Di­rec­tor on the rhythm of ‘Dunkirk’

Christo­pher Nolan uses his stature to make some­thing unique

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - ENTERTAINMENT - BY JAKE COYLE

A tick­ing sound runs through­out “Dunkirk’’ like an om­nipresent re­minder that time is run­ning out for the 340,000 Bri­tish and Al­lied sol­diers ma­rooned on the French beach and sur­rounded by Ger­mans. It’s a tick-tock ef­fect wo­ven into the score that orig­i­nated, fit­tingly, from Christo­pher Nolan’s own stop­watch.

Nolan is cin­ema’s great watch­maker: a film­maker of Swiss pre­ci­sion ca­pa­ble of bend­ing and shap­ing time to suit his grandiose, metronomed movies. Hav­ing al­ready re­versed time (“Me­mento’’) and warped its fab­ric (“In­ter­stel­lar’’), Nolan set out to ac­com­plish some­thing dif­fer­ent with “Dunkirk,’’ a movie that cross­cuts three story lines (on land, sea and sky) from three dif­fer­ent chronolo­gies (one week, one day, one hour) dur­ing the fa­mous evac­u­a­tion.

“I wanted to ex­per­i­ment with a new rhythm,’’ said Nolan in a re­cent in­ter­view. “What I wanted to do was take what I call the snow­balling ef­fect of the third act of my other films, where par­al­lel story lines 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.’’

When “Dunkirk’’ hits the­atres next Fri­day, au­di­ences will find a land­mark war film but not a tra­di­tional one. Shot al­most en­tirely with 70mm IMAX cam­eras from Nolan’s atyp­i­cally spare 76-page script, “Dunkirk’’ is an of­ten word­less, al­most purely cin­e­matic ex­pe­ri­ence of dog­fights in the air and close scrapes at sea. It’s an all-out as­sault — of track­ing shots and mon­tage — by one of the movies’ most max­i­mal film­mak­ers.

“I loved it,’’ said Nolan of shoot­ing at Dunkirk, where much of the pro­duc­tion took place. “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.’’

For any­one even vaguely fa­mil­iar with to­day’s Hol­ly­wood, it’s ob­vi­ous enough that a silent­movie-in­spired epic about the 1940 evac­u­a­tion of Dunkirk — a sem­i­nal mo­ment of re­treat and sur­vival for the Bri­tish but an event not as dearly re­mem­bered out­side the U.K. — isn’t your stan­dard sum­mer pop­corn fare. But Nolan, the “Dark Knight’’ di­rec­tor, en­joys a rar­i­fied po­si­tion in the in­dus­try, and the story of Dunkirk is one he’s wanted to tell since a dra­matic sail­ing ex­cur­sion across the English Chan­nel in the ‘90s .

“We’ve been talk­ing about Dunkirk as a story for a very long time,’’ said Emma Thomas, Nolan’s wife and pro­ducer. “Af­ter ‘In­ter­stel­lar,’ we were think­ing about what we might do next and I think I re­minded him of it and pointed him in the di­rec­tion of a few books on the sub­ject. He had a num­ber of things that he was en­ter­tain­ing but then he came back to me and said, ‘I think I see a way into this story.’’’

Nolan ac­knowl­edges he feels “a mas­sive re­spon­si­bil­ity’’ to use his stature to make some­thing unique. Hav­ing grown up in awe of big, bold films like “Lawrence of Ara­bia’’ and “2001: A Space Odyssey,’’ Nolan be­lieves that “cin­ema is work­ing at its ab­so­lute best is when it’s a grand­scale film that re­ally works and does some­thing you haven’t seen be­fore. That for me is al­ways the brass ring.’’

“Dunkirk’’ is cer­tainly that, es­pe­cially when im­pos­ingly pro­jected on IMAX screens. But such scale to­day is usu­ally re­served only for sup­pos­edly more bank­able fran­chise films.

Such a path no longer holds much in­ter­est for Nolan. Though the 46-year-old di­rec­tor grew up a ma­jor “Star Wars’’ devo­tee, di­rect­ing one doesn’t in­ter­est him.

“Um, I’m very happy to go watch them,’’ he said, laugh­ing. “The cin­e­matic land­scape has changed since I started mak­ing Bat­man films. When we were do­ing the ‘Dark Knight’ tril­ogy, I think 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.’’

“Dunkirk’’ might not be an Amer­i­can story, but, Nolan said, “It needed to be made with an Amer­i­can stu­dio bud­get.’’ One of the first things he did to pre­pare was bor­row Steven Spiel­berg’s per­sonal print of “Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan.’’

“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.’ 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.’’

AP PHOTO

In this March 29 file photo, Christo­pher Nolan, di­rec­tor of “Dunkirk,” dis­cusses the film dur­ing the Warner Bros. Pic­tures pre­sen­ta­tion at Cine­maCon 2017 in Las Ve­gas.

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