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Christopher Nolan builds on suspense expertise with war epic ‘Dunkirk’

A Comfort Suites near an outlet mall 45 minutes outside Washington is not where you’d expect to find Christopher Nolan, the British director whose movies have grossed billions of dollars.

And yet here he sits neatly attired in his signature outfit — dark blazer, light-blue collared shirt, tan pants, black boots — with a hotel cup of Lipton tea at the ready, bright-eyed and prepped to talk about his new movie, “Dunkirk.”

But first: What on earth is he doing here? In fact, he’s in town for a science competition — his son’s group made it to last month’s national finals. The students aren’t around — they have cushier digs.

“And this is where the parents are staying,” Nolan says, gesturing to the room without a trace of irony.

That’s the first indication that the 46-year-old writer-director behind the “Dark Knight” trilogy, “Inception” and “Interstellar” may not be quite as bombastic as his films.

“Dunkirk” is just as loud and thrilling as those previous hits, although it’s also a stark departure. Not only is it Nolan’s first historical movie — inspired by the famous evacuation of Allied troops from the beaches of northern France in 1940 — but it is also his first pure suspense film, as he sees it, which means he had to do a fair amount of experimentation.

“I think of any of the films I’ve made really since ‘Memento,’” he says, referring to his 2000 nonlinear mind-bender, “it’s my boldest attempt to try to create a very unfamiliar rhythm for the audience.”

Well, whatever he’s doing works. From the first scene, which starts with many literal bangs, to the last image, the film is a taut nail-biter. The tension is bolstered by Hans Zimmer’s score, which integrates the sound of a ticking pocket watch as a relentless reminder of precious seconds disappearing.

Dunkirk was technically a lost battle — the British and other Allied soldiers were marooned in France, surrounded by Germans on all sides except the one where the English Channel was lapping at the shore. Meanwhile, destroyers couldn’t get close enough to the beach to rescue the men, and German “Stuka” dive bombers were buzzing overhead, dropping bombs.

England was hoping to rescue about 35,000. Instead, more than 300,000 men survived, in part because of hobby cruisers and fishermen with small boats who crossed the Channel to ferry soldiers from the shore to the ships.

Nolan knows firsthand how harrowing the trip across the Channel can be. He re-created the journey in the 1990s, along with his wife, producer Emma Thomas, and a friend with a boat. During the day, the weather turned and the Channel became rough; an eight- or nine-hour voyage ended up taking 19. It was the coldest Nolan has ever been, he recalls.

“It was an extremely intense experience — and that was with nobody dropping bombs on us,” he says. “That really cemented my view of the story, my fascination with the actual experience of it.”

Nolan tells the story from three distinct perspectives, based on fictionalized characters. The tale of the men on the beach unfolds over the course of a week through the eyes of a young soldier played by Fionn Whitehead; the adventure on the English Channel lasts a day and follows Dawson (Mark Rylance), a Brit who hopped on his small boat to rescue survivors; and we get the aerial perspective through Farrier (Tom Hardy), a fighter pilot in a Spitfire who has one hour to take out Nazi planes and protect the men on the ground and in the water. The stories interweave, hopping back and forth in time. What else would you expect from the man behind “Memento”?

Dialogue and backstory are minimal. The movie clocks in at an efficient 106 minutes, which is substantially shorter than nearly all of Nolan’s features.

“You save a lot of money on paper,” he jokes about his 76-page script, which is roughly half the length of his typical screenplays. “Dunkirk” relies on visual imagery, not conversation, to propel the story, which can be a gamble. The characters are blank slates who offer no details about the lovers they left back home, their senses of humor or their previous heroic deeds.

“My idea was that, instead of trying to explain through dialogue why we should care about them, we use the language of suspense — we use the language of the Hitchcock thriller — to create immediate empathy with the people on-screen by virtue of their physical situations,” he says.

The movie is also short because audiences can only withstand so much stress. Nolan says the entire film feels like the third act of another, longer movie — that moment when the action picks up and the dialogue falls away.

What the film lacks in words, it makes up for with sound. The alarming noise of the German planes, for example, is so shrilly terrifying, it becomes a prompt for viewers, who might start to instinctively duck each time the scream hits their ears.

“It’s a howl and it’s primal,” Nolan says of the sound, which was inspired by alarms the Germans put on their planes as a means of psychological warfare. “I think the sound in films, the idea of a signifier — of a sound that tells you something is coming — can be really effective.”

With so much emphasis on visuals, Nolan decided to reunite with “Interstellar” cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who had achieved the almost-unthinkable feat of turning an Imax camera (which weighs more than 50 pounds) into a handheld for a few scenes of that movie. For “Dunkirk,” Nolan wanted almost the entire movie shot that way.

Van Hoytema is not complaining, however. For one thing, he had help, thanks to a second person who steadied the camera after the director of photography hoisted it on his shoulder. The pair then moved together, “like two grown-up men dancing the Nutcracker,” according to Van Hoytema.

“You know, I don’t think it’s that bad,” he said in a recent phone conversation. “I’m not a very sporty person. I’m overweight and I like to drink wine, but people look at it as some sort of athletic achievement.”

It might look exciting on the screen, but that doesn’t mean it was entirely thrilling to make. Suspense, it turns out, is an exacting genre.

“The language of suspense is pedantic,” Nolan says. “At times you have to be a little boring.”

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