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Dunkirk vs. Saving Private Ryan: What is Your Screenplay About?
This week we are going to be looking at Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan.
On top of being an extraordinary cinematic experience, Dunkirk is a particularly interesting script to look at as screenwriters, because it breaks pretty much every rule that you’ve likely been told about screenwriting or about filmmaking in general, or certainly about the war movie genre.
When we think about big budget war movies, we generally think about movies like Saving Private Ryan, movies about great heroism and winning the battle against incredible odds.
And yet this is a war movie that (for the most part) isn’t about winning but about losing. This is a war movie about a retreat, about a surrender, but also about the kinds of miracles that happen when people care about each other.
This isn’t a typical Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey about one great man, one great woman who saves the world.
This is a movie about a lot of little individuals.
Some of them are behaving bravely, and some of them are behaving cowardly. Some for their own survival, and some for the survival of others.
Dunkirk is a movie that flies in the face of every traditional notion of star-power and how it’s supposed to be used in a big budget feature.
This is a movie with an American budget with no American actors and no American characters.
In fact, it features an actor in a starring role that we have never seen in a major motion picture before– who spends most of the movie, from the very first scene, simply running away!
He’s not “Saving the Cat” or behaving in any of the courageous ways we’ve been taught our main characters are supposed to behave. Not trying to help other people, but trying to save his own life in whatever manner is possible. He’s a guy who will pretend to be a Red Cross worker in order to try to sneak onto the boat that is evacuating the wounded.
And yet we are able to connect with this character, we are able to care about him; we are able to feel for him.
This is a movie that stars Tom Hardy and sticks him– for most of the film– in the cockpit of a plane and behind a mask that obscures so much of his face that we can’t even tell it is him! That takes its biggest name star and hides him from the audience that cloaks him in anonymity.
And though in some ways this is an inside joke– a nod to the recurring trend of directors covering half the face of one of the best actors in the business in roles ranging from Bane to The Road Warrior– it’s also a thematic decision — one that captures the anonymity of real heroism. That evokes the memory of the thousands of forgotten heroes of World War II and countless other wars.
Dunkirk is also a movie that ignores most of the standard rules of the war movie genre.
This is a big budget war movie with firefights shot almost entirely from the point of view of the pilots.
It’s a war movie in which planes don’t explode in spectacular fashion but rather disappear silently into the ocean. A movie in which fighter pilots are more concerned with running out of fuel than with bad-ass lines of dialogue. A movie in which we watch not from the perspective of an audience being entertained by the fireworks, but from the perspective of exactly what it feels like to be a fighter pilot in the middle of battle.
It’s an action movie in which the “good guys” don’t always win, and in which the bad guys can actually shoot. Where there are no supervillains, but no super heroes either. Where the Nazi pilots are as anonymous, and as good at their jobs, as the British ones.
It’s a movie which assembled the largest naval unit in film history, not for a spectacular battle sequence, but for a simple journey against the waves of the English Channel. A movie in which Battleships don’t participate in spectacular action sequences, but sit helplessly loaded with frightened men, only to be sunk by a single bomb from the air or torpedo from the sea.
It’s a movie in which even the good guy British soldiers are tainted by nationalistic racism and selfishness, turning French allies away from British boats, and even sacrificing the lives of their own foot soldiers to protect their air force and battleships.
Dunkirk is a movie which completely rejects the idea of exposition, or the need to explain anything to the audience.
Not only does the film lack a single memorable quip or funny line– it barely has any dialogue at all! It doesn’t tell the audience any more than the individual soldiers on the beach know, moment by moment, just as they’re learning it, and sometimes even a step or two behind.
And yet, it manages to create a compelling and convincing portrait of characters that all feel very different from each other.
It manages to tell a story about Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot character– a guy who makes a life changing decision– and to capture the feeling and the emotional import of that decision with barely a word—simply with a blown fuel gauge, a couple of chalk calculations on his fighter jet console– and a big decision at the end of the film.
