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.