I elected to see Dunkirk with my friend Anna at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, reasoning that it was showing there in 70mm (though not IMAX) and should be seen on the biggest screen in town (83 feet wide). There must have been at least a thousand people in there, all rapt, but the venue can safely be called a mistake. Nothing has been made in Cinerama since 1956, so whatever they project onto the screen ends up in a big U-shape. Nevertheless, I was very pleased to have seen it, and would again at a more appropriate venue.
We drank for hours, here eager to hear my behind-the-scenes story, which I had been legally prohibited from expressing to anyone, not even my own mother, for nearly a year.
“First of all,” I said. “There’s no CGI imagery.” This wasn’t technically true as there was quite a bit of CGI compositing in the air and sea sequences, but there were no CGI-original elements; everything you see on camera down to the last puff of smoke was a real thing that existed.
Anna was taken aback. “All that water was real!?” She said. I laughed. She had no idea.
Thus far, the most interesting occurrence was Fionn expressing his disdain for the American casting system. “They all say ‘be British or Australian or have 100,000 followers on Instagram.’” Wading back into the acting game would make it clear that he wasn’t joking, and even though he was a beneficiary of this very attitude, his sympathy was appreciated by all within earshot. This guy was alright. But mostly we stood around for five hours, recreating the same scene over and over, eating real bread and jam (an oddity in filmmaking), keeping to ourselves while Fionn and Harry contemplate some bloke out on deck, and cheering when the lights flickered and the ship’s engines revved up. The very realistic-sounding and realistic-feeling engines. This should have been a sign of what was to come, as should have been the totally immersive set and real food, or the fact that this was Christopher Nolan, auteur of the alluring lie, but none of us had ever experienced what was about to happen.
Nolan spoke to us after lunch. “We’re going to warn you,” he said, “the lights will flicker, and that’s a sign to get ready. At this point in the film, a torpedo comes and hits the ship, and water will come out everywhere. So be prepared to get wet. This is some very new technology.”
We had an idea what this meant. It explained the hydraulics attached to the ship. There would be a slight roll, we play-act like it’s something bigger, no use in getting us hurt.
First rehearsal, the set was hit by a fucking torpedo. Everyone lurched forward about a meter forward and to the left, the crush of each other’s bodies and equipment all that kept us from falling on our feet, as water poured in from an impact crater had suddenly appeared in the hull. Being near the front, I only got about ankle deep before the water receded into two narrow columns of grates in the floor concealed beneath our persons. The rehearsal ended, and everyone applauded– soldiers, nurses, people with blockbuster experience but nothing like this. And we did over for seven hours. They used one of the early takes, possibly the first, because in the scene (and the trailer) you can see my head turning to face the front, which means I looked back in amazement to check out the oncoming rush of water.
Most of Dunkirk had been filmed at this point– production began in May in France, with water stuff in the Zuiderzee and bits in England, so all they had to do now were effects sequences in the studio. Needless to say, nobody on set but Chris and Hoyt knew what the entire finished product would be, but I think everyone had some idea. I personally pictured a Nolan version of A Bridge Too Far– big cast, multiple points of view, extensive practical effects. But A Bridge Too Far, like most big WWII movies from the ’60s and ’70s, was still trying to be The Longest Day. The torpedo incident was my first suspicion that this film, at the moment still best known for catching a dopey smiling extra in its teaser trailer, maybe something more singular, as long as it was actually good and people went to see it.
In any case, I understood to some extent what Nolan was trying to do. By putting his name on a serious piece of history, Dunkirk was an attempt to revive popular interest in serious subject matter through the medium of populist cinema, which was a pretty good strategy, a great one for a guy who had a proven record of doing that, and a lucky one for the year that also made a hit out of Get Out. 2016 had been a bad year for blockbusters and a good year for the unexpected. If Dunkirk was to accomplish what Nolan wanted, it had to be anticipated.
Anna was ready to talk about it the moment we got out of the theater. I wasn’t. I’m not comfortable talking about a movie until I’ve had a drink or eaten something, when I can speak directly to the other person. But she couldn’t help herself. She strongly felt that this was something I needed to see. I was a month from fleeing the only country I had ever lived in, hedging my bets, and feeling rather guilty when my Californian cohorts were going on about Resistance and collecting 200 Nazi scalps by the year’s end. To her, Dunkirk was a potent sign that I was not, in fact, a coward.
But I was just quietly shocked. The posters had been everywhere, on the sides of buildings in Hollywood. That British kid was on every one of them. The ad campaign sponsored the MLB All-Star Game. My mother called people and told them to watch. I had only been an extra, but nothing like this had ever happened before. But it did happen, and that meant it could again.
The second day of filming necessitated putting on a wetsuit for the first time in my life. The deck on Tuesday was mostly submerged, and we were expected to spend the day neck-deep in the increasingly foul water. Everybody freaked out…but also wanted to be in the movie. I ended up not being used that day, and merely sat there, in a wetsuit, in August, my makeup melting off and burning my eyes (I finally went to the bathroom to sneak a selfie. I have a pair of scissors to cut a hole in the wetsuit to pee out of). Nor was I chosen to return for the rest of the week. And for one of very, very few times as an extra, drenched, dirty, aching, I dearly wished I had been.
This is what I hinted ad when I said television was the least-fun. With TV, it doesn’t matter if you’re on your favorite show, the low pay and poor treatment totally kills your interest until sleep deprivation sets in and makes you feel drunk– unless you’re also suffering hypothermia, a common occupational hazard for actors, in which case you just want to die.
With movies, though, even if you’re still only making minimum wage, you have a sense of being part of something constructive, and for a moment it stops just being a job and becomes entertainment in itself. If Christopher Nolan’s movies have taught me anything, it’s that he is terrified of drowning. And yet he was down there with everybody else, shooting everyone in the rushing water as the lights went out, their blood-curdling screams echoing through the soundstage over and over for hours. If he can’t say no to that, how can you?
To be continued…