A tick­ing watch and other se­crets of the dra­matic Dunkirk score.


National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - MELENA RYZIK The New York Times

The Christo­pher Nolan film Dunkirk, about the dra­matic res­cue of Al­lied troops from a French beach the Sec­ond World War, ig­nores many con­ven­tions of war movies — most promi­nently, a heroic score. In­stead of sweep­ing strings and get-out­the-cav­alry horns, Dunkirk is set to a dron­ing beat that ratch­ets ever up in in­ten­sity.

“The fun­da­men­tal mys­tery was, how do you make some­thing con­sis­tently give you the sense of ten­sion ris­ing?” said Hans Zim­mer, the com­poser and Nolan’s long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor. They started with the script, which Nolan — who takes cello lessons “as a form of re­lax­ation,” he said — wrote with a mu­si­cal mind­set. He knew the il­lu­sory tech­nique called the Shep­ard Tone, “whereby you feel a con­tin­u­ing rise in pitch,” he said, though the mu­sic doesn’t ac­tu­ally es­ca­late that high. “What I wanted to do was pro­duce the struc­tural equiv­a­lent of that for the screen­play.”

He sent the script to Zim­mer, along with a record­ing of a par­tic­u­larly in­sis­tent windup pocket watch he had. Zim­mer had the tick­ing turned into a syn­the­sizer sound: Their mys­tery had a pulse.

An­other stroke of in­spi­ra­tion came when Nolan sug­gested us­ing El­gar’s Nim­rod from the 1898-99 Enigma Vari­a­tions as part of the theme. Nolan ex­plained: “I didn’t re­ally say this to Hans, but it played at my father’s fu­neral a few years ago. I just find it un­bear­ably mov­ing.”

In a three-way phone in­ter­view, Zim­mer and his col­lab­o­ra­tors, Ben­jamin Wall­fisch and Lorne Balfe, de­scribed the process of cre­at­ing what Zim­mer called “the most in­ti­mate” work he’d ever made with Nolan. He was speak­ing from New York, where he was due on­stage for his con­cert tour, and Balfe and Wall­fisch from Los An­ge­les. Nolan spoke sep­a­rately, from Viet­nam, where he was tak­ing a brief break from pro­mo­tional du­ties. These are edited ex­cerpts from the con­ver­sa­tions.

Q Did you want the ten­sion in the mu­sic to ever re­solve?

Hans Zim­mer: No. I have to be­lieve that the ten­sion will be un­bear­able and the out­come will be tragic, and in a way I have to pre­tend they will never get off the beach. If there are Method ac­tors, I sup­pose I’m a Method com­poser. I went to the beach (at Dunkirk). This sounds in­sane, but I was in the neigh­bour­hood, and I went know­ing they were shoot­ing there on the greyest, most foul day. I picked up a hand­ful of sand and put it in a jar and took it with me. There was some­thing good about hav­ing that next to me. And just gen­er­ally when I start on a movie, the ag­o­niz­ing dead­line, the un­solv­able things, I’m tense most of the time.

Q: Did you have other ref­er­ence points?

Zim­mer: It was very im­por­tant to for­get any other war movie I’d ever seen. This movie is more about time than any other movie we’ve ever done, about time run­ning out.

Loren Balfe: I never thought of it as a war movie. I al­ways thought of it as a thriller.

Christo­pher Nolan: I asked Hans not to write any emo­tional mu­sic. What I said to him was I wanted ob­jec­tiv­ity — the way I wanted to make the film was, it’s all about sus­pense and ten­sion and not at all about emo­tion. (The mu­sic cues he sent dur­ing shoot­ing) were not emo­tional cues, they were very much about pac­ing. We could (use them via an iPad) when we were think­ing about what the rhythms of the shots would be. This en­tire film was re­ally very much about rhythm.

Q: Did you use any un­usual in­stru­men­ta­tion?

