Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk tells one of the greatest stories in human history

“We want to take the audience on a very intense ride.  That’s the experience we want to give the audience—to make them feel that they’re actually there and allow them to feel what that would be like.”

Visionary storyteller and storymaker Christopher Nolan has taken audiences from the streets of Gotham City, to the infinite world of dreams, to the farthest reaches of space.

Now, for the first time, the innovative director/writer/producer has turned his camera to a real-life event, one that has resonated with him throughout his life: the miracle of Dunkirk.

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Seeing the event through the eyes of just a few individual characters was something that struck Branagh when he read the script. “Chris managed to weave together a very human story that brings all those personal moments together within this epic dimension,” the actor states. “He is quite brilliant in my view, a master filmmaker.”

Dunkirk opens as hundreds of thousands of British and Allied troops are surrounded by enemy forces.  Trapped on the beach with their backs to the sea, they face an impossible situation as the enemy closes in.

The story unfolds on land, sea and air.  RAF Spitfires engage the enemy in the skies above the Channel, trying to protect the defenseless men below.  Meanwhile, hundreds of small boats manned by both military and civilians are mounting a desperate rescue effort, risking their lives in a race against time to save even a fraction of their army.

Dunkirk features a multi generational ensemble cast, including Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy and Barry Keoghan, with Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy.  Nolan directed “Dunkirk” from his own screenplay, utilizing a mixture of IMAX® and 65mm film to bring the story to the screen.  The film was produced by Emma Thomas and Nolan, with Jake Myers serving as executive producer.

One of the greatest stories in human history

“Dunkirk” is based on the evacuation that—although it took place in the early months of World War II—had a direct impact on the outcome of the war.  Rather than make a battlefield drama, however, Nolan’s objective was to turn this historical moment into immediate, immersive cinema: a propulsive, ticking-clock, epic action thriller in which the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Says Nolan: “What happened at Dunkirk is one of the greatest stories in human history, the ultimate life-or-death race against time.  It was an extraordinarily suspenseful situation; that’s the reality.  Our aim with this movie was to throw the audience into that with an absolute respect for history, but also with a degree of intensity and, of course, a sense of entertainment, too.”

”It’s one of the great human stories, and it’s one of the most suspenseful situations that I had ever heard of in my life. You have 400,000 men – the entire British army – trapped on the beach at Dunkirk. Their backs to the sea, home is only 26 miles away and it’s impossible to get to. The enemy is closing in, and there’s a choice between annihilation and surrender. I just think it’s the more extraordinarily suspenseful situation. That, I think, speaks to a lot of things that I am interested in with film.

Nolan’s longtime producing partner, Emma Thomas, offers, “‘Dunkirk’ is a huge spectacle film, but also a very human story and, in that way, it’s universal.  Chris wanted to put the audience in the center of the experience along with the characters, whether they be the soldiers on the beach, the pilots in the air, or the civilians on the boats.”

The remarkable true story that inspired the fictional film is one that has fascinated Nolan for many years “and one I’ve been wanting to tell for quite some time,” he says.  “Like most British people, I was raised on the mythical story of the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the victory that was snatched from the jaws of defeat,” he relates.  “It’s a massive part of our culture.  It’s in our bones.”

Like many Britons of his generation, Nolan grew up with stories about Dunkirk in his household, where the specter of the war loomed large. “My grandfather was in the Air Force,” he said. “He did not participate in Dunkirk; he was a navigator in Lancaster and he died in the war.”

Nolan visited his grandfather’s grave, outside the French city of Lyon, while he wa in pre-production for “Dunkirk.” That connection was one of a few ways that the movie — his 10th feature, and his first British production since his 1998 debut “Following” — was his most personal to date.

“I try to only make films that I feel very connected with on some emotional level,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve taken on a real-life event, and there’s a huge responsibility that comes with that. But I suppose in some ways feel more personal.”

Much of that had to do with the family connection. “Growing up, I’d hear about my grandfather, and my father and my uncle were so affected by the war,” he said. “Certainly with the aerial sections of the film, it was very important to me to get those right. My dad used to be very scathing about movies you’d see with depictions of the Air Force if they weren’t right.”

But the event itself has stuck with him since childhood. “Dunkirk is something that you grow up with as a British person,” he said. “The telling of the story that you get is simplistic and mythical in a way, almost like a fairy tale. The interesting thing to me about doing this project is that the more I found out about it, the more extraordinary it actually seemed. Reality is messy, nothing is as simple as fishermen jumping in rowboats and picking up troops, but the reality of what actually happened on that beach and across the channel is one of the great stories.”

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Dunkirk is about the preservation of freedom.

