Tick-Tock: Christo­pher Nolan on the rhythm of ‘Dunkirk’

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - JAKE COYLE

NEW YORK — 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, me-tronomed 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 70 mm 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 all­out 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 silent-moviein­spired 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 rar­efied 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 grand-scale 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, grew up a ma­jor “Star Wars” devo­tee, di­rect­ing one doesn’t in­ter­est him.

“Um, I’m very happy to go watch them,” he said. “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.”

In­stead, Nolan’s model for sus­tained sus­pense was Henri-Ge­orges Clouzet’s “Wages of Fear,” in which four pen­ni­less men drive trucks loaded with ni­tro­glyc­er­ine through the moun­tains. George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a vir­tu­ally per­pet­ual car chase, also strength­ened his re­solve. “I was in the mid­dle of writ­ing the script when I saw that film and I took con­fi­dence from it,” said Nolan. “It’s not dis­sim­i­lar in terms of the mod­u­la­tion I’m talk­ing about.”

Other things went into mak­ing what Nolan called, “a re­lent­lessly sus­pense­ful ex­pe­ri­ence.” He used a Shep­ard tone, in which as­cend­ing notes are sub­tly cy­cled to give the im­pres­sion of a never-end­ing rise in pitch. He in­serted the 50 pound-plus Imax cam­era into the cock­pit of a fighter plane, and con­trolled the cam­era from the ground.

“We just had the idea that we would put cam­eras where peo­ple wouldn’t nor­mally put them,” said cin­e­matog­ra­pher Hoyt van Hoytema. “Chris al­ways re­minds me of some kind of a weird Re­nais­sance ge­nius. He knows so many things so much bet­ter than the peo­ple who are sup­posed to know bet­ter.”

View­ers may find them­selves breath­less from the heart-stop­ping open­ing se­quence only to find that it es­sen­tially doesn’t abate un­til the end cred­its. The clock — Nolan’s watch — keeps tick­ing.

“The films I’ve made, I’ve tried to grab ahold of what in most films is a sub­tlety,” says Nolan of time, which he calls an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated el­e­ment of the medium. “I’ve tried to take it and use it for the tool that it is.”

And in “Dunkirk,” time flies.


Cre­ative Di­rec­tor Heather Ste­wart, Di­rec­tor Christo­pher Nolan and Emma Thomas at­tend a Q&A pro­mot­ing his new film “Dunkirk” in Lon­don, Eng­land.

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