyn­nCar­ney act­ing in front of a cum­ber­some IMAX cam­era, with five or six crew mem­bers hid­ing out of sight. “It was nuts!” laughs Thomas. “The small­est set we’ve ever had.” Later, Mur­phy shares his Moon­stone ex­pe­ri­ence with TF. “You’re like, ‘Fuck­ing hell, are we re­ally do­ing this for how many weeks?’” he gasps. “And then, very soon, it just be­comes nor­mal.”

Shortly af­ter step­ping off the Moon­stone, we take a he­li­copter from Lon­don to Dunkirk, joined by Thomas and the film’s his­tor­i­cal con­sul­tant Josh Levine (au­thor of For­got­ten Voices: Dunkirk). Shout­ing over the he­li­copter’s ro­tors as we cross the Chan­nel, Levine fills us in on the his­tory be­hind the

‘ you find chaos. you find or­der. you find cow­ardice. you find no­bil­ity. it’s all there’ christo­pher nolan

‘every­thing we did was for real – you didn’t have time to think’ harry styles

evac­u­a­tion. Dur­ing the early part of WW2, the ad­vance of the Ger­mans’ Panzer tanks proved un­stop­pable, forc­ing Bri­tish and French troops to re­treat to the beach. With nearly half a mil­lion Bri­tish, French and Bel­gian troops on the sand, Hitler halted the tanks and or­dered the Luft­waffe (his air force) to take out the sur­rounded Al­lies. Be­tween 26 May and 4 June 1940, some 338,000 sol­diers were res­cued, aided by fish­ing boats and plea­sure boats that crossed the Chan­nel to help ferry the evac­uees onto the big­ger ships that would take them home.

Our view from the he­li­copter – a huge ex­panse of blue sea – puts the cross­ing into fright­en­ing per­spec­tive, and Levine is keen to stress the op­er­a­tion’s sig­nif­i­cance to the out­come of the war. “This evac­u­a­tion was more than just the Bri­tish army get­ting away,” he says. “We’re talk­ing about the safe­guard­ing of lib­erty across the world to­day… If this had failed, there was no try­ing again. That [ would have been] the end of the free world.” As pop star Harry Styles (mak­ing his film-act­ing de­but in Dunkirk) later adds: “I think the thing is, be­cause it was an evac­u­a­tion, it’s of­ten over­looked as the piv­otal mo­ment in the war it was.”

Touch­ing down in Dunkirk and walk­ing the beach with Thomas and Levine, it’s a strik­ing lo­ca­tion. The vast beach is dwarfed by the end­less sky, but be­fore we get a chance to take it all in we’re ab­so­lutely blasted by the re­lent­less sand and wind as we walk along. Levine points out the strate­gi­cally sig­nif­i­cant mole, a nar­row struc­ture stretch­ing out into the sea that was never re­ally de­signed for dock­ing ships but nonethe­less proved to be of vi­tal im­por­tance for get­ting bod­ies onto boats.

Dur­ing the pre­pro­duc­tion process, Nolan and his long­time pro­duc­tion de­signer Nathan Crow­ley toured the beach. “We turned up as tourists in t-shirts and shorts,” re­mem­bers Crow­ley. “We kind of un­der­stood, af­ter a cou­ple of days of be­ing there, it was like, ‘Well, we have to shoot here. We should be re­spect­ful to the story be­cause we’re telling this true event. We should shoot in Dunkirk.’” While it was lo­gis­ti­cally chal­leng­ing to shoot on lo­ca­tion (as well as film­ing el­e­ments in Wey­mouth, the Nether­lands and a large wa­ter-tank in LA), Crow­ley adds that it fed into their whole ap­proach. “That tied into our process of get­ting real Spit­fires to ac­tu­ally land on the beach. Let’s do this prop­erly. Let’s get real de­stroy­ers and real minesweep­ers [ war­ships]. Let’s get the small ships over there. It was hugely lo­gis­ti­cal.”

With sand in ev­ery crevice of our per­son, we depart for the more com­fort­able en­vi­rons of a swanky Lon­don ho­tel where we chat with the cast, and ex­change sandy hor­ror sto­ries. “Over the time I was there, we had ev­ery pos­si­ble [ type of] weather,” says Ken­neth Branagh when we meet in the Savoy Ho­tel, in an aus­tere,

wood-pan­elled room adorned, fit­tingly, with por­traits of pre­vi­ous prime min­is­ters. A bust of Win­ston Churchill of­fers a peace sign from the corner of the room. Dressed in a v-neck jumper (navy, like his char­ac­ter Com­man­der Bolton’s pea coat), Branagh can sym­pa­thise with TF’s sand­blast­ing. “It’s so re­lent­less, and so cut­ting,” he con­tin­ues. “And it starts to dom­i­nate your think­ing, doesn’t it? It re­ally starts to give you that slightly stir-crazy thing.”

