The fact that it took three years between releases makes sense when you watch how far the technology must have come, and how much the animators had to push the tech to accomplish dazzling visual moments, from a giant leaf descending upon a scared group of ants to the bullet-style sound effects of rain falling from the sky to flood the colony. Even simpler moments, like a blissful trip above leafy greens scored to Randy Newman’s soothing music, have a jaw-dropping quality to them.
Dune is one of Denis Villeneuve’s favorite books of all time, along with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. When talking about a chance at directing another big screen adaptation of the iconic source material, the director knew that getting the rights was going to be difficult. He says, “For me it was just a dream, and I guess I’m lucky that Mary Parent from Legendary got the rights and offered it to me.” Villeneuve continued by revealing, “I can’t say no to that. I have images that I am haunted by for 35 years. I will not say no to that. That’s going to be the project of my life.”
Your films have such clever twists and turns. I sometimes feel that with one more, the audience won’t be able to follow the story line. How do you keep us balancing on that tightrope?
You watch a lot of other films, and you see mistakes being made. Like too many reversals—a reversal of a reversal, so what you’re creating is flat. I spend a lot of time analyzing my response to other stories. There are masters like Alfred Hitchcock, where there’s such an extraordinarily clear control of narrative that’s inspiring. It basically teaches you to look for a rule set. You can make up your own, but it has to be internally consistent. I’ve always had a lot of faith that if the rule set is clear, the audience will come along. Inception is the furthest I’ve pushed that relationship with the audience. We trusted that if we were diligent and consistent, the audience would trust it. You don’t want to feel like a trick was played on you a little too obviously.
The only useful definition of narrative is that it’s a controlled release of information. The way in which you release that information is all up to you.
You do very easily get lost in your own ideas, or your own enthusiasm. As a writer-director, I try to wear different hats. I try to write just as a writer, and then try and read it with some degree of objectivity. Obviously then there are people you trust, but the goal in mind is not total objectivity. What you’re really looking for is passion. I’m not an engineer; I’m not building a bridge. When you’re crafting a narrative for the cinema, you have to really love it. You have to believe in it as an audience member. I find filmmaking very difficult emotionally. I don’t want to moan, because it’s the best job in the world, but I do find it difficult. It’s very tough to be passionate about something that’s already been done. When you know how hard it is to make a large-scale blockbuster, the idea of doing it again in the same way takes a lot out of you. If you make something that you really love, there’s going to be something of value.
We’ve all been encouraged to follow our passion, but if we want to take that advice, we have to find our passion. How have you done that?
I think the thing with passion is that it has to find you rather than you finding it. For me, it’s all about trying new things. If you’re going to write, you want to read a lot before you write, without any purpose. I love watching TV, love watching movies, preferably with no sense of purpose. Just being open to things that might inspire you—and staying open.
The distinguishing feature of Dunkirk is the coming together of a community. It’s a little surprising that no one has told the story in modern cinema. As a filmmaker, you’re always looking for that gap.
You’ve come a long way since the early ’90s—you once described those years as a “stack of rejection letters.” How did you stay motivated?
What I learned very early on, and I’m very grateful for the lesson, is that I could only be making films for the sake of making films. To only engage in telling a story for the process of telling the story, not for the gold star at the end. It’s tricky. You grow up in school getting grades on papers, and then you get out into the real world and realize that no one is even going to grade your paper.
You have to cross into this world of just pleasing yourself, just doing something because you want to do it. It was a very valuable lesson. The truth is you have to hang on to your own belief. At the end of the day, all you really have is your own belief, your own passion. You can’t ignore the feedback. But you tell the story because you love it.
No, not really. There are a few models, particularly literary. The one example I like to use is a book by Graham Swift called Waterland, which is a fantastic book I read when I was a kid. Swift constructs the story in a nonlinear fashion that’s entirely clear and consistent and interesting, so I’ve certainly grown up feeling that there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to present the cinematic narrative in whatever form is most interesting. But I try not to have conscious cinematic references in mind when I’m figuring out what to do or how to do it, simply because I think it’s restricting. Not because you’re copying—probably more likely because you’d be afraid to copy, that you wouldn’t do stuff—and, to me, any kind of filmmaking that’s reactive is not going to be as good as something more inventive and original.
Studios used to be much better at making these kinds of movies. Take Strangers On A Train, for example, in which the guy at the center of it is sympathetic and a good man, and you’ve invested a lot in him, but he’s compromised and therefore trapped, and you’re kind of trapped with him.
In truth, television works in such a way that each episode can end with what in a movie would be a second-act twist. They never have to land the plane, essentially. So you get series that run for years and years and then they try to end it and everyone complains about the way they ended it.
The thing about cinema is it’s a very different medium. Yes, it has photographic cameras, actors speaking, it has music and it’s on a screen, but it’s the ending that defines the experience.
We’ve always had TV movies, we’ve always had miniseries, we’ve always had straight-to-video movies. We’re making movie for the theater. And theatrical experience isn’t just about the size of the screen or the technology behind, although that’s a big part of it. It’s about an audience, the shared experience. What cinema gives you, unlike any other medium, is this fascinating and wonderful tension and combination of dialogue between this intensely subjective experience you’re having of the imagery the filmmaker has put up there, and this extraordinarily empathetic sharing of that with audience around you. It’s a remarkable medium for that and that’s what defines it. What’s a movie? The only definition of a movie, really, is it’s shown in a movie theater.
Every film I make is an attempt to get back to something I enjoyed first as a child. I think Pauline Kael said it very wonderfully about sitting there and the lights go down and the audience’s hopes are concentrated up there on the screen. It’s just a magical moment as a film begins. These larger-than-life and extraordinary worlds I was shown as a kid, films like ’2001′ or ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ as a filmmaker, to me, that’s got to be your ambition: to try to give someone that feeling.
Filmmakers all come to cinema through Hollywood, wherever they’ve come from in the world. They’ve seen those movies. As we enter into cinema as independent filmmakers, I think somewhere in the back of your mind as a filmmaker, certainly for me, there’s always this feeling that the highest aspiration when cinema is working at its absolute best is when it’s a grand-scale film that really works and does something you haven’t seen before. That for me is always the brass ring.
AP: But you saw the kind of suspense you wanted in ‘Wages of Fear.’
Nolan: ‘Wages of Fear,’ I think, is a tremendous example of that. Hitchcock as well has numerous examples of that. But it was even Jan de Bont’s ‘Speed,’ films that had attempted to really shift the feeling of time. And George Miller’s ‘Mad Max: Fury Road,’ as well. I was in the middle of writing the script when I saw that film and I took confidence from it. I took comfort from it. It’s not dissimilar in terms of the modulation I’m talking about. What if you made an entire film that was a car chase? Or Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Gravity,’ for example. There are examples that have pushed in the direction I was talking about.
Meanwhile, Chris was getting on with his movies. Having graduated in 1993, he continued to surreptitiously (not that anyone minded or noticed) hang out at the film society. Actually, “hang out” is the wrong expression – he worked ferociously hard, was super-focused and was teaching himself whatever little he didn’t already know about the sheer mechanics and technology of cameras and film-making.
I remember stumbling in one afternoon to find Chris and a couple of others composing a special-effects shot, which seemed to involve shooting through a large Pyrex baking bowl. I don’t know now whether that ended up in Larceny or Doodlebug – two of his early shorts.