Christopher Nolan will do whatever it takes to make the best version of his film possible. He is a big proponent of practical effects, and is specific about what film he uses when making his movies. Nolan even helped develop a new kind of film to be able to shoot Oppenheimer in both color and black and white 70mm IMAX. To get his intended result, that sometimes means big sacrifices as well, and apparently he made a major concession on Oppenheimer in order for the Los Alamos scene to be given the proper big screen treatment.
The production designer for Oppenheimer, Ruth De Jong, was recently interviewed on the Team Deakins podcast, which is hosted by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins and his collaborator James Deakins. She opened up about working with Christopher Nolan on the 2023 biopic, and how the dramatic Los Alamos scene came to be. Always a diligent perfectionist, Nolan cut the film’s shooting schedule down from 85 days to 57 days, in order to give the team enough time and budget to build the massive set piece for the film. That expedited the shooting pace for the movie massively, which is a big change considering the 3 hour runtime.
The Los Alamos scene in question happens at the midpoint of the film, and is when J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of physicists test the atomic bomb that they built in New Mexico. It is incredibly tense and drawn out, building tension throughout the sequence. Instead of using CGI to create the explosion, the Oppenheimer production team built a real explosive device to make the blast more realistic and immersive. The sequence must’ve cost production a fortune, because cutting the production schedule by a third is a major chunk of the budget.
Nolan isn’t the only director that prefers the use of a practical set piece over a digitally created one. Paul Thomas Anderson used practical effects for his own explosion in There Will Be Blood, which De Jong also worked on. This year's Fast X also used a lot of real explosions during the car chases. Nolan has been privy to the old-school tactics with his own films over the years as well, with his rotating hallway set piece from Inception being one of the most memorable.
The sacrifice Nolan made was certainly worth it, as the result is an unparalleled theater going experience. The sound design and visuals of the explosion are awe-inspiring, and likely couldn’t be recreated using computer generated effects. The rest of the film also never feels rushed or messy, proving that 57 days was still enough to execute Nolan’s intended vision. He made a big concession, but you can’t argue with results, and what magic can be created in the hands of a master filmmaker.
You can check out Oppenheimer now, which is exclusively in theaters nationwide. The Christopher Nolan film just extended its 70mm IMAX run, so make sure to check it out on the biggest screen possible while you can. The Los Alamos set piece alone is worth it.