How Steven Spielberg Helped Influence Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’

On July 21, director Christopher Nolan’s (Interstellar, The Dark Knight) latest film, Dunkirk, invades theaters, delivering a fiercely thrilling immersive moviegoing experience unlike anything we’ve seen this summer or year, for that matter. Set during World War II, Dunkirk is based on the real-life story of the thousands of allied troops who were trapped on a beach, surrounded by enemy forces, and the miraculous evacuation that took place over the course of one week in 1940.

Nolan shot the film entirely in large format photography, utilizing thousands of extras in addition to real planes and the actual boats used during the evacuation in 1940. It’s that painstaking approach to accuracy that lends an incredible sense of authenticity to the film, which at first glance may remind you of another very popular beach-set war movie: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

In fact, when Nolan began working on Dunkirk, Saving Private Ryan was the first film he looked at. What he walked away with was not an idea of how to do something similar, but instead how to create a completely different experience than Spielberg’s epic — one that pulled back from the intensity of warfare and leaned more into the tension and suspense.

“For Dunkirk, we watched a really wide range of movies. Steven Spielberg lent me his print of Saving Private Ryan,” Nolan told Fandango during an extensive chat prior to the film’s release. “What an extraordinary experience, the power of that [film]. Interestingly, that [film] pushes in a different direction because of the intensity, and the gore, and the horror of those sequences. I realized what I wanted for Dunkirk was suspense. The thing about suspense is you can’t take your eyes off the screen, and when you’re confronted by sheer horror, you tend to avert your eyes. It tends to shut you off to it. We wanted your eyes to be riveted on the screen, so we wanted to create tension in a different way. It’s a different form of intensity, I suppose.”

Once Nolan locked in on his tone, he went looking for other films for inspiration. Among them were films from the master of tension, Alfred Hitchcock, and even Keanu Reeves’ 1994 action movie, Speed.

“So, that taught me that we were looking, not so much at a war movie as a survival story, [but] as a suspense story,” Nolan said. “You also don’t want to compete with a film as brilliant as Private Ryan, in its own arena, but I really felt pushed in a different direction; in a more Hitchcockian direction. And indeed, we screened Hitchcock films, and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s TheWages of Fear, a classic French film from the ‘50s, [which is] a masterpiece of tension, down to Jan de Bont’s Speed, from the ’90s, which has a relentless, driving quality to it. There are a lot of films that we looked at, and then talked about.”

We’ll have much more with Nolan leading up to Dunkirk’s July 21 release. You can snag your tickets to Dunkirk right here at Fandango.