Admitting that every film is a “big gamble,” Christopher Nolan today sat down after a mid-day screening of his Dunkirk hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The discussion on the eve of the release of his World War II epic also featured the staunch supporter of theaters admitting he “rarely” uses Netflix when watching movies at home — he prefers Blu-ray — while he continued his long-standing mantra extolling the virtues of making movies with film.
“Is this a bigger gamble?” Nolan asked rhetorically about Dunkirk, which opens in previews this evening before going wide Friday. “I don’t know,” he said to the packed house at the Walter Reade Theater, “but I do know that as a filmgoer, I’m always interested to see something different.”
The brief comment on Netflix came the same day a Nolan interview dropped on IndieWire in which he said he wouldn’t work with the streaming giant if given the chance because, “Well, why would you? If you make a theatrical film, it’s to be played in theaters,” he said. He added that Netflix rival Amazon, which gives theaters a window for its fare, is “a perfectly usable model.”
He added to IndieWire: “Netflix has a bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films. They have this mindless policy of everything having to be simultaneously streamed and released, which is obviously an untenable model for theatrical presentation. So they’re not even getting in the game, and I think they’re missing a huge opportunity.”
As for Dunkirk — 70% shot, incidentally, on Imax film expressly for the biggest theatrical screens — the director of the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Interstellar told the Lincoln Center crowd he purposely wrote a short script for Dunkirk. The movie centers on a critical event in 20th century British history in the early days of World War II. Cornered along the coast in France across the English Channel, more than 300,000 British troops faced the onslaught of snipers, aerial bombings and fear of the unknown as they attempted to cross back to Britain. Back home across the channel, boat owners took to their vessels virtually unprotected to rescue the thousands of soldiers facing the sea.
“I only write 76 pages of script because I knew the film had to be lean,” Nolan told moderator Eugene Hernandez. “Dunkirk is a seminal event in British history and culture. It’s about a pulling together in the face of [disaster] and getting on with it. It was so long ago, that there’s a lot that surprises people about what happened there. There was a responsibility to be on firm ground in terms of history.”
Nolan said that when crafting Dunkirk he “looked to the silent era” of film history, as well as work by Alfred Hitchcock and French-born filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot, to fill the gap in lieu of over-reliance on dialogue.
“I screened [Clouzot’s 1953 movie] The Wages Of Fear for the crew — it’s a masterpiece,” Nolan said. “The thing about it is that it’s about physical process. You can create empathy for the characters by virtue of the physical situation. You don’t need characters on screen expressing it through dialog making a case for why you should care about them.”
Along with veteran actors Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy, Nolan said it was important to cast relative newcomers who reflected the ages of the vast majority of those who were trapped on the beaches in 1940.
“It was important to me to not do the usual Hollywood thing of having 30-year-olds playing 19-year-olds,” he said. “We still send our children out to fight wars, so we did open casting calls to find [the right actors]. An 18- or 19-year-old doesn’t have an expectation of taking on the whole German army. They just don’t want to get killed.” Former One Directioner Harry Styles is part of the younger members of the cast, which also include Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan and Billy Howle among others.
Dunkirk is experienced from land, sea and air over its 106 minutes. The aerial battles in the film were not created through digital handiwork; Nolan said he worked with his collaborators to assemble cameras on actual planes, which captured mid-air dogfights.
“I have spent a lot of time over the years defending film and articulating the reason why it’s important,” said Nolan. “It’s a whole different magnitude in terms of how the eye sees. If you want to see the world the way the eye sees it, it’s not through heightened reality. Film is still the best way to do that.”
Though he contrasted some of his approach to filmmaking with Hollywood, he gave a shout-out to studio films as being his entree to the business, leading to a career that began with indie films like Following (1998) and Memento (2000) and later to his own foray into the studio system.
“Movies have been everything to me my whole life,” he said. “The interesting thing about film is that we tend to come to it through Hollywood, which is unlike literature. We start out watching mainstream movies, but as we get older we tend to find other films and branch out.”
He cited George Lucas’ “original Star Wars” as well as Blade Runner and early Bond films as particularly early favorites. Asked if he’d like to direct a James Bond installment, Nolan — at least for now — gave it a pass.
“They’re doing terrifically without me,” he said. “You go where you’re needed.”