Trip across chan­nel seed for Dunkirk

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - CARA BUCK­LEY

BUR­BANK, Calif. — It is a lit­tle sur­pris­ing that World War II would grab the cin­e­matic fancy of Christo­pher Nolan, given the dystopias, demi­mon­des and dream­scapes that have sprung from his fer­tile mind.

He has con­jured un­der­worlds peo­pled by tat­tooed am­ne­si­acs and broody su­per­heroes; he has plunged au­di­ences into Escherian dreams within dreams within dreams; he has tested their grasp of worm­holes and grav­i­ta­tional sin­gu­lar­ity. The yoke of re­al­ity never seemed to be his thing. But with his new movie,

Dunkirk, Nolan ven­tures into the harsh world of a real war, which out­wardly seems like well-worn ter­rain, ex­cept that he has never tack­led any­thing like it be­fore.

“It’s the first time I’ve taken on any kind of real sub­ject mat­ter, any kind of his­tor­i­cal truth, and that was very daunt­ing,” Nolan said. “I don’t want to sound too pre­cious about it at all, but, you know, I wanted to do some­thing that fright­ened me a bit.”

Nolan’s film is about the as­tound­ing res­cue of 338,000 Al­lied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in 1940. Hemmed in by Ger­man forces, the Al­lies were trapped as Ger­man air­craft strafed and bombed the sands, with the only way out be­ing across the English Chan­nel. Shal­low wa­ters pre­vented Bri­tish de­stroy­ers from com­ing close to the beaches, so the call went out to pri­vate boat own­ers in Eng­land to help ferry the sol­diers to safety.

A flotilla of hun­dreds of plea­sure boats, barges, yachts, fer­ries and fish­ing boats set out, many pi­loted by civil­ians, and, un­der bom­bard­ment from the

Luft­waffe, helped pull the res­cue off. Had they not, the war could have taken a much dif­fer­ent course.

“If Bri­tain had sur­ren­dered, it ef­fec­tively would have left Europe Naz­i­fied,” said Joshua Levine, a his­to­rian and au­thor who worked closely with Nolan on the script. “Bar­barism and in­tol­er­ance would have be­come the nat­u­ral or­der of things.”

The term “Dunkirk spirit” is carved into the Bri­tish psy­che and evokes peo­ple com­ing to­gether in tough times. Yet as piv­otal as the event was, it is of­ten not well known in the United States, which did not en­ter the war un­til Dec. 7, 1941. Of the dozens of fea­ture films made in re­cent decades about the war, none fo­cused on Dunkirk (a Bri­tish fea­ture film about it was re­leased in 1958 and a French film in 1964).

“As a film­maker you’re look­ing for gaps in the cul­ture, pop cul­ture at least; you’re look­ing for things that haven’t been ad­dressed in movies,” Nolan said, “And Dunkirk, for what­ever rea­son, has never been ad­dressed in mod­ern cinema.”

In per­son, Nolan, 46, ex­udes the in­tel­li­gence and fo­cus that in­form his metic­u­lously plot­ted films. He grew up in Chicago and Lon­don, but his ac­cent, mien and look — floppy school­boy hair, trousers, blazer and Ox­ford but­ton-down — is Bri­tish all the way.

His blis­ter­ing suc­cess — his nine films have pulled in bil­lions of dol­lars — has also meant that he is now an old hand at sit-down in­ter­views. While he was not at all per­func­tory in our chat, there was a faint air of, “Right, let’s get on with things.” He is also, not sur­pris­ingly, a rather se­ri­ous man, and did not ex­hibit a shred of ei­ther the Bri­tish ten­dency to self-dep­re­cate or that Hol­ly­wood tic of try­ing to win over and charm.

Nolan did al­low that the run-up to the re­lease of Dunkirk had left him some­what of a ner­vous wreck.

“It’s ter­ri­fy­ing, it’s the worst, yeah, I hate it, I hate it,” he said. “You make the film for an au­di­ence, you want to get it out there in the widest way pos­si­ble, and the broad­est way pos­si­ble, but it never gets any eas­ier.”

Nolan seized on the idea for the film some 25 years ago, when he and his girl­friend at the time, the pro­ducer Emma Thomas (now his wife), joined a friend on a small sail­ing yacht for the jour­ney from Eng­land across the English Chan­nel to Dunkirk.

It was around Easter, and they ex­pected a day trip, Nolan said, but the seas were in­cred­i­bly rough, and the wind cru­elly cold. It ended up tak­ing a numb­ing 19 hours. “It was a very in­tense ex­pe­ri­ence, and no one was drop­ping bombs on us,” Nolan said. “I think that re­ally planted the seeds for me.”

