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Christopher Nolan didn't want 'Dunkirk' to compete with 'Saving Private Ryan'

"Dunkirk" director Christopher Nolan (front right) and crew on set.
Warner Brothers
"Dunkirk" director Christopher Nolan (pointing) on set.
Warner Bros.
"Dunkirk" director Christopher Nolan on set with actors Harry Styles (left) and Fionn Whitehead.
Warner Brothers
Director Christopher Nolan and actor Kenneth Branagh on the set of "Dunkirk."
Warner Bros.

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It may be hard to believe, but director Christopher Nolan has never been nominated for an Academy Award.

Could that change this year with his World War II film, "Dunkirk"? Only time will tell, but there’s no question that "Dunkirk" is a feat of filmmaking. And it’s coming back to theaters on Dec. 1.

The movie is based on the true story of the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940, when hundreds of thousands of British, Belgian and French soldiers were surrounded on an open beach by the German Army. A flotilla of small private boats crossing the English Channel managed to get most of them home safely.

Telling a true story was a first for Nolan, who’s known for fictional films like "The Dark Knight," "Interstellar" and "Inception."

Though "Dunkirk" is a war movie, we never see the battle from the German point of view, and the story never gets into any of the soldiers’ backstories.

The result is a truly immersive and immediate experience, especially if you see it as the director intended, in 70 millimeter IMAX.

Nolan recently stopped by The Frame to talk about the making of "Dunkirk."

Interview Highlights: 

On telling the story and building suspense without any exposition:

The geography of the story is incredibly simple: You've got 400,000 men on one beach, they're trying to get home across a body of water, 26 miles, the enemy's closing in on all sides. So you have that advantage that you're dealing with a very, very simple situation that's very paradoxical. I think that movies, particularly suspense films, they're very very good about dealing with paradox, about seeing this impossible situation, putting a ticking clock on it, and wondering how are the protagonists going to get out of this situation. Or indeed are they?

On studying "Saving Private Ryan":

When I looked at "Saving Private Ryan," which Steven Spielberg very generously lent me his own print of, we all watched this film to see where we were going to exist in relationship to it, in a way. That's a film that has lost none of its savage power, it's truly an unsettling experience to sit through. What I realized is, firstly, I didn't want to compete with that because it's frankly too good, but also it's a different kind of suspense. That's horror. We needed the language of suspense, and that's a language whereby you can't take your eyes off the screen.

On avoiding war movie tropes:

It was a plan to really only show the audience the things the characters could know and experience. We were very, very rigid in that. We were so rigid that when we came to plan the aerial sequences, and I was talking about the aerial unit about the different camera mounts, they then said, OK, what camera mounts do you want on the German planes? I said I [didn't] want any, and they said we should do some just in case. And I said I [wanted] to see this only from the point of view of the British pilot in the spitfire. If you build these camera mounts, we'll use them and we'll get great shots and I'll be tempted to use them. I'd rather not have the option. 

On using the sounds of ticking clocks to build suspense:

It was a very early part of where I wanted to go creatively. In fact, the very first teaser trailer that came out when we just started shooting is based on this recording that I made of a watch that I have that has this very persistent ticking. I asked [composer] Hans [Zimmer] to start building tracks from it. That double-time ticking is such an insistent sound, but it really was a balancing act over months of, How much is too much? How much is too irritating? So you're trying to pitch these sounds just on the level of consciousness ... one way that we did that was by having [sound editor] Richard [King] give the music department his engine tracks for the boats, so that they could be put into exact rhythm with the music and with this ticking clock ... Everything is in sync. It's the furthest we've gone with the tight synchronization or the inextricable linking of sound, music and picture ... that's one of the reasons why the film is short. I sort of realized that it would  be exhausting for an audience to maintain for too long. 

This is just a partial transcript of the conversation. Click the play button at the top left to hear the whole interview!

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