European films

Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan on casting Harry Styles, selling a British story in the US, and the challenges of filming it

Nolan knew it wouldn’t be easy to draw US film-goers to his new movie, especially since he cast no Americans, but was convinced this ‘phenomenal’ moment in British wartime history would have universal appeal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 July, 2017, 9:31am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 February, 2018, 4:57pm

Christopher Nolan is the auteur behind high-concept films such as Inception and Interstellar, and the writer-director who made Batman edgy and cool. His imprimatur consists of non-linear timelines and cross-cutting parallel narratives. His work is as thrilling as it is thoughtful.

So when it was first announced that Nolan was taking on Dunkirk, widely described as a “big war movie”, the film industry was taken aback.

To begin with, Nolan wants to disabuse everyone of the notion that Dunkirk is a war film. “It’s a survival story and not a combat story,” he tells the Post on a recent afternoon in his trailer at a private airport in Santa Monica, California.

Billed as an “epic action thriller”, and despite its sprawling and historical subject matter, the film achieves the rather remarkable feat of feeling intimate: the viewer is right there in the Yak-52 two-seater Soviet aircraft that doubles as a Spitfire in the aerial scenes; is underwater with drowning soldiers as they fight for their lives; and is standing on the front lines on a soggy beach, waiting for rescue.

“What we’re showing is young men going through a very traumatic experience, and the interaction between the human scale and the historical scale,” says Nolan, who will turn 47 later this month.

The Battle of Dunkirk was a seminal moment in British history. It took place in 1940, during the early months of the second world war, when some 400,000 Allied and British troops had to be evacuated from the shallow beaches of the northern French commune of Dunkerque as German forces closed in. With military ships being blasted by enemy fighter planes overhead, the British government rallied civilian boats – fishing and leisure craft – to carry troops to safety across the English channel.

Why this summer’s action blockbusters could be Oscar contenders come awards season

Nolan knew from the outset that the film would not be an easy sell: while Dunkirk is taught actively in British schools, most average people in the US know little about it. But the director didn’t have to try too hard to get the powers-that-be to come around.

“I’ve made big movies that made a lot of money for the same studio, and a lot of trust developed between us,” he says.

He adds that for a British person embarking on a British story on an American budget, there was always a risk that a studio might not let him do the film he wanted to do. “But Dunkirk is phenomenal, first and foremost. And you have to trust that that has universal appeal on some level.”

There are no Americans in the movie, admittedly, and very few “recognisable” names – unless, of course, you count singing megastar Harry Styles, formerly of the global phenomenon that was One Direction. Nolan says that he has applied the same measures to casting Styles as he has with everyone else, and that he had to set aside any preconceived notions he had of the singer’s massive global fame.

“We workshopped different scenes and different roles,” he says. “It was an old-fashioned process. But Harry earned his seat at the table. He fit the part that’s a very difficult part. It’s not showy; it’s human and real. He’s a key piece of what the film is trying to get across, and he performs it with subtlety and truthfulness, which is the best thing you can say about an actor.”

Styles, who will soon be embarking on a solo concert tour (including a stop in Hong Kong on May 5, 2018), says that he was indeed thrown into the deep end. He’d never worked on a movie before – but there he was, flung on set with thousands of extras, in some pretty grim conditions: many of the critical scenes were filmed on the original beach, often in the cold and rain.

“I didn’t want to try and overcompensate too much,” says Styles, 23, when asked if he felt conscious of his superstar status on set. “I just wanted to go in and do what Chris wanted me to do. I had no idea of what it was going to be like, so I did as I was told. I feel lucky to have been a part of it. It was humbling.”

Harry Styles’ fame was news to Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan and co-star Mark Rylance

While he has secured a household name like Styles for his cast, Nolan boldly gave the leading part in Dunkirk to Fionn Whitehead, a Londoner who was working as a dishwasher in a coffee shop in Waterloo, central London, when he auditioned. He plays Tommy, an earnest young British soldier who is one of hundreds of thousands of soldiers desperate to make it home.

“I wanted a very expressive face at the heart of the film,” Nolan says. “I got that with Fionn. I didn’t tell him too much about what to think or how to feel.”

Whitehead says that early on, the production was shrouded in secrecy, and when he auditioned he wasn’t told that it was for a particular part. “The audition process was super secretive,” he recalls. “We didn’t know the roles, or even how many roles there were. As we got further down the line, we were given scenes – and even then nobody knew if they were from the script.”

In Whitehead, Nolan says he has “a character on the screen who is really at the edge, and confronting the audience with that. There’s an openness in Fionn’s face, a quality that you care about right away and you don’t want harm to come to him.”

True to Nolan’s form of running with parallel storylines, Dunkirk is roughly segmented into three different “scenes”. One is centred around “the mole”, and takes place over the course of a week. The mole was a stone breakwater jutting out into the sea, topped with a white, wooden structure that was used to help offload ships. Parts of the original mole from the 1940s were destroyed, and had to be recreated for the film.

Hollywood tends to take 30-year-olds and pretend they’re 19 … It paints an artificial picture about what we’re doing when we send our troops away to fight
Christopher Nolan

The action then shifts to a day on the water, with Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance as the captain of a leisure vessel out to rescue the soldiers. Lastly, Nolan pivots to an hour in the air, in sweeping scenes anchored by Tom Hardy, who plays Farrier, a skilled fighter pilot fending off enemy fire.

Spider-Man: Homecoming director Jon Watts on his fanboy credentials, and the prospects of Marvel Cinematic Universe

In Dunkirk, even a star of Styles’ stature – like so many of the other cast members – is made to blend into his surroundings. Other than a few key names – Kenneth Branagh and Cillian Murphy among them – Nolan says it was his intention to populate the film with new faces.

“The real impetus was to cast unknowns, or people who hadn’t done much work before,” Nolan explains. “We looked at thousands of young people. Hollywood tends to take 30-year-olds and pretend they’re 19. That does a disservice to people who were there in war. It paints an artificial picture about what we’re doing when we send our troops away to fight. We send children.”

Dunkirk opens on July 20

Want more articles like this? Follow SCMP Film on Facebook