Speaking with Christopher Nolan’s below-the-line collaborators on the epic Dunkirk, several themes emerge. All are students of history—and World War II, in particular—and all are attracted to the “large-scale” filmmaking that Nolan champions, as he fights to keep the theatrical cinematic experience alive. Such is certainly the case with production designer Nathan Crowley, who has received each of his three Oscar nominations for Nolan films, from The Prestige to The Dark Knight and Interstellar.
Per Crowley, while Interstellar was the most design-heavy of his Nolan collaborations, Dunkirk was the most physically rigorous. The crew shot in extreme weather conditions out on location in Dunkirk where the real historical events took place, and Crowley was required to recreate the historic “mole,” an extremely narrow pier extending a kilometer out to sea, where thousands upon thousands of Allied soldiers expected to be bombed at any minute.
While Crowley was concerned that Dunkirk wouldn’t resonate outside the UK, the reviews and box-office results tell a different story. Below, Crowley discusses his first journey to Dunkirk and the many logistical challenges inherent to the early Best Picture frontrunner, which has held on in the awards conversation despite its July release date.
What were the aspects of Dunkirk that were compelling to you?
This was my seventh film with Chris. I think he is a very intelligent, good filmmaker, and he works at a scale that I like to work at. I like large-scale cinematic films, being a big David Lean fan.
When Chris came to me with Dunkirk, and being English as well, it was like, Wow. It’s a big event for an Englishman, and I’d never taken on a war film. I’d always wanted a war film but in particular to do Dunkirk, which had really never been done in a modern fashion.
I was concerned that no one would care what Dunkirk was outside of the UK. It was very much an English story. I think Chris wanted to tell it as a huge, dramatic piece, and that became very attractive as well. He’s always got an interesting approach. I had to do it.
What kind of preparations did you go through for the film?
First of all, I read a lot of books. I live in New York, so I listened to them on the subway, going uptown every day. I did a lot of research, but I always start with Chris in his house. We’ve always done work in his old garage, for the art department. We talked for a bit, and then he was going on a family holiday to Scandinavia, and it occurred to me that, “You know what, I’ve got to see Dunkirk.”
So we met there, and walked 18 kilometers that day, and it was obvious we had to film there. It’s such a unique place, but the challenge was filming there with the English Channel, with the 21-foot tide, with rebuilding the mole, with getting real ships. Our policy has always been that we do everything for real, until we can’t, and every film I’ve done with Chris has taken all the knowledge of the [films before it].
Between the ships, rebuilding the mole, flying spitfires, pulling real cockpits into old Russian planes, flying spitfires into the sea for real, it was tough. It was physically tough. This is the most physical film I think we’ve ever done.
I’ve heard that the weather posed a significant challenge.
Yeah, the weather was a challenge, but we’ve had this policy since Batman Begins that when we got a storm in Iceland, it looks really good on film. People say we’re unlucky with the weather, but it makes for a great-looking image.
We got hit by a huge storm on the mole. It ripped up boards. It created sort of a foam froth on the beach. It was visually stunning, and kind of told us about the rawness, simplicity and brutalism we needed to enforce in the film.
It was tough. We had crews trying to fix our set, the mole was hit and bits would just break off. This is what the English army dealt with, and the navy. I think they had better weather, but they were being shot at. It proves it was hard to get off that beach.
What was involved in the process of constructing the mole?
When we went to Dunkirk, we walked to the end of the stone portion, which was probably about 300 feet, and the rest of the wood and concrete section that had been built in ’37 had gone. But the foundations were there. I remember standing there with Chris. There were a bunch of French fisherman out there, and I remember saying, “We need to rebuild this thing.” Because it’s so unique. It’s this 7-foot, 7-foot-6 wide pier extending a kilometer out to sea, because of the shallowness of the tide.
The port of Dunkirk was amazingly helpful. I brought over one of my key construction team from America who happened to be born down the road in Calais, and with his help and skill as a construction foreman, we figured out that even though a lot of it had been replaced by concrete, we’d build it out of wood because it was the fastest, easiest material, and we painted it white.
We had these mammoth sections. We came to the conclusion that if we got a crane barge from the dock and we put steel plates on the old foundation, we could lower in these 21-foot by 21-foot sections of pier on the low tide. Our window on the low tide was four hours, so we pre-built these huge 12-by-12 timbers with enough structure in them to withstand the sea.