It’s a journey that is not structured around big speeches and feel good American values and huge heroic choices that lead to happy endings, but rather with a series of understated little choices that play out almost in real time, and add up to one big sacrifice that plays out nearly as quietly as the ones the tiny choices that preceded it.
Dunkirk is a movie in which good characters not only die for something but sometimes die for nothing.
It’s a movie filled with ethical confusion, and also profound empathy.
A movie in which you may just have to understand that the half drowned soldier you save on your boat may be so damaged from the war that he may never be the same again. Where you may just have to understand that he may hurt someone that you love, not out of hatred, but out of terror. A movie in which the bravest choice may not be to fight but to accept the ugly truth of war.
A movie not about justice, but about acceptance. And at the same time, a movie about holding onto the values that tie us together, and the risk we all face when, in the face of our fears for our own survival, we forget to hold onto those values.
Christopher Nolan’s approach to Dunkirk’s battle sequences is a total inversion of Steven Spielberg’s unforgettably gory battle at the beaches of Normandy in Saving Private Ryan.
Dunkirk presents an equally horrifying beach battle with virtually no blood at all. Rather than capturing the horror of war through gory violence and chaos, Nolan captures the same madness through the bloodless lens of orderly bureaucracy– lining his soldiers up in orderly bureaucratic rows on the beach– silently ducking them en masse as they are bombed, slaughtered and attacked. A horror of war in which most people simply get in line– and which even the moments of individuality and self preservation which occur within that orderly slaughter are no more likely to lead to salvation than simply following the rules.
This is a movie where characters make real decisions that aren’t Hollywood at all, real decisions under pressure drawn from research about the real events– such as the character who at one point just gets up from the beach and walks into the water as if he could somehow swim the English Channel.
This is a movie about plans for escape that don’t work out. Where risky acts of inspiration, like sneaking into a beached boat and waiting for the tide to rise, only lead to another way to die.
So what is this screenplay built around that lets it break all of these rules and still succeed?
On the simplest level, it’s because audiences don’t come to movies for the things that so many screenwriting teachers, so many producers, and so many writers spend so much time obsessing over.
They don’t come for exposition. They don’t come for plot. They don’t come for nice “likeable” characters and memorable dialogue. They don’t come for formulaic structure or wrapping up everything with a bow.
Audiences come to movies to go on a journey. To experience something that moves them emotionally, and transports them into a different kind of world.
And to create that kind of experience for your audience, you only need two things.
The first is a strong sense of your own intention in making the film– the question you’re genuinely wrestling with, and the emotional journey you want to create for yourself by writing it.
And the second is a character who wants something as badly as you do– who wants something so badly they’re willing to do almost anything to get it. Who’s going to pursue that intention even in face of the biggest obstacles and most challenging consequences.
Nolan is a big fan of Hitchcock, and one of the things that Hitchcock demonstrates so clearly in his films– something forgotten by so many Hollywood filmmakers– is that you don’t have to explain very much for an audience to feel suspense or to feel connection for a character.
Simply rooting a character in their action, in their attempts to get the things they want– simply rooting the character in their physical world and letting them try to do things that are really hard– creates a feeling of connection and suspense for the audience, even if we don’t know exactly what is happening and even if we don’t agree with what the characters are doing.
And what is really cool is that Christopher Nolan, by working in this way, drops you into the feeling of the war.
Not just through the kinds of actions that the characters are taking, but also by the way that he shoots them. By creating a feeling of confusion that just washes over you.
He drops you into the experience of the war, the experience not of having a clear objective and a clear plan, but rather arriving at a beach and seeing a bunch of men lined up while bombers dive bomb them, and having to choose whether you’re going to get in line or go your own way.
He drops you into the experience of being an anonymous soldier in a terrifying situation, not knowing exactly what is happening, not knowing who one person is or who another person is, not knowing what your next step is going to be—only knowing the one you are going to take right now.
He accomplishes this by the way he shoots the movie, by the way he puts you right down on that beach, puts you right in the cockpit of the airplane.