The story began in late May 1940, when the British Expeditionary Force, along with French, Belgian and Canadian troops were forced back to the beaches of Dunkirk.  Though home was just 26 miles away, there was no easy way to reach it.  The shallow-drafted beach, with its 21-foot tide, prohibited the large British naval ships from rescuing the men.  But there was hope: a call had gone out for small boats to aid the effort and a flotilla of non-military “little ships” sailed out from the southern coast of England to bring the men home, codenamed Operation Dynamo.

The film’s historical consultant, Joshua Levine, author of the book Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk, emphasizes that the 1940 evacuation is far more than just a British story.  “It was a massive event that still has international significance.  Everything that’s celebrated about World War II—in Britain, in the United States, and all around the world—would not have happened without the Dunkirk evacuation taking place.  It was unbelievably important.  If the British army had been killed or taken prisoner, Britain would almost certainly have surrendered, and we’d likely be living in a very different world today.  To me, Dunkirk is about the preservation of freedom.  Once those ships were underway, the world still had a chance.”

Kenneth Branagh, who plays the British naval commander, agrees.  “Your life and mine would have been profoundly changed had that courageous, brave, patient, impossible moment not been lived through by people who stuck at it, and in so doing protected all of our futures.  Its place in our military, social, political, and emotional history can never be underestimated.  In a sense, you could look at an evacuation as being unheroic, but somehow it adds up to something phenomenally heroic about the human spirit.”

In fact, the rescue of their stranded army against seemingly impossible odds gave rise to a term that is a permanent part of the British cultural lexicon: “the Dunkirk spirit.”  Thomas defines, “It’s something English people pride themselves on: that sort of plucky grit and determination in the face of adversity.”

Mark Rylance, who plays the captain of one of the little ships, concurs, “It has a deep meaning for the English people.  We were the underdogs on that beach, but we rose to the occasion and eluded the superior forces of the enemy at that time.  The Dunkirk spirit has to do with that perseverance and endurance and also selflessness.”

Newcomer Fionn Whitehead, who takes on the role of one of the young British soldiers on the beach, says, “The Dunkirk spirit brings to my mind a sense of togetherness and a show of community—coming together to help out someone in trouble.”

It was with a friend on his small sailing boat—similar to those that formed the “little ships”—that Nolan and Thomas first visited Dunkirk during the mid-1990s.  The trip would give them a whole new appreciation for the seminal event they had only read about.  Hampered by rough seas and bad weather, the voyage across the Channel unexpectedly took 19 hours.  “It was a very arduous crossing,” Nolan recalls, “and that was with nobody dropping bombs on us.  What really stuck with me was just how extraordinary it was, the notion of civilians taking small boats into a war zone.  They could see the smoke and the fires for many miles, so their willingness to do that and what that says about communal spirit are extraordinary.”

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How to tell the story

Nolan continues, “In looking at how to tell the story, I came fairly early on to the idea of showing events from the land, sea and air: seeing the action from the perspectives of the men on the beach, the people coming to help on the boats, and the pilots trying to protect them from above.  I was immediately struck by the need to use a different time scale for each strand of the story because the guys on the beach are there for the better part of a week in the film, while the boat crossing takes place over the course of a long day, and the action in the Spitfires involves a single hour.  Each of those storylines—one week on land, one day at sea and one hour in the air—had different temporal characteristics, so in braiding them together editorially, I had to plot them out very carefully.  Intertwining these stories leads you through the events in a very subjective way and allows you to understand the journey each of the characters is on, while always trying to suggest that there are many other unseen journeys.  In an event of this magnitude, you can’t possibly get a comprehensive understanding of so many individual experiences in a single film.”

Researching the script, Nolan read several books and firsthand accounts.  He also consulted extensively with Levine, whom he says, “very quickly understood the tricky balance between entertainment and historical accuracy that we were trying to strike.  He also arranged for us to meet with some surviving veterans of Operation Dynamo.  It was a great, great honor to meet those people and hear about their experiences and discover what Dunkirk meant to them.”

“Nevertheless,” Thomas notes, “Chris felt strongly that he didn’t want to put words in the mouths of these real-life heroes, or have to change their stories for reasons of time or dramatic effect, and decided that the best way to approach the story was to use fictional characters inspired by those elements he discovered in doing his research.”

Seeing the event through the eyes of just a few individual characters was something that struck Branagh when he read the script.  “Chris managed to weave together a very human story that brings all those personal moments together within this epic dimension,” the actor states.  “He is quite brilliant in my view, a master filmmaker.”

Rylance adds, “I don’t imagine anyone else could have done a more faithful and essential telling of this story in a more thrilling and exciting way.  I think it makes for an extraordinary movie-going experience.”

