Brent Lang writes: There have been extensive doom-and-gloom scenarios about the demise of movies lately, but writer-director Christopher Nolan isn’t among those sounding the death knell. Last summer, as the box office and attendance careened toward their lowest levels in decades, Nolan put his artistry where his optimism was — delivering a jolt of pure cinema with “Dunkirk.”
The picture thrusts viewers into one of the turning points of World War II, recounting a moment when British forces faced total annihilation at the hands of the Nazis. Shot with Imax cameras and presented in 70mm, it also serves as a potent reminder that some things are best delivered on the widest screens possible. “Dunkirk” not only garnered massive critical acclaim, but audiences around the globe flocked to see the film, which grossed $524 million worldwide.
“At a time when there’s all kinds of storytelling around, movies that gravitate toward things that only movies can do carve out a place for themselves,” Nolan tells Variety during a wide-ranging interview at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. “As a director, I try to show people things they’ve never seen before.”
“A scenario in which movies and television become more similar elevates television but diminishes movies.”
Nolan, decked out in a black sports jacket and slacks and wearing a Buddhist charm bracelet he picked up during a family excursion to the Far East, looks like a mix between a country squire and an elocution instructor as he sits in a suite at the Shangri-La Hotel. Between long digressions on movie history and the technical challenges of making “Dunkirk,” he pauses to top off his mug with tea from a chrome thermos. He has come to Canada to reintroduce “Dunkirk” to Academy voters, showing the movie on an Imax screen and doing a Q&A afterward. The film wasn’t made with awards in mind, he says, hence the decision to release it in July instead of at the end of the year with the other plaudits hopefuls. But armed with rapturous reviews and powered by a dearth of front-runners, “Dunkirk” increasingly looks like the film to beat on Oscar night. At the very least, it should give Nolan his first nomination for director.
“We saw it as a blockbuster,” explains the maker of juggernauts like “The Dark Knight,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Inception” and “Interstellar” as well as the indie breakout “Memento.” “It’s a strange [term] to use in relation to the subject matter, but we saw it as an entertainment, albeit one that’s intense and suspenseful. We wanted it to reach the widest audience possible, and that happens in summer.”
With “Dunkirk,” Nolan has crafted a different kind of war film, one that owes more to kinetic thrillers like “Gravity” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” than to such classics of the genre as “Paths of Glory” or “Patton.” Instead of documenting vast troop movements or drilling into the intricacies of military strategy by cutting to shots of generals around a desk planning their next attack, Nolan drew an in-your-face portrait of war that zeroes in on the grunts pinned down against the ocean. There are Spitfire battles and capsized destroyers, to be sure, but throughout the action the camera remains fixed on the youthful faces of soldiers as they struggle to find safety. It’s one of the first war films to be as interested in the minutiae of military life — the search for food, boots or a place to go to the bathroom — as it is in clashes between armies.
“I didn’t view this as a war film,” says the director. “I viewed it as a survival story.”
Before embarking on his mission to dramatize the saga of how middle-aged citizens formed an armada of motorboats and yachts, traveled across the English Channel and ferried their army back home to safety, Nolan turned to his friend Steven Spielberg for advice and aid. He asked the director to lend him a pristine print of “Saving Private Ryan” that had only been run a half dozen times, so that he could show his crew how Spielberg had orchestrated the battle at Omaha Beach. Spielberg did more for Nolan than give him his print.
“Knowing and respecting that Chris is one of the world’s most imaginative filmmakers, my advice to him was to leave his imagination, as I did on ‘Ryan,’ in second position to the research he was doing to authentically acquit this historical drama,” recalls Spielberg.
Viewing “Saving Private Ryan” helped Nolan understand how to … (read more)