Writer-director Christopher Nolan is like a juggler who starts out with three tennis balls and then adds a chainsaw and a flaming torch: He makes his work more challenging to make it more exciting for the audience. And, like an expert juggler, he makes the impossible look effortless.
“Chris wanted to make a high-octane, suspenseful movie that was unconventional but a great audience experience. He’s driven to push boundaries,” says Emma Thomas, who produced Warner Bros.’ “Dunkirk” with her husband, Nolan. “People think it’s easy for him and he wants it to look easy. But he actually makes it harder because he knows it makes a better film.”
In May 1940, British small-boat owners crossed the English Channel to rescue soldiers who had been cornered on the French beach by Nazis. Spitfire aircraft also helped protect the men. Instead of concentrating on one aspect — land, sea or air — Nolan chose to cover all three sagas, which respectively took one week, one day and one hour. Nolan intercuts the three in a mosaic of non-linear storytelling.
“We were basically making three films, each difficult in its own way,” says Thomas.
Also raising his degree of difficulty: Nolan likes to shoot in-camera as much as possible. That meant using real boats, not CGI (including 20 boats that were actually a part of the 1940 evacuation), three Spitfires, and 1,380 extras, all of whom needed uniforms created for the film.
“It was logistically a massive operation,” says Thomas. The filmmakers also had to contend with terrible weather and temperamental tides on the long narrow beach, with the timing of the tides dictating the daily shooting schedule.
“It was physically an extremely difficult film to shoot,” says Thomas, who then stops herself and laughs. “I’m making it sound awful, but it was fabulous!
“Here’s what I love about film crews: You give them a challenge and they work it out. Many of these people had never worked with each other, but everybody knows their job so well that they all come together and made magic in very arduous conditions, and remained cheerful.”
While quick to praise the VFX team, Thomas says Nolan prefers the real thing. “He always does as much as possible in-camera. With this film he wanted to continue in that vein. The eye can tell if something’s real. He wanted to immerse audiences in the action, so they would slowly uncover the facts in the way that the participants do. If you want to capture that sense of being there, you can’t have any separation between the image and the audience.”
On Nov. 13, 1940, Variety reported that four film companies were in a race to tell the story of Dunkirk. None of them made the film; maybe nobody could figure out how to crack the narrative. Instead of a rousing battleground tale that’s typical of WWII movies, it’s a story of evacuation, survival and community action.
“We saw the script as pretty radical, given the structure and the lack of backstories, very little dialogue,” says Thomas. “We knew that we would have to make it with a lot less money than our previous films.”
“Dunkirk” cost less than $100 million, and earned $525 million at the global box office. It’s nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture.
As for the complex time structure, Thomas says she and Nolan were aware that it wasn’t the obvious choice. “Ever since ‘Memento’ (2000), he’s gotten the reaction, ‘I like it, but I don’t know if audiences will.’ But Chris continually proves that audiences can accept challenging material and be entertained.”
She paid tribute to marketing-distribution maven Sue Kroll and the Warner Bros. marketing team, who sold it as a strikingly different alternative to the standard summer tentpole. “Sue had to figure out how to sell it, but she loves a challenge.”
The film and the marketing made it all look easy. As Thomas says, “Often when things work, everyone immediately forgets it wasn’t at all an obvious thing to do.”