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Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ Broke the Rules by Ignoring Spielberg and Hiding Tom Hardy

From the radical time structure and IMAX camerawork to a unprecedented blend of sound and score on an epic movie with little dialogue, Nolan forged into the unknown.

Fionn Whitehead in “Dunkirk”

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Any filmmaker who wants to make a blockbuster has to find a new approach, within a frame of reference that the audience will accept. You’ve got to wow and provoke while maintaining mainstream appeal. That’s a steep, narrow, and risky path; ask “Blade Runner 2049” director Denis Villeneuve, who never wants to make an expensive art film again.

When it does work, you have the work of Christopher Nolan, who has gotten away with the time-twisting, low-budget claustrophobia of “Memento” to the ground-shifting, big-budget spectacle of “Inception.” That has given him — and his studio, Warner Bros. — reason to trust that audiences will go where he leads.

Christopher Nolan at his Syncopy offices at Warner Bros.

Even so, “Dunkirk” was a low-dialogue doozy. When he presented the 76-page script to the studio and asked for a blockbuster budget, he wondered, “Should I double-space it? I had no idea how long the film was going to be.”

Talking from his sunny Syncopy office on the Warner Bros. lot, he said he did try to give the studio a clear sense of what he wanted to do, working out the story’s precise beats and timing. “When you’re going to try and do something radical,” he said, “you don’t want to give people too much opportunity for misunderstanding your intentions. So the further you can get it on your own, the further you can advance your conception of the project and the script before you present it to them, the better chance they have of connecting with the material and understanding.”

Nolan feels strongly about leading the audience to what it doesn’t know it wants. “I’m the audience, we’re the audience,” he said. “We ignore that at our peril. People are always talking about ‘them.’ I don’t trust that. We know when we pay to see a certain scale of movie that we are expecting certain things from that experience. The audience doesn’t know what it wants. It wants to be surprised. I think this industry is in danger of forgetting that, because Wall Street demands the studios lay out their wares for years to come. I don’t think the audience wants to know what the big movie is: They want us to tell us what it is! That’s where I feel responsibility, to use that in as adventurous and productive a way as I can.”

Here are the six rules Nolan broke on this summer blockbuster, which made more than $526 million worldwide and is nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Nolan’s first bid for Best Director. If “The Shape of Water” does not take the top award, it’s the most likely movie to amass enough support from mainstream voters and the craft branches. (What it’s expected to win: Editing, Sound Editing and Mixing, and possibly Cinematography.)


Melinda Sue Gordon

1. Avoid the Spielberg moments.

Nolan has battled the way studios read scripts his entire career. “It’s always been a problem for me,” he said. “‘Memento’ was the first time I went through this. People who read scripts tend to read dialogue. They don’t read stage directions, and have no idea what’s going on.”

British citizen Nolan grew up on the story of “Dunkirk,” and wanted to find a way to tell it “without over-sentimentalizing or treating it with unnecessary artifice or theatricality, because it’s a real story,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve told a real story about real people’s lives and deaths and I felt a great responsibility to that.”

So he came up with a form of narrative that was “devoted to a subjective experience,” he said. “And then as I looked at the different aspects of the event that I needed to portray, I realized that they would have to run on different time scales. It was a response to trying to give the audience different points of view, different perspectives on the event so they had an understanding of the bigger events without ever leaving a subjective mode of storytelling.”

Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot’s journey takes just one hour of the narrative, while the Moonstone boat takes a day and soldier Fionn Whitehead’s narrative unfolds over a week. Nolan says that “Dunkirk” is his most challenging structure since “Memento,” which relied on the familiar tropes of the noir genre to ground his audience, while the radical structure of “Dunkirk” fits inside the conventions of a war movie, which is “a much more expansive epic genre to work in,” he said. “It’s got a bigger worldview.”

With this genre, viewers are used to multiple things going on amidst explosive action. “It’s a ‘fog of war’ kind of thing,” said Nolan, “and so I felt confident that people’s familiarity with the sights and sounds of a war movie would orient them in the structure.”

Still, it’s a structure that didn’t favor its chances of WGA or Oscar nominations. “It also abandons the conventional ideas of backstory and dialogue to explain why we should have sympathy for a character,” said Nolan.

He also eschewed the Spielbergian moment when a flotilla of British boats arrives to rescue the 400,000 stranded British troops. “Dunkirk is an amazing story and it’s massively emotional on its own,” he said. “I wanted to tell story in as objective way as possible and trust that the facts of it would inspire an emotional response. We tried not to be overtly emotionally manipulative.”


Melinda Sue Gordon

2. Cast young, unknown leads, and no Americans.

“Any studio would immediately object to the fact that there are no Americans in the film,” said Nolan. “It’s very easy to overlook, and a very radical proposition for the studio, unprecedented really. I didn’t have anything I could point to and go, ‘This has worked in the past.’ What I concentrated on was the experiential nature of it and how that is what seems to be getting people into cinemas these days. Warners was looking at ‘Gravity’ and ‘Mad Max’ and films like that, where you give people a very intense experience.”

