Christopher Nolan Discusses Cinematic Storytelling at AFI

Christopher Nolan sums up Dunkirk perfectly by calling it an “intimate epic.” The script is only 76 pages long and film tells the story of soldiers of England, Belgium, and France surrounded by the German army in World War II and the struggle to be evacuated. Instead of creating a film in a traditional three-act story, Christopher Nolan uses a different approach and essentially dives right into the action, skipping character introductions and exposition. The film is broken into three different stories that eventualy intertwine into each other: one story about a group of soldiers on land which takes place in a week, one about civilians trying to rescue soldiers on a boat which takes place in a day, and one about the air force which takes place in an hour. He decided to essentially “hit the ground running” because it makes the audience feel more involved and close to the action. Which is why you hardly know anyone’s name in the film because it’s not about the conversations it’s all about the physicality, the action, and feeling what it was like to be in that moment at war. 

Nolan, as we all know especially with films like Memento, is an innovator with using time in films. He felt that Dunkirk should be all about a ticking clock and suspense. He teamed up with Hans Zimmer to create the score, telling Zimmer that he “had a very specific and mathematical score.” Nolan recorded his watch and wanted Zimmer to base the score on that sort of ticking, for it to be innovative but not drive you nuts. For those that have seen the film, we can agree that the score does add to the suspense of the action and drives you to the edge of your seat.

Some people argued, “why isn’t there a storyline about the nurses or more females?” Nolan sat with veterans to research Dunkirk. He didn’t want to construct his view, deciding to choose what stories had the most first hand accounts and represented stories. Most of the veterans of Dunkirk are in their 90’s and it just happened to be that the most first hand accounts were soldiers and pilots and unfortunately, not many nurses. Though he did research and talk with veterans, none of the storylines in the film are true, he fictionalized them because he felt it may be uncomfortable to tell the story of real people. 

The film in itself is a masterpiece and one of the best of the year, but how does one make such a great film? Nolan said he has been wanting to create a film about Dunkirk for years, it was a story that he grew up with. It was only now he chose to do it because he felt at this point in his career he could handle it, “Ten years ago I wouldn’t have the guts [to make it],” Nolan said. He went on to say that if you are an aspiring filmmaker, choose a film that you can make at the right point in your career. More importantly, if you want to do it, do it because, as Nolan said, “Everyone finds a way.” 

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