All of Nolan’s movies since In­som­nia have starred at least a hand­ful of Os­car-win­ners/nom­i­nees, but Dunkirk is putting a rel­a­tively untested cast front and cen­tre, with heavy-duty sup­port com­ing from the likes of Branagh, Ry­lance, Mur­phy and Tom Hardy. “I think my first day on set was the worst weather,” re­calls Harry Styles, “so it was a nice in­tro­duc­tion to film­ing.” Yep, while on hia­tus from One Di­rec­tion, Styles isn’t just work­ing on solo mu­sic, he’s also try­ing an en­sem­ble on for size, play­ing Alex, an “ev­ery­day young sol­dier”, though to­day he def­i­nitely looks more like a rock star

in a low-but­toned short-sleeved black shirt, his wild, wavy hair hav­ing grown out from the mil­i­tary short-back-and­sides the role de­manded.

While Styles’ cast­ing came as some­thing of a sur­prise, Thomas con­firms that he won the role by au­di­tion­ing along­side hun­dreds of oth­ers. Styles’ ex­ist­ing pro­file wasn’t go­ing to put Nolan off. “I looked at a lot of peo­ple for the part, and I’d not found the right per­son for it,” says the di­rec­tor. “So when you see the right per­son, it would be hard to take other con­sid­er­a­tions into ac­count too much – you know, when you see the per­son who you know can do the part, and do it right, and nail it. You just have to jump on. You can’t worry too much about other things.”

For Nolan, it was essen­tial that the cast re­flected the sol­diers who would have been on the beach at the time, rather than a Hol­ly­wood­i­fied in­ter­pre­ta­tion. “A lot of th­ese sol­diers were kids,” he says. “We wanted to hire peo­ple of that age. They all had to be Bri­tish. We weren’t go­ing to pre­tend that there were Amer­i­cans. We were very up­front with the stu­dio, telling them, ‘Ba­si­cally, this is a cast of un­knowns. We have to sell this film as a spec­ta­cle.’” Each of the time­lines ended up with more ex­pe­ri­enced char­ac­ter ac­tors (Branagh, Hardy, Mur­phy, Ry­lance) bring­ing grav­i­tas and act­ing as an “an­chor”. Fionn White­head is an­other of the new­com­ers, and looks set to be the clos­est thing the film will have to a lead. “I play Tommy,” he says, the name per­haps a give­away to his ar­che­typal role. “Tommy just rep­re­sents the ev­ery­day young sol­dier in Dunkirk, re­ally.”

“I’m very wary of be­ing a vet­eran or a se­nior states­man or what­ever,” says Branagh of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the cast’s gen­er­a­tions. “You go in like you’re one of them, and vice versa.” Mur­phy con­curs. “I’d be very re­luc­tant to, in any way, be­come a sort of foun­tain of wis­dom to younger ac­tors, be­cause those guys are cast be­cause they’re the best guys Chris found af­ter look­ing at tape af­ter tape, au­di­tion af­ter au­di­tion. They’re bril­liant… the movie’s more about the kids than the se­nior ac­tors.”

None of the ac­tors had much in the way of back­story to work with, Dunkirk be­ing Nolan’s short­est script yet. “I still re­fer to it as a present-tense nar­ra­tive,” ex­plains Nolan. “As­pects of it are real-time. You’re try­ing to just jump in with the phys­i­cal­ity and the para­dox­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters. Hope­fully it’ll elicit sym­pa­thy or em­pa­thy from the au­di­ence, just by virtue of the aw­ful na­ture of the sit­u­a­tion – rather than in the tra­di­tional Hol­ly­wood way of peo­ple ex­plain­ing who they are and what the stakes of­fer them per­son­ally.”

