The mission to build the world of Oppenheimer was entrusted to production designer Ruth De Jong, who had already worked on films of the caliber of Nope, We – Us And Manchester by the Sea. De Jong and Christopher Nolan spent weeks immersed in research to develop an aesthetic that was authentic without necessarily being forced to precise references.
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Nolan tends to prefer a timeless look for his movies, even in a work like Oppenheimer set in a specific historical period. Nolan encouraged De Jong not to be overly strict about era details. For the director it was important to put his hand on modernism, allowing cars, telephones or other pieces of technology of the moment to arrive.
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. This choice is determined by the desire to tell the story of a man who is chasing the future, but still told from his perspective. “Chris kept telling me we weren’t making a documentary,” recalls De Jong with laughter. “This indication was of great help because otherwise I would have immersed myself in the research part. Instead, our process prompted us to study, to understand the essence, and then overcome the issues of form and go make our film.”
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In the2021, De Jong began working with Nolan, producer Emma Thomas and executive producer THOMAS HAYSLIP on developing a production design that could deliver everything needed with maximum efficiency
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The film was shot in five major locations, but Nolan shot most of the time in New Mexico. The first task was to build Oppenheimer’s version of the town of Los Alamos, the basis of the Manhattan Project. “Chris liked to call it ‘our little ghost town’, with just a few buildings and two gunslingers, and little more,” says Hayslip. “But there is nothing related to Los Alamos, and a lot of our work has gone into creating an illusion of that place.”
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Nolan also considered shooting the film in the real Los Alamos, where some of the buildings built for the Manhattan Project were preserved. But overall the place no longer corresponds to those years, with modern facilities, including a Starbucks—which would have been very complex and expensive to eliminate digitally.
De Jong drew an elaborate reconstruction of Los Alamos, which was then developed as a 3D model to allow all possible solutions to be studied. Gradually the model started to get so big that it was put in the warehouse of the production office. It only began to shrink when manufacturers began to realize that a full-scale replica of Los Alamos with exterior and interior would be cost-prohibitive
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As plans changed, a new strategy emerged. The exteriors would have been built at Ghost Ranch, an area of 8500 hectares, in the northern area of New Mexico, to then shoot much of the interiors in the real Los Alamos. This approach filled the cast with energy, allowing Cillian Murphy and Emily Blunt to shoot some scenes in the same house where the Oppenheimer family lived.
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Nolan’s team had received permission to shoot at White Sands Proving Ground, the same place where the Trinity test was conducted
But the location is still an operational military base today, and the production couldn’t afford to stop for six to eight hours each day during their normal routine of exercises and tests. Instead, Nolan had his own version of the Trinity test base built, featuring a 100-foot steel tower.
The remote bunker from where Oppenheimer watched the detonation in Belen, New Mexico was also reconstructed.
Oppenheimer was filmed on the grounds of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University where Oppenheimer and Einstein worked together after World War II, using the original building where Oppenheimer served as Director
Oppenheimer’s old office was remodeled and appeared too modern. But Einstein’s old office has kept its former appearance and the production has obtained permission to use and furnish it as Oppenheimer’s office. Additionally, Nolan shot some interiors and exteriors of the original house where Oppenheimer and Kitty lived during those years.
Emily Blunt and Cillian Murphy in one six reconstructed sets for the film Oppenheimer