In 1944, almost three million Allied troops descended on Normandy in a fight to beat back the German army and liberate Europe from the grip of Nazism. The human sacrifice was catastrophic but the invasion was the beginning of the end for Hitler.
What inspired you to tell the story of D-Day?
I've always found there's a huge disconnect between the incredible endeavours of our veterans, and the lack of attention which the present generation gives them. We think of old veterans boring kids with stories of the war, but really we should be listening intently to what they have to say. And, for me, the D-Day film was an opportunity to bring the real stories of these amazing people to a big audience. I wanted to really emphasise the immediacy of the memories – for the veterans, D-Day is not in the past. The events of the war are still happening in their minds. They never stop happening. And that's what I wanted to convey using drama.
Was it difficult to research such a momentous event?
We researched for 18 months, spending lots of time at the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum. In fact, my head of research did so much work he ended up writing a book that was published by the War Museum.
The most important thing we did was interview veterans. There's an old saying that "everyone's war is 100 yards wide" – in other words, the war was very different for everyone, and their stories can indeed clash and contradict each other. You can talk to four people and they have very different opinions and thoughts on the same exact situation, such as D-Day. So it's a question of putting together pieces of the jigsaw, ironing out the facts and reconciling different accounts. The most satisfying moment of it all was watching the finished film with the veterans and one of them shaking my hand and saying "Thank you very much. That's what it was like. Now I can show people what I did."
Where did most of the filming take place? Did you go to Normandy?
We were all over the place. Some of it was filmed at an army base in Surrey, we filmed the Omaha Beach sequences in Devon, and the bits set in the Normandy countryside were actually made in Normandy.
One of the best moments was going to a castle which served as the headquarters of the famous German field marshall Rommel, the "Desert Fox". One of the veterans we interviewed had actually been interrogated by Rommel in the castle, and we took him to the very room it happened in. We filmed his reaction to being back in that room, and intercut it with a dramatic reconstruction of the interrogation with an actor playing his younger self. It was a very powerful juxtaposition, though I do say so myself!
Did any other moments of the filming really stick out for you?
Yes, there was another very moving moment when we got in touch with a veteran who was just 14 at the time – having lied about his age to join the war. His moment of glory came a few weeks before D-Day when some Allied ships came under attack by German torpedo boats off the coast of Dorset. Over 600 Allied soldiers were killed, but this 14-year-old boy took a small boat out and personally saved over 40 soldiers. It was such an incredible feat of bravery, and these 40 men went onto meet every single year on the boy's birthday.
We managed to track the hero down and take him right back to the place where he saved the men, and it's one of the best moments of the film in my opinion
Were you influenced by previous films about D-Day?
We knew that the audience would be expecting scenes as huge and vivid as the ones they'd seen in previous things like Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. The problem for us was that we had a far tighter budget than the likes of Spielberg, but we couldn't very well not show the D-Day landings. So our answer was to show the beach conflict solely from the point of view of Robert Capa, the man who took the only surviving photographs of the assault. Doing it from his point of view meant we didn't have to film a very expensive, all-encompassing view of the D-Day battle – we narrowed the field of vision to just one man, Capa. Pretty cunning, eh?