The 90th Academy Awards is coming up this Sunday, and Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s recent WWII film, has been nominated for Best Picture, with Nolan nominated for Best Director as well. Before we discover who ‘the Oscar goes to’, we thought it the perfect time to look back on the making of the film. In our Q&A with author of The Making of Dunkirk, James Mottram, we discuss Spitfires, steel soldiers, Styles (Harry), and original scores.
1) You worked with director Christopher Nolan for a previous book you wrote about Memento. What was it like to reconnect with Chris to bring this book to life?
It was wonderful. Since writing the Memento book, I had also interviewed him for both Insomnia and Batman Begins, in the latter case to accompany the publication of the film’s screenplay, but it had still been a while since we’d spoken. It felt strangely like time hadn’t really passed; he was as articulate and enthusiastic about cinema as ever. I always feel like I learn something from our conversations.
2) One of the aspects of filming that you discuss in the book was Nolan’s decision to mount an IMAX camera on the wing of a Spitfire in order to shoot the aerial scenes, which had never been done before. How do you think this speaks to his vision for the film?
I think using the IMAX cameras on the Spitfires was all part and parcel of Chris’ need to put the viewer front and center in the experience of what it was like to be at Dunkirk, whether in the air, in the water or on land. It’s a first-person experience and placing cameras on the wings of the Spitfire is all part of that. I think that fact it had never been done before is a side issue; Chris and his team weren’t out to be groundbreaking for the sake of it. It was about finding the most practical solutions to realizing Chris’ vision.
3) Did the crew of the film share any particularly memorable stories in the book about the struggles of filming on the open ocean?
Well, the big issue that everyone kept returning to was the weather. The cast and crew endured horrendous conditions at certain points during the shoot. Strangely, there weren’t any major cases of sea sickness. The crew found their sea legs pretty quickly. But, in terms of the water, the scale of organization on Dunkirk never ceases to amaze me. Marshaling the numerous vessels – particularly the destroyers, which had no engines and needed to be towed out to sea – was a remarkable feat. It’s the sort of detail that an audience member would never think of, but these essential issues had to be dealt with on a daily basis.
4) Many critics and viewers have stated that Dunkirk is a very sensory film, focusing mostly on sight and sound instead of dialogue. How does the book best illuminate this aspect of the film?
One of the most fascinating aspects for me was delving into the process of creating the soundscape for the film, with both the score by Hans Zimmer and the sound effects work by Richard King and his team. It’s rather hard in a book to convey the brilliance of their work; and as much as I discovered, seeing the final film was still quite a shock to my system. The aural qualities of Dunkirk are quite remarkable and plunge you right into the horror of the situation. It was the same for the aerial sequences. While I learned a great deal, and put as much as I could in the book, the power of those aerial scenes was quite something and only fully appreciated when I saw the final version of the film.
5) What are some of the most unique insights featured in the book?
I think the book gives a good breakdown of all three aspects of the shoot: land, sea and air. I loved some of the tiny details, like the way the design team used steel-made cut-outs of soldiers in the background to give the illusion of thousands of men on the beaches. These, of course, are not visible to the naked eye, but again it’s yet another example of a practical solution that avoids the use of CGI.
6) This book helps shed light on Christopher Nolan’s immersive directorial style, and shows him treading water in the ocean to get the perfect shot. How do you think his dedication helped set Dunkirk apart from other WWII films?
I just think Chris’ dedication is all geared towards creating an authentic experience, which sets it apart from most war films. It’s also about honoring those whose lives were touched by the events of Dunkirk. One of the things that became clear, from everyone I spoke to, is just how Chris knows every aspect of the filmmaking process. There’s a great anecdote in the book from actor Harry Styles who remembers Chris inspecting him in full uniform and noticing that his boots were laced incorrectly. It’s unlikely to ever be caught on camera, but it’s the sort of level of detail that Chris was aiming for.
Discover more about the Oscar-nominated film with The Making of Dunkirk.