Dunkirk movie boosts France’s filming profile
Christopher Nolan’s new movie Dunkirk was filmed on location in northern France, in Holland and in the UK.
The film tells the story of the infamous evacuation of nearly 340,000 Allied soldiers from France’s northern coast in mid-1940 as German forces closed in.
Nolan had not initially considered an actual Dunkirk location shoot to be a necessity for the film, but changed his mind when he scouted the harbour town.
“The reality of the place and the unique quality of its geography made it inevitable that we would film there, whatever the challenges might be,” Nolan says.
Back in 1940, the Allied soldiers adapted a stone breakwater known as a ‘mole’ that reached out into the sea from the beach at Dunkirk. They built a wooden structure on top of the mole to facilitate access to the ships and boats that came to rescue them from England, as the water was too shallow closer to the beach.
“We had to rebuild the mole because it’s a distinctive feature of Dunkirk,” says Emma Thomas, Nolan’s longtime producer. “The soldiers crowded onto this narrow breakwater, which, when you see photos, is an amazing visual.”
The team recruited city authorities in Dunkirk, as well as the port authority, port engineers and dredging companies to help restore the original mole and extend it by 500 feet. After that they had to convince boat owners to moor against a film set, as Nolan was keen – as always – to shoot as much of the mole footage practically rather than rely too much on visual effects.
Poor weather conditions became the next challenge, with the location struck by storms despite the summer shoot.
“The sea was pretty rough,” says Nathan Crowley, the film’s production designer.
“The only plus was that every time the water peeled boards off the mole, it would always deposit them on the same bit of beach. So we knew where all our parts were and could go and get them and put them back on – it was a constant repair job.”
Part of Dunkirk’s narrative follows the crew of the Moonstone, depicted as one of the many smaller boats that sailed to France to assist with the massive rescue operation.
These scenes were set on the open water but were mostly filmed on Ijsselmeer, a lake near Amsterdam in the Netherlands that offered a more controllable environment as a shallow, non-tidal body of water.
To film effectively on the 14-foot-deep lake, Nolan’s team used a specialist piece of equipment called the Edge – a massive gyro-stabilised camera crane mounted on a catamaran that was capable of carrying the larger IMAX equipment that Nolan favours for big visuals.
Dunkirk also follows the rescue mission from the perspective of Spitfire pilots who provided air cover as the Allied soldiers on the beach found themselves at the mercy of the Luftwaffe. One of the biggest challenges was filming IMAX visuals from the confined Spitfire cockpits.
The team accomplished this by adapting the IMAX cameras with periscope-style lenses that could be inserted into the Spitfires to shoot the pilot’s point of view during dogfights.
Two-seater Soviet Yak-52 aircraft were dressed as Spitfires to accommodate separate rigs with camera platforms for filming pilot close-ups.
Aerial passing shots of the dogfights were filmed from a helicopter, while the much faster Aerostar camera plane was used to shoot footage at higher speeds parallel to the vintage aircraft.
Overall, the team filmed on location in France for three days, hiring 1,800 extras through the course of the shoot.
“Dunkirk benefited from the 30% Tax Rebate for International Productions,” says Valerie Lepine-Karnik, CEO of Film France, in comments to KFTV. “This film is one of the first to be allocated the reformed 30% tax rebate in 2016. In the same year international investments tripled.”
Indeed, production spending in France reached €152m in 2016, an increase of nearly €100m on the previous year, according to Film France figures.
The Dunkirk shoot is likely to be a big boost for France’s international profile and showcases the country’s ability to host large, technically-challenging productions.
Images: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc/Ratpac-Dune Entertainment