Aneurin Barnard,

Christopher Nolan & Emma Thomas introduce their modern classic DUNKIRK and answer some questions about DUNKIRK - EVENT REPORT

Friday, July 21, 2017 Craig Grobler 1 Comments

The Establishing Shot Christopher Nolan & Emma Thomas introduce their modern classic DUNKIRK and answer some questions about DUNKIRK - EVENT REPORTSo last week I was very privileged to go along to an early preview screening of Dunkirk with an extended introduction from Christopher Nolan.

I have to say a large part of the draw for me was the “extended introduction” bit, for me there is some frustration when a filmmaker pops up to introduce their film and doesn't really give any insight into their vision or the thinking behind their involvement in the creation of film. So I'm glad to report that the BFI and Christopher Nolan over-delivered in this respect.

     The world premiere of Dunkirk was held at Odeon Leicester Square with an annex screening at the British Film Institute IMAX, which I passed by on my way to the preview screening at the BFI itself.


     Outside the green room a den of autograph hunters had gathered hoping to get something signed by the talent that makes fantasy reality. There was some irony in the moment, when I noticed BAFTA winning cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema casually sitting across the way soft drink in hand occasionally greeting industry types breezing by - but not being recognised at all. Van Hoytema is now a Nolan regular and responsible for the look of both his Dunkirk and Interstellar as well as Sam Mendes' Spectre, Her, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Fighter and Let the Right One In amongst others.

Well I take care, of course in accordance with Chris [topher Nolan], of the images, the pictures, the light, the way the camera moves and some of the visual storytelling, that's my job"
- Made in Hollywood: Teen Edition interview with Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema for Interstellar

     Hoyte is known for his naturalistic camera work, soft focus and warm textures all of which are ideal for a period or vintage film like the film Dunkirk hinted at being.

     Before the final call to take our seats Kenneth Branagh walked by as well as Dua Lipa.

Dunkirk Quad Film Poster
Dunkirk Quad Film Poster  Courtesy of Warner Bros.[+]

     BFI Creative Director Heather Stewart welcomed us, spoke glowingly of Dunkirk and then welcomed Director Christopher Nolan and co- Producer (and wife) Emma Thomas on to the stage to introduce Dunkirk and for what became a short QA session which I was stoked about.


I was not going to ask why Dunkirk? Because this is one of the greatest stories in the history of Britain – a fantastic military disaster that ends in something great. Can you tell us about bringing a real live event like this to screen, because you have to honour the people involved as well as make big entertainment. How did you prepare for the film?

Christopher Nolan : Well, really it was a process of intensive research to get the events of the evacuation under my fingers for the screenplay. And then, what I decided to do is create fictional characters to lead you through the events as I understood them and try touch on a lot of different things that I had seen in these first hand accounts.

Christopher Nolan and Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton on the set of Dunkirk
Christopher Nolan and Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton on the set of Dunkirk Courtesy of Warner Bros.[+]
Emma had given me a couple of books of collected first hand accounts from people who were there. It is really inspiring to be able to read people's words, who actually lived through it. I actually did then have the privilege and honour, with my Historical Consultant Joshua Levine, of going and meeting several of the veterans. There are not many left and are well in to their 90s at this point.

I got to sit with several of them and hear their memories first hand a lot of the material the worked its way into the film.

     I think Heather Stewart was to avoid discussion that had already been had and in the August issue of the BFI's Sight and Sound Magazine Nick James interviews Christopher Nolan and the very first question is – Why Dunkirk? It is well worth a read.


But one of the things I wanted to ask about, I'm sure others would be interested Dunkirk is not a war film, there is no gore, you don't see the enemy, there is no film star heroics, it's not the things I would think of as a war film. Can you tell us about that – what was it that drove you to make the film the way you did?

Christopher Nolan : When I thought about what was interesting to me about the story of Dunkirk, it was that it’s not a traditional war story, it’s not really about a battle, there is a battle raging on the perimeter – the evacuation itself is a very different thing, it's really a suspense story.

So for me the language of the suspense film thriller seemed more apt for telling this story than a straight war film.

