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FILM FACTS: 10 Things to Know About “Oppenheimer”

Get to know the atomic bomb’s architect in "Oppenheimer" with these 10 explosive facts.

It’s been days since “Oppenheimer” hit the big screens, and it’s already creating a nuclear reaction amongst film enthusiasts worldwide. If you haven’t watched it yet, or you’re still hyped from the viewing, we’ve compiled a list of fun and fascinating facts about the film that explores the life of the man behind the world’s deadliest weapon.

Cillian Murphy is J. Robert Oppenheimer in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan.

1. A Visionary’s Tale Brought to Life 

“Oppenheimer” is yet another testament to Christopher Nolan’s penchant for audacious storytelling, characterized by its exploration of unlikely heroes and grand ideas. Nolan, an Oscar-nominated writer-director known for pushing the boundaries of cinematic narratives, takes on his most ambitious project yet with “Oppenheimer”. Driven by a compelling narrative inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Nolan aims to transport the audience into the heart of a momentous historical shift. As Nolan puts it, “Like it or not, J. Robert Oppenheimer is the most important person who ever lived. He made the world we live in, for better or for worse. And his story must be seen to be believed.” Known as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” Oppenheimer’s work has left an indelible imprint on human civilization. Nolan, acclaimed for his gripping narratives and the depth of his character studies, turns his lens towards this scientific titan. Viewers will not only witness the unfolding of a historic era but also experience the inner workings of a mind that has shaped our present and future.

2. Breaking Ground in Cinematic Technique

“Oppenheimer” raises the bar in film production by employing an innovative mix of IMAX® 65mm and 65mm large-format film photography. For the first time in cinematic history, the movie includes segments shot using IMAX® black and white analogue photography. This trailblazing approach provides a unique visual experience, setting a new standard in film aesthetics. As a product of a highly decorated production team that includes Oscar® nominees Emma Thomas and Charles Roven, as well as renowned director Christopher Nolan, “Oppenheimer” is destined to add a significant chapter to the epic narrative of cinema.

3. The Birth of “Oppenheimer” – Embracing the Terrible Possibility

While crafting “Oppenheimer”, director Christopher Nolan drew deeply from the well of fear that the scientists of the Manhattan Project faced. They were dealing with what J. Robert Oppenheimer himself called “the terrible possibility” – the slight chance that igniting the first atomic bomb could incinerate the entire planet’s atmosphere. Despite this looming dread, they “pushed the button” and forever altered human history. Nolan’s desire was to transport the audience into the room where that fateful decision was made, to let them feel the palpable tension and the consequentiality of that moment. This raw, riveting exploration of the ethical dilemmas and paradoxes faced by Oppenheimer, set against the backdrop of one of humanity’s most destructive inventions, provides the film with a compelling narrative core. The aim was to balance a subjective portrayal of Oppenheimer’s journey with an objective look at the seismic impact of his actions. Interestingly, scenes told from Oppenheimer’s perspective are filmed in color, whilst segments focusing on Lewis Strauss, another key player in shaping America’s nuclear policy, are presented in black and white.

4. A Stellar Ensemble Cast

Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” commands attention not only for its compelling story but also for its outstanding ensemble cast. Each character, representing a key figure of the 20th century, is uniquely depicted, avoiding the common practice of composite characters to ensure the individual contributions of each historical figure are rightfully recognized.

Rami Malek is David Hill in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan.

The film features Cillian Murphy in the titular role of J. Robert Oppenheimer, bringing to life the complexity and charisma of the ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’. Oscar nominee Emily Blunt plays his wife, Kitty Oppenheimer, while Robert Downey Jr. portrays Lewis Strauss, another key player in shaping America’s nuclear policy after World War II. Additionally, Matt Damon and Florence Pugh have been cast in key roles, further elevating the caliber of the film.

Each character, whether appearing in brief cameos or substantial scenes, has been designed to leave a lasting impact on the audience, with their performances offering a memorable and vivid portrayal that lingers long after the credits roll. This ensemble of world-class actors, coupled with Nolan’s meticulous attention to detail, makes “Oppenheimer” a standout in historical drama.

