Christopher Nolan: “Oppenheimer is one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever taken on in terms of scale”

Exclusive: Christopher Nolan discusses how he recreated the first nuclear weapon explosion without the aid of computer graphics for Total Film.

Cillian Murphy on set of Oppenheimer
Cillian Murphy on set of Oppenheimer (Image credit: Universal)

Christopher Nolan is a master of realistic filmmaking. Examples include The Dark Knight’s truck flip, Tenet’s genuine 747 sequence, and Interstellar’s spacecraft sets with starry exteriors projected outside the windows in place of the customary bluescreen. With the release of his next film Oppenheimer, which is about the man who made a substantial contribution to the development of the atomic bomb, the director has had more possibilities to work on talking-point sequences without the use of CGI.

It was a difficult task, says Nolan in the upcoming 2023 Preview issue of Total Film(opens in new tab), “to recreate the Trinity test [the first nuclear weapon detonation, in New Mexico] without the help of computer images.” “Andrew Jackson, my visual effects supervisor, who I brought on board early, was looking at how we could do a lot of the visual elements of the film practically, from representing quantum dynamics and quantum physics to the Trinity test itself, to recreating, with my team, Los Alamos up on a mesa in New Mexico in extraordinary weather, much of which was needed for the film, in terms of the very harsh conditions out there – there were huge practical challenges.”

You should set aside any preconceived ideas you may have about a historical biopic. Nolan describes the narrative as having “immense scope and scale.” And it was among the most difficult tasks I’ve ever undertaken in terms of its scope and the depth of Oppenheimer’s narrative. The logistical and practical difficulties were significant. However, I had a fantastic crew who did an outstanding job. We’re not going to be done for a while. I must admit, though, that as I wait for the results and as I edit the movie, I’m really proud of what my team has accomplished.

Despite Oppenheimer’s novelty, key Nolan preoccupations should still be present because they have always been central to his work. These themes—the subjective experience of reality and inquiries into the nature of time—as well as his frequently daring structural choices—are all recurring elements of his narratives. The same can be said about Oppenheimer.

The goal, according to Nolan, is to “convey the story of someone’s life, and their journey through both personal history and more general history.” Therefore, I place a lot of importance on the story’s subjectivity. Through Oppenheimer’s eyes, we want to see these occurrences. In order to take us on this adventure, that was Cillian’s task. It was also Hoyte van Hoytema’s, my designer’s, and my team’s task to figure out how to interpret this remarkable story from the perspective of the person who was at its center. On that true concept, we built all of our choices about how to make the movie.

The movie Oppenheimer premieres on July 21, 2023. Nolan goes into great depth about Oppenheimer, which he calls “a story of huge scope and scale,” in the most recent issue of Total Film, which goes on sale this Thursday, December 15. It’s a complete introduction to a historical biopic unlike any other, covering everything from the choice of Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. to the innovative use of large-format black and white film to the cinematic attraction of Oppenheimer.

With a comprehensive 2023 Preview that anticipates the greatest movies of the following year, Total Film’s Oppenheimer coverage begins. Additionally, a special 52-page supplement ranking the top movies, must-see events, and breakout stars of 2022 is included in the print edition of this new issue.

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