There must be no more terrifying a job in Hollywood than to be Christopher Nolan’s producer. With an unbroken run of critically acclaimed cinema that started with his Hollywood debut, Memento, in 2000, the Nolan brand has become synonymous with the kind of scale and ambition scarcely seen in a world which favors cheap digital trickery to conjure big images. Nolan, to his eternal credit, still prefers to create them himself, wherever possible. Even if they might at first seem impossible.
But mounting one of his projects is no easy feat. And with each step, from the Batman trilogy to The Prestige, Inception, Interstellar and beyond, the scale and challenges have multiplied exponentially. For Emma Thomas, who has worked with Nolan since his first feature, Following, in 1998, it’s a challenge readily accepted. They have been partners, creatively and personally, their entire careers. Though, sitting with me in Nolan’s office on the Warner Bros. lot, she jokes that she reads a new script from him “with a large glass of red wine” at her side.
Their latest endeavor together is Dunkirk for which Thomas and Nolan, who is also a producer on his projects, are nominated for Best Picture. This rousing WW2 picture relates a tale little known outside of Europe, about the momentous evacuation of troops from the beaches of Northern France as the Allied war effort was forced to retreat, has become another tremendous success for the pair, grossing more than half a billion dollars at the box office and delivering a war movie unlike any that has come before.
The course this film has taken since its July release has been remarkable to watch. Did you have any sense early on that Dunkirk would receive the reception that it has?
No, we definitely thought that this was going to be the one that killed us. This seemed like such an unlikely thing. It’s interesting because if you look at any of the movies that are nominees this year, until they succeed, they don’t look like obvious films to make, necessarily. Once you know that they’ve succeeded at the box office or critically, you sort of forget how risky they were, potentially, in the first place.
I certainly know that Sue Kroll and Blair Rich were looking at marketing the film when we first pitched it to them. I think that they, more than anyone, were shaking in their boots because it’s a hard film. It’s a specifically British story, and we had pitched it to them originally very specifically as, “We need to make the film look as big as it possibly can because it is an epic story, but we can’t cast any Americans. It has to be British actors.” And at the very beginning, we had told them that we only were going to cast completely fresh faces.
We, of course, ended up managing to nab some amazing actors with vast experience, but certainly, at the beginning, we had said that we didn’t want to have any name actors. So, it was not an obvious film that was going to an obvious success and the fact that it then became one is frankly miraculous, and quite gratifying.
Over the years, you’ve worked with Christopher Nolan to cultivate a strong brand. But even with the success of your previous works, Dunkirk must have seemed like a huge risk. It’s a very different kind of war film.
Chris’s idea from the very beginning was not really to make it a war film—just to make it very much a thriller and a suspense story, and a survival story—and I think that in retrospect, that’s really what makes it so special, because it isn’t at all what you’d expect. Audiences really experienced something when they saw the film, but again, what’s incredible to me is that even without the obvious sort of structural things that you really upon in many other films—like, the backstory isn’t the girlfriend weeping, and waving goodbye—and the easy way into characters’ lives, Chris puts you into this extremely simple situation where they’re either going to live or they’re not. I think that clarity almost brought people into the story in a more meaningful way.
Dunkirk doesn’t tell you what to think about its characters at any point. Was the intent to approach the project from an objective viewpoint?
Yeah. Ultimately, one of the reasons that I really love it is the fact that it doesn’t really matter who the characters are, or what their life experiences have been up until this point—what they’ve achieved in their lives, or what they haven’t. Very specifically, I’m thinking about Fionn Whitehead’s character and those boys on the beach. All that matters is that they’re human, and that they have a right to live their lives, and that they need to get off the beach and back to safety.
I think that’s a very timely message for audiences to take home, frankly. I think that if we got rid of the trappings of the epic—the exterior appearance of people, and the cultural differences that we have—and really just got down to brass tacks, which is to say that people are people and we’re all just ultimately the same, the world might be a better place.
Was the quietness of your characters’ journeys the anchor that would make sense of the chaos going on around them?
Certainly when I read the script for the first time, apart from how on earth we were going to do this, and trepidation in that area, I think that it was that first emotional experience and engagement with the script that sort of carried you through the rest of it. Because there was an enormous amount of logistical [challenge]. There was a lot to achieve. Once you get into the weeds, you’re not really able to think about that until you watch the film for the first time, and you’re reminded of what it is to experience and absorb the film.