Zim­mer: There’s a dou­ble bass that’s played in the ex­tremes, high reg­is­ter. I try to keep a small group of mu­si­cians play­ing al­ways at the ex­tremes of ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Ben­jamin Wall­fisch: We had 14 cel­los who were al­ways un­com­fort­able, al­ways play­ing too high. Zim­mer: I was re­ally try­ing to be in sync with what Richard King was do­ing with sound ef­fects. Richard would send over the sound of Moon­stone, the boat, and then it would be­come a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment.

Balfe: That’s some­thing you’re not nec­es­sar­ily aware of — the sound ef­fects of boats and mo­tors were in same tempo as the mu­sic. Nolan: Of any of the films I’ve done, this had the tight­est fu­sion be­tween mu­sic, pic­ture and sound ef­fects, which made edit­ing very dif­fi­cult. There were many parts of this process where (Hans) and his guys were curs­ing us in the stu­dio.

Zim­mer: I know what Richard’s go­ing to come up with, and I bet­ter be on my A game, be­cause oth­er­wise I’m go­ing to sound like a cou­ple of ham­sters run­ning around in a shoe­box. There’s no way I’m go­ing to beat the sound of gun­fire or crash­ing waves, so I have to ap­proach it from a dif­fer­ent point of view. Most of the mu­sic, I ac­tu­ally asked the play­ers to play qui­etly, but with great in­ten­sity. Q: You’re all Bri­tish, or have lived there. Can you ex­plain the sig­nif­i­cance of El­gar’s Nim­rod? Zim­mer: It’s part of English cul­ture, since it was writ­ten. It’s quite the op­po­site to the na­tional an­them — it’s more the emo­tional an­them to a na­tion. Wall­fisch: There’s a sort of no­bil­ity about it, which I think Bri­tish peo­ple as­pire to. Zim­mer: It’s a quiet no­bil­ity — it doesn’t show off, it’s not heroic.

Wall­fisch: (We thought) how can we strip it all away and not be sen­ti­men­tal? We added oc­ca­sional bass notes that didn’t ex­ist in the orig­i­nal. And we slowed it down to 6 bpm (beats per minute).

Zim­mer: By mak­ing the notes so long, the bow isn’t long enough to play (them). The way around it is to let each player in­de­pen­dently play the note – come in, come out. It gives it a beau­ti­ful text, like look­ing across that beach and you pick out the in­di­vid­ual amid the mass of faces.

Wall­fisch: In the record­ing we kept push­ing on that idea: We’re not an orches­tra, we’re just in­di­vid­u­als.

Zim­mer: Usu­ally in a piece of mu­sic, you don’t ever ex­pose the player play­ing one note. Most pieces of mu­sic are rush­ing from one chord to the next. But there’s some­thing very in­ter­est­ing about giv­ing the lis­tener a mo­ment.

Nolan: Quite of­ten you’re ask­ing mu­sic to do some­thing that you weren’t able to do with the pic­ture or di­a­logue. Hans didn’t use that crutch. There’s only emo­tion in the mu­sic when you just can’t not have it. The ten­sion doesn’t feel re­solved — in a way you want it to be re­placed with some kind of earned emo­tion. And that’s where the El­gar theme came in. There’s a mo­ment at the end where the mu­sic goes back to the most ba­sic form of the tick­ing, and then it just stops. And there’s some­thing about that, that I found very en­er­giz­ing.

Zim­mer: Can I say some­thing rude? This score is Chris Nolan’s score. This movie is one man’s vi­sion. It doesn’t mat­ter if it was El­gar, or Hans Zim­mer, or Ben Wall­fisch — there was not a mo­ment where I would move my hand where I wouldn’t feel Chris’ hand on my hand, reach­ing for the notes. This was the clos­est col­lab­o­ra­tion that I ever had with a di­rec­tor where even though he would never ever play a note, he some­how played ev­ery note that was in that score. Balfe: Ev­ery sound ef­fect and ev­ery note, he’s di­rect­ing it.



Hans Zim­mer, the com­poser who worked on the sound­track of Dunkirk, says there was some­thing good about hav­ing a jar of sand from the in­fa­mous beach with him.

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