Director Christopher Nolan on the set of Dunkirk (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.)
During the early years of the Second World War, the British army evacuated thousands of troops from the French coast of Dunkirk, an event that Christopher Nolan depicts in his latest film as director, Dunkirk. Unlike other key moments in the history of that war such as the D-Day invasion or the Battle of Iwo Jima, the Dunkirk evacuation is less well-known to Americans, but a defining moment of national pride for the British.
According to Nolan, “Like most British people, Dunkirk is a story that I grew up with, and I don’t even remember the first time I was told about the events. As kids we receive the simplified, almost mythic fairy-tale version of what happened.”
Nolan and his wife and producer Emma Thomas even made the crossing across the English channel like so many of the civilians who came to the aid of the British soldiers who had to escape.
“We made the crossing with a friend of ours who owned a small boat. The channel was very rough, and it felt difficult and dangerous, and this was without people dropping bombs on us or heading into a war zone,” Nolan shares. “I came away from that experience with a new respect for the people who endured the real evacuation. I have never understood why a modern-day film hasn’t been made about it, and as a filmmaker, those are the kind of gaps you wish to fill.”
The long history of Hollywood producing films about the sacrifices of the Allied powers during World War II inevitably means that Dunkirk will earn comparisons to other stories by esteemed directors, such as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, but Nolan wanted to approach the film from a novel perspective, drawing from techniques employed from non-war genres. David Lean may have been an inspiration, but so was Alfred Hitchcock, Nolan explains.
“I really wanted to have the film driven by the mechanisms of suspense in the most purely cinematic forms. So we looked at Hitchcock, and I think the one that influenced the film the most is Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. We did look at some David Lean films for the treatment of landscape, but I think Wages of Fear was the one we most honed in on in terms of the cinematic language.”
For Nolan, it was important to present the action from the proper scale, focusing exclusively on the soldiers and the civilians in order to create that sense of suspense.
“Everything in the film is intended to be intense and suspenseful, and make you want to be on the beach with these guys seeing it from their points of view. You also want to build up this bigger picture from the air, and not let the audience step out of the movie from the human scale perspective. I didn’t want to cut to rooms of a general looking at maps, or give the audience knowledge that the characters themselves didn’t have outside of the film’s three distinct storylines.”
Part of maintaining the realism of the Dunkirk experience was the use of actual World War II-era airplanes for the fighting.
“Planning the aerial scenes was important to me,” Nolan explains. “We were able to get actual Spitfires and get the IMAX cameras into places they’ve never been before. We tried to get the audience into the cockpit with the pilot and even bought a Yak airplane, which is similar to the Spitfire but has two cockpits. There was the real pilot flying, and our actors up in the air with the cameras to get the close-ups in a way that we have never seen before.”
The cast of Dunkirk includes a mixture of veteran actors such as Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance, but most of the focus is on the soldiers played by young, mostly unknown young British performers. There is one glaring exception to this, though. One of those young soldiers is played by One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles, who makes his film debut in a supporting role. Styles was able to soak up the experience of working with these long-time actors and filmmakers, and approached it with the humility one would not expect from a young man who has grown up with the cheers of adoring crowds.
“Being on a set like this, it’s hard not to be learning,” Styles says. “Being around people you’re a fan of feels like a privilege, and you want to soak up as much as possible. Chris never feels as if he’s controlling you, but giving you the confidence to be as natural as you can be. I felt so lucky to be on the set, so I was just grateful to be involved.”
Styles may have used this role to launch an acting career, but he still has the language of a musician when referring to Nolan’s approach to actors.
“You never feel like you’re trying to hit too many notes at one time,” he says.
Styles could have easily made his film debut in a starring role tailor-made to his celebrity, but he instead chose Dunkirk, a grueling shoot in which he blends in with the other actors who play fellow soldiers. This could have been a difficult experience for a person so accustomed to the comforts of fame, but Styles and his fellow actors never complained.
“Everyone on set was incredibly aware that no matter how tough it was for us, it didn’t compare to what the actual soldiers went through. The focus we all had was to do our jobs and play our part in telling the story. There was no room for personal discomfort or complaining, and it was impossible to consider it when your director is going through the exact same thing as you. He’s not in a tent watching from a monitor, he’s in the water or in the sand. He’s the first one there and the last one to leave, so no one even considered complaining.”
After so many years of touring with One Direction and being idolized by teenage girls around the world, the experience of Dunkirk shows Styles from a scale completely stripped of celebrity, as a young man who despite the fame and adoration is just like any other. During the press day at at an airplane hangar that looks virtually unchanged from the era depicted in Dunkirk, Styles emerges from the single-occupancy ladies’ room between interviews.
“I couldn’t find the men’s room, either,” he explains sheepishly.
Styles may be a worldwide icon, but as Dunkirk and Nolan remind us, even the most famous among us are still people like any other.
Dunkirk is in theaters July 21.