Dunkirk writer/director Christopher Nolan says he considered filming his World War II epic without a script. Dunkirk is the 10th feature film from the acclaimed filmmaker, who’s once again defied convention by convincing Warner Bros. to release a war film – usually the type of movie to be released during awards season in the fall – during the summer and fending off lighter popcorn film fare to snare the top slot at the domestic box office, in its first two weeks of release.
The risk has clearly paid off, as the film has not only has a running total of $112.6 million in domestic ticket sales and $153.1 million overseas (for a global cume of $265.7 million), it’s a critical hit and already has significant Oscar buzz.
As different as Dunkirk is from its summer film competitors (to begin with, the story of the attempt to rescue 400,000 Allied soldiers stranded at Dunkirk Beach in France in 1940 is told from the air, the land, and the sea), it appears that the film could have been even more unique. THR reports that in the published screenplay for the film, Nolan tells his brother and frequent collaborator, Jonathan, in an interview, that he felt comfortable enough going without a script for the film, saying:
“I got to a point where I understood the scope and movement and the history of what I wanted the film to address, because it’s very simple geography.”
Nolan reportedly approached his wife, producer Emma Thomas, with the idea, as well has his longtime production designer Nathan Crowley, saying, “I said, ‘I don’t want a script. Because I just want to show it,’ it’s almost like I want to just stage it. And film it.” Explaining his departure from a narrative driven emotionally by dialogue, Nolan explained, “I felt like I’d kind of mastered that form.”
However, Nolan noted the idea of filming without a script didn’t last long, saying, “Emma looked at me like I was a bit crazy and was like, okay, that’s not really gonna work.”
In the end, it appears Nolan somewhat got his wish, since Dunkirk features very little dialogue in comparison to the other films in his impressive body of work. His script, which was reportedly written “very, very quickly,” is a mere 76 pages long, which clearly explains why Dunkirk is one of Nolan’s shortest films at 1 hour and 46 minutes.
While Dunkirk appears to be a shoo-in contender in many major Oscar categories (including Best Picture and Best Director), it will be interesting to see how Academy voters consider the film’s script for Best Original Screenplay. Captured through the film’s stunning cinematography, there’s no question that Dunkirk is largely driven by its powerful imagery, sound, and silent acts of desperation by the soldiers as they struggle to survive; so with any luck, voters will consider the story as a whole and not judge the screenplay’s merits on dialogue alone. It’s simply too unique of an achievement to ignore.
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