And by doing this, he drops you into the feeling of a war, creating a structure through the choices the characters make at every moment as they try to get what they want. It’s a structure that feels like the real experience– that doesn’t feel manipulated by the director, that spoon feeds us hardly anything– and that ats the same time carries us from scene to scene through the characters eyes and through the characters choices.
Whether it is that young soldier played by Fionn Whitehead, just trying to get off that beach by any means possible…
Whether it is the character played by Mark Rylance just trying to get to Dunkirk with his boat and his two boys, to be part of the rescue effort…
Whether it is the character of the soldier who gets saved by that boat, and who, having nearly died and drowned at sea, will do anything not to return to the horror he’s escaped…
Whether it is the character of the young boy who just wants to come along on the rescue mission…
Whether it is the story of the nameless French soldier slipping on the English soldier’s uniform, and the almost wordless friendship that develops between him and Fionn Whitehead’s character as they work together to get off the beach…
Whether it is the character of Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, who simply wants to evacuate his men without losing his fleet…
Whether it is Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot who just wants to protect the battleships from those German bombers and get back to his base before he runs out of fuel…
Regardless of which character we’re following, the movie succeeds because every single character has a really strong want and a really strong how– the way that character pursues the want that’s different from any other character.
And the thing that brings all of these wants into focus is the huge obstacles that these characters are navigating.
For all the rules that Christopher Nolan breaks in Dunkirk, there is one rule he always follows: whatever can go wrong must go wrong.
This is true whether you are writing a romantic comedy, a thriller, a mystery, an action movie, or war movie like this, whether you are being silly or whether you are being serious—whatever can go wrong must go wrong.
So often, we let our characters off the hook, we let things get easy, we let the best possible thing happen, we let them be saved by coincidence. We take our foot off the gas pedal so that we can maneuver our characters to the places that we want them to go.
We make it easier for our characters and we make it easier for ourselves.
But we don’t make it better for our audiences.
And what Christopher Nolan does so brilliantly in this movie is refuse to take his foot off the gas. No matter what plan his characters come up with—something goes wrong. Whatever the worst thing that can happen, the most ironic thing that can happen, Christopher Nolan allows it to happen.
When you do that, what happens is that your characters– whether they are talking or not, whether we know what is happening or not, whether we understand the situation or not– when your characters want something really badly, and keep taking actions to get it, and the worst possible thing keeps happening, it forces your characters to keep on making decisions.
And creatively, it forces you to keep making decisions.
And those decisions create a structure for your movie, even if, as in Dunkirk, the story is just kind of washing over you.
Even if, as in Dunkirk, the action sequence are playing out almost in what feels like real time.
Even if you haven’t constructed your film like a traditional action movie.
Even if what we are really watching is just a basically repetition of the same series of events:
Guys try to get off the beach…
German bombers attack…
British bombers defend…
Battle ships get sunk…
Men get dropped into the sea…
A fleet of tiny boats tries to get to the beach…
Again and again and again, we watch it again and again and again—the same cycle.
But by allowing things to get worse and worse and worse, by allowing the worst thing to happen, by allowing the obstacle at the beginning to be outdone by the one that comes next, Christopher Nolan forces those characters to make bigger and bigger decisions, to reveal more and more of who they are.
To reveal parts of themselves that they may not even be aware exist.
So the first key: know what your character wants. The second key: allow the worst thing to happen all the time. The third key: know what you are building, even if what you are building doesn’t fit with what people expect.
In this movie, Christopher Nolan simply wants to drop you into the war and allow the war to wash over you.
And although he uses every trick in the book and all of his skills as a screenwriter and all of his skills as a filmmaker, every decision he makes from the placement of the camera, to the pace at which the sequences unfold, to the kinds of decisions the characters make, to the complete lack of exposition, to the bareness of dialogue—every single decision is made to serve that goal.
Now, knowing what you are building doesn’t mean that you know every single thing that is going to happen. It doesn’t mean outlining every beat of your screenplay. And it doesn’t even mean that you know what your movie is going to end up being about.
It means understanding what drove you to write the movie in the first place.
