‘Dunkirk’ Producer on Why a “Peculiarly British Story” Resonated With Global Audiences

“It’s a survival story, and that’s something that anyone can watch and understand,” says Emma Thomas of her and husband Christopher Nolan’s intense WWII epic.

Over the course of 10 films, Emma Thomas, 46, and husband Christopher Nolan, 47, have established themselves as one of the most successful producing-directing duos in Hollywood. The pair, who met at Cambridge University, where they made short films together as students, earned their second best picture nomination (following 2010’s Inception) for Dunkirk, which follows the British forces’ efforts to rescue stranded Allied soldiers during World War II. Thomas talked to THR about the film’s appeal, how the awards experience has changed for her and whether she’ll be more nervous for the best picture announcement or the one in the best director category, where Nolan is nominated.

Dunkirk has become the highest-grossing World War II movie ever. Why do you think it’s resonated so much with audiences?

It’s a very elemental story, and it’s a global story, even though it’s a peculiarly British story and very much in its period. Ultimately, what it comes down to is it’s a survival story, and that’s something that anyone can watch and understand. In many ways, all the things that Chris decided to do early on that at the time felt very unconventional and different — not having characters whose backstories we know, not having a great deal of dialogue — in many ways that sort of helped people relate to the story of these characters and really empathize with their plights.

Is part of the appeal that in this age of social media disconnection, it’s a story about the bonds of war?

It’s something that preoccupies us all massively at this point. We’re all coming to realize what we’ve lost in a way with the advances in technology and fragmentation of our social bonds. It’s also about people power, people who know what’s right and necessary and are doing everything within their power to make it happen. The truth is, if you look at it on paper, there’s no way in which the British army and its allies should have been victorious after the disaster that was Dunkirk but for the heroic bravery of a bunch of ordinary people who weren’t even trained for war. That’s something we could see as inspiring: The smallest actions taken by a lot of people can have global effects. That’s a real lesson to relate to our time.

How have you changed as a producer over your career?

The biggest difference in the way I am as a producer now versus the way I was on even, frankly, the small films with Chris that I made in college is probably about confidence. It’s about having faith to do the things we set out to do with the benefit of experience of making films that have, due to Chris’ ever-increasing ambition, become bigger in scale and harder.

You were first nominated for Inception in 2011. How has your Oscar experience changed? 

It’s just as exciting now as it was the first time, to be honest. We felt enormously lucky to be nominated then; we feel equally so this time. It’s a really special thing, and I think that the first time we were like, “Wow, this might be the only time in our lives this will happen. This is amazing.” I feel the same way now, so it’s all good.

During awards season, what are the advantages and disadvantages of being married to your collaborator?

It’s exactly the same as going through any film with each other. The fun is experiencing the highs together. You experience a lot together, and it’s nice to have each other for support. Actually there’s one thing that has changed and is quite different with us on this film versus Inception: Not only is he nominated as my fellow producer, but he’s also got a directing nomination, which I couldn’t be happier about. I could have made an argument for all his films prior to this, but I’m really very happy for him that he got nominated as the director on this because it was an incredible feat.

Will you be more nervous for best picture or best director then?

There’s no question I’ll be absolutely more nervous when they announce best picture because if he gets director, it’ll be fabulous, and I’ll get to sit and watch him speak. If in some crazy scenario we manage to win best picture, I would have to walk up on the stage, and that concept terrifies me, so there is no question I’ll be more nervous because of that.

Should this year’s Oscar producers find a way to address the Time’s Up/#MeToo movement during the ceremony?

I have no doubt that it’ll be top of mind for everybody at the awards, and I think that’s a good thing. I’m very pleased that change is coming. It’s well overdue. I hope that it isn’t the only thing we’re remembering because today more than any other day I think the films that we make — in terms of letting people escape from the realities of everyday life, in terms of telling stories from other perspectives that can educate as well as entertain us — that’s really important.

Other than your own, do you have a favorite film that’s in the Oscar race this year?

This is really hard. It’s an amazing group of movies. There are two that I would point to as being just films that transported me: Phantom Thread, I absolutely loved. That world enveloped me. And Call Me by Your Name — it just really captures the 1980s in Europe so perfectly, which is heaven for me, and I think the performances are spectacular. And Lady Bird, too. There’s just so many great movies.

This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.