Christo­pher Nolan builds on ex­per­tise at sus­pense with war epic ‘Dunkirk’

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY STEPHANIE MERRY

A Com­fort Suites near an out­let mall 45 min­utes out­side Wash­ing­ton is not where you’d ex­pect to find Christo­pher Nolan, the Bri­tish di­rec­tor whose movies have grossed bil­lions of dol­lars.

And yet here he sits neatly at­tired in his sig­na­ture out­fit — dark blazer, light-blue col­lared shirt, tan pants, black boots — with a ho­tel cup of Lip­ton tea at the ready, brighteyed and prepped to talk about his new movie, “Dunkirk.”

But first: What on earth is he do­ing here? In fact, he’s in town for a sci­ence com­pe­ti­tion — his son’s group made it to last month’s na­tional fi­nals. The stu­dents aren’t around — they have cushier digs.

“And this is where the par­ents are stay­ing,” Nolan says, ges­tur­ing to the room with­out a trace of irony.

That’s the first in­di­ca­tion that the 46-yearold writer-di­rec­tor be­hind the “Dark Knight” tril­ogy, “In­cep­tion” and “In­ter­stel­lar” may not be quite as bom­bas­tic as his films.

“Dunkirk” is just as loud and thrilling as those pre­vi­ous hits, al­though it’s also a stark de­par­ture. Not only is it Nolan’s first his­tor­i­cal

movie — in­spired by the fa­mous evac­u­a­tion of Al­lied troops from the beaches of north­ern France in 1940 — but it is also his first pure sus­pense film, as he sees it, which means he had to do a fair amount of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.

“I think of any of the films I’ve made re­ally since ‘Me­mento,’ ” he says, re­fer­ring to his 2000 non­lin­ear mind-ben­der, “it’s my bold­est at­tempt to try to cre­ate a very un­fa­mil­iar rhythm for the au­di­ence.”

Well, what­ever he’s do­ing works. From the first scene, which starts with many lit­eral bangs, to the last im­age, the film is a taut nail-biter. The ten­sion is bol­stered by Hans Zim­mer’s score, which in­te­grates the sound of a tick­ing pocket watch as a re­lent­less re­minder of pre­cious sec­onds dis­ap­pear­ing.

Dunkirk was tech­ni­cally a lost battle — the Bri­tish and other Al­lied sol­diers were ma­rooned in France, sur­rounded by Ger­mans on all sides ex­cept the one where the English Chan­nel was lap­ping at the shore. Mean­while, de­stroy­ers couldn’t get close enough to the beach to res­cue the men, and Ger­man “Stuka” dive bombers were buzzing over­head, drop­ping bombs.

Eng­land was hop­ing to res­cue about 35,000. In­stead, more than 300,000 men sur­vived, in part be­cause of hobby cruis­ers and fish­er­men with small boats who crossed the Chan­nel to ferry sol­diers from the shore to the ships.

Nolan knows first­hand how har­row­ing the trip across the Chan­nel can be. He re-cre­ated the jour­ney in the 1990s, along with his wife, pro­ducer Emma Thomas, and a friend with a boat. Dur­ing the day, the weather turned and the Chan­nel be­came rough; an eight- or nine­hour voy­age ended up tak­ing 19. It was the cold­est Nolan has ever been, he recalls.

“It was an ex­tremely in­tense ex­pe­ri­ence — and that was with no­body drop­ping bombs on us,” he says. “That re­ally ce­mented my view of the story, my fas­ci­na­tion with the ac­tual ex­pe­ri­ence of it.”

Nolan tells the story from three dis­tinct per­spec­tives, based on fic­tion­al­ized char­ac­ters. The tale of the men on the beach un­folds over the course of a week through the eyes of a young sol­dier played by Fionn White­head; the ad­ven­ture on the English Chan­nel lasts a day and fol­lows Daw­son (Mark Ry­lance), a Brit who hopped on his small boat to res­cue sur­vivors; and we get the aerial per­spec­tive through Far­rier (Tom Hardy), a fighter pilot in a Spit­fire who has one hour to take out Nazi planes and pro­tect the men on the ground and in the wa­ter. The sto­ries in­ter­weave, hop­ping back and forth in time. What else would you ex­pect from the man be­hind “Me­mento”?

Dia­logue and back­story are min­i­mal. The movie clocks in at an ef­fi­cient 106 min­utes, which is sub­stan­tially shorter than nearly all of Nolan’s fea­tures.