It’s a story Nolan de­scribes as “very hu­man” and “very unique”. At un­der two hours, it could be Nolan’s short­est film since In­som­nia. “It’s a very tight film,” he says. “But it’s in­tense.” That in­ten­sity – as am­pli­fied by the

mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives – is what the team hopes will make Dunkirk a univer­sal ex­pe­ri­ence that is more than a his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment. “We’re try­ing to make some­thing im­me­di­ate, ac­ces­si­ble and, hope­fully, time­less,” Nolan adds. It’s that ap­proach that makes Nolan see Dunkirk “more as a sur­vival story than as a war film” – once again in­vert­ing genre ex­pec­ta­tions.

‘we’re try­ing to make some­thing im­me­di­ate, ac­ces­si­ble and, hope­fully, time­less’ christo­pher nolan

With so much char­ac­ter­fo­cused chat, it’s al­most pos­si­ble to for­get that Dunkirk is, as Thomas de­scribes it, “a big ac­tion movie”. Nolan is a di­rec­tor seem­ingly in­ca­pable of think­ing small. A cham­pion of the the­atri­cal ex­pe­ri­ence – and big-for­mat film like IMAX – he’s push­ing his pen­chant for scale fur­ther than ever be­fore in Dunkirk.

Film­ing as much of the ac­tion in-cam­era as pos­si­ble (as op­posed to us­ing ex­ces­sive CG-trick­ery), Nolan got hold of pe­riod-cor­rect planes, boats and war­ships in or­der to make the ac­tion au­then­tic. And, while Nolan has pre­vi­ously dab­bled in shoot­ing parts of his films in IMAX ( The Dark Knight fea­tured 37 min­utes of IMAX footage, The Dark Knight Rises 72 min­utes), Dunkirk is his big­gest un­der­tak­ing yet in that re­spect, with the en­tire film shot on large-for­mat cam­eras (with an es­ti­mated 75 per cent filmed on IMAX).

The ded­i­ca­tion to en­sur­ing the max­i­mum pos­si­ble im­age qual­ity meant Nolan’s cin­e­matog­ra­pher, Hoyte Van Hoytema ( In­ter­stel­lar), had to lug around a cum­ber­some IMAX cam­era to achieve the film’s sig­na­ture vis­ual style. Not that Van Hoytema’s com­plain­ing, call­ing the size and weight of the IMAX cam­era “mythol­o­gised”, and en­joy­ing the fact it opens up a “lib­er­at­ing” num­ber of new an­gles. It might be a heav­ier and more clumsy piece of kit, but it’s no im­ped­i­ment to a can-do at­ti­tude. “With ex­actly that same sort of men­tal­ity and phi­los­o­phy [ as we ap­proached hand­held film­ing], we were able to put that cam­era on aero­planes or in tiny cock­pits,” he says. “It’s all com­ing up with lit­tle so­lu­tions to tech­ni­cal prob­lems. It’s your duty as a cin­e­matog­ra­pher to over­come th­ese prac­ti­cal­i­ties.”

As well as the smaller boats that are an essen­tial part of the res­cue op­er­a­tion – marine co­or­di­na­tor Neil An­drea calls the flotilla “eas­ily one of the largest-scale marine op­er­a­tions on film” – real war­ships and real planes

(in­clud­ing Spit­fires) were utilised by the pro­duc­tion. “With CG th­ese days, it’s per­fectly pos­si­ble to make an ab­so­lutely ac­cu­rate film that is com­pletely fake,” con­sid­ers Nolan. “The choice is, do you use the more old-fash­ioned tech­niques, as we do? You get boats that are sim­i­lar. We used a French de­stroyer, Mail­léBrézé, which is a lit­tle bit longer than the Bri­tish de­stroy­ers at the time, but we could dress it to look more like a Bri­tish de­stroyer from 1940. And that ap­pealed to me and my col­lab­o­ra­tors much more – hav­ing some­thing that feels real, and some­thing for the ac­tors to per­form on, and for us to pho­to­graph for real, as op­posed to a per­fect CG replica that doesn’t con­vince.”

Not sat­is­fied with shoot­ing the en­tire film hand­held, Nolan and Van Hoytema took to the skies with the IMAX cam­eras for what prom­ises to be some of the most strik­ing aerial footage ever recorded. “To go up to a gi­gan­tic

de­stroyer is, of course, breath­tak­ing,” adds Van Hoytema. “But also, be­ing in the sky and to have two Spit­fires clos­ing in on the flank of your wings, and to ac­knowl­edge you have two IMAX cam­eras – one in the back of the aero­plane, one in the front – and ac­tu­ally film­ing dog­fights for real… It’s in­cred­i­ble.”

