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How ‘Dunkirk’ Overturned Conventions of Storytelling, Marketing and More

The nominated films for the 90th Academy Awards include plenty of breakthroughs, such as works from women and black filmmakers, genre-bending movies and two first-time directors. It’s a cutting-edge lineup.

At first glance, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” seems old-school, an epic about one of Hollywood’s favorite subjects, World War II. But in fact, “Dunkirk” overturns conventions of storytelling, filmmaking and even marketing. It’s one of 2017’s most radical films.

Nolan toyed with time and chronology in his 2000 “Memento,” which earned him an Oscar nomination for original screenplay. But his work in the Warner Bros. “Dunkirk” is even more extreme. The film looks at the May 1940 evacuation of British troops from the French coast and it follows three stories: land, sea and air.

They respectively cover periods of one week, one day and one hour; Nolan and editor Lee Smith juxtapose all of them in a cubist-style narrative. The film cuts from the soldiers at night to boat captain Mark Rylance in daylight, in a scene that actually happens maybe five days later. But there are no subtitles to explain the timeframe. “Dunkirk” jumps back and forth, and the audience goes with it.

Nolan’s second radical decision was to make a Hollywood WWII film without the usual wartime movie staples: there are no tearful farewells to girlfriends; no grizzled vet explaining to the raw recruit why this is significant; no context explaining what else was going on elsewhere in the world.

“Chris is a brilliant writer, but it was an editing challenge,” says editor Smith. “This is a war movie like no other. I didn’t have scenes with Germans to cut to, I didn’t have a war room, explaining what’s going on. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was very experimental.”

There’s very little exposition; in fact, there’s very little dialogue.

The young soldiers are often confused (Where am I supposed to go?) and startled (Who’s shooting at us?), and Nolan creates the same experience for audience.

Also radical: Nolan had always aimed it to be a summer tentpole. “You can’t think of a less typical summer movie,” says Smith. “I used to joke that we were making an expensive art movie. At face value, it’s an edgy thing to spend money on. So all credit to Warner Bros. And of course they’re happy with the results.”

According to the studio, “Dunkirk” cost $100 million. “The film should have cost twice what it did,” says Smith. But the gamble paid off. It earned $525 million at the global box office.

Nolan does radical things with his behind-the-camera team, who were constantly reinventing the wheel. As supervising sound editor Richard King told Variety, “We didn’t want anything familiar, so it wouldn’t remind the audience of other war movies. That would diminish things. We tried to rethink every sound.”

Here’s maybe the most radical aspect of all: In an age of mobile content and smartphone-sized entertainment, Nolan shot it in Imax and 65mm, capturing images on camera, with almost no CGI or greenscreen. He made a film to be seen on the big screen.

Asked to describe the most innovative part of the film, Smith sums up with a laugh, “The radical part is the entire concept.”

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