And Nolan insisted on casting actors who were the right age. “I didn’t want a 30-year-old pretending to be 25; some [soldiers] were 18 or younger,” he said. “We wanted 18-, 19-, 20-year-old unknowns. I gave them the bad news up front. They were very relieved when we turned up with [Tom] Hardy, [Mark] Rylance, and [Kenneth] Branagh later on, when we started to realize that officers were older generation, in their 30s and 40s.I wanted to avail myself of the best-possible actors. Branagh anchors the movie with a sense of authority the audience taps into.”


3. The one movie star you do hire, put him behind a mask.

Spitfire pilots were officers, so they could also be a little older, Nolan realized. “I got Hardy into my head,” he said. “Tom is one of the only people I know who could convey an intense moment of emotion with one eye, when he turns the Spitfire back. It’s fun to take a movie star and cover his face for the entire film until the end. He’s an adventurous performer.”


Melinda Sue Gordon

4. Push IMAX to its limits.

With “The Dark Knight,” Nolan was the first filmmaker to shoot on IMAX for a studio movie. Then his fearless cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema started carrying IMAX cameras on “Interstellar;” on “Dunkirk,” he added handles. He also found ways to cram the huge cameras into the fighter-plane cockpit, and adapted a fast-moving crane rig for car chases to a North Sea catamaran.

“Hoyte spent lot of time on how to get the pilot’s POV in the plane,” said Nolan. “He built special lenses with snorkel attachments so he could get into the cockpit, reorient the camera, and find places to put it. That took months of research with Panavision and IMAX.”

5. Stick with analog.

In order to get Tom Hardy to fly, they dressed a Yak plane from Romania of similar size and shape as the Spitfire. With two seats, it could be flown out of frame by a pilot seated in the rear, with the actor in the front. “They could fly in formation with the other Spitfires and get the actors up in the air, which hadn’t been done before,” said Nolan.

To get the sense of thousands of extras, Nolan used the old-fashioned technique of adding painted extras deep in the background. “We built paintings of men on fences, and gave two extras in deep background a painting of another 10 guys, and paintings of trucks and boats. These optical illusions worked in-camera very well.”

And the movie still uses photochemicals. Nolan went to the lab, not knowing if they could do photochemical reductions from IMAX 65mm to standard 65mm — and the other way around. “We had on previous films, where we had transposed formats for the digital releases,” he said. “We had digitized and then scanned the shots, and then finished them photochemically. This time we went all analog, and really loved the results.”

While Nolan works on an Avid, his analog love even extends to editing. Once he’s shown his cut to the studio, he splices together film prints that match the cut and projects them. “We’ve done that on every film,” he said.


Melinda Sue Gordon

6. Give your film a nonstop score.

The silent era is Nolan’s baseline. “I go back to silent cinema to refresh myself,” he said. “We work with a visual medium, which is narrative in a cinematic way. But it’s always been musical and sound related as well. There’s tremendous value in that.”

Nolan also has faced consistent criticism for his use of sound (see: Tom Hardy’s mumbling Bane in “Dark Knight Rises”), and  he thinks the moviemaking establishment is rife with “surprising conservatism about sound,” he said. “It’s one area where you can take risks and be quite bold with it. But when you make something that feels different sound-wise, it’s unsettling for people.”

Nolan vividly recalls his first time on a studio dubbing stage. “I wanted the soundtrack to go to silent for half a second,” he said. “You cannot do it in a studio film — I got a slightly shorter bit of silence. The theory was the audience would think the projector was broken.”

For Nolan, sound doesn’t have absolutes. “It has fashions that change over time,” he said. The sounds in space on “Interstellar” were “raw and scrappy sounds. We didn’t do traditional sci-fi,” he said. “It sounded incredible, but it didn’t fit into people’s expectations. They’re comfortable with the lavish quality to studio sounds, and don’t know what is bugging them.”

The integration of sound and score in “Dunkirk” is unprecedented, with one long, uninterrupted 100-minute sound cue. Nolan’s sound team used synced rhythm tracks — some were carried by engines in the boat, footsteps, ticking or heartbeats — all in sync with music runs.

“For Hans Zimmer, it’s one continuous cue,” said Nolan. “I don’t think it’s ever been done before. Except for two places where the film takes a breath for a couple of seconds for effect, it’s a continuous track. We had to re-lay all the sound tracks every time we made a picture change. The way we used the ProTools editing system was unprecedented — no one ever mixed and edited film in same way, and maybe never will again.”

The director’s aesthetic purpose was “to reinforce the Shepard tone audio illusion,” he said. “I used music and sound effects in previous films to create the effect of a corkscrew rising. It was written in the script according to mathematical principle so that each strand of the story peaks at a different moment; we’re always ratcheting up. We never have a moment when we are not narratively reaching some kind of peak. That’s why the movie is shorter; it’s exhausting to watch.”

While Nolan doesn’t use research companies, at his own friends and family screenings he learned “where the music had to be pitched,” he said. “It risks being massively irritating — until Fionn falls asleep on the train and it stops. At times you are aware of it; other times it’s running like sound on the projector. It’s the running of the timeline, in and out, and becomes more obvious, but you tune that out over time.”

Next up?

While Nolan has projects in his trunk, he has “no idea.”

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