Cast in his third Christopher Nolan film, Tom Hardy agrees.  “Time and time again, Chris consistently manages to raise the bar.  He is a true professional who doesn’t leave a stone unturned or dismiss an opportunity.  He’s always in control and set in his volition, but he is not inflexible.  That’s extremely powerful for an artist.  He’s generous, sensitive, funny and incredibly intelligent, and I trust him—if he says he’s going to do something, he will.”

To help him achieve his time-bending, threefold vision for the film, Nolan collaborated with his creative team, including director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, production designer Nathan Crowley, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, editor Lee Smith, special effects supervisor Scott Fisher and visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson.

Nolan’s primary goal was to put the audience directly onto the beach, onboard the boat traversing the Channel, and in the cockpit of the Spitfires.  He had been the first to use IMAX cameras in a major motion picture, for “The Dark Knight,” and has employed IMAX cameras on all of his subsequent films.  But for “Dunkirk,” he expanded the use of large format—shooting the entire film with a combination of IMAX and 65mm film, something, he confirms, “I’ve never done before, but ‘Dunkirk’ is a huge story and it demanded an enormous canvas.

“The reason we were shooting on IMAX film,” the director continues, “is that the immersive quality of the image is second to none.  When you sit in the movie theatre, the screen disappears and you really get a very tactile sense of the imagery.  That lends itself to incredible panoramas and large-scale action.  But we’ve also found over the years that if you use it for more intimate situations, it creates an immediacy that’s very engaging.  So our feeling was, if we could find a way to do it physically, the payoff would be well worth it.”

Another hallmark of Nolan’s films is his preference for capturing the action in-camera and eschewing digital effects and CGI as much as possible.  “To me,” he clarifies, “it’s always very important to try and work with real things and real people.  The resulting effect of that is very visceral and enveloping, and draws you into the story.”

That was equally true for the cast.  Cillian Murphy, working with the director for the fifth time, asserts, “I can only speak for myself, but I do think the rest of the actors would attest to this as well: when you’re in the environment and things are happening for real, it leads to a more honest, truthful portrayal of your character’s journey.”

Adding to the verisimilitude, the filmmakers, cast and crew were honored to have the opportunity to film a portion of “Dunkirk” on the actual beach and at the exact same time of year that the miraculous evacuation happened.  There were some logistical challenges, including inclement weather, rough seas, and the construction of the mole: a narrow, kilometer-long, wood-boarded breakwater that poked precariously out into the cold waters of the Channel.  Nevertheless, Thomas says it was the best possible choice.  “The beach at Dunkirk is a singular place,” she states.  “We looked at other options, but it became clear that it would be difficult to replicate exactly the look we needed anywhere else.  We all felt very lucky to be able to shoot at the location where the event occurred.”

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Visual Storytelling

Another interesting aspect of Dunkirk will be Nolan’s decision to aim for visual storytelling over dialogue and exposition:

”Yeah, you know it’s the kind of film where the visual aspect of the film is dominant right from the get-go. There’s dialogue in the film, but we really tried to approach the storytelling very much from a visual point of view, and an action and suspense point of view. Trying to create suspense visually — a visceral sense of what it would be like to be confronted by this awful paradoxical situation.”

”I think the visual nature of the storytelling is something I’m excited about. It’s something I value in films and film history; I’m an incredible lover of silent films. The challenge of taking on what I call a present-tense narrative – that is to say, we don’t learn a lot about the people we’re experiencing this with. We really just try to live in the moment and experience it with them, and look through their eyes. That was the challenge of the film, and as it is shaping up I think that, for me, is the thing that I challenged myself the most with and I am excited about that.”

“The events of Dunkirk are sacred ground,” Nolan reflects, “not to be ventured onto without great care.  It’s daunting for a filmmaker, but also irresistible.  There were moments when I looked at the very large re-creation of events we pulled off—the real little ships arriving, with naval destroyers in the sea, and rebuilding the mole—and it felt quite extraordinary.  To have that many different elements come together definitely made a lasting impression on me.”

Yet the filmmakers agree that their first priority was always to entertain, and every creative decision Nolan made was intended to transport audiences to that place and time.  “The thing Chris does in his movies, which I really appreciate, is that when you watch them in the cinema, you’re experiencing something you couldn’t really experience anywhere else,” Thomas states.

“We want to put people on the beach at Dunkirk, on the deck of the Moonstone and in the cockpit of a Spitfire,” Nolan concludes.  “We want to take the audience on a very intense ride.  That’s the experience we want to give the audience—to make them feel that they’re actually there and allow them to feel what that would be like.”