A mod­i­fied Ro­ma­nian plane known as a Yak played host to the IMAX cam­eras. Visu­ally sim­i­lar enough to a Spit­fire to con­vince on screen, it’s ac­tu­ally a two-seater, which meant it could carry a pi­lot and an ac­tor pre­tend­ing to fly, and it saved the gen­uine an­tique Spit­fires from be­ing drilled into. Thomas claims that the footage ob­tained from this method of film­ing “is un­like any­thing I’ve seen in any other film – ever”.

Nolan’s com­mit­ment to prac­ti­cal ef­fects in all ar­eas made it eas­ier for the cast to get into their char­ac­ters’ in­tense, sur­vival-driven mind­sets. “I think the whole ex­pe­ri­ence was try­ing to get to that place of fear and go­ing purely on in­stinct,” muses White­head. “That was made a lot eas­ier by the way Chris works. Every­thing he does is so real. Ex­plo­sions go­ing off in the sand, and Spit­fires fly­ing over­head, and thou­sands of ex­tras on the beach. It’s im­pos­si­ble to put your­self in those sol­diers’ shoes, but it made it a lot eas­ier to give it a go.” Styles agrees, “Every­thing we did was very real, so you didn’t have time to think.”

Speak to any­one about the mak­ing of Dunkirk – be it heads of depart­ment, or the cast – and they’ll beam about Nolan’s hands-on ap­proach, from fly­ing in Spit­fires to en­sure the ac­cu­racy of the IMAX film­ing, to op­er­at­ing a spe­cial ef­fects gim­bal by hand. Dunkirk might play out on the largest imag­in­able scale, but that doesn’t mean Nolan wasn’t sweat­ing the small stuff. “If you had to be hit by some­thing in the shot, Chris would throw it,” says Jack Low­den, who plays RAF pi­lot Collins. “If you had to be splashed by the wa­ter, or some­thing like that, a lot of the time, Chris is do­ing it. I think it’s the true def­i­ni­tion of a film­maker. I’m sur­prised he’s not in his own shots, y’know, his hands com­ing in…”

Branagh sim­i­larly noted Nolan’s in­volve­ment in all facets of the pro­duc­tion. “You feel that, at one and the same time, there’s the big scale of the op­er­a­tion – so many hun­dreds of peo­ple, and big things: boats and planes, a big land­scape – and yet he is con­tin­u­ally hands-on in the de­tail of it.” The cast wax lyri­cal about var­i­ous jaw-drop­ping el­e­ments of the pro­duc­tion, and there’s one day of shoot­ing that brings a smile to Nolan’s face as he re­calls it. “There was a par­tic­u­lar day we found our­selves on the beach at Dunkirk in the real lo­ca­tion, with real lit­tle ships, recre­at­ing their jour­ney com­ing over, and real de­stroy­ers and real planes, on the ac­tual days that it hap­pened. It was 76 years be­fore.” It wasn’t planned to co­in­cide with the an­niver­sary, but Nolan ad­mits, “That was a ‘pinch me’ mo­ment.”

As for what to ex­pect from the fin­ished film – a war movie from the per­son who has flipped ex­pec­ta­tions for film noir, sci-fi movies and su­per­hero re­boots – Mur­phy knows no bet­ter than the rest of us (he’s even held off from view­ing the pro­logue, so that he can savour the big-screen ex­pe­ri­ence in its en­tirety), but of­fers this: “If you look his­tor­i­cally at all the great direc­tors, you know, the ones that we all hold up as masters, they’ve all made a war movie. Chris, in my mind, is up there with those guys. I’ve no doubt in my mind it’ll be some­thing Nolan-es­que, but also some­thing com­pletely orig­i­nal.” Don’t ex­pect any­thing less.

‘the whole ex­pe­ri­ence was try­ing to get to that place of fear’ fionn white­head

sea legs (left) Christo­pher Nolan and DoP Hoyte Van Hoytema on lo­ca­tion at Dunkirk it­self; (be­low) Fionn White­head as Tommy; (bot­tom) film­ing aboard the Moon­stone.

all at sea Tom Glyn­nCar­ney and Cil­lian Mur­phy (top left) in the Chan­nel on Mark Ry­lance’s boat.

in com­mand Christo­pher Nolan (above left) di­rects act­ing new­comer Harry Styles; Ken­neth Branagh as Com­man­der Bolton (be­low).

water­works Nolan chose to use real ships and ef­fects over CGI wher­ever pos­si­ble.

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