He shelved the idea be­cause he had a ca­reer to build. The re­lease of his break­through film, Me­mento, (2001), was nearly a decade away. To do Dunkirk prop­erly on a vast scale, Nolan needed lots of Hol­ly­wood money. “For Bri­tish peo­ple, it’s kind of sa­cred ground,” he said. “You have to do it right.”

Hap­pily, his films, es­pe­cially the Dark Knight tril­ogy, went on to make a boat­load for Warner Bros., and a few years ago, the stu­dio agreed to back Dunkirk.

“We felt now was the time to cap­i­tal­ize on that trust and re­la­tion­ship,” said Thomas, who has been a pro­ducer on all of Nolan’s fea­ture films. “It very much felt like the sum of ev­ery­thing we’ve learned in prior movies.”

On sev­eral fronts, Dunkirk breaks from form.

Its run­ning time is just one hour and 47 min­utes, which makes it an hour leaner than In­ter­stel­lar, and Nolan’s short­est film since Fol­low­ing, his 1998 fea­ture de­but. He wanted Dunkirk to be a tight, taut film that plunged into the ac­tion with­out pre­am­ble, like the third act of one of his pre­vi­ous films.

Nolan also did not want to make a typ­i­cal war movie, and in­stead built it as a nail biter. To avoid alien­at­ing the au­di­ence, he also kept out nearly all traces of blood — “it’s not the but­ton we wanted to push,” he said — land­ing a PG-13 rat­ing even though, he said, the stu­dio had given him the go-ahead to make an R-rated film.

“We wanted an in­ten­sity not based on hor­ror or gore. It’s an in­ten­sity based on rhythm, and ac­cel­er­at­ing ten­sion, and over­lap­ping sus­pense sce­nar­ios,” he said. “Dunkirk to me is one of the most sus­pense­ful tick­ing-clock sce­nar­ios of all time.”

In prepa­ra­tion, Nolan spent a few days driv­ing with Levine around Eng­land talk­ing to vet­er­ans, al­though the char­ac­ters he cre­ated were com­pos­ites. Much of the pro­duc­tion hap­pened on the beaches of Dunkirk, with key cast mem­bers spend­ing weeks train­ing on the beaches and in the ocean.

The film en­twines per­spec­tives from peo­ple on land, in air and at sea, through the eyes of, among others, a naval of­fi­cer (Ken­neth Branagh), a civil­ian boat cap­tain (Mark Ry­lance), a shell­shocked of­fi­cer (Cil­lian Mur­phy), Royal Air Force pi­lots (Tom Hardy and Jack Low­den), and the cen­tral char­ac­ter, a painfully young Bri­tish sol­dier played by a rel­a­tive new­comer, Fionn White­head.

There is some­thing of an Ev­ery­man qual­ity to White­head, and he said his green­ness helped him land the part, be­cause Nolan was seek­ing an ac­tor whose un­easi­ness in a big-bud­get, star-stud­ded film would trans­late to vul­ner­a­bil­ity on­screen. “It was very, very daunt­ing,” White­head said. “But he wanted some­one who had to adapt quickly to a new sit­u­a­tion, which is ob­vi­ously ev­i­dent with the sol­dier, and true to me.”

The most talked about bit of cast­ing was Nolan’s hir­ing of pop star Harry Styles, of the boy band One Di­rec­tion, for an an­cil­lary part. Twit­ter erupted af­ter Styles lopped off his flow­ing locks (“Hair­cut re­vealed!”) and when im­ages ap­peared of his char­ac­ter pos­si­bly drown­ing (“Our hearts can’t take it!”). Nolan, a father of four, said he had been only dimly aware of Styles’ fame and chose the singer en­tirely based on his act­ing chops. “He was re­ally im­pres­sive,” Nolan said.

As much as a de­par­ture as Dunkirk is for Nolan, it bears his sig­na­ture hall­mark of danc­ing around lin­ear­ity and time. The film jumps for­ward a few hours or days, then back, and takes re­peated runs at har­row­ing in­ci­dents from dif­fer­ent van­tages, as when Hardy’s pi­lot des­per­ately tries to ward off a Ger­man air at­tack, or when sol­diers fran­ti­cally swim from spilled oil that is about to ig­nite.

The ef­fect is im­pres­sion­is­tic, al­most painterly, with each new shot a brush stroke that fills in the pic­ture, but also a lit­tle dis­ori­ent­ing. “It’s, ‘We know you’re as clever as us, and we know you can keep up,’” said Mur­phy, who has worked with Nolan twice be­fore.

Christo­pher Nolan first con­ceived of Dunkirk dur­ing a rough cross­ing of the English Chan­nel decades ago.


Cred­ited only as “Shiver­ing Sol­dier,” Ir­ish ac­tor Cil­lian Mur­phy (stand­ing) is part of large en­sem­ble cast in Christo­pher Nolan’s epic

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