And in this case, Christopher Nolan came to this movie for a really clear reason. He came to this movie because he grew up with this story because this is a story that everybody in his generation in Britain grew up with. This is one of the foundational stories of the British experience of World War II.
It is a movie about victory inside of a defeat, and despite it’s lack of a single word of political moralizing, it is a political movie about what happens when we think of ourselves as a community instead of thinking of ourselves as individuals, both the beauty of that and the horror of that. When we think about our own personal responsibility or when we fail to think about it.
And of course this ends up becoming the central struggle between each of these characters.
Basically, we simply see two different kinds of decisions get made.
We see the Kenneth Branagh and the Mark Rylance and the Tom Hardy kinds of decisions, the decisions about sacrifice, and the decisions about personal responsibility.
And then we see the selfish survival decisions, the decisions that aren’t about others but simply about ourselves. And we see the effects of those decisions– sometimes the meaningless violence, sometimes sacrificing so much to get so little.
And what is beautiful is that we see all of this without judgment. Because Christopher Nolan is not trying to impose a moral on this story. For the most part, he’s not trying to tell the audience what to think or what to feel.
He’s simply exploring a theme that fascinates him in an honest way:
In the face of the horror of war, (or the horror of our current history) our desire to care for others, and our desire to protect ourselves, what are we supposed to do?
There is no judgment of any of these characters. Instead there is simply an exploration of what does it mean to be caught up in a war and what are the best and the worst things that it brings out of all of us.
To succeed in building a film that works like Dunkirk, you need to know what you’re building– and what you’re not.
You need to know what is important to you– what drew you to this project. And you have to hold onto that intention with the same kind of doggedness that your characters hold onto theirs– in the face of all the unexpected complications and consequences, and all the well-intentioned advice you will receive from so many sources.
That’s what people are talking about when they talk about your voice as a writer, or your voice as a filmmaker. And it’s the only thing that gives you any chance of succeeding in this crazy industry.
It’s easy to think that voice is some kind of fixed thing, that all of your movies need to feel the same.
But actually it’s incredibly fluid– changing as you change, growing as you grow as a writer– and as your intentions evolve from project to project.
Christopher Nolan has spoken about Dunkirk as his most experimental film yet– about how, despite it’s “real world” feeling, its structure is actually much more experimental even than that of Memento.
For Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk was about feeling the war, feeling what it is like to be caught up in the events.
So he drops you right into the middle of them and lets them wash over you.
In a strange way, Dunkirk washes over you in a far more dreamlike way than his movie that is about dreams— Inception.
It is interesting because Inception has quite an orderly structure, even though it is a movie about dreams. It’s built, as I discussed in my podcast about Inception, around the 3 step process used in hypnosis.
But Dunkirk represents another step in Christopher Nolan’s personal evolution as a writer and filmmaker.
Even though it weaves multiple stories together with the same kind of complication as Inception, the film transcends Inception’s orderly feeling of control.
Like a jazz musician riffing around a solid baseline, in Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan takes the structure he’s learned in his earlier films, and let’s go of that feeling of directorial control.
Instead, he creates a world that serves the theme that drives him– a world in which characters simply try to get what they want amidst the chaos of war, amidst the events that humanize them and bureaucratize them and that treat them like cattle and that treat them like people.
A world in which the quest for individuality can lead to heroism but can also lead to cowardice, where the need to survive can bring out the best and the worst of who we are. A world that’s very much like our world today, except with battle sequences rather than Twitter wars.
Knowing what you are building means beginning with whatever you know in your soul this is really about for you.
This is what makes Dunkirk such an interesting contrast to a film like Saving Private Ryan.
It’s not just the style or the structure that makes these two hugely successful war movies so different. It’s the intentions of the filmmakers who created them and the way those intentions guided every decision.
It’s about the answer to a simple question: “What is it about?”
Christopher Nolan wants to make a movie about war washing over you. And if you contrast this to the “what is it about?” behind Saving Private Ryan, you can see that the choices in Saving Private Ryan– from that incredibly bloody opening sequence all the way to the schmaltzy feel-good-about-being-an-American moments that constitute most of Saving Private Ryan’s structure– all grow out of the writer’s intention.
