Following three trips to Gotham City, a voyage through a wormhole, and an exploration of our own dreams, director Christopher Nolan set his sights on something far more grounded—and personal—with 2017’s Dunkirk. This intense World War II tour de force tells the story of the Dunkirk evacuation, where hundreds of thousands of Allied troops miraculously escaped utter devastation by the Germans with the help of military ingenuity and waves of intrepid civilians. What was seen as a calamitous retreat turned into a legendary tale of the early years of WWII. Here are 10 facts about the Oscar-nominated movie it inspired.
1. CHRISTOPHER NOLAN TOYED WITH THE IDEA OF SHOOTING WITHOUT A SCRIPT.
Christopher Nolan's movies are known for having twisting plots and plenty of memorable dialogue, but for Dunkirk, the director wanted to pull back and allow the story to unfold in a much more natural, improvised way. While the end product is light on plot and dialogue, the original idea was far more radical, with the director thinking about shelving the script altogether.
“I said, 'I don’t want a script. Because I just want to show it,' it’s almost like I want to just stage it. And film it," Nolan said in an interview published alongside the Dunkirk screenplay.
His wife and producing partner, Emma Thomas, brought him back down to earth, with Nolan saying, “Emma looked at me like I was a bit crazy and was like, okay, that’s not really gonna work."
2. IT’S HIS SHORTEST FILM SINCE HIS FIRST.
Though Dunkirk did wind up with a script, it wasn’t a lengthy one, coming in at just 76 pages. After 2014’s Interstellar took some heat for its three-hour runtime, Dunkirk reversed course and settled in at an efficient 106 minutes. This is the director’s shortest film since the 70-minute runtime of his first movie, The Following (1998).
3. ACTUAL DUNKIRK VETERANS CLAIM THE MOVIE IS LOUDER THAN THE ACTUAL BATTLE.
Dunkirk strove for—and mostly accomplished—a real sense of historical accuracy, but one aspect of those epic on-screen battles was even more extreme than what the soldiers actually experienced during the ordeal in 1940. On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, one of the movie’s stars, Kenneth Branagh, explained that 30 veterans of the battle came to the movie’s UK premiere and many said that the mayhem in the movie was far louder than the real thing (which he also said really "tickled" Nolan to hear).
This noise discrepancy can be explained by the fact that the amount of land on the beaches was so vast that much of the bombing noise would simply drift away on the wide-open air, according to Branagh. In the movie, though, every explosion is upfront for the audience to hear, all for the sake of immersion, though most of the veterans also agreed that nearly everything else was almost exactly as they remembered.
4. HARRY STYLES WAS CAST BECAUSE OF HIS “OLD-FASHIONED FACE.”
Though the film's cast was filled with newcomers and theater actors, there were a few familiar faces filling up the screen. And the most recognizable, and controversial, of those was Harry Styles of the British boy band One Direction. Word of his casting made waves online, and it would be easy to assume that he landed the part solely due to his popularity among younger audiences. But Nolan had a much different reason for giving Styles the part, saying: "He has an old-fashioned face ... the kind of face that makes you believe he could have been alive in that period."
That old-fashioned face had to send an audition tape to the movie’s casting director just like anyone else, which was then forwarded to the director. Styles eventually got the gig, and the enormity of the choice was lost on Nolan, who even remarked: "I don't think I was that aware really of how famous Harry was."
5. MICHAEL CAINE MADE A CAMEO.
Apparently you can’t have a Christopher Nolan movie without Michael Caine. He has played world-weary mentors and companions in every one of the director’s movies since 2005’s Batman Begins, but for a while it looked like there wouldn’t be a place for the iconic English actor in this WWII movie. Well, the wily Caine did manage a cameo of sorts, as the voice giving orders to the British fighter pilots over the radio.
When asked about this unpublicized appearance by film critic Stephen Witty, Nolan responded, “Yes, good for you for spotting him. It's shocking to me that a lot of people haven't, when he has really one of the most distinctive voices in cinema. I wanted very much to squeeze him in here. It's a bit of a nod to his character in Battle of Britain. And also, it's Michael. He has to be in all my films, after all.”
6. TOM HARDY’S EYES MADE HIM PERFECT FOR THE ROLE.
Tom Hardy is another actor synonymous with Nolan's movies, with the most high-profile being Bane in 2012's The Dark Knight Rises. It was this part, with most of his face hidden behind a mask, that made the director “beg” the actor to play the fighter pilot in Dunkirk.
"I’ve had great experience hiding Tom behind masks and showing that he can act with only his eyes," the director told USA Today. "It's all there, he has the most expressive eyes. He can pull the audience into the moment in an amazing way even with most of his face covered."
7. MOST OF THE MOVIE WAS SHOT USING IMAX CAMERAS.
Nolan and his team are huge proponents of filming movies with IMAX cameras, and Dunkirk was their biggest undertaking to date. Unlike his other movies, where only certain key scenes would be filmed with the notoriously expensive and bulky cameras, around 70 percent of Dunkirk was filmed for the extra-large format.
And the IMAX scenes couldn’t just be static; cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema worked with Panavision to find ways to make the cameras more adaptable to allow them to better follow the kinetic frenzy of battle. This included snorkel lenses for shots in tighter spaces—such as a cockpit—and a rig that allowed the camera to be attached to the wing of a plane to get some of those breathtaking aerial shots.
8. THE MOVIE’S “TICKING” SCORE WAS INSPIRED BY NOLAN’S WATCH.
There’s a simple trick behind the pulsing, ticking score Hans Zimmer wrote for Dunkirk: an actual watch. In an interview with Business Insider, the director revealed:
“Very early on I sent Hans a recording that I made of a watch that I own with a particularly insistent ticking and we started to build the track out of that sound and then working from that sound we built the music as we built the picture cut. So there's a fusion of music and sound effects and picture that we've never been able to achieve before.”
With time itself acting as such a driving force behind the action of the movie, the “tick, tick, tick” of the score is integral to the feelings of suspense the director was trying to accomplish.
9. THE SCRIPT WAS WRITTEN WITH MUSICAL PRINCIPLES IN MIND.
Taking the marriage of music and script one step further, Nolan wrote the movie in the style of a “Shepard tone,” which he described as “an illusion where there's a continuing ascension of tone. It's a corkscrew effect. It’s always going up and up and up but it never goes outside of its range.”
This is something composer David Julyan included in the director’s 2006 movie The Prestige and was even used for the sound of the Batpod in The Dark Knight films. For Dunkirk, both the score and the story structure take advantage of the illusion to heighten the tension.
“I interwove the three timelines in such a way that there's a continual feeling of intensity. Increasing intensity,” Nolan said.
10. NOLAN AND THOMAS'S OWN TRIP ACROSS THE ENGLISH CHANNEL IN THE 1990s INSPIRED THE MOVIE.
The kernel for the idea that would become Dunkirk came when Nolan took a real-life voyage across the English Channel with then-girlfriend (now-wife) Emma Thomas just as the rescue boats during the actual ordeal did decades earlier. As he told the Toronto Star, the trip completely changed his perception of the danger these people faced:
“It was really, really tough; the channel is no joke. It took us about 19 hours to get there, much longer than we thought. We were absolutely freezing. It felt dangerous and impossible and that was without people dropping bombs on us and going into a war zone. And so that cemented for me an absolute respect for the people in real life who did this extraordinary thing.”
The idea for Dunkirk stuck with him since that trip, and he worked to build up enough of a reputation in Hollywood to raise the funds that would allow him to get the movie done properly. "We felt now was the time to capitalize on that trust and relationship," Thomas said. "It very much felt like the sum of everything we've learned in prior movies."