Reuniting with Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk, the director’s singularly immersive war film, following 2014’s Interstellar, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema knew what to expect—to be pushed to the farthest limits of what was possible in the pursuit of vivid cinema.
On Interstellar, the challenge was of an intellectual nature, “understanding and incorporating a level of physics into the storytelling and way of shooting.” With Dunkirk, on the other hand, the challenges were intensely physical. The DP took on shifting sands, challenging weather and the unwieldiness of IMAX cameras, all while shooting on the actual French beaches where a pivotal World War II moment transpired.
“This was really trying to put yourself in the shoes of those kids that were on the beach, and trying to reproduce that in as visual a way as possible,” Van Hoytema explains. “It was difficult in different ways, but nonetheless very fun.”
What do you enjoy about your collaboration with Christopher Nolan, having now worked together twice?
Making films with him is real filmmaking to me. It’s very hands-on and it’s a lot of engineering, always. It’s really switching your mind on to a very classic, visceral way of filmmaking. Nobody makes film like him. I think it’s healthy for me as a cinematographer to try to sometimes do some different things in between projects, as well, so I don’t expect people to be like him. Our relationship is unique, but there’s a lot of opportunity, you know?
Does your rapport come down to a shared philosophy of the cinematic experience—a desire to shoot on film, and shoot as much in-camera as possible, preserving cinema’s larger-than-life quality?
I think it of course has to do with everything you just mentioned. For both of us, it’s very important to preserve and exploit the thing called the cinema experience. At the same time, I think it’s also chemistry. You spend a lot of time on set together, so you need to feel compliant towards each other’s ideas—or have the feeling that you can at least progress each other’s ideas, and make them better. If that isn’t there, everything technically around it doesn’t really matter. We think alike. I’m not saying that I’m even a third as talented as he is, but at least I can go in cadence with his ideas.
Apart from the desire to create an immersive experience, what did Nolan convey to you about his hopes for this film’s visuals?
Instead of talking about how you want the film to look, you start asking, how do you want this film to feel, and what what does this film have to convey? We weren’t talking about if image had to be pretty or dark, or green or blue. [Primarily], it wanted to be honest, so we started to look a lot at documentary footage, and old press photography, and we were trying to read out of them, how can we do something that feels as natural and as real as this documentary photography?
We sort of tried to step away from an aesthetic discussion. That became very much a mantra or a philosophy of how we should approach this whole thing.
Did you look at any films as reference points, or only photographic sources?
You do both. You tend to be very greedy when you’re prepping—whatever can inspire you in whatever way, you sort of take to you. On Dunkirk, we screened a film every week—in cinemas, on real film stock. We watched Ryan’s Daughter, we watched Saving Private Ryan, we watched Battle of Algiers. We watched Wages of Fear, Full Metal Jacket: every usual suspect.
We didn’t watch them to copy them or to inform how to do a war film. What we watched them for was to see how different kinds of film language can tell the same story, and also, to learn from how we didn’t want to approach it. It’s always very inspiring. From every little film, you take something away and dismiss something else, and with that in mind, you start creating your own set of rules.
As logistically complicated as it must have been, was Dunkirk storyboarded in its entirety? Supposedly, the script was only around 70 pages long.
It was indeed 70 pages, but that’s also because most scripts you read today involve a narrative that is very dependent on dialogue. The narrative that Chris created was not at all dependent on dialogue; it was much more dependent on the happenings, so that thinned out the script a lot. At the same time, apart from some select scenes, we didn’t storyboard. There are always storyboards for complex scenes in which you have to bring visual effects and special effects together and very precisely understand specific things, but for most sections, we tried to be as loose as we could.
We always felt we had to be able to anticipate and change up because Chris and Emma [Thomas, producer] chose to shoot everything in the real place. We had a lot of advantages. It’s a very arresting visual landscape, and you really can feel the history in that place. That’s something that ultimately will register on camera.
The problem with it is, you have to deal with the weather and all sorts of practical things that will come across your path. So you need to be ready with a certain flexibility.
Were your choices of camera and lenses for the film made quickly, given Nolan’s predilection for the IMAX format?
We played around with the IMAX cameras a lot with Interstellar as well, and it’s undeniably the best and most visceral format. It’s the biggest negative, so it will harvest light and spread it out over the biggest amount of celluloid, which ultimately gives it the highest resolution—but also, [with] the experience of depth and color rendition, there’s nothing like it right now.
The only problem is the cameras are very clumsy, but we definitely agreed that that format would be best. So for us, it was all about overcoming all the practicalities around it. How can we make this camera more mobile? How can we put it on the shoulder? How can we do quick reloads? How can we dip it underwater? How can we put it on the wing of an airplane?
Then, it became a lot about engineering. We engineered and designed lenses for the camera that could look around corners and were more light sensitive than the older ones, or had closer focus. It was a long trip of engineering and doctoring in order to make it work, but the fact that we wanted to make it work was a given from the beginning.
Can you give a sense of the camera choreography and compositional approach that allowed you to manage the film’s massive crowd scenes?
Apart from Chris having very good insight about timing, what you needed was a rock-solid AD team and extremely good marine coordinators. We had a very good marine coordinator who really took command over the fleet that we were [shooting] every day, out on the sea. That’s very complicated, putting a fleet of boats at very specific places at very specific times, considering the weather, the wind directions and all.
Some very smart people in our AD department realized very early on, in order for us to be able to communicate with such big crowds, we had to stay in the middle of it. They came up with systems with little flags and communications in which they could move all those crowds around, and place them. On the beach, you see so far, so you cannot send somebody over there and then run back. All these people were sort of in between the stations, all wearing army uniforms so they could blend in very well.
Featuring confined spaces like planes and vast swaths of beach, where the light is constantly shifting, this project seems like it would have been very difficult to light. What was your approach?
Our most important rule was that we couldn’t be too precious about it. If you watch the film very carefully, the light is shifting. There’s a lot of stuff that is shot in full sun, and then stuff follows that is shot with overcast clouds, and yet you don’t experience it as such. I just notice it myself. Cinematographers are always so obsessed with continuity and matching lights, in order to not see those jumps and make everything match together. But I think we were lesser concerned with this.
For us, the jumpy nature in which you jump from narrative to narrative in this film allowed for certain tolerance. Those weather jumps, you don’t experience because you’re cutting away from people, and cutting back to them, and we started using that a little bit in our advantage.
Dunkirk is shot across land, sea and air. Which of these areas proved the most challenging?
It’s very hard to say because every separate part had such a different challenge to it. On the beach, it was very much the weather, the fine sand and the long distances that we had to create. The tides were very complicated. You would start filming in the morning and you would have a very epic strip of beach going out into the horizon, whereas after three hours, the water would come in and you would have to move your base camp.
The ships, you’re dealing with waves and you’re dealing with the weather. You’re dealing with getting out at sea and being able to film out in the water on a boat that is sort of rocking. Then of course, the air very obviously difficult because airplanes are inaccessible, and it’s very hard to film on planes. We had to engineer a lot of stuff to do that. I think of this film as almost three separate films, the way that every part brought their own crazy quirks and challenges.
How did you capture the film’s underwater photography?
There’s an underwater housing that weighs 600 pounds or something. We would crane it into the water. Of course, it becomes weightless in the water, but you have so much mass to move around. It’s not very complicated, but it took a lot of planning. Nothing was easy in that way, but it all came from the idea that we had to shoot on IMAX. We couldn’t do it differently. Everything just became practicalities and technicalities that we had to conquer, so we invested a lot of time in that.