“You save a lot of money on paper,” he jokes about his 76-page script, which is roughly half the length of his typ­i­cal screen­plays. “Dunkirk” re­lies on vis­ual im­agery, not con­ver­sa­tion, to pro­pel the story, which can be a gam­ble. The char­ac­ters are blank slates who of­fer no de­tails about the lovers they left back home, their senses of hu­mor or their pre­vi­ous heroic deeds.

“My idea was that, in­stead of try­ing to ex­plain through dia­logue why we should care about them, we use the lan­guage of sus­pense — we use the lan­guage of the Hitch­cock thriller — to cre­ate im­me­di­ate em­pa­thy with the peo­ple on-screen by virtue of their phys­i­cal sit­u­a­tions,” he says.

The movie is also short be­cause au­di­ences can only with­stand so much stress. Nolan says the en­tire film feels like the third act of another, longer movie — that mo­ment when the ac­tion picks up and the dia­logue falls away.

What the film lacks in words, it makes up for with sound. The alarm­ing noise of the Ger­man planes, for ex­am­ple, is so shrilly ter­ri­fy­ing, it be­comes a prompt for view­ers, who might start to in­stinc­tively duck each time the scream hits their ears.

“It’s a howl and it’s pri­mal,” Nolan says of the sound, which was in­spired by alarms the Ger­mans put on their planes as a means of psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare. “I think the sound in films, the idea of a sig­ni­fier — of a sound that tells you some­thing is com­ing — can be re­ally ef­fec­tive.”

Keep­ing the story taut is al­most a for­mula, ac­cord­ing to Nolan. He calls it geo­met­ric, be­cause it can be plot­ted and planned out with care­fully drawn di­a­grams

Hav­ing stud­ied the films of Al­fred Hitch­cock and Henri-Ge­orges Clouzot, Nolan re­al­ized that there was a cer­tain rhythm to the edit­ing.

It had to be pre­cise, un­like his other ac­tion-heavy films, which re­lied on quick cut­ting to cre­ate en­ergy. The first time edi­tor Lee Smith took a stab at one of the dog­fights, it was “ex­traor­di­nar­ily ac­tion-packed and ex­cit­ing,” Nolan says. But that wasn’t what the film needed.

“What we’re do­ing is not a car chase, it’s a chess game,” Nolan says. “It’s ex­plain­ing to the au­di­ence how dif­fi­cult it would be, ex­plain­ing the process of lin­ing up your gun sight on the en­emy plane and try­ing to an­tic­i­pate where it’s go­ing to move in the time you hit the but­ton on the ma­chine gun.”

With so much em­pha­sis on vi­su­als, Nolan de­cided to re­unite with “In­ter­stel­lar” cin­e­matog­ra­pher Hoyte Van Hoytema, who had achieved the al­most-un­think­able feat of turn­ing an Imax cam­era (which weighs more than 50 pounds) into a hand­held for a few scenes of that movie. For “Dunkirk,” Nolan wanted al­most the en­tire movie shot that way.

Van Hoytema is not com­plain­ing, how­ever. For one thing, he had help, thanks to a se­cond per­son who stead­ied the cam­era af­ter the di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy hoisted it on his shoul­der. The pair then moved to­gether, “like two grown-up men danc­ing the Nutcracker,” ac­cord­ing to Van Hoytema.

“You know, I don’t think it’s that bad,” he said in a re­cent phone con­ver­sa­tion. “I’m not a very sporty per­son. I’m over­weight and I like to drink wine, but peo­ple look at it as some sort of ath­letic achieve­ment.”

Be­sides, Van Hoytema knew as soon as he read the script that “Dunkirk” had to be shot on Imax to tell the most vis­ceral vis­ual story. Nolan and Van Hoytema even solved the prob­lem of how to shoot in­side Hardy’s Spit­fire, even though the large cam­era didn’t fit in the cock­pit: They hung it out­side and built a spe­cial lens that bent like a periscope.

“Au­di­ences have seen a lot of re­ally well­done dog­fights in films, but there’s al­ways a point, in ev­ery film we looked at, where it breaks down, where you see, oh, they’re in stu­dio or it’s green screen or what­ever it is,” Nolan says. “We were de­ter­mined to not have that.”

It might look ex­cit­ing on the screen, but that doesn’t mean it was en­tirely thrilling to make. Sus­pense, it turns out, is an ex­act­ing genre.

“The lan­guage of sus­pense is pedan­tic,” Nolan says. “At times you have to be a lit­tle bor­ing.”


“Dunkirk” di­rec­tor Christo­pher Nolan, be­low, in­ter­weaves three dis­tinct per­spec­tives, in­clud­ing that of a young sol­dier played by Fionn White­head, above, in his World War II ac­tion thriller.

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