5. Rigorous Preparation for Cillian Murphy

Cillian Murphy underwent extensive preparation to authentically depict the brilliant yet enigmatic scientist. Drawing from a wealth of resources such as the book “American Prometheus”, various other literature, and countless hours of footage showing Oppenheimer’s lectures and interviews, Murphy aimed for a nuanced portrayal that balances historical accuracy with creative interpretation.

Cillian Murphy is J. Robert Oppenheimer in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan.

The actor worked closely with Nolan and renowned costume designer Ellen Mirojnick to fine-tune Oppenheimer’s distinctive look, focusing on elements such as his intense gaze, posture, pipe, and hat. However, Murphy stresses that his portrayal isn’t a mere impression of Oppenheimer but rather a distilled representation of the character as presented in the script and historical materials.

In a bid to gain deeper insight into the character, Murphy consulted with esteemed physicist Kip Thorne to understand the concepts of fission and the nuances of the scientific profession. Despite this, Murphy didn’t attempt to fully comprehend the profound scientific and philosophical concepts that came naturally to Oppenheimer, opting instead to grasp a conceptual understanding and focus on extracting the humanity in his character.

Murphy’s portrayal of Oppenheimer is designed to stimulate thought and provoke reflection on current world events, rather than simply provide a history lesson, reinforcing the importance of thoughtful filmmaking in the cinematic landscape.

6. Meticulous Production Design and Filming Locations

Production designer Ruth De Jong, known for her work on films like “Nope”, “Us”, and “Manchester by the Sea”, was tasked with creating a world that was historically accurate but also in line with Nolan’s preference for a timeless aesthetic. The team went through extensive research but allowed themselves to diverge from exact historical form to craft their vision.

A major aspect of the production design involved recreating the look and feel of Los Alamos, the base for the Manhattan Project. While considering to shoot at the actual site, the team eventually decided against it due to the modernization of the real location. Instead, they designed an elaborate model of Los Alamos which was reduced in scale due to budgetary considerations. Exteriors were filmed at Ghost Ranch in Northern New Mexico, while most of the interiors were shot at the real Los Alamos. This approach added authenticity to the film, even allowing actors Cillian Murphy and Emily Blunt to shoot scenes in the very home where the Oppenheimers lived.

The Trinity test site, a significant location in the film, was originally planned to be shot at the White Sands Proving Ground, the actual site of the Trinity test. However, due to the site being an active military base, they built their version of the test site in Belen, New Mexico.

The film shot scenes at The Institute for Advanced Study, where Oppenheimer and Einstein worked post World War II. This included filming at Einstein’s preserved office, which was redressed to represent Oppenheimer’s, and the original house where Oppenheimer and his wife lived during their time at the Institute. This careful consideration of locations and design decisions attest to the team’s commitment to authenticity while telling the story of Oppenheimer.

7. Unique Cinematography Approach

“Oppenheimer” brought a novel challenge for cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and director Christopher Nolan in terms of cinematography. Unlike their previous collaborations that leaned heavily on action, “Oppenheimer” was more akin to a psychological thriller, focusing on the characters’ faces.

The film was shot exclusively with large-format cameras – Panavision® 65mm and IMAX® 65mm – a decision that enhanced the audience’s immersion in the story’s reality. Nolan sought a filming style that was simple yet powerful, providing unadorned, natural photography and revealing the real-world complexity and detail.

Interestingly, the black-and-white sequences required the creation of a new type of film stock. Kodak was approached to produce a 65-millimeter black-and-white film which had never been made before. The resulting prototypal film stock delivered a unique aesthetic appeal that impressed the filmmakers.

The challenge of using large-format film and two different kinds of stock, both color and black-and-white, extended into post-production, with the film needing to be edited, color-corrected, and printed for IMAX®, digital, and standard presentation. This inventive approach to cinematography stands as a distinctive feature of the film.

8. Detailed and Symbolic Costume Design

Acclaimed costume designer Ellen Mirojnick was entrusted with the mission of clothing the characters in Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.” She meticulously designed costumes that not only adhered to the historical time frame but also highlighted the characters’ personalities and state of mind.