Was Dunkirk taken on partly for the challenge? It would seem that without its degrees of ambition and complexity, it might have lost its drive or its interest.
Definitely. I think that the best art basically comes from having parameters and having a wall to push against. This film, although it is a big-scale epic, it was made for half the amount of money that Interstellar was made for, and probably less than half of most of the big summer movies that you could think of are budgeted at.
We could very easily have made the film for a great deal more money, but we knew that Warner Bros. wouldn’t be comfortable with that, and we also knew that we wouldn’t have the freedom to make the film the way that we wanted to make it if we made it for any more than we asked them for. This was the tightest budget of any film we’ve ever done. It’s always hard to make a film, whatever your budget. It’s never enough money, but with this one, I think in many ways it really freed you up to be inventive, and clever about things, and resourceful, and I think a better film comes out of it—at least, that’s my rationalization. And not just in a budget sense. I think also in a logistical sense, the limits on what you can do because of geography or weather or whatever, it sort of all helps.
For example, how awful the weather was on the film. It was absolutely appalling. You had the most terrible weather. But I think it made a better film, and even when we were watching dailies, you could tell that this was going to help audiences understand the jeopardy these characters are in. I think if the weather had been sunny and the scene had been calm, you wouldn’t understand how appalling that situation was.
As a producer, do you consider it your responsibility to mitigate the effects the challenges have on your cast and crew? It seems like complex conditions on set do often result in the best work.
Absolutely. Chris is very much a producer on these films as well. I think he actually would say he prides himself on never having shut down because of weather. People often call him lucky because he’s never been shut down by weather, but the truth is, he’s not lucky. It’s more that he keeps going. I think that as producers, you have to prepare for every eventuality, and on this film, there were huge safety issues. There were certain days when we couldn’t go out because we would never have wanted to endanger anybody’s life—their sanity maybe, but not their life.
You don’t need headlines like, “Cillian Murphy Goes Overboard…”
Exactly. So our job was to then figure out, well, if we can’t go out into the inland sea that we shot much of the boat stuff on, how can we achieve what we need to achieve, and stay on track and on budget, and on schedule? Our job is to figure out, what’s the alternative that still buys us the production value that we need? So we would shoot just inside the harbor walls. There were many days where the marine coordinator and myself are standing on top of them and rocking it to make it match with the crazy seas that we had been on the day before.
I think that the good news is that a lot of the people that work on our films have worked with us before, and they know that they are going to be working through all weather, and all conditions, but I think that the great thing about crews is that it’s actually more boring for them to be sitting on a soundstage, than it is to just get through it. I think everyone that we work with very much rises to the occasion. They appreciate the fact that Chris knows what he wants to achieve and knows how to achieve it, and everyone jumps on board. We feel incredibly lucky.
He shoots film, and one of the cliches about the move to digital is that digital is quicker. Does Chris like to get shooting as quickly as possible?
Oh, yes. The discipline of shooting film is something that I think really informs the atmosphere on Chris’s set. He really values the discipline that is imposed on us all by the limited number of minutes on film, and a magazine, particularly when you’re shooting on IMAX—and he is super fast, super efficient. What’s interesting, though, is I don’t feel that the actors ever feel rushed. You’d have to ask them, but even within a very efficient set where things move fast and there’s no dawdling, I think they feel that they’re allowed the space to try things out creatively.
Certainly, that’s always been my impression. Not to say that Chris rushes through things to the extent that you then don’t have time to try things out, because ultimately, what’s incredible about him is that he has it all in his head. He’s cut the film in his head before we’ve even shot it, so he always knows when there’s something more he wants to try. He does it somehow in a very efficient way, and I think that over the years, our process has been streamlined quite significantly. We don’t have a video village; we don’t have chairs, really, on our sets. I think a lot of directors don’t like people having cell phones on set because it slows everything down. You need everyone to be focused and then you can get through the work.
Does he go as far as Quentin Tarantino does, making everybody check in their phones prior to embarking on a day of shooting?
No, but that’s a good idea. I regularly get in trouble for having my cellphone on set. But as I often say, my phone is the reason I’m able to be here.
