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.