Christopher Nolan talks about the challenges of creating the Oscar nominated film Dunkirk

The movie has been nominated for the 90thAcademy Awards

author_img Team Indulge Published :  23rd February 2018 03:59 PM   |   Published :   |  23rd February 2018 03:59 PM

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?Christopher Nolan: 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 experience 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.CN: 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 muriatic 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?
CN: 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 on 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?
CN: We spend 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.

How much of a challenge is it to have so many people and props on set?
CN: With this story—where you are dealing with land, air, and sea separately—there were a lot of challenges. I had done films with huge extra counts before, so I had some familiarity with thousands of extras. I had also done a fair amount of aerial work in other films as well. So, I had some grounding even though we were pushing it to a level unlike any other that we had dealt with before. 
What I had never done before is marine work and to have such a large marine unit—I mean our marine unit is the largest in film history, I gather—you know, more than 60 boats out in the water at different times! That was a huge challenge for me, I was quite worried but we had a very good team in place. So, I think with a lot of planning and a lot of care and attention, they were really able to maximize what we did. 
The whole film was shot in large format (with both 65mm IMAX and regular 65mm) which was very challenging, hasn’t really been done before. Putting those cameras into fighter aircraft that engage in actual dogfights with real Supermarine Spitfires—that was a huge challenge.

You have worked with experienced as well as emerging actors, how was that experience?
CN: I really wanted to have soldiers that would fit into this with the right age, not 30-year-olds playing 19-year-olds. I required 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds because I needed to confront the audience with the reality of how we fight our wars; which is we send kids to do this. Also, I wanted people to care about these people and understand that they were in a terrible situation that no one should really be put into, if possible. The balance of that with more stylish actors was an ensemble that is a director’s dream come true. Just to have these great actors and the unknowns, learn from each other is great.

The new age
Besides the consciousness of the movies themselves, the red carpet and rostrums at film awards have played an instrumental role in redefining everything from fashion to social models. American media phenomenon Oprah Winfrey’s speech leading the fight against sexual harassment at 2018 Golden Globe Awards was one such moment, which created a buzz around the much covered up topic. As the 90th Academy Awards looms into the picture, there are signs of revolutionary appearances on stage as transgender actress Daniela Vega will make history by being a presenter at Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. Here, we take a look at some such iconic Oscar moments, which have gone into popular annals.

Marlon Brando refusing his Oscar
Considered a classic by Hollywood movie enthusiasts, The Godfather won seven Oscar nominations in 1973. Brando, who played the role of Vito Corleone, sent the Native American civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather to the podium. Instead of collecting the award, she read a letter from the actor that explained that he was rejecting the Oscar due to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.”




The first African-American Oscar winner

While 2018 saw Winfrey become the first black female recipient of the Cecil B DeMille Award, the year 1940 was significant for the community in Hollywood. Hattie McDaniel paved the way for many youngsters by receiving the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel had to get special permission to get into the building and was seated separately, apart from the rest of the film crew.

La La Land gaffe
The embarrassment of wrongly pronouncing the musical drama La La Land as the best picture at the 2017 Oscars still hangs in the air. Actor and filmmaker Warren Beatty doubled back with the claim of a wrong announcement after all the crew were on stage and declared Moonlight as the new winner.


Pick of the year

Here are the Oscar nominations that have been put forward for the 90th Academy Awards. Highlighted in yellow are Indulge’s favourites.

Best Picture
Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside 
Ebbing, Missouri

Lead Actor
Timothée Chalamet - 
Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis - Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya - Get Out
Gary Oldman - Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington - 
Roman J. Israel, Esq.


Lead Actress
Sally Hawkins - The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand -
 Three Billboards 

Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie - I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan - Lady Bird
Meryl Streep - The Post


Dunkirk - Christopher Nolan 
Get Out - Jordan Peele
Lady Bird - Greta Gerwig
Phantom Thread - 
Paul Thomas Anderson
The Shape of Water - Guillermo del Toro


Animated Feature
The Boss Baby
The Breadwinner 
Loving Vincent


Original Screenplay
The Big Sick - Emily V. Gordon
 & Kumail Nanjiani
Get Out - Jordan Peele 
Lady Bird - Greta Gerwig
The Shape of Water -
Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Three Billboards Outside 
Ebbing, Missouri - Martin McDonagh


Blade Runner 2049 - Roger Deakins
Darkest Hour - Bruno Delbonnel
Dunkirk - Hoyte van Hoytema
Mudbound - Rachel Morrison
The Shape of Water - 
Dan Laustsen


Best Foreign Language Film
A Fantastic Woman - Chile
The Insult - Lebanon
Loveless - Russia 
On Body and Soul - Hungary
The Square - Sweden


Original Score:
Dunkirk - Hans Zimmer
Phantom Thread - Jonny Greenwood
The Shape of Water -
Alexandre Desplat
Star Wars: The Last Jedi -
 John Williams
Three Billboards Outside 
Ebbing, Missouri - Carter Burwell