It was a very tight schedule and was dependent on weather, and we had decent weather in the prep. So, we prefabbed these with a U.S. and French team in a warehouse next to the dock that the city gave us, and then we barged them out in sections, and we had that four-hour window to get them on their bolt plates. Then, we would literally build up with the tide. We would have carpenters putting up decks, handrails, additional structure, as the tide came in.
Every day, we would try and get one section in, although that didn’t always work. So, it was a nail-biting affair. The only plus was that when that storm hit us, it turns out that the pier that we rebuilt was strong enough to withstand. Visually, it was about this road to nowhere—this white pier that went to nowhere.
How did the team orchestrate those shots, with thousands of soldiers packed together on the mole like sardines? Were CGI set extensions employed?
There was probably a couple of shots that they extended, but it was engineered to hold that many people. [The boats] didn’t actually touch the pier, so there was never any danger of being structurally compromised. A lot of the extras on the beach were actually cardboard cutouts. We must’ve had like 2,000 men as cutouts that were permanently on the beach, and then we had a giant cutout of a destroyer that was wrecked on the beach. This is the in-camera method. We try and get as much in camera as possible, and the effects would enhance and take away stuff that wasn’t correct.
How did you acquire all the period airplanes and boats for the film, some of which participated in the actual Dunkirk evacuation?
The spitfires were easier because there’s a lot of spitfires still flying. Finding the Mach 1 spitfires was harder. The Mach 1’s were half black and half white, which ran into our white pier, and industrial bits and kept this brutalism idea. In Cambridge, Duxford got on board with two, and then there was an American man in Texas who has a third Mach 5 that we converted into a Mach 1. He actually landed his spitfire on the beach in Dunkirk, at low tide, which was a terrific moment.
For the ships, we’d literally go to Latvia. If we got a sniff of any boat, we’d go and look at it, so we went all over the place. We got the hospital ship out of Norway, the Rogaland. It was a museum ship, but its engine still worked, so all the gentlemen who run the boat agreed to sail it down to Dunkirk from Norway, and agreed to let us paint it white. That was one down. The destroyer was the hardest to find, a destroyer with engines.
Were scale models employed too, when it came to the planes?
Yeah, they were like 18-foot wingspan, so we had to build some of them. We built some planes, essentially. We built full-size spitfires that we could catapult off charges into the sea for Collins’ landing in the sea. To put that together, we needed a lot of different techniques to gain the realism, so we’d have to divide up the techniques for each shot. It became a complicated film—by far, the most complicated ever.
What was it like shooting on the water for much of this film? That can’t have been easy.
It was cold. [laughs] Basically, everyone had some kind of craft to get on. The Moonstone was sort of the core, which was a boat found out of Scotland, in Rosneath, that was visually correct and had the right layout to shoot on it.
First of all, we needed to find our sea legs. I remember early prep. There was a storm in Dunkirk, and they’d asked the lifeboat guys to take us out. I could see what he was doing—he was trying to find his sea legs. We’d take the lifeboat in rough seas to Belgium and back, and it was like, “Jesus Christ.” [laughs] And Chris would say, “Hey, we’ve got to get used to this shit.”
There were different boats. There was plenty of places you could get onto, provided you could board them. In quieter seas, it was easy, and we had stunt guys running routes between the boats so you could get off one boat and go to another. On the Rogaland, we had a lot of space. There really was a limited crew. If you didn’t need to be out on the sea, you weren’t going out there.
So, I’d go visit and check in with them, and come back, or get on another boat, and you don’t get out for the rest of the day. You get stuck on boats for the whole day. It’s kind of brutal, that sea. That upside-down hull was a set piece on a scaffold rig that we put into the sea. We had to protect it with barges from the waves until we could get out there and shoot. We spent a lot of time, in our department, on big crane barges. We were always fixing everything. Every time we fly or land the spitfire in the sea, and try to retrieve it, it was destroyed, so we’d take a crane barge out, go fish it out and have a shop just fixing spitfires all the time.
It was a very difficult film, and it was all outdoors. There was no sound stage. I guess there was one in LA, but that was it. But that seemed like a piece of cake after doing it at sea. It was a tough film, but all Chris Nolan films are tough. But it’s very important to me that it’s cinematic, because that’s why I’ve always gone to the cinema. I want to be blown away. So, that’s really critical. That’s what the cinema gives you that no other form does. It’s a Chris Nolan film.