Inside Christopher Nolan’s race to shoot ‘Oppenheimer’ in just 57 days

Capturing the mad scramble to build the first atomic bomb required rapid-fire filming, strict set rules and the construction of an entire 1940s western town

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Emily Blunt as his wife, Kitty, on set for the film “Oppenheimer” in New Mexico. (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures)

This article is adapted from “Unleashing Oppenheimer: Inside Christopher Nolan’s Explosive Atomic-Age Thriller,” which will be published Oct. 10 by Insight Editions.

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — The drive to Los Alamos from the valley below feels treacherous, even now.

J. Robert Oppenheimer chose this intensely remote location in northern New Mexico for the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government’s secret program to build an atomic bomb during World War II, precisely because it is situated on a maze of four mesas separated by deep canyons. It’s nearly impossible to find, and impenetrable if someone did locate it. Where better to save Western civilization than a mountainous high desert plateau, 7,200 feet above sea level, that looks like it’s straight out of a John Ford western?

Just as in 1943, the main entrance to town is a narrow highway that twists and turns atop cliffs of volcanic rock. The only difference now is that it’s paved. And it was up that “tricky road,” as he calls it, that Christopher Nolan found himself driving in June 2021, on a road trip from Los Angeles with his then-13-year-old son Magnus. By then, the director, known for critically acclaimed blockbusters such as “Inception” and “Dunkirk,” had already spent months writing the script for his own secret project on the man known as the father of the atomic bomb — an adaptation of Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “American Prometheus” — and had hit a creative block. So, he’d decided to make a pilgrimage to the town that Oppenheimer (and the U.S. military) built.

“I was ready to look at it and sort of stand there and see what it felt like,” says Nolan. When they arrived, Nolan and son acted as a two-man location scouting crew. They first stopped at a reproduction of the Manhattan Project main gate that had once prevented unauthorized visitors from entering “the Hill,” as locals call the town. It’s now part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and is in nearly the same place that the original main gate once stood. As they explored the area, they also found a small museum located in Fuller Lodge, the great manor house in the center of town, the walls of which were constructed from nearly 800 gigantic ponderosa pine logs.

Oppenheimer had first seen the lodge in 1922 on his first trip to New Mexico, when his father sent him from New York to the Southwest as part of his recovery from a bout of colitis, a condition that would plague him for the rest of his life. It was home to a ranch school for boys that the Manhattan Project would commandeer decades later.

Nolan and Magnus took a tour of Bathtub Row, the series of simple houses where the top-level Manhattan Project scientists lived — another remnant of the ranch school, so named because they were the only dwellings in town with bathtubs (although they lacked kitchens at first). Most of these dwellings are off-limits to visitors because homeowners live there now, but Oppenheimer’s house was unoccupied. “I don’t know if I should say this or not, but Magnus, he did a lookout while I hopped the fence and got some pictures of Oppenheimer’s house,” the director says.

Nolan returned to Los Angeles full of inspiration and dove back into the script. But he’d also been left with a vexing problem. If he wanted to film the town as it had existed in the 1940s, completely forgoing the ubiquitous modern filmmaking tricks of computer-generated imagery (CGI) and green screen, he’d have to emulate the very project he was writing about. He’d have to go out to a remote desert somewhere and build it himself.

“For me, there’s this ‘keyman’ question that hangs over the life of Oppenheimer, which is that no one person invented the atomic bomb,” says Nolan. “He wasn’t the first to split the atom. He wasn’t the first to have a self-sustaining chain reaction. But somehow, he’s the guy who brought it all together and made it happen in the moment that it happened.”

Specifically, though, the physicist made it happen in a place that was a favorite childhood haunt of his, where he had fond memories of riding on horseback.

“Reading the book, you realize that, when they’re looking for a site [for the Manhattan Project], he just gently steers it toward where he spent the summers as a kid,” says Nolan. “As a young man, he said that if he could find a way to combine physics and New Mexico, he could achieve complete happiness. Well, he did and he was — for a time. And his personality was so influential that the leading laboratory in the world still stands in a place where he just liked to vacation.”

That one character detail was enough to help Nolan envision the world he might be able to create on-screen, as told through Oppenheimer’s eyes: one of sweeping desert vistas combined with an array of abstract special effects, again created without CGI, to illustrate an interior life of quantum physics and atoms and molecules. “That contrast is wonderfully cinematic,” says Nolan, who then set out to craft a story that he describes as part hero’s journey, part heist film and part courtroom drama, set against the imagery of a western — all presented in very Nolan-esque, nonlinear fashion.

The director knew he wanted to explore Oppenheimer’s rise to prominence — as well as his humiliating trial after the war, which resulted in the revocation of his security clearance due to his associations with communists. The part he was calling the “heist” section depicts the mad scramble for the world’s most brilliant minds to pull off the impossible project of building an atomic bomb before Adolf Hitler did.

