Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has been likened to silent films and noted for its minimalism thanks to its near lack of dialogue.
But the director initially wanted to go further than that. Nolan originally considered shooting his World War II film without a script.
The revelation comes via a conversation between Nolan and his brother Jonathan, published with the Dunkirk screenplay (now available for purchase). The director's brother interviews him, and the filmmaker says while doing research for the film he became so immersed in the details that he felt comfortable in thinking a script-free approach could work.
“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 says.
By that point, frequent collaborator/production designer Nathan Crowley was already attached to the project. Nolan came to Emma Thomas, his wife and producing partner, and Crowley with the idea.
“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," Nolan said.
For the writer-director of Inception and Interstellar, films heavy with exposition, such an approach seems completely abnormal. But the proposed departure was intentional.
“I felt like I’d kind of mastered that form,” Nolan says in regard to films driven emotionally by dialogue.
However, Thomas was quick to shoot down the idea.
“Emma looked at me like I was a bit crazy and was like, okay, that’s not really gonna work,” Nolan recounts. He conceded.
The script, which Nolan says he wrote “very, very quickly,” came after thorough planning of the film’s three timeline structure. It’s also one of Nolan’s shorter scripts, coming in at 76 pages.
For those who want more of Nolan’s layered and thought-provoking work, however, he does offer some reassurance. “I will be coming back to dialogue.”