Christopher Nolan, whose sweeping World War II epic Dunkirk was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director (his first as director), said part of what inspired him to do the film was an experience he had over two decades ago when he, his wife, producer Emma Thomas and another mate were in a small boat heading across the English Channel to Dunkirk.

After dealing with bad weather and heavy waves, they finally made it, but it was a harrowing 19- to 20-hour voyage. “I think the impact of making the crossing the way the ships had in 1940s was a bit of the fairy tale to me before that, but that [trip] suddenly made it very real,” he said. After that, he recognized “the bravery it took to make the arduous crossing knowing they were heading into a war zone. I think they did an amazing thing.”

About six years ago, Thomas started collecting and forwarding first-hand accounts of those who were involved with Dunkirk. Nolan was moved to start working on the project, interviewed some of those who were still alive, and then began writing.

“It was a great honor and a privilege to sit with the last remaining veterans of Dunkirk and also very daunting in that it was an awesome responsible,” he said this morning. “It was very appropriate to have that in the back of our mind while we did this film. The first time we showed it was to the veterans — a group of about 20 veterans — sadly some of the people I had talked to had passed on.”

The film, which was released by Warner Bros on July 21, exceeded all expectations and has collected $525.5 million worldwide. Because it was released so early in the year, it had lost some of its early momentum and, although nominated for Golden Globes, DGA, PGA and SAG, it has not up until this time enjoyed the kind of awards other films have garnered. And being nominated as Best Director is a first for Nolan although he has been nominated for Original Writing in 2002 for the breakthrough film Memento (with Jonathan Nolan) and for the 2011 film Inception which also earned a Best Picture nomination.

That all changed this morning, and Dunkirk is now second only to The Shape of Water (13) in leading nominations of all nine nominated Best Pictures, which shows that Oscar voters could not forget this formidable film.