Christopher Nolan: "Oppenheimer is one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever taken on in terms of scale"

Cillian Murphy on set of Oppenheimer
(Image credit: Universal)

Christopher Nolan is a master of practical filmmaking: think Tenet’s real 747 sequence, The Dark Knight’s truck flip, or Interstellar’s spacecraft sets with starry exteriors projected outside the windows in place of the standard bluescreen. His upcoming movie, Oppenheimer, about the man who contributed significantly to the creation of the atomic bomb, has afforded the filmmaker more opportunities to work on talking-point sequences without relying on CGI.

"I think recreating the Trinity test [the first nuclear weapon detonation, in New Mexico] without the use of computer graphics, was a huge challenge to take on," explains Nolan in Total Film’s upcoming 2023 Preview issue. "Andrew Jackson – my visual effects supervisor, I got him on board early on – was looking at how we could do a lot of the visual elements of the film practically, from representing quantum dynamics and quantum physics to the Trinity test itself, to recreating, with my team, Los Alamos up on a mesa in New Mexico in extraordinary weather, a lot of which was needed for the film, in terms of the very harsh conditions out there – there were huge practical challenges."

Forget any preconceived notions you might have about a historical biopic. "It’s a story of immense scope and scale," says Nolan. "And one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever taken on in terms of the scale of it, and in terms of encountering the breadth of Oppenheimer’s story. There were big, logistical challenges, big practical challenges. But I had an extraordinary crew, and they really stepped up. It will be a while before we’re finished. But certainly as I watch the results come in, and as I’m putting the film together, I’m thrilled with what my team has been able to achieve.”

For all that’s new in Oppenheimer, still expect key Nolan preoccupations to be present: subjective experience of reality and explorations of time itself have always been signature themes of Nolan’s, while his narratives are often structurally daring. Oppenheimer is no exception.

"We’re trying to tell the story of somebody’s life, and their journey through personal history and larger-scale history," Nolan says. "And so the subjectivity of the story is everything to me. We want to view these events through Oppenheimer’s eyes. And that was the challenge for Cillian that I set him, to take us on this journey; that was the challenge for Hoyte van Hoytema, my designer, my whole team: how do we view this extraordinary story through the eyes of the person who was at the heart of it? All of our decisions on how to make this film were based on that real premise."

Oppenheimer opens in cinemas on July 21, 2023. Inside the new issue of Total Film, which is on sale Thursday, December 15, Nolan talks in detail about Oppenheimer, which he describes as "a story of immense scope and scale". From casting Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr., to the groundbreaking use of large-format black-and-white film, to the cinematic appeal of Oppenheimer, it’s a thorough primer on a historical biopic like no other.

Total Film’s Oppenheimer coverage kicks off a huge 2023 Preview, looking ahead to the biggest films of the coming year. And the print version of this new issue comes with a special 52-page supplement counting down the best films, must-see moments, and breakout stars of 2022.

Total Film's 2023 Preview and Review of the Year 2022

(Image credit: Universal/Syncopy/Total Film)

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(Image credit: Total Film/Universal)
Matt Maytum
Editor, Total Film

I'm the Editor at Total Film magazine, overseeing the running of the mag, and generally obsessing over all things Nolan, Kubrick and Pixar. Over the past decade I've worked in various roles for TF online and in print, including at GamesRadar+, and you can often hear me nattering on the Inside Total Film podcast. Bucket-list-ticking career highlights have included reporting from the set of Tenet and Avengers: Infinity War, as well as covering Comic-Con, TIFF and the Sundance Film Festival.

With contributions from