Nolan and Emma Thomas — his producing partner on every film since 1998’s “Following” and also his wife — had started assembling their production team in September 2021. By the end of the month, production designer Ruth De Jong (Jordan Peele’s “Nope,” TV’s “Yellowstone”) was at Nolan’s house, hunkering down with the director one-on-one while he was editing the script, eventually creating a handmade foamcore diorama, or “white model,” of their 1940s Los Alamos set that was so big it could only fit in Nolan’s backyard.

Researcher Lauren Sandoval joined them, scouring the 180-page script looking for every historical discrepancy, as well as creating files to be used as casting references for 79 named characters, all but one of whom existed in real life. As prep and production ramped up, she’d find photo references of the actual bomb, or architectural plans for the steel tower at the Trinity test site near White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico where the first detonation occurred.

Meanwhile, Cillian Murphy was already preparing for the mammoth title role, his sixth collaboration with Nolan but the first in which he’d play the lead. For starters, he’d have to drop substantial weight to better approximate Oppenheimer’s almost emaciated silhouette. And he’d have to brush up on his horseback-riding skills for a scene in which Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty (played by Emily Blunt), race horses across the desert. Blunt had just shot a TV western, “The English,” while Murphy jokes that, on his TV show “Peaky Blinders,” the horses rarely went faster than a walk. “Brilliant thing is that, in the story, Kitty was fantastic at horseback, apparently better than Robert, so it worked out,” says Murphy. “Emily was so graceful and elegant, and I was less so.”

They had just three months to get ready for a film that would shoot in just 57 days and run three hours, Nolan’s longest yet. “We’re not like other big films that prep for months and months and months,” says executive producer Thomas Hayslip. “Chris is of the mind that he and the crew need 12 weeks of prep and we’ll get it done in 12 weeks, and any more than that is just a waste of time.”

Ever since that first road trip, Nolan had been convinced that it would be impossible to shoot entirely in Los Alamos. “When I was there with Magnus, I saw how many things had changed, obviously, since the 1940s,” says Nolan. “I mean, there’s a Starbucks.”

The offending Starbucks is on what would have been Los Alamos’s main street, once a Wild West-style thoroughfare. Beyond Bathtub Row and the well-preserved Fuller Lodge, which Manhattan Project scientists used as a cafeteria, very little has been preserved from when Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves (played by Matt Damon in the film) and Oppenheimer took over the town.

After location scouting throughout the Southwest, Nolan and his crew built the town on a completely untouched section of Ghost Ranch, an educational and spiritual retreat about an hour and a half north of Santa Fe, made famous by the painter Georgia O’Keeffe. There, they found exactly what they wanted for their Los Alamos: a plateau on a ledge high above the desert with nothing else around.

“When I brought Chris there, he said, ‘This is very epic,’” De Jong recalls. “You felt like, ‘No one will find you here.’ There’s no one. The rest of the world is happening and going on, and we’re doing this thing that we think will save humanity.”

As the company began gathering in New Mexico to start filming at Ghost Ranch on Feb. 28, 2022, the paint was barely dry on the reconstructed town of Los Alamos. Construction had taken place in the dead of the high-desert winter, with the crew losing days of work because the ground was too frozen to dig into, or because snowfall had blocked the roads. Because of time constraints, the production team would have only six scheduled days at this $3 million set they’d spent three months building.

“Nobody is ever, ever, ever going to convince me that this would be better if shot on a soundstage,” says Damon. “When you have to go through the journey of getting out to the middle of nowhere in New Mexico and you don’t know what the weather’s going to be or what the wind’s going to do, that all affects the performance. The unpredictability and reality of being out there just gives you something that you can’t get in a controlled environment.”

Perhaps the most important sequence shot at Ghost Ranch was the moment in which Murphy puts on Oppenheimer’s distinctive porkpie hat for the first time, an action symbolic of the physicist truly coming into his own as the leader of this massive effort.

“He created this iconography, this version of himself,” says Murphy. “It was very self-consciously done, and the hat and the pipe were key. It was very helpful to me to know that these were decisions he’d made. I think he was vain. I think he was ambitious. He liked being talked about, and he liked being identifiable, and the hat and pipe were indicators of that.”

Cigarettes were also key to his persona. “Oppenheimer was a chain smoker,” says prop master Guillaume Delouche. “And when I say chain smoker, he smoked close to 150 cigarettes a day. When he didn’t smoke cigarettes, he would take a break by smoking his pipe.”

To help Murphy re-create the habit that eventually gave Oppenheimer fatal throat cancer, Delouche manufactured herbal cigarettes with a menthol flavor that Murphy could constantly smoke without getting sick. Delouche stamped the cigarettes with the logo of Chesterfield, the only brand Oppenheimer would smoke, and created period-specific cigarette packs for each era of the film.

