Christopher Nolan: Imagining the impossible
With Dunkirk nominated for a whopping eight Oscars at the 90th Academy Awards, the filmmaker talks about the challenges of creating the historic war film
Internet memes have a short lifespan, but ‘Nolan is God’ is a meme that’s been around for ages. In fact, it resurfaces every time Christopher Nolan releases a new film. Regardless of whether he’s working on tentpole superhero flicks (The Dark Knight Trilogy) or neo-noir titles with diminutive budgets (Following), this filmic genius almost always manages to rope in audience members into theatres for multiple viewings of his productions. So, how did this British-American—often considered an autonomous writer/director working within the rigid Hollywood system—gain favour amongst critics, studio heads, and casual fans?
Some say it’s the autodidactic director’s ability to create a spectacle for the masses while guaranteeing that the film is oozing with cinematic purity. Others imply that it’s the auteur’s insistence on shooting with traditional film stock and using practical effects, whenever possible, that helps him weave complex, immersive, and non-linear narratives. High praise, indeed. But, then again, there aren’t many filmmakers who have amassed over $4.7 billion at the worldwide box office with just 10 films under their belt.
Surprisingly, despite all of this, the 47-year-old virtuoso has never won an Oscar! He has been nominated in the past; for Best Screenplay (Memento, Inception) and Best Picture (Inception), however, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences snubbed him each time. Now that Nolan’s celebrated story of a WWII water evacuation of over 3,00,000 soldiers has received a total of eight nominations—including the coveted Best Picture and Best Director—we decided to chat with the fantastic filmmaker prior to the 90th Academy Awards, about all things Dunkirk.
How daunting was the experience of making this film?
Every film is the same process, you work on something for years of your life, you put everything you can into it, and it’s very frightening to put it into the world. With Dunkirk we had the added pressure that this is a real story—these things really happened in 1940. People who were there for it, are still alive today. One of the most daunting things I have done professionally is screening the film for veterans—some of them I had spoken to in preparation for the film—and then standing up in front of them about to show our version of what they had been through was pretty frightening. It was a very emotional and I was very relieved when it was over but very gratified by the response.
Unlike most of your other titles, Dunkirk uses minimal dialogue.
I thought long and hard about how you address this enormous story that is far too big to encompass in a movie. There were 4,00,000 people involved, a vast scale of human experiences, and ultimately what I chose to do is focus on the elements that make the Dunkirk story unique from ‘just another’ film. The focus is on the survival aspect and the suspense aspect. I wanted to address the story very much in the language of suspense as that is the most visual language of a film there is and so it leads you to an approach stripped down of dialogue really looking into the visual masters in the past from the silent era.
Tell us about your thought process behind making Dunkirk?
I wanted to tell an intensely subjective version of the story. So I wanted to put the audience on the beach with the guys, and I also needed to put them in the cockpit of a Spitfire with a pilot who is flying towards Dunkirk. When you’re crosscutting these timelines you’re never departing from subjective storytelling.
While tackling this human aspect of storytelling, you are starting to hopefully build up a coherent picture of larger events that need telling in any version of the Dunkirk story. Everything for me in this film is about intensity and suspense. It’s about trying to stay in the human scale of storytelling but getting across with clarity the larger movement of the evacuation.
Sound was an important part of the film. How closely did you work with the sound crew to make it an integral part of the immersive experience?
We spent a lot of time developing the sound of the film and how it worked. We tried particularly hard with the ordinance and distant gunfire. For the aforementioned things, we tried to use real recordings with the real perspectives and not layer things with overtly-theatrical effects that audiences are familiar with. We wanted to give a slightly raw and gritty feel to the sound.