Interview: Christopher Nolan on the Extreme Lengths They Took to Bring ‘Dunkirk’ to Life

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 many of the boats used during the actual evacuation. It’s that painstaking approach to accuracy that lends an incredible sense of authenticity to the film.

“We just didn’t compromise — we stuck to our guns about getting this stuff in camera,” Nolan told Fandango during an exclusive chat about the film. “We fought and fought for it, and I’m very proud of what we did.”

Ahead, Nolan talks more about the individual stories we follow in the film, as well as the extreme lengths they went to bring the miraculous evacuation at Dunkirk to life.

Fandango: One of the big questions audiences will have when they leave this film has to do with the individual stories told. Where did they come from? Are they based on real people?

Christopher Nolan: The way Dunkirk is told is I immerse myself in the real history. I read a lot of first hand accounts. I read a lot of history of the evacuation. I got to know that nine days of evacuation very well. Then, what I wanted to do, and what I did is I created fictional characters to guide the audience through those events, and show them the different aspects of it.

Everything in the film is inspired from, derived from, research that I did, accounts that I read, but I didn’t want to speak for people who aren’t around to speak for themselves anymore. I didn’t want to apply a degree of artifice and manipulation that I know has to happen to characters in a drama, an action film, to be able to make the shape of the movie work for an audience. So, I was more comfortable inventing my own characters to do that.

What I’m trying to do that way is get across the spirit of the real facts of the evacuation. So, everything in the film is drawn from real life, but the specific individuals portrayed are my fictional creations.

Fandango: You shot on the real beach where the evacuation took place, so what was that like for you, personally, and for the cast?

Christopher Nolan: I think the sense of history, of the real place, just infused us. We went there and scouted it, not really thinking, I think, we would film there, we just wanted to see what it was like today. Then there’s just something about the sand under your feet containing all that history. You find buttons and buckles, to this day, from the real soldiers who were there.

There’s a day on the shoot where I found myself watching real little ships that had actually been there in 1940 recreate their journey for us, for our cameras, and come over. We’re loading them up in exactly the way they were loaded up. We’re on the same beach, with the same boats, on the 76th anniversary of the evacuation, on the same days. Wasn’t really planned that way, just had a moment where you realized that’s what we were doing, and you thought, “You know, what a privilege and an honor to be able to do that.”

Fandango: Considering you had actual boats in the film that took part in the real evacuation, did you meet any veterans?

Christopher Nolan: Yeah, the boats are owned by a variety of different people. We formed a tight bond with the association of little ships of Dunkirk, and I think they’re about 120 boats registered with them. They have to be certified as real boats that are known to have taken part in the evacuation. I met with them at an early stage, while I was still writing the script, and they were able to introduce me to some of the few remaining veterans who are still alive. They’re well into their 90s, and I was able to sit across the table with those guys, and look them in the eye, and listen to their stories, and a lot of that material made it’s way into the script, and the film.

Fandango: Have they seen the film?

Christopher Nolan: Yes. I had the honor, a few days ago, of showing the film that we made. It was one of the most frightening experiences I’ve had, to introduce that screening. It was a very emotional screening, but they seem pleased with what we’ve done. They seem very glad to be having their story told

Fandango: When you decide to make a film, what is it that most impacts that decision? Is it a shot? A line of dialogue?

Christopher Nolan: I think it’s different on every film. Sometimes It can be an image. It can be a line of dialogue, something where it fits together, and I know, “Okay, I know what I’m gonna do with this material. Then you’re hooked, and you know that you’re on that journey.

In the case of Dunkirk, I think it was finding out about the existence of the mole, which is this breakwater that extends one kilometer out into the water, from Dunkirk. It’s eight feet wide, a kilometer long, and thousands of men had to queue up on this thing, not knowing whether there was a boat at the end of it. Dive bombers would come and shoot them and bomb them. They had nowhere to go. They just had to stand out there, and take it. That’s in image that, once I heard about it, I felt like, “That’s gotta be on film. Somebody has to put that on film.” Because it’s just horrifying and unique.

Fandango: From a technical standpoint, this film is brilliant. What are you most proud of pulling off?

Christopher Nolan: I think I’m very proud of the aerial sequences, in particular. The amount that was done, for real. There’s a shot, for example, being able to take an actor up in a real plane, and shoot that cockpit shot, for real, with real spitfires in the background of the shot, and have them maneuver in formation. That definitely brings a smile to my face. It feels like we were able to break down the final barrier in how you present aerial units, and dogfighting, and everything, and really, really get an actor up there, in the action.

Fandango: Wait, so you actually had the actors up in the planes shooting simulated dogfights? How?

Christopher Nolan: Well, the way we did it was an idea my stunt coordinator on the film [had]. He identified a plane, a Romanian plane, called a Yak, that was similar in size and shape to a spitfire, but is a two seater. So, we were able to replace the cockpit with a spitfire cockpit, in the front, and in the back we have a real pilot flying the plane, and in the front we have our actor performing. We mount the camera to the wing, we mounted the fuselage and get those shots that way. It was a really exciting thing to be able to do.

Fandango: There’s one sequence in particular that stands out, and it involves watching a plane crash from the perspective of the pilot.

Christopher Nolan: It’s a complicated sequence, that one. We did it in the open water, which is always very tricky. It’s a combination of real plane, a lot of camera mounts [with cameras] mounted to a real plane diving at the water, then a full-sized replica fired off a cannon to achieve the actual moment of impact. Just so many different techniques at play in that one bit of film.

Fandango: That has to bring a smile to your face when you pull off a shot like that.

Christopher Nolan: The bit of film, actually … it’s interesting. You talk about what brings a smile to my face, this is one shot right from that. When he pulls back on the stick, and then the plane actually impacts the water. The shot is achieved by mounting an IMAX camera to the wing of the plane as it hits the water, and the plane, the replica of the plane, sank much more quickly than anyone imagined, and the housing for the camera that we had built out of a barrel was damaged in the crash. So, the camera was completely submerged in water for hours, before we could get it up.

Fandango: The camera was completely lost underwater and you still managed to save the shot?

Christopher Nolan: Yes, because we were shooting on celluloid film, we called the lab, and they said, “Well, as long as you keep the film damp, send it back to us. We’ll process it, and then dry it out very carefully. And see if we can save the shot.” And, indeed, the shot came out perfectly, and is in the film. You can’t do that with a digital camera, trust me.

Fandango: Does the experience of making such an immersive movie like this convince you that this is something that you want to do more of in the future, or less of?

Christopher Nolan: To be perfectly honest, it’s all about story for me, and what the story demands. I love spectacle, I love Hollywood blockbusters at their finest, and I think it’s a very high aspiration for a filmmaker to really try and pull something like that off. So, I wouldn’t shy away from it in the future.

It’s really about the story. You look for a unique story, and for me, Dunkirk really is one of the greatest stories in human history. I feel very honored to have been able to tell it in modern movies.

Fandango: As you move forward, is there something that’s still on your bucket list that you haven’t done yet? Are you looking to maybe tackle a TV series, or is there something that’s scratching an itch of yours?

Christopher Nolan: Really, I try and put everything into every film I do, and so if there’s anything I’m even thinking about, I try and find a way, technique-wise, I try and find a way to jam it into the film I’m making because it might be the last film I get to make. So, I tend to concentrate on the one film, then once it goes out to the world, and the world tells me what it is I’ve done, then I’ll think about what still interests me.

Dunkirk hits theaters on July 21. You can snag your tickets now right here at Fandango.