Heather Stewart : Listen wait till you see it, he never takes his foot of the pedal it is agonising. I was just saying to Chris earlier I had to go for a lie down after seeing it

Christopher Nolan and Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema on the set of Dunkirk
Christopher Nolan and Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema on the set of Dunkirk Courtesy of Warner Bros.[+]

On the film, the look of the film, the film feels real. The only two films I have seen with Dunkirk, one was shot in Camber Sands (Dunkirk [1958]) and the other was shot in Redcar [Atonement(2007)] but we are in Dunkirk here and you shot on film, can you tell us about shooting on IMAX and what that brings? I think a lot of people think that shooting on film is some little thing that somebody weird is doing over there somewhere but it is very important for the pleasure and meaning of this film. Can you tell us something about that?

Emma Thomas : Something, as you know, we have championed for a long time is continuing to shoot on film, we have been gradually shooting more and more footage on large format and the great thing about this film was that it is perfectly suited for these very loud IMAX cameras because there is not an enormous amount of dialogue, compared with Chris' other films.

Unfortunately it is a little tricky on a beach there is salt water and sand and actually there is one very good anecdote which I'm going to tell you, that we don't really talk about, but should frankly.

The film cameras took a beating but worked absolutely perfectly, but there was one very specific instance where an IMAX camera ended up underwater for about four hours. It was a scary moment. Before we even retrieved it I was calling the lab and explained what happened. What should we do?

     Video: Dunkirk – Weathering the Storm Featurette - Warner Bros. UK    

They said: If you were in L.A. we would say just keep it in the water and bring it here as you have to ship it all the way from Holland to L.A. we may have to think about it a little differently. They gave the camera team some instructions, we sent it back, they processed the film and it looks amazing.

The camera had to have a little bit of reconditioning but is fine. Now if it was shot on digital – there would be nothing left of any of it. I'm just saying.

Heather Stewart : I just don't get it - an IMAX camera is a huge thing, it weighs about 54 pounds (24.5 Kilograms), which is more than 3.5 stone. So imagine carrying that on your shoulder, that's what Hoyte Van Hoytema, the camera guy is doing.


Regarding the aerial photography, I'm quite old and seen a lot of films, I have never seen anything like this, I wasn't thinking about while I was watching it because I was so in the moment but afterwards, but when I came out of the film I just don't know how you did what you did up there. You really feel like you are in that Spitfire.

Christopher Nolan : Yea, that is what we wanted to do. We wanted to really make it immersive entertainment and put you in the cockpit of a plane. I love planes, I love aerial footage. We have done aerial work on other films but never really pushed it this far.

There are a lot of different things that went into that but one thing I was determined to do which we were able to pull off, is quite often when you look at these scenes in films over the years there can be some really spectacular aerial work but the shots of the actors let it down because clearly it was green screen or backings.

So one of the things we were able to do was get hold of a plane called a yack [the Yakovlev or Yak-52] a Soviet era plane made in Romania. It has two cockpits, front and the back, it's about the same size and shape as a Spitfire so we were able to redress it, remake it to look like a Spitfire.

Mount the camera on the wing, the fuselage or wherever we wanted, put the actor at the front of the plane, or back depending on the shot and then have a pilot fly it from just out of shot.

So we could actually take the actor in the air dog fighting for real, with real Spitfires on either side, and in that way we maintained the tone of the photography.

That was a determination and Hoyte was a huge help on figuring out how to get this huge camera into a small Spitfire cockpit. In the end with a lot of work between IMAX and Panavision they were able to develop some snorkel lens attachments, and things so we could mount the camera somewhere else, behind the pilot or wherever and angle this special lens and get right over the shoulder or put the lens exactly where the head of the pilot would be to give you a first person point of view.

Tom Hardy as Ace Spitfire Supermarine  pilot Farrier in Dunkirk
Tom Hardy as Ace Spitfire Supermarine  pilot Farrier in Dunkirk Courtesy of Warner Bros.[+]

I just wanted to ask about the music because you work with Hans Zimmer a lot. I just wondered do you brief him before you shoot the film? How do you direct him? Because the music here is different from what he normally does. There was a lot of silence, whistling of wind through the cockpit and so on. It's a great score - how do you work on that with him?