One significant example is the costumes designed for Cillian Murphy’s character, Robert Oppenheimer. His clothing was meant to mirror a man with fine tastes, with his appeal underscored by blue hues that emphasized his piercing blue eyes. The constancy of his style throughout his life, despite changing body shape, was carefully portrayed.

A particular aspect of Oppenheimer’s attire was his distinctive hat. Mirojnick worked extensively to find a hatmaker who could accurately recreate its unique shape, eventually collaborating with Baron Hats, a legendary Hollywood hat maker.

In contrast, Robert Downey Jr.’s character, Lewis Strauss, was always immaculately and fashionably dressed, reflecting his prosperity and success. For instance, for Strauss’ Senate confirmation hearing, his attire was recreated exactly as per a historical photograph, even though the scene is filmed in black and white in the movie.

The character of Kitty Oppenheimer, played by Emily Blunt, also had a significant evolution in her wardrobe that reflected her changing lifestyle and emotional state, moving from being a socialite to a housewife in the desert.

Dressing the multitude of extras for the Los Alamos scenes proved a significant challenge due to the variety of roles and the need to accurately represent different seasons in the harsh New Mexico winter.

9. Expressive and Evolving Film Score

Oscar®-winning composer Ludwig Göransson teamed up again with Christopher Nolan following their collaboration on “Tenet”. Nolan suggested the violin as the basis for the score, associating its precarious tuning and potential for emotional shifts with the personality and intellect of the protagonist, Robert Oppenheimer.

Göransson harnessed the expressive potential of the violin, using techniques like microtonal glissandos to expand the sonic palette and create a soundscape that was both beautiful and unsettling. He began with a solo violin performance that captured Oppenheimer’s essence and gradually added more instruments, including a quartet, octet, and ultimately a large ensemble of strings and brass, as the story evolved. This progressive orchestration mirrored the increasing complexity of Oppenheimer’s journey.

Throughout the composition process, Göransson focused on preserving the organic essence of the violin and strings, with the entire score driven by an organic orchestra. Specific character and thematic motifs, like Kitty Oppenheimer’s haunting piano melody, followed this ethos. However, he also incorporated modern elements, like synthesizers, to symbolize the looming catastrophe and eerie consequences of Oppenheimer’s creation, providing an unearthly atmosphere for the Los Alamos motif.

Recording the score required an intense 5-day period during the post-production phase of the film, with Göransson and his fellow musicians pushing their technical abilities to the limit. Notably, an unbroken recording for a montage sequence required numerous iterations and devoted efforts to perfect.

10. Innovative Use of Practical Effects for Nuclear Explosion

Contrary to the Internet rumor that an actual atomic bomb was detonated for the filming of “Oppenheimer,” director Christopher Nolan and his team utilized innovative practical effects to portray the iconic Trinity nuclear test. Nolan collaborated with Oscar-winning special effects supervisors Scott Fisher and Andrew Jackson, setting a firm rule against the use of computer-generated imagery (CGI).

For the film, Fisher and Jackson explored unconventional techniques to create a visceral, tactile, and threatening representation of the Trinity test’s nuclear explosion. They filmed various experiments like smashing ping pong balls together and throwing paint at a wall, among others, using small digital cameras up close at different frame rates.

Despite being filmed on a small scale initially, these experiments were later translated into the large-scale IMAX format, with the aid of a long, fish-eyed probe lens attached to IMAX and Panavision cameras. The exact process of how the atomic explosion images were created remains top-secret, but the creation of these effects was akin to their own Manhattan Project.

Nolan and his team also employed similar techniques to represent the inner world of Oppenheimer, focusing on unique and personal images that convey the profound shift from Newtonian physics to quantum mechanics. Despite the prevalent use of CGI in similar contexts, Nolan’s emphasis on practical effects generated an idiosyncratic library of both frightening and beautiful images that reflect the thought processes of Oppenheimer.

Now that we’ve revealed ten explosive facts about “Oppenheimer” that enhance your understanding and appreciation of the film, all that’s left for you is to experience the remarkable journey of J. Robert Oppenheimer on the big screen. Don’t miss the chance to witness this monumental cinematic masterpiece!

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