Christopher Nolan Cut 30 ‘Oppenheimer’ Filming Days in Order to Free Up Money for Sets, Production Designer Calls It ‘The Most Incredible Thing’
Cillian Murphy revealed in July that Christopher Nolan shot “Oppenheimer” in less than 60 days, no easy feat for a $100 million Hollywood tentpole. But it turns out Nolan was originally planning for a much longer film shoot. In an interview this month on the “Team Deakins” podcast, “Oppenheimer” production designer Ruth De Jong revealed that Nolan slashed around 30 filming days in order to re-allocate the film’s budget to production design and set locations.
“It felt like a $100 million indie. This is not ‘Tenet,’” De Jong said. “Chris wanted to shoot all over the United States…just plane tickets alone and putting crew up all over the place [is expensive]. Not to mention I have to build Los Alamos, it doesn’t exist. That’s where I really felt like it was impossible. Chris said, ‘Forget the money. Let’s just design what we want.’ So that’s what we did, and when construction first budgeted my town it was $20 million. Chris was like, ‘Yeah, no. Stop.’ We had this huge white model and I started pulling buildings out of it, not to mention we want to shoot in New York and New Jersey and Berkeley and Los Angeles and New Mexico.”
That’s when Nolan did “the most incredible thing” in order “to achieve all of the desired looks and designs,” De Jong said. The filmmaker told her, “I’ve got to go do my homework,” which she later realized meant re-organizing the film’s shooting schedule in order to consolidate days and free up the budget for the production design. De Jong said “Oppenheimer” was originally set for an 85-day shoot, perhaps even more, but Nolan cut it down by at least 30 days.
“Tom, the executive producer, said, ‘Ruth, you can’t go to Berkeley, you can’t do this.’ But we have to go to Berkley. That is Oppenheimer!” De Jong remembered. “The producers were asking what I could do on my end to shrink [the budget]. Tom then comes into my office and says, ‘Chris is going to shoot this in 55 days.’ That is a lot of money we get back! At that point you feel like I have to deliver above and beyond because he just went and gave up his days. He, more than anyone, knows what he wants to get in every single day and how he wants to get it and he goes from 85 to 55 days.”
With the budget freed up due to a limited shooting schedule, De Jong was able to have the finances needed to reconstruct Los Alamos from scratch in New Mexico. One of the only concessions she had to make was shooting portions of the film set in Washington D.C. in New Mexico since Nolan was not permitted to shoot in actual government buildings in D.C.
“We made the movie unbelievably quickly,” Murphy previously said on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast. “The pace of that was insane.”
By comparison, Nolan’s World War II survival thriller “Dunkirk” shot for 68 days, and his massive spy movie “Tenet” shot for 96 days. Murphy is front and center in a majority of “Oppenheimer” scenes, which made the shorter shooting schedule all the more intense for the actor.
“The sets are huge, but it feels like being on an independent movie,” Murphy added about working with Nolan, which he has been doing for over 20 years now. “There’s just Chris and the cameraman — one camera always, unless there’s some huge, huge set piece — and the boom op and that’s it. There’s no video village, there’s no monitors, nothing. He’s a very analog filmmaker.”
“Oppenheimer” is set to cross the $800 million mark at the worldwide box office in the coming week. The film is playing in theaters nationwide from Universal Pictures.
This article was originally published under the title “Christopher Nolan Cut 30 ‘Oppenheimer’ Filming Days in Order to Free Up Money for Sets, Production Designer Calls It ‘The Most Incredible Thing’” on Variety.com. It was written by Zach Sharf and published on August 29, 2023.