Christopher Nolan : You don't direct Hans as much as you try catch him, bottle a bit of him and put it in the film. Every film is different and the process from one movie to another.

In the case of this film – it was very early involving him - showing him the structure of the script and talking about ways in which we needed to work with that. I do think this film represents the tightest fusion of sound effects, music and picture we have achieved for better or worse, you guys will be the judge. But certainly that was my ambition



When 400,000 men couldn’t get home…
 home came for them.

From filmmaker Christopher Nolan (“Interstellar,” “Inception,” “The Dark Knight” Trilogy) comes the epic action thriller “Dunkirk.”

“Dunkirk” opens as hundreds of thousands of British and Allied troops are surrounded by enemy forces.  Trapped on the beach with their backs to the sea, they face an impossible situation as the enemy closes in.

The story unfolds on land, sea and air.  RAF Spitfires engage the enemy in the skies above the Channel, trying to protect the defenceless men below.  Meanwhile, hundreds of small boats manned by both military and civilians are mounting a desperate rescue effort, risking their lives in a race against time to save even a fraction of their army.

     What an exceptional introduction to the screening of Dunkirk from the BFI, Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas. Although it was too much to absorb at the time, in hindsight it certainly framed the film as well as gave us a first hand peek into Nolan's vision and processes.

Tom Glynn-Carney as Peter and Cillian Murphy in Dunkirk Courtesy Warner Bros.
Tom Glynn-Carney as Peter and Cillian Murphy in Dunkirk Courtesy Warner Bros.[+]

Dunkirk (2017)

Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II..

Christopher Nolan


Christopher Nolan

Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, Barry Keoghan, Harry Styles, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy
    I should point out that I disagree with Stewart's sentiment, a sentiment that Nolan himself has echoed, that Dunkirk is not a war film and that there are no heroics - I think this may be to manage expectations of audiences as there is undoubtedly one character whose heroics, in defiance of the odds, makes him a major hero not just of this tale but an ace for the ages and should have you cheering in your seat. Unless Stewart meant in the cliche sense of slow motion running hero type stuff. In which case – I think you will be disappointed going to see a Christopher Nolan film, this is not something he has ever been accused of – even in the comics based Dark Knight Trilogy.

     Regarding the war film aspect I think in our post modern world - we have a vast variety of permutations of war films out there to choose from - ranging from the ridiculous propagandist style film, through: revenge wish fulfilment, for love of country, on a mission, just trying to do my job, just trying to get through to day, war is hell, all the way through to existential deconstruction of the genre - I feel Dunkirk sits very well within the genre, and if anything is a modern approach to a very traditional war story with traditional sensibilities. However the scenario that the film takes place within may possibly, at least not at this scale, be a very explored dimension of war.

Spitfire Supermarines and Dunkirk Little Ships
Spitfire Supermarines and Dunkirk Little Ships Courtesy of Warner Bros.[+] 

     Regardless of where you sit with regards to the events of Dunkirk and how they have been portrayed in the media - 400,000 British and allied men, young men - were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk caught between the German infantry and panzer divisions and the treacherous waters of the channel leaving them vulnerable to both the Luftwaffe and German Navy.

     For the men the realisation that all hope was receding and a dark cloud was bearing down on them - but then a miracle, one that for me still defines the British spirit for me - maybe I'm a traditional fool but that is the Britain that lives on in my minds eye. I have a particular marine fascination with Dunkirk as I live on the river Thames and daily see Little Ships of Dunkirk either moored across the way or occasionally gliding by. For me this part of history is very much alive.

     If you are not familiar with the story of Dunkirk or at least the part of it that is absolutely incredible and here is a quick and loose rundown, bear in mind I am no expert on the matter:

     British Expeditionary Forces kitted with outdated remains of World War 1 equipment and machinery allied with France to halt Germany's invasion of Belgium. Along with the French they were pushed back by the German war machine that broke through the “impenetrable” rugged terrain of Ardennes.

     The mission quickly turned from defending mainland Europe into saving the troops retreating to Dunkerque. During their retreat the troops discarded or sabotaged much needed supplies, machinery, vehicles and armoury.

