The explosion was not quite shocking enough yet — at least not to Christopher Nolan's ears.
On an early spring afternoon, the director — whose films, including the "Dark Knight" trilogy, "Inception" and "Interstellar," have collectively grossed well over $4 billion worldwide — sat in a darkened dubbing stage on the Warner Bros. lot, working on the sound mix for his latest movie, the epic World War II tale "Dunkirk."
Nolan studied the screen carefully, a cup of tea in his hand, his generally serious demeanor punctuated by the occasional dry joke. (Perhaps surprisingly, given his cerebral reputation, he's a fan of the HBO comedy "Silicon Valley.") He was clearly in his element. "I love this part — once you lock picture, all you're doing is trying to make it the most it could be," he said.
In the scene at hand, one of several big action set pieces in the movie, a British naval destroyer packed with young soldiers is suddenly struck by a German torpedo, and Nolan was intent on conveying the moment's visceral terror. No detail was too small to escape his notice, down to the clattering of a teacup.
"That high-pitched whistle that precedes the explosion — could you pitch it up a couple of tones over three or four seconds so that it rises up to meet the explosion?" Nolan asked Gary Rizzo, one of the half a dozen sound editors and mixers working with him on the scene. Levels were adjusted and the scene was replayed.
Finally, after half an hour of work on less than a minute of screen time, Nolan was satisfied. "That made me jump," he said after a final playback. "And I have never made myself jump."
That Nolan would be so exacting in his work should come as no surprise to anyone who's seen his meticulously crafted films. But with "Dunkirk," which hits theaters July 21, the stakes are higher in some respects for the 46-year-old filmmaker than with any other movie he's ever made.
"They're all big swings in their own way," he said weeks later, sitting in the office of his production company, Syncopy Films. "But this one does feel different." As a British filmmaker recounting an important piece of British history, he said, "You feel a huge responsibility. I mean, it's terrifying to think of what Britain is going to make of this film."
The movie recounts the harrowing story of the evacuation of nearly 400,000 British and Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, where they were pinned down under heavy fire from German forces in spring 1940. For British audiences, it is a cherished tale of resilience, a military catastrophe that turned into a moment of communal heroism immortalized in the phrase "Dunkirk spirit." But to most American moviegoers, particularly the younger viewers who tend to drive the summer box office, it is an unfamiliar piece of history.
Indeed, for Warner Bros., "Dunkirk" is not the easiest sell to a domestic audience, with none of the usual tentpole marketing hooks of major American movie stars, ancillary tie-ins and pre-sold brand awareness to leverage. (The studio declined to provide a production budget for the film.) In a summer landscape dominated by sequels and reboots and would-be franchise-starters, Nolan is well aware that "Dunkirk" — sandwiched between the releases of "War for the Planet of the Apes" a week earlier and "The Emoji Movie" a week later — is an entirely different sort of proposition for moviegoers.
"It's very exciting to be putting something different out to the audience, but it's also very frightening," he said. "It feels like it raises the stakes for the success of the film. It feels like we're carrying a bit more than we realized going into it in terms of what movies can work or can't work in the summer."
In its style as well, "Dunkirk" defies conventions. Though its scale is immense — with the action playing out on land, sea and air — its narrative is lean, with a nonlinear approach to time that Nolan calls "the most radical structure I've employed since 'Memento,'" referring to his 2000 neo-noir breakthrough about a man with amnesia searching for his wife's murderer.
With a cast that blends established actors like Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy with young newcomers like Fionn Whitehead and, in his first acting role, pop star Harry Styles, "Dunkirk" features relatively little dialogue and gives its characters virtually no backstory. "Telling the story primarily pictorially and through sound and music rather than having people talk about who they are and where they're from — that was very attractive to me," Nolan said.
Broadly speaking, the subject of World War II has largely fallen out of fashion in Hollywood as the period has receded into the distant past, its clear lines between good and evil seeming ever more remote in today's morally murky world. In recent years, only one movie dealing realistically with the war, 2014's "Unbroken," has grossed more than $100 million domestically, and that film was based on a bestselling book.
But as Nolan sees it, "Dunkirk" is not a war movie per se but rather a kind of Hitchcockian suspense thriller, and his goal for the picture, which he filmed almost entirely in IMAX, is to create an immersive white-knuckle ride that puts the viewer in the shoes of soldiers fighting for survival.
"We're trying to create an experience that I talk about as being like virtual reality without the goggles," he said. "I think what's exciting about movies right now, as opposed to television or novels or the stage, is the cinema of experience, where you're sitting in a room with a lot of different people and you're being taken to a world you'd never normally travel to."
