Dunkirk producer Emma Thomas tells Screen why she and filmmaker husband Christopher Nolan make a stellar team, and why they will strive continually to make the most cinematic projects possible.

Emma Thomas takes nothing for granted although, as a producer whose movies consistently strike gold at the box office and earn strong reviews, she could be forgiven for doing so. She never, for example, assumed her most recent film — tense, immersive war drama Dunkirk, co-produced with and directed by her husband Christopher Nolan — would be keeping her busy during awards season.

Obviously, we’re thrilled by the response, the London-born, Los Angeles-based Thomas tells Screen International during what she describes as “a bit of a breather” from her Dunkirk duties, “but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the film would reach audiences. We really hoped so, but it wasn’t the war movie people might normally expect and, with the structure being so intricate and the fact that there wasn’t a huge amount of conventional back story and dialogue, it felt like we were pushing boundaries in a way.

The result engrossed audiences across the demographic board, drawing in families as well as the 60-plus crowd (the film has grossed $526m to date). That was very gratifying for us, says Thomas. You assume that with a subject matter like this you’re going to get an older crowd, but the truth is we hit everybody. Our eldest daughter is 16 and a lot of her friends went to the cinema multiple times to see it. So it was great to reach a wide audience.

As a feature-film producer, Thomas has worked exclusively with Nolan since their very first, self-budgeted shoestring thriller Following in 1998, and the two formed their own production company, Syncopy Films, in 2001. Since 2002’s Al Pacino and Robin Williams two-hander Insomnia, all their films have been at least internationally distributed by Warner Bros. Thomas and Nolan hold, it is fair to say, a rare position in Hollywood: one where a major studio is willing to fund and distribute seemingly anything they want to make, allowing them to mount large-scale productions with minimal artistic compromise.

Yet, in the recent past, Thomas and Nolan had convinced Warner Bros to make another risky, big-budget movie based on an original script of Nolan’s — another “unusual project, as Thomas puts it, namely Inception. The 2010 sci-fi Mindbender was a Bond-Esque heist adventure set across multiple levels of dream reality, and it grossed an astonishing $825m worldwide. “Every film we’ve made for Warner Bros has worked, she says, putting Syncopy in an unusually lucky position.

If it is luck, however, then it is of their own making. Despite often shooting their films under highly challenging circumstances — Nolan’s rejection of CG environments requiring some rather adventurous location work, which was especially the case on Dunkirk’s storm-tossed shoot — they have never once gone over budget or run into extra time.

In the case of Dunkirk, that number was, at around $100m, a little over half of the budget of their previous film, space-travel epic Interstellar. Because we knew we wanted the studio to have some chance of coming into profit at a certain point! says Thomas. Although it’s easier for us than for many other filmmakers to get the budgets we get, we don’t take that lightly. We’ve been given an enormous amount of creative freedom by the studio and that comes in large part from the fact they know we’re not going to do anything crazy, financially speaking. And the other thing is, we want to keep on working.

All at sea

That work is always very hands-on for Thomas. While shooting Dunkirk, she braved the heavy weather that hit the production while shooting on the same sands that played host to the actual evacuation 76 years earlier. And she was out on the crew boats, too, while Nolan filmed on-board Moonstone, a real 1930s pleasure yacht captained in the film by Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson. We had some insanely rocky days on the water and some incredibly hard conditions on the beaches, too, she says. “Every day was relentless. But it’s all fun.