The Making Of ‘Oppenheimer,’ The 2024 Oscars’ Best Picture

Join us as we dive into the details of “Oppenheimer” and what made the film such a box office and critical success.

At the 96th Oscars, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer took home seven awards, including the coveted Best Picture trophy.

Aside from being critically acclaimed, it also became a box office hit, earning over $958 million since its release in July 2023.

The producers of Oppenheimer
Image via Instagram @oppenheimermovie

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So, where did it all begin? Let’s take a look at the creation of Nolan’s latest masterpiece and what led to its great success.

The Source Material

The man of the movie, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was born on April 22, 1904. After graduating from Harvard University and the University of Göttingen in Germany, he worked as a professor and a theoretical physicist before being recruited to work on the Manhattan Project in 1942.

As the project’s director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II, he and his team successfully produced the first nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer later earned the title of the “father of the atomic bomb.”

The film was then based on the 2005 biography American Prometheus written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. The book chronicles the physicist’s work as well as his personal life, including his eventual misgivings about the bomb.

Sherwin, a historian, said that he conducted interviews with “112 persons in his [Oppenheimer’s] orbit.” He also said he gathered around 50,000 pages of interviews, letters, and other documents for the book. However, his deadline passed before he could finish writing it and the book was shelved for years.

Sherwin enlisted the help of his friend, writer and editor Kai Bird, in 1999. Together, they finished the biography. The book went on to win several awards, including the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

In Nolan’s Hands

In a round table interview hosted by Entertainment Weekly, Nolan explained that he first became aware of Oppenheimer when he was just a child, first hearing the name in the lyrics of Sting’s song “Russians.” Living in the UK, he grew up during the time when people were highly concerned about nuclear weapons.

“He, along with the scientists of the Manhattan Project, couldn’t completely eliminate the possibility of starting a chain reaction that would destroy the world. And for me, that was kind of the hook,” the director said. “I’m just very interested in taking the audience into that room and living in that moment of what it would have been like to push that button.”

Nolan also mentioned that his previous film, Tenet, has a reference to Oppenheimer. “I think the story of the movie and the story of the man speaks to many of the themes in Chris’ movies and his preoccupations in terms of technological advances and how they interact with the personal story,” Emma Thomas, producer and Nolan’s wife, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Producer Chuck Roven, who worked with Nolan and Thomas on the Dark Knight trilogy, was the one who suggested the biography American Prometheus to the director. After a few months, using the book and other research as reference, Nolan had completed the script for Oppenheimer.

Casting Call

With a ready crew and a budget of $100 million, Nolan was set to round up his cast of actors. In the Entertainment Weekly interview, Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr., and Matt Damon recounted how they joined the cast.

“Chris’ way of operating is he just calls you out of the blue,” Murphy said, while the rest of the cast agreed. Damon also revealed that he was taking a break from work, but that his one exception was if Nolan called on him.

The cast of Oppenheimer
Image via Instagram @oppenheimermovie

Downey talked about reading the script and how it Nolan wrote it in the first person perspective, which is the first time the director has done so. “It pulls you right in,” Damon added.

Lights, Camera, Action

Production design, which included a recreation of 1940s-era Los Alamos, was going to be expansive. Which is why Nolan decided to shorten their shooting days from 85 to 57, to allot more of the budget for production and location shooting.

The movie used IMAX 65 mm film, both in color (for Oppenheimer’s point of view) and black-and-white (when in Lewis Strauss’ perspective). “No one had ever shot IMAX black-and-white,” Nolan told The Hollywood Reporter.

Kodak and FotoKem had to manufacture black-and-white film specifically for Oppenheimer. Then IMAX and Panavision had to re-engineer their cameras to fit the new film.

With no use of CG, the filmmakers opted for practical effects and some digital visual effects. “Everything you see is generated by physical matter of physical things that are shot,” said cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema.

Visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson was also one of the first people who got to read Nolan’s script. The director wanted to discuss the effects with him first, before starting anything else.

Even in the makeup department, they didn’t use CG to age Murphy as he played Oppenheimer through various life stages. The lead actor was there for almost every scene of the three-hour movie.

“It was like a fever dream that I just went through and was kind of spat out the other end because I was just so immersed in the whole thing, to the point where you cancel real life completely,” Murphy told The Hollywood Reporter.

“He’s got such an enigmatic quality to what he does,” Blunt described Murphy’s performance to Vulture. “There’s the whole shadow of his life playing across those rather extraordinary eyes in every scene.”

The Final Cut

Filming for Oppenheimer ended in May 2022 and then it was off to post-production.

In a Q&A with the Associated Press, Nolan revealed that aside from the studio, Steven Spielberg was the first person he showed the film to.

“We screened it for him on his own. I sat behind him and watched him watch the film. It was an extraordinary experience,” Nolan said.

“He said some very kind things, but really just to watch him watch. I wasn’t even supposed to watch it with him, but seeing the great master watching? It was sort of irresistible.”

Oppenheimer had its theatrical release on July 21, 2023. Released on the same day as Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, viewers dubbed the unintentional double feature as “Barbenheimer.” The pairing quickly became a pop culture phenomenon.

In September 2023, The Guardian reported that Oppenheimer is now the highest-grossing biographical film of all time, surpassing 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

Aside from the Academy Awards, Oppenheimer also won Best Picture at the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, and the Critics’ Choice Awards, among others.

Banner image via Instagram @oppenheimermovie.

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