BEP Troops on The Mole Dunkirk
BEP Troops on The Mole Dunkirk Courtesy of Warner Bros.[+] 
     Approximately 400,000 young men were trapped on Dunkirk beach. The German Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine bashed the British forces attempting a rescue across the channel, the British realising the severity of the situation pulled back their forces. Whilst the German Panzer and infantry divisions encroached upon the beaches. The British did not have sufficient military resources to rescue and evacuate the British and Allied troops, the waters around Dunkirk were too shallow for large boats and whilst evacuating men from the East Mole breakwater was effective 200,000 men were rescued from the mole, it was very time consuming and leaving boats exposed to increasing attacks.

     If the German troops continued their march the trapped allied forces had a couple of days at best - seemingly all hope was lost.

     The Germans slowed their attack, in order to rally, consolidate forces to the South, bad weather bogging down their planes as well as supposedly Hitler still had hopes that Britain may ally with Germany. A desperate call went out to the British public for any sea worthy boats that had not already been requisitioned to register with the admiralty and they answered -

The sea from Dunkirk to Dover during these days of the evacuation looked like any coastal road in England on a bank holiday. ... There were naval escort vessels, sailing dinghies, rowing boats, paddle-steamers, indeed every floating device known in this country. They were all taking British soldiers from Dunkirk back home."
- Legendary fighting ace, Douglas Bader

     700 privately owned water crafts along with RNLI lifeboats, ferries, steamers and coasters some from the Netherlands and Belgium managed the impossible.

     The British Air force flew just shy of 5,000 sorties to defend the men at Dunkirk and the ships in the channel, as the bulk of the English evacuated the mainly French infantry held off the Germans as long as they could.

     Over 9 days approximately 340,000 men (British and Allied) were saved from the beaches of Dunkirk. 70,000 men from the British Expeditionary Forces never returned home.

     Had this miraculous rescue not occurred the fate of Britain may have been very different as the war went on.

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk
Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk Courtesy of Warner Bros.[+] 
     The subject matter is much like the majority of Nolan's body of work, characters thrown into an insurmountable situation that they struggle to fathom and have to find a way out of, whilst portraying the best and the worst of humanity.

     Dunkirk can be filed along with The Dark Knight Trilogy, Interstellar and to some extent Inception it is another fantastic tale of honour and daring do that would ignite the imagination of a young man brought to the screen in a realistic way.

     It's marvel to experience this tale unfold on the big screen in 70mm glory, but again it's much bigger than that as the timing couldn't be better as we seemingly need a reminder of what a nation can do when it pulls together.

     Nolan has curated a season of films that fed into his thinking for Dunkirk for the BFI entitled Christopher Nolan presents...

Christopher Nolan Presents Season Films that inspired Dunkirk
Christopher Nolan Presents Season Films that inspired Dunkirk [+] 
Films included in the season are David Lean's Ryan's Daughter (1970), Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940), Hugh Hudson's Chariots of Fire (1981), Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), Jan de Bont's Speed (1994), Tony Scott's Unstoppable (2010) and Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (1953). In his introduction to the Christopher Nolan presents... Season, he also name checks Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924), F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927) and Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966) and discusses these films relevance and commonality.

     However the film that I immediately mentally referenced while watching Dunkirk was The Battle of Algiers. It's cinema verite style plays out like a dramatised documentary of events. In a similar fashion Nolan frames his story - however it was Hans Zimmer's score that really tipped it for me as with previous collaborations with Nolan, Zimmer brings a another memorable soundscape alive with a running theme at it's core that permeates throughout the film.

     This time - it is time itself. The scene in the The Battle of Algiers with the ticking bomb maker was immediately evoked along with Ennio Morricone's ticking drum beat score.

     Video: Dunkirk - Supermarine - Hans Zimmer (OFFICIAL)    

     Zimmer's score both lays the groundwork for the suspenseful countdown as well ratchets up the tension and lets it slide down as needed for the film. I only realised how fortunate we were to see Dunkirk at The BFI (bear in mind Dunkirk is made for IMAX's full frame size) when I heard the full force of both the music and film's sound design an experience I think few other cinemas can replicate. On a couple of occasions I was as shocked as the characters in the film when surprise attack gun shots ring out and could follow the ricochets. It is probably worth seeing Dunkirk at the BFI for the sound alone.