Nolan believes in keeping an intense pace, so the cast and crew can keep civilized hours, get sleep and go home to their families. He also observes a strict routine, walking onto set every day and eating his breakfast — an omelet with avocado and crispy bacon — at 7 a.m.

“Chris works so fast that the only time you leave set is to go to the bathroom, and we move the toilets very close to you, so you don’t have to go too far,” says Hayslip.

For newcomers, Nolan’s rules were a shock to the system. “It was a real wake-up call for me,” says Blunt. “Chris’s sets can seem strict going into it, and then you realize it’s about placing the movie first. Every scene is so dialed in, because everyone’s been conversing with each other. No one’s been sitting in their own isolation looking at Instagram, distracting them from what they’re doing. I found it the most focused, collaborative experience of my career. I just ran to work. I loved it.”

Blunt found it hardest to adjust to Nolan’s requirement that actors come to set in costume, exactly as they’d appear on film. Carrying a coffee or wearing a personal coat, hat or boots while rehearsing was discouraged. The director’s reasoning was all about efficiency and keeping actors ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. He also wanted them to be entirely immersed in the world they were trying to re-create, without modern intrusions such as cellphones.

Blunt says she will never forget the day she showed up on set at Ghost Ranch wearing Ugg boots. “It was like a scene from ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’” says the actress, laughing. (She got her big break in that movie.) “Chris just looks down at your shoes, and it’s like Meryl Streep is looking at your horrible fashion choice. I just thought, ‘I’ll never be seen dead in Ugg boots around him again.’”

For her wrap gift to Nolan after the shoot, Blunt says she got the director “the ugliest Ugg slippers I could find.”

Filming interior scenes in the real Los Alamos began March 8, 2022. Nolan had revisited shooting in the extant historical buildings there, including Fuller Lodge and a 1940s Women’s Army Corps dormitory (which the production turned into Oppenheimer’s lecture hall), when he realized they had neither the time nor the budget to build those sets from scratch at Ghost Ranch. This meant he finally had the chance to shoot in the house on Bathtub Row where Oppenheimer and Kitty once lived. For the director, being there not only gave the scenes unique production value, but it also added something ineffable to the performances.

“It’s much better for the actors to be in the real place. It’s just informing so much of what they do,” he says. “It’s the exact opposite of doing something on a green­-screen stage, and particularly when people are tired and jaded on films from working long hours. There’s just something magic about walking into Oppenheimer’s real house.”

De Jong’s team and the set decoration department had furnished the space with authentic items, even finding wingback chairs that looked just like ones they had seen in a photo of Oppenheimer and Kitty relaxing with martinis. They also incorporated artwork and furniture that Murphy had uncovered during his research, helping the actor to “melt” into Oppenheimer’s space.

“Definitely, there’s something in the air and in the atoms of the place,” says Murphy, “and it confers a kind of responsibility on you, as a performer, and a responsibility on Chris also, as director. When you’re shooting in these real places where the people you’re portraying lived their lives, it adds a level of respect, and I think the audience subconsciously feels that.”

For Blunt, the house helped bring her closer to Kitty and gain a deeper understanding of her perspective. “They would drink a lot and barely eat and smoked like chimneys, and they had this real passion and fire for each other,” says Blunt, talking about the early days of their relationship.

But between Kitty’s indifference to motherhood and the isolation of Los Alamos, she began to lose herself to alcoholism. “The loneliness of life in Los Alamos must have just been extraordinary, and I felt so deeply for this woman who was not a nice person and really rubbed people the wrong way,” says Blunt.

In a key scene shot in the yard of the house on Bathtub Row, Kitty hangs up laundry while Oppenheimer heads down south to test the atomic bomb, his most triumphant moment. “She doesn’t get to see that,” says Blunt. “She’s busy hanging out laundry. Poor Kitty. No wonder she hit the drink.”

As an unexpected bonus of shooting in the home of the Manhattan Project, the production was able to cast real Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists as background actors.

“I was like: ‘It’s a town of 13,000 that’s known for the atomic bomb. I’m sure it’s full of people who know the history and have relatives who lived it,’” says Nolan, who asked the casting department to set up an open casting call in the town.

Olivia Thirlby, who plays scientist Lilli Hornig, says the actors quickly learned to lean on their new scientist friends. “We could ask, ‘So, what am I saying in this speech?’ And we’d get incredibly accurate and detailed descriptions — which didn’t make it any easier to understand,” she says, laughing.

The background actors were particularly important to a series of Los Alamos scenes that depicted the coming end of the war and Oppenheimer’s horrifying sense of guilt once the bombs drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, eventually killing or injuring more than 200,000 people. In one, a large group of scientists debate whether to go ahead with using the bomb on Japan after hearing that Germany has been defeated.

The director was amazed at how the actual scientists in the room could improvise incredibly complex geopolitical conversations based on their knowledge of the bomb.

“The actors were riffing on what the extras were giving them,” says Nolan. “It was a very unusual situation.”

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