At the DGA Awards, in his speech Chris called you his “partner in life and art.” There must be a remarkable shorthand between you, having worked together for so many years.
Oh, for sure. It’s interesting because oftentimes I get asked about what the process is, and it’s almost indefinable because it’s so intertwined in life, and in the work. Our kids come with us everywhere. Obviously, they have to because it’s not like one of us can stay at home while [on a project]. It’s all very much enmeshed, and there is definitely a shorthand. It’s great. It’s not always easy, but it works, and I don’t think any working relationships, particularly when you’re making films, are as challenging as these ones. That’s never going to be easy, whether you’re married or not. I think in many ways it’s actually great to be married, because at least you feel like we’re all in the same boat together, and we can get through it.
Producers often act as the voice of reason in relation to the director. Do you find that’s true of your relationship with Chris?
I can’t state strongly enough how much of a producer he is, even as a director. But having said that, there is definitely a sort of push and pull, and I think that that goes on all the way through. I feel very much that my job is to question, and I think that he probably finds it quite frustrating sometimes, but I think that he also sees the value of it. As with anything, even if I question something and he has to stand up for it, it’s an informative process, because in having to stand up for something, he can then figure out whether it’s really important for him or not. It’s worked so far, so I don’t question it.
It’s quite common for filmmakers to have good periods, where they deliver hit after hit for a little while. But those streaks rarely last the length of a career. Do you come to a place of comfort with that or does the pressure of the streak build?
It’s interesting. I get very nervous. I guess Chris probably does, too, but I definitely feel the pressure of the streak. It has been an incredible run, and as I said, we thought this one was going to be the one that broke it. But it didn’t, so now the pressure’s really on. But I think that what we both feel very strongly is that when you have an opportunity, you have to take it.
Certainly I would feel a lot less worried about how the next one is going to do if we would’ve taken the safe bet instead of doing something we’ve done before. But again, when you have an opportunity, you have to grab it. Dunkirk was very much a film that came out of a situation in which Chris had the freedom to really push boundaries. I feel like a bit of a boor because I keep saying this, but when I first saw the film, I said to Chris, “This, to me, is like an art house movie pretending to be a studio film.” At the time, he was like, “You can’t tell anyone that, you can’t tell the studio that.”
Of course, now, I feel like I can, because it is, and I think that everyone has forgotten how very much of an experiment and a risky movie this was. He made this film, I think, very much because he had the opportunity to do it. Somebody was going to trust him to do it, and he’s done it before, taken risks and they’ve paid off. I don’t know where we’ll go from here, but I’m getting a little nervous.
This transition period between projects is particularly discomfiting?
Exactly. We often laugh about the fact that when I first read Memento…and I will say that the first draft of Memento that I read was way more complicated than the version that it turned out to be. It really was. The moment I was reading it, I would turn the page and it was like, “Oh, go back.” I don’t think any script has ever been quite like that again, but I’m always very nervous when I’m presented with the script.
Is that how your process tends to go? He’ll just bring you a completed script?
Usually, what has happened is he’s figured out his way into a story. We’ve talked a lot about the story that he’s interested in, or the world, or whatever. Then, he’ll go in, think, and figure out his way in, and he’ll tell me about what that way in is. Then, he goes away and writes, and I leave him to do that, and I only read it when it’s a full draft.
With a bottle of Advil nearby?
With a large glass of red wine [laughs].
There seems to be a Britishness to the filmmaking style you share, taking big swings with art house films masquerading as blockbusters, but with a certain amount of common sense behind their business construction. Have all your projects been grounded in a sense of responsibility to your financiers?
Yes, we’ve had an incredible arrangement with Warner Bros. every year. We don’t actually have a deal with them, so it’s not like we have to take projects to them, but we think they’ve really believed in us, and really backed us. These films have not been obvious films to make at all, and they’re not small films. But they really have always stepped up and believed in us, and allowed Chris an enormous amount of freedom creatively. That’s an incredible thing, and we’ve been incredibly lucky, but with that definitely does come a sense that because we don’t have a deal with them, we’re only as good as the last film that we’ve made. We don’t want to lose anybody money because we do want to keep making films. We don’t want to go to movie jail, and that entails a certain amount of responsibility and making choices that aren’t completely reckless. Risky, but not reckless. I think that’s the motto.