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Christopher Nolan reveals what makes the war story 'Dunkirk' a great suspense thriller

Christopher Nolan reveals what makes the war story 'Dunkirk' a great suspense thriller
Christopher Nolan, director of the upcoming "Dunkirk," discusses the film during the Warner Bros. Pictures presentation at CinemaCon. (Chris Pizzello / Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

For years, Christopher Nolan has set most of his films in the realm of fantasy. He explored the maze of the subconscious mind in "Inception," sent astronauts through a wormhole in "Interstellar," and offered what many consider the definitive take on the caped crusader in "The Dark Knight" trilogy. Even his suspense-thriller "Memento" played with time and the mind.

But the Oscar-nominated filmmaker will return to earthbound events with the World War II drama "Dunkirk," which hits theaters in July. The film tells the story of the evacuation of Allied soldiers that took place after 400,000 troops from France, Britain, Canada and Belgium found themselves surrounded by the German army on the beaches of Dunkirk, France.

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Before Nolan unveiled a few minutes of footage from the film for movie theater owners at CinemaCon this week, we met him at a hotel bar to talk about his new movie. And as you'll see, that was really all he wanted to talk about.

There's been a lot of talk here this week about the increasing number of film fans who prefer to watch movies at home. Do you think there will be a CinemaCon in 10 years?

Oh, yes. I think cinema and the theatrical presentation of cinema is really an element of our culture. It's a wonderful thing.

I think the exhibition community is such a vital part of what we do. It's very important to come here. They're our partners in this. The old joke is the exhibitionist has the final cut, and it's not a million miles away from the truth when you're putting on a show. The people who own the theaters and put on that presentation are our partners in putting on the show.

Do you ever watch movies at home?

Yes. Everybody watches film at home and in the cinema. That's been my entire life — I'm of the home video generation. We've never had any problem distinguishing between the experience. The value that you're getting sitting with a large group of people when a new movie is coming out and the excitement that can generate is second to none.

Many of your previous films have been set in fantasy worlds, and 'Dunkirk' is based on historical events. What made you decide this was the first real-life story you wanted to tackle?

As somebody who's made thrillers before, suspense-action thrillers before — I was looking for the most paradoxical situation. A situation you can't imagine a way out of. It's the story of being trapped and surrounded by the enemy at the town of Dunkirk and having the impossible choice of annihilation or surrender. And the fact that the story does not end in annihilation or surrender is why it's one of the great stories. Four hundred thousand men with their backs to the English Channel and home only 26 miles away, but no one cared — and that's the situation of the story. This is a suspense movie, first and foremost. It's not so much a war film as a suspense thriller. Dunkirk is one of the great suspense situations of all time.

Nearly everyone in the U.K. knows the Dunkirk story, but Americans aren't as familiar with what it entailed. Why is this a story that will appeal to global audiences?

For British people, Dunkirk is pretty much in our DNA. It's not so well-known here…. A lot of people today don't know the story, and I think it's one of the greatest stories in human history.

English people sort of grow up with it. It was a legend. They talk about the Dunkirk spirit, which is this notion of people pulling together and facing indomitable odds together. That's something I grew up with. And many years ago, [my wife] Emma and I made the crossing to Dunkirk on a small boat and it was an extremely intense experience. So my respect for it was massively enhanced by that experience. When I felt I was ready, technically — when I felt I could marshal the huge elements that we would need to tell the story — I knew it was something I wanted to do for a long time. There all kinds of physical challenges to it. [An] enormous number of environments. We just wanted to do things that haven't been done before, like shooting the whole film on IMAX. That was extremely challenging.

Young fans were very excited to hear that you cast One Direction singer Harry Styles in a supporting role. How did you know he had the acting chops to pull it off?

When we put the cast together, we had some established names: Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy. But for the guys on the beach, we really wanted young unknowns. He's not that unknown, but he'd never done anything as an actor before. So he auditioned. I auditioned literally thousands of young men with different combinations of young men. And he had it.

He had to cut off his hair for the role as a soldier. Was he hesitant to do so?

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I don't want to get into it.

Did you carry anything from your time on 'The Dark Knight' trilogy to 'Dunkirk'?

I think the time I spent making large scale entertainment — with respect to entertainment, this is suspenseful entertainment. My 10 years of working with the character [of Batman] is essential to understanding imagery and sound, and push-and-pull in a particular direction.

Ben Affleck, who plays the new Batman, is also here in Vegas. Do you follow the new Batman films?

No, no, I don't want to go into that. I'm here to talk about "Dunkirk."

Follow me on Twitter @AmyKinLA

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