"For those who consider Chris to be a cerebral filmmaker, what I loved about what he did in 'Dunkirk' is he's moving away from the head to the heart — willingly, riskily, scarily," said Branagh, who plays a naval commander. "To see a man like this, with that kind of love of cinema and intellectual power, now stripping away and stripping away and revealing things — that's an amazing intersection. You might argue that it's his most emotional film to date."
While early reactions to the film have been overwhelmingly positive, whether audiences will turn out in sufficient numbers to make it a bona fide hit remains to be seen. For the moment, Nolan is stuck in an anxious state of suspense.
"It's this kind of horrible holding pattern of stress," he said. "I make films for an audience, so for me, the film isn't complete until it goes out there into the world. It's this awful, tense moment. It never gets any easier."
Roots of film
For Nolan, the initial seed was planted some 20 years ago when he and his wife, producer Emma Thomas, went on a sailing excursion with a friend across the English Channel, retracing the route that British civilian vessels had taken nearly half a century earlier to try to help rescue soldiers stranded at Dunkirk.
It was supposed to be an easy eight-hour trip. "We thought we'd be there by lunchtime," Thomas recalled. But a bad turn in the weather led to rough seas, and the pleasant jaunt soon became an exhausting and frightening 19-hour ordeal.
"It was an absolute nightmare," Nolan said. "We got to Dunkirk, and my respect for the people involved in the real events increased more than I could have imagined. We were going through what we considered to be an extraordinarily intense experience — and nobody was trying to kill us."
Nolan's grandfather on his father's side had died in World War II while serving in the Royal Air Force, and growing up, Nolan had steeped himself in the history of the conflict. The idea of recounting the story of Dunkirk on film seemed like a thrilling challenge.
"There's something very unique about the nature of the denouement — as Churchill put it, it's a victory within a defeat," Nolan said. "There's something very exciting about that to me. Some of my favorite films — you think about 'The Seven Samurai' — have either defeats within victories or victories within defeats. It's a great cinematic notion."
Figuring out the best way to tell the Dunkirk story, however, was daunting, and it would take years until Nolan felt he had the right tools. At one point, as he contemplated how to approach it, Nolan screened a print of Steven Spielberg's 1998 World War II epic "Saving Private Ryan" that the director lent him.
"That was very instructive, because it told us, 'OK, well, we don't want to do anything like that,'" Nolan said. "It's such an intense experience and so authoritative in terms of the horrors of war that you go, 'OK, that's sort of an absolute. We're better off looking for a different type of suspense.'"
Inspired by Alfred Hitchcock, by films like the 1953 Henri-Georges Clouzot thriller "The Wages of Fear" and by his love of silent movies, Nolan instead zeroed in a more lean and stripped-down approach. His script dispensed with the usual requisite war-movie scenes of soldiers kissing their sweethearts goodbye and generals looking at maps. For the actors, the task was simply to try to capture the moment-by-moment experience of sitting in the cockpit of a Spitfire during a dogfight or being a sitting duck on the beach as the German army closes in.
"It's hard to say you can imagine how these poor young guys felt, because that's impossible — it's so alien to us," said Whitehead, who plays a soldier named Tommy who serves as the audience's eyes and ears for much of the story. "It's just such a horrible atmosphere to try to imagine yourself being in. It's just blind panic and fear."
As for the political resonance of the story amid today's headlines about Britain's withdrawal from the European Union and President Trump, "Dunkirk" leaves that up to the audience to decide. "I definitely have a sense of what the film means to me, given where the world sits right now, particularly England, with everything that's happened there recently," said Thomas. "But it's something that I wouldn't want to impose on anyone else."
Some might have expected a movie with the weighty subject matter and artistic ambition of "Dunkirk" to be released among the awards contenders of the fall. But from the outset, Nolan — whose intricate thriller "Inception" was seen as similarly risky when it was released in July 2010 and went on to gross $825 million worldwide — wanted a summer release for what he ultimately considers "a popcorn movie."
"It's very easy to get pigeonholed and placed in a box when you release a film later in the year," Thomas said. "For all its more serious subject matter, this film really is a theatrical experience and it really is a suspenseful, action-oriented film. So to us, it felt that the summer was absolutely the logical place for it. We've come to a point where we feel like a summer movie has to be a superhero movie or a sequel. And I don't believe that to be the case."
That belief is about to be put to the test, and many will be looking at "Dunkirk" for an indication of how receptive today's audiences are to movies that stretch prevailing notions of what a summer blockbuster can be.
Nolan wouldn't have it any other way. Perhaps more than any other director working in today's tentpole realm, he is a cinematic true believer — and, in an era in which movies seem to be in danger of losing ground to other forms of entertainment, he is determined to use his clout within the industry to try to hold the beachhead.
"I'm in a position to be able to take risks, and I feel a responsibility to take risks," Nolan said. "You need that nervousness. You need those risks. My job is to be right on the edge of what's going to work."