When it comes to the big screen, Christopher Nolan is a true believer — and with blockbusters like "The Dark Knight" trilogy, "Inception" and "Interstellar," he has translated that passion into more than $4 billion in grosses collectively at the global box office.
Nolan's latest film, the World War II action thriller "Dunkirk," stakes a particularly audacious claim for a different kind of moviegoing experience in this season of sequels, reboots and would-be franchise starters. Critics have hailed the film — which recounts a pivotal moment in the war in which nearly 400,000 British soldiers found themselves pinned down by German forces on the beaches of Dunkirk, France — as a riveting epic that should be seen on the biggest screen possible. And judging by the film's stronger-than-expected $50-million opening weekend, with 23% of the overall grosses coming from IMAX theaters, it seems moviegoers were prepared to follow Nolan into battle.
Last month, Nolan sat down with The Times in the office of his production company, Syncopy Films, on the Warner Bros. lot and shared some thoughts about the state of cinema in this era of streaming and peak TV, how he wants to use his clout in Hollywood and what he might do next (spoiler: probably not a superhero film).
Given the subject matter, some people would have expected "Dunkirk" to be released toward the end of the year. Did you always want to have a summer release date?
Always. Right out of the gate I said this material risks being misconstrued as a period drama, a self-serious war film, awards bait or whatever you might call it. You get into that end of the year and people can miss what the purpose of the film really is.
This is a popcorn movie. This is an entertainment. It's a weird word to use in relation to a real-life event — and one with the seriousness and gravitas of this. But the reality is, we are using the vehicle of entertainment to tell this story. We are giving people a white-knuckle ride. And that was a very important message for the studio to convey early on with where they dated the film.
We shot the entire film in large-format film — most of it IMAX and the rest 65 mm — for exactly that reason. We're trying to create an experience that I talk about as being like virtual reality without the goggles. We're trying to put you there in a really big way. That's what I'm finding exciting about movies right now.
At a time when more and more people seem perfectly happy to watch movies at home on their TVs, laptops and tablets, though, do you feel like you're bucking the trend?
Well, they are, but ancillary markets — there's nothing new about that. The first time was in the 1950s, where the industry really saw television as a threat. And then, of course, it finds its relationship. And the relationship with features has always been a sort of trickle-down one. What's vital for the excitement of movies is that initial experience on the big screen — that it be as exciting as possible and as well-presented as possible.
In one sense, it's bucking the trend. But in another sense, the average multiplex screen now is a lot better than when I was a kid. You go out into the suburbs and you're in a really beautiful theater a lot of times. I think the theatrical experience is just tremendously appealing. It's about the movies, really.
There aren't many filmmakers these days who have the clout and the ambition to even attempt to pull off a movie like "Dunkirk" and get a studio behind it. Do you have a sense of that — and is that ever a lonely feeling?
It does feel a little lonely. We're very excited to be offering something different to the audience but, as always, very nervous about its reception. But I feel like I wouldn't be doing my job right as a filmmaker if I didn't feel pretty damn concerned about what I'd done.
I'm in a position to be able to take risks — and I feel a responsibility to take risks. There are a lot of filmmakers out there who might have the idea and the skills and the ambition to do it, but they might not be in a position to be able to do it. So I feel that I have a responsibility to try to really put something out there that I care about and believe in.
The conventional wisdom these days is that the safest big-budget movies for the studios to make are comic-book movies. But 12 years ago, when you made "Batman Begins," a comic-book movie wasn't necessarily a safe bet at all — particularly in the way you did it.
No. What's interesting about that whole paradigm is, you can't fault the studios for looking to likely hits, for looking for areas where people seem to want more of something. But Hollywood and the studios have also always understood that novelty, freshness, is one of the magical ingredients of movies. And I don't think the studios ever want to risk losing that completely.
When they start dating films too far out, when a grand plan is unveiled for years into the future, there is a risk that that unexpected quality in movies could get lost. So I think the studios recognize that it's very important within those tent poles that they need surprises in there. They need things to come along that the audience isn't expecting.
