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Playback: Christopher Nolan on ‘Dunkirk’ and the Director’s Role as Magician

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

With eight Oscar nominations including best picture, Christopher Nolan’s World War II drama “Dunkirk” heads into the 90th annual Academy Awards as one of 2017’s most admired films. The filmmaker’s first-ever bid for directing, meanwhile, felt like a long time coming after he was previously passed over for films like “Memento,” “The Dark Knight” and “Inception.” That peer recognition is extra sweet for a craftsman who relishes the precision-tinkering of the trade, the nuts and bolts of which Nolan details in an exclusive 40-minute chat drilling down on approach and technique.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

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“There’s a sense of engineering about it that’s a lot of fun,” Nolan says about the job of a film director. “You’re able to take advantage of the years you have to plan and to execute something the audience will sit there and watch and for an hour and a half, two hours, it will flow over them in a linear way. So you have a very superior position to the audience. You have several huge advantages. Utilizing those to give an unexpected or a challenging or a surprising experience is part of the fun of it. It really is, I think, like putting on a magic show. You get to be the magician. You get to plan your illusions ahead of time and then you get to lay them out and see the audience experience them in real time.”

The bulk of Nolan’s awards-season recognition for “Dunkirk” has come for his work as director, but his efforts on the page have been undervalued. The complex structure of the film, which braids three separate stories on different temporal planes, was not something that could be discovered in the editing. It was meticulously calculated on the page, and further, the tidiness of the story particulars allowed Nolan to be bolder with his visual storytelling than some of the more heady narrative material he’s tackled in the past has allowed.

“As an audience member you cling to dialogue, in the same way that as a writer you’ll cling to it, to just get something across that you can’t figure out another way to communicate,” Nolan, who was Oscar-nominated for writing “Memento” and “Inception,” says. “I’ve done films in the past that have required a lot of heavy exposition, because they’re dealing with complicated structures or conceits. The wonderful thing about the story of Dunkirk, to me, is how simple it is. It’s incredibly simple geography that you can explain, and it’s a very primal, ticking-clock, surrounded-on-all-sides, backs-to-the-sea situation. It’s very easy to get that across, so you don’t have to spend a lot of time talking about it. You can just experience it.”

The themes of “Dunkirk” are in many ways timeless — pulling together in the face of insurmountable odds to survive the torrent, etc. But for Nolan, there is connective tissue between this harrowing survival yarn and the modern climate.

“It wasn’t really something I was self-conscious about in making the film, but it’s really a question of what does ‘the Dunkirk spirit’ mean,” he begins. “What it means to me is the possibilities of what can be achieved when people pull together, as opposed to what we can achieve individually. I think that movies, traditionally, have celebrated individuality and individual acts of heroism. That’s something that’s fit the narrative paradigm of movies. So a lot of what we’ve done editorially, photographically, it’s all aimed at trying to draw the audience into a different type of heroism, a communal heroism. I think we live in times that possibly overvalue individual achievement at the expense of what we can do together. For me, that’s the relevance of Dunkirk.”

For more, including Nolan’s philosophies on sound mixing and virtual reality as well as thoughts on the impact of the “Dark Knight” films on his career, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

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