One writer is writing a movie about the beauty of heroism in the face of horror, a movie with a clear journey about the importance of one life.
And the other writer is writing a movie that is mostly anonymous faces– that is about the anonymity of war and these little choices made by people who are mostly forgotten by history, these little choices of selfishness, these little choices of heroism, these little choices of cowardice, these little choices of bravery.
These little choices that are not much different than the choices we make every day.
This is why those rare times when Dunkirk loses track of its theme, those painfully schmaltzy sequences where the great fleet arrives to save the day or the little boy’s name makes it into the paper– the sequences where we’re told how to feel– stand out so awkwardly inside the quiet poetry that is most of Dunkirk.
These same sequences would have worked perfectly in Saving Private Ryan. In fact, there are countless sequences in that film that have exactly the same feel-good, Hollywood tone, and perfectly serve the writer’s and director’s intention.
Unless we know the real purpose of what we’re building, unless we know our personal intention, it’s impossible to evaluate any creative decision. It’s impossible to know what is good, or what is bad, what can work, or what cannot, what serves the story, and what will feel like a distraction.
The “what is it about for you?” is the thing that is going to dictate every single choice that you make as a writer.
And in the best films, it will also dictate every single choice that gets made by the director, or the actors, or the producers, or the cinematographer, or the design department, or even the marketing. It always begins with “what is it about?”
And in a strange way this is really in contrast to what most of us are taught as screenwriters.
Because most of us are taught that “what is it about?” is about the hook, is about the pitch, is about the logline… that “what is it about?” is about what are you selling:
“It’s about a guy who…” or “It’s about a girl who..”
But “what is it about?” doesn’t begin with the packaging that you use to sell your movie.
“What is it about?” begins with that beautiful and broken thing in you that you want to bring onto the screen.
“What is it about?” begins with that story from your childhood that you want to understand.
“What is it about?” is about that thing with human nature that you are wrestling with.
And it is only once we find that “personal about” that we can begin to search for the “external about,” that grows from it.
It’s only then that we can begin to search for the external pitch, the external hook, the external logline that we’re going to use to get butts in seats for our film.
It is like the difference between developing a good sales pitch and then making a product that fits it. Or developing something that you think is truly beautiful and then making the package that sells it.
Christopher Nolan has a quote that I love. He was asked by Time magazine, “You are a serious filmmaker whose movies are also blockbusters, why has that become a rarity lately?”
“It is a different world than when I made Batman Begins, where I felt I was really able to express something about what I felt. Right now, individual voices in mainstream filmmaking are a little bit buried by the concept of the existing franchise which has become a very robust economic model for the studios. But I think that will change, I think that the studios have always valued freshness and new voices. Hollywood has always valued the unexpected, even if Wall Street doesn’t…”
And I think that that is a really beautiful quote and a really powerful quote to think about especially coming from such a commercially successful filmmaker.
Ultimately, your unique voice is the only thing that you can sell.
Because there are many, many, many writers who are all going to have better craft and better contacts and better agents and better managers than you do, simply because they have been doing it longer than you have.
So if you are going to break in as a new writer, that is not about doing what everybody else is doing. That is not just about having a “marketable script” or a “good idea.”
Because the truth is there are tons of those floating around Hollywood, by writers who are much more famous than you are.
What real success is about is finding the freshness of your personal voice. And that begins with the “what is it about for you?”
At the end of the day, there are millions of choices that you have to make in order to write your screenplay. And there are a million voices that you are going to hear and those voices are going to push you in a million different directions.
But at the end of the day what makes you successful is never just about your audience, which is why that exposition is never the most important thing. And it is never about your producer, which is why that logline or perfect hook is never the most important thing.
At the end of the day, it is always about that little voice in you, that little question in you that you need to wrestle with. That little voice in you that is dying to get out. That desire that you have that is driving you to write the movie in the first place.
That is the piece of you that you want to use as your guide.