Because that's part of the excitement of why we go to the movies: What are we going to see that we haven't seen before? It's a balance between giving audiences things they're familiar with but then giving them things that are new and fresh.
Could you see yourself going back to that realm where you're dealing with a branded property and where the studio is hoping to sell a bunch of toys? Or, having done that, do you feel like you're now more interested in just doing your own original ideas?
What you're describing is a very broad category. I mean, absolutely I could see myself going back and doing something where they would make toys. I think they should make some Spitfires — I think those would be great toys. [laughs]
In the broader sense, I wouldn't limit anything for myself. But no, I would not go and do another Batman film, for example. I spent 10 years doing that, and I loved it. But I need to do different things and that world needs new voices — and it's getting them and that's great.
To me, it's all about: Do I get excited about the story? Beyond that, I don't worry too much about what it is or how it would be perceived. Because the world changes. When I did "Batman Begins," as you say, the perception of what that meant was very different than what it became later on. That's part of the fun of doing something unexpected.
An increasing number of filmmakers have been drifting toward TV in recent years. Is there any part of you that sees what's happening there in terms of people pushing the boundaries of the form and taking creative risks and feels pulled in that direction?
I think a lot of the conversation about television in opposition to movies isn't really representative of the differences in media. As a kid, I loved watching "Miami Vice," but the relationship of what Michael Mann did in that to what he did in "Heat" — they're just completely different things.
I think there are amazing things being done on television. I would point to my brother [Jonathan] and sister-in-law [Lisa Joy]'s show [HBO's "Westworld"] as being one of them. I certainly don't want to disparage TV. I think there are amazing things being done. But it's very different to films.
Films are a particular type of storytelling. It's not better than TV, it's not worse — it's just a completely different experience. And I think because they both consist of audiovisual information, people confuse the two. Obviously there's a shared skill set and there are people like my brother or J.J. Abrams who can go back and forth with amazing facility. But at the end of the day, they're different.
It reminds me of the conversations 10 years ago about video games. There was an era when you'd endlessly read newspapers talking about how much some video game had grossed in its opening weekend and how it was so much more than a movie. And my point at the time was: "Well, I'm sure Whirlpool sold a lot of washing machines that weekend, too." It's just a different thing.
I would never rule anything out. But while I have the opportunity to make theatrical movies, I want to take it. I also find that it takes total focus for me to do a theatrical film and I don't really have time to develop other things or think about other things for the couple of years that I spend doing it. I'm not very versatile in that sense — I can just do the one thing.
Is there a show on TV that you've particularly liked recently — besides "Westworld," of course?
[Deadpan] I only watch “Westworld.” I can’t admit to looking at any of the competition.
I'm actually a big "Silicon Valley" fan. But in truth, I don't watch a lot of TV. I did when I was a kid and I loved it. But now that you can get practically every movie ever made in a beautiful Blu-ray transfer and a projector and everything — I mean, there are just so many great movies to watch.
Do you have any idea what you're doing next? Having done several giant movies in a row, do you now feel an impetus to do something smaller — or do you not really think that way?
I really don't think that way. The responsibility that comes with a large film at this stage of things is always very daunting. But having made tiny films and dealt with the flip side of that, which is just trying to get anyone to see your film — that's awful in its own way. Any independent filmmaker can tell you, going to a festival, hoping a distributor is going to like your film and put you on 10 screens somewhere — that's very, very tough and very demoralizing in its own way.
There's no easy answer. It has to be about the story. The longer I do this, I realize it's got to be about your own emotional attachment to the story and it's got to be a film that you stand by and you're proud of, whatever happens to it. That's really all it is, whether it's big or small. The stakes always feel massive on every film, as they should.
I have many scraps of ideas, but I'm not any good at trying to figure out what's next until this one goes out into the audience. I used to try, but now I'm a little bit more zen about it. My attention will turn to that when it can. I don't have any clue, which is exciting. That part I enjoy.
Not being committed to anything — that's an exciting set of possibilities.