Tick-Tock: Christopher Nolan on the Rhythm of ‘Dunkirk’

A ticking sound runs throughout “Dunkirk” like an omnipresent reminder that time is running out for the 340,000 British and Allied soldiers marooned on the French beach and surrounded by Germans. It’s a tick-tock effect woven into the score that originated, fittingly, from Christopher Nolan’s own stopwatch.

Nolan is cinema’s great watchmaker: a filmmaker of Swiss precision capable of bending and shaping time to suit his grandiose, metronomed movies. Having already reversed time (“Memento”) and warped its fabric (“Interstellar”), Nolan set out to accomplish something different with “Dunkirk,” a movie that crosscuts three story lines (on land, sea and sky) from three different chronologies (one week, one day, one hour) during the famous evacuation. 

“I wanted to experiment with a new rhythm,” said Nolan in a recent interview. “What I wanted to do was take what I call the snowballing effect of the third act of my other films, where parallel story lines start to be more than the sum of their parts, and I wanted to try to make the entire film that way, and strip the film of conventional theatrics.”

When “Dunkirk” hits theaters next Friday, audiences will find a landmark war film but not a traditional one. Shot almost entirely with 70mm IMAX cameras from Nolan’s atypically spare 76-page script, “Dunkirk” is an often wordless, almost purely cinematic experience of dogfights in the air and close scrapes at sea. It’s an all-out assault — of tracking shots and montage — by one of the movies’ most maximal filmmakers. 

“I loved it,” said Nolan of shooting at Dunkirk, where much of the production took place. “The reality of being there, of being in nature, frankly, it frees you up as a filmmaker to just use your eyes, use your ears, and absorb it and try to capture what speaks to you.”

For anyone even vaguely familiar with today’s Hollywood, it’s obvious enough that a silent-movie-inspired epic about the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk — a seminal moment of retreat and survival for the British but an event not as dearly remembered outside the U.K. — isn’t your standard summer popcorn fare. But Nolan, the “Dark Knight” director, enjoys a rarified position in the industry, and the story of Dunkirk is one he’s wanted to tell since a dramatic sailing excursion across the English Channel in the ’90s .

“We’ve been talking about Dunkirk as a story for a very long time,” said Emma Thomas, Nolan’s wife and producer. “After `Interstellar,’ we were thinking about what we might do next and I think I reminded him of it and pointed him in the direction of a few books on the subject. He had a number of things that he was entertaining but then he came back to me and said, `I think I see a way into this story.”‘

Nolan acknowledges he feels “a massive responsibility” to use his stature to make something unique. Having grown up in awe of big, bold films like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Nolan believes that “cinema is working at its absolute best is when it’s a grand-scale film that really works and does something you haven’t seen before. That for me is always the brass ring.”

“Dunkirk” is certainly that, especially when imposingly projected on IMAX screens. But such scale today is usually reserved only for supposedly more bankable franchise films. Such a path no longer holds much interest for Nolan. Though the 46-year-old director grew up a major “Star Wars” devotee, directing one doesn’t interest him. 

“Um, I’m very happy to go watch them,” he said, laughing. “The cinematic landscape has changed since I started making Batman films. When we were doing the `Dark Knight’ trilogy, I think it was easier for a filmmaker in the position I was in to express a more personal vision of what they wanted to do in a franchise property.”

“Dunkirk” might not be an American story, but, Nolan said, “It needed to be made with an American studio budget.” One of the first things he did to prepare was borrow Steven Spielberg’s personal print of “Saving Private Ryan.”   

“You look at the horror that’s presented in that film, and as a filmmaker you go: OK, we don’t want to chase that in any way because he’s done it definitively. You also say to yourself: The tension that I’m feeling watching `Saving Private Ryan’ is not the tension I want for `Dunkirk.’ You say: We need this story to be about survival and suspense. What defines suspense is you can’t take your eyes off the screen. But what horror gives you is an aversion. You want to look away.”

Instead, Nolan’s model for sustained suspense was Henri-Georges Clouzet’s “Wages of Fear,” in which four penniless men drive trucks loaded with nitroglycerin through the mountains. George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a virtually perpetual car chase, also strengthened his resolve. “I was in the middle of writing the script when I saw that film and I took confidence from it,” said Nolan. “It’s not dissimilar in terms of the modulation I’m talking about.”

Other things went into making what Nolan called, “a relentlessly suspenseful experience.” He used a Shepard tone, in which ascending notes are subtly cycled to give the impression of a never-ending rise in pitch. He inserted the 50 pound-plus IMAX camera into the cockpit of a fighter plane, and controlled the camera from the ground.

“We just had the idea that we would put cameras where people wouldn’t normally put them,” said cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema. “Chris always reminds me of some kind of a weird Renaissance genius. He knows so many things so much better than the people who are supposed to know better. He knows everything about film technology, lab technology. He would know your lenses better than you do.”

Viewers may find themselves breathless from the heart-stopping opening sequence only to find that it essentially doesn’t abate until the end credits. The clock — Nolan’s watch — keeps ticking.

“The films I’ve made, I’ve tried to grab ahold of what in most films is a subtlety,” says Nolan of time, which he calls an underappreciated element of the medium. “I’ve tried to take it and use it for the tool that it is.”

And in “Dunkirk,” time flies.

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