     As atmospheric as Zimmer's score is I'm unsure if it will play as well outside the vacuum – it is filled with mood and ambience specifically tailored for the film. Unlike his timeless score for Black Hawk Down which is about the clash of cultures and has such variation that it can be listened to anytime, his Dunkirk score seems to be very much of the time.

     Nolan has an interest in time as a device for storytelling and as with his debut feature Following we the story and events unravel via multiple timelines  – under the elemental themes of Air, Water and Land (a motif Nolan is no stranger to) that come together to tell a complete story.

     Video: Christopher Nolan’s Time Puzzle    

     This is an ingenious device to make the story a discovery activity as you try work out what is going on and how it fits together, it is simplistic when compared to other Nolan films, yet infinitely more complex than Battle of Algiers which plays with time as well – we start at the end and are then taken back and countdown to that point. I like this paired down leaner storytelling from Nolan - we get stuck straight into the story and there are no bells and whistles to bog down the story as the clock is running out.

     I was surprised by Van Hoytema's cinematography as whilst it seems that the time period is faithfully recaptured the visuals are not vintage soft focus shots at all, it's sharp, crisp and gorgeous, it's not as dark or jarring as say Saving Private Ryan's look – it is of a similar tone but less extreme. It doesn't distract you from the story or the characters but enhances them as it allows the tale to unfold. I hope Van Hoytema's contribution to film is recognised come awards season.

     My only qualm with this incredible film is the strands of the story for the various characters are told in a very POV point of view fashion - meaning we only see and experience event's through the character limited field of vision.

Soldiers on Dunkirk Beach
Soldiers on Dunkirk Beach Courtesy of Warner Bros.[+]
     Whilst this is another great storytelling device – we often don't get the gods eye view or frame of reference for the larger landscape - which is a realistic depiction of the situation for men on the ground - howsoever the sense of scale was lost for me. This may be a strength for the film as we get to know the handful of characters through their actions, as there is little dialogue or exposition-ary back stories, but it also seems to be a limitation of doing everything with practical effects. As an example there is no channel full of boats or squadrons of fighters filling the sky - which seems a shame when you have a full 70mm frame. But you know what ever you are seeing on the screen is real and based on fact.

Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton on The Mole in Dunkirk
Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton on The Mole in Dunkirk Courtesy of Warner Bros.[+]

     I am willing to concede that this could be the side effect of something else, hopefully something very exciting - it feels in a sense that Dunkirk was not only the event that kick started the British drive into World War 2, but the film may be the starting point of something much bigger coming. I wouldn't be surprised if Dunkirk was following the law of sequels and is the starting point of a larger story to be told.

     As well as the films mentioned above you may also be interested in viewing William Wyler's 6 Oscar winning Mrs. Miniver (1942), Henri Verneuil's Weekend at Dunkirk (1964) which tells the story from the French perspective and Tom Hooper's 4 Oscar winning The King's Speech (2010) which takes place immediately before events at Dunkirk.

     Nolan has become of master of technique and as with his orchestrating the narrative, sound and visuals he uses his actors performances to the best effect for the story. As he brings a new generation of acting talent (Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, Barry Keoghan, Harry Styles) into the fold and merges them with some of the finest performers working today (Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance), there is not one performance in Dunkirk that is anything less than is needed to make Dunkirk a modern classic but certainly some that will make Dunkirk an unforgettable experience for you.

Harry Styles as Alex, Aneurin Barnard as Gibson and Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk
All hope is lost Harry Styles as Alex, Aneurin Barnard as Gibson and Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk Courtesy Warner Bros.[+]

“Dunkirk” features a multigenerational ensemble cast, including Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy and Barry Keoghan, with Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy.

Nolan directed “Dunkirk” from his own screenplay, utilising a mixture of IMAX® and 65mm film to bring the story to the screen.  The film was produced by Emma Thomas and Nolan, with Jake Myers serving as executive producer.

The behind-the-scenes creative team on “Dunkirk” included director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, production designer Nathan Crowley, editor Lee Smith, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson and special effects supervisor Scott Fisher.  The music was composed by Hans Zimmer.

DUNKIRK is released in UK cinemas today 21 July, 2017.


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