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Countdown to the BAFTAs Podcast Transcript: Oppenheimer

Alex: Hello and welcome to this celebration of movie excellence in 2024. I'm Alex Zane, and in Countdown to the BAFTAs, we speak to the producers behind those films nominated for Best Film at the EE BAFTA Film Awards 2024. This time it's Oppenheimer.


Groves: Why don’t you have a Nobel Prize?

Oppenheimer: Why aren’t you a General?

Groves: They’re making me one for this

Oppenheimer: Maybe I’ll have the same luck.

Groves: A Nobel Prize for making a bomb?

Oppenheimer: Alfred Nobel invented dynamite.


In this wide ranging interview, we discuss how they got from the creative spark that started it all to the challenges faced in bringing it to the screen. And a quick warning, we will be talking about the story. So if you haven't yet, go see the movie, come back and get listening. This is Countdown to the BAFTAs.


Oppenheimer: You're talking about turning theory into a practical weapon system faster than the Nazis.

Groves:  Who have a twelve month head start.

Oppenheimer: Eighteen.


Alex: During World War II J. Robert Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy, is engaged by the US military to design and develop an atomic bomb.

The years of work by Oppenheimer and his team of scientists came to fruition with the so-called Trinity Test and the world's first ever nuclear explosion, an event that would change the course of history.

Christopher Nolan: Hello. I'm Christopher Nolan, the writer, director, and producer of Oppenheimer.

Emma Thomas: I'm Emma Thomas. I am one of the producers of Oppenheimer.

Alex: Emma, Chris, lovely to have you here tell me when you first considered making a film about J. Robert Oppenheimer, what was the catalyst that sparked it and had you discussed making a biopic before?

Christopher Nolan: I mean, as with any project, it's a long journey. It's not one catalyst. It's a lot of different things that happen along the way. Um, I mean, I'll take the last part of your question first. We developed a, a project about Howard Hughes for years and, I wrote the screenplay and it was gonna have Jim Carey starring as Howard Hughes. And then in the end, Marty's film, the Aviator, got going right as I finished the script. So we weren't able to make it. But so I, I went through the process of trying to find a structural approach and a creative way into telling a person's life, and trying to get that across in a couple hours, a few hours of screen time.

So that was a huge help to me in coming into the process of actually writing the script of Oppenheimer. And what drew me to Oppenheimer over time, I think really starts with being a teenager in 1980s United Kingdom where the fear of, of nuclear war, the, the pop culture resonances of the fear of Armageddon, were very apparent. I mean, I'm thinking of things like Raymond Briggs, you know, ‘When the Wind Blows’ or TV movies like ‘Threads’ things like ‘The Day After’. And Sting had a song in the eighties called Russians. I dunno if you remember that one. It's a bit before your time probably, but it has a lyric that talks about Oppenheimer's deadly toy. And that was probably the first time I was exposed to the name Oppenheimer. And the association with the bomb. And over time various things about Oppenheimer sort of stuck with me most notably in the build up to Trinity, the, the top scientists of the Manhattan Project could not completely eliminate the possibility that their test would trigger an atmospheric ignition that, would destroy all life on Earth. And yet they went ahead and pushed the button, and that seemed the most amazing moment to me. I put it into Tenet in dialogue form, my previous film Tenet, there's a reference to that moment and what it meant for mankind, and as a rap gift in that film. Robert Pattinson, actually gave me a book of speeches that had been published Oppenheimer in the 1950s, uh, addressing various institutions, various audiences, talking about how to deal with this change that they brought into the world.

So all of those things were very present in my thinking when, our partner from the Dark Knight Trilogy, Chuck Roven, suggested that I read American Prometheus. You know, he was involved with the people who controlled the rights to that and, um, they wanted to do something with it. And I read it. And reading that book, I suddenly saw a path forward. It's a lot of things coming together over time to sort of add up to something that's interesting and important to me.

Alex: When you're about, you mentioned the scale of this production and when you're about to embark on an undertaking like this. Is there a part of the upcoming process both of you particularly look forward to, whether it's the pitching, the pre-production, the shooting, the post-production? Is there something that you're like, you can't wait to get your teeth into with regard to this film?

Emma Thomas: I mean, for me, the really fun thing about our jobs is that. There's a different stage every, you know, few months and they're all completely different. And I would say for me, shooting is really fun. You've done all the, the prep work you've got a plan, but that gets old after a while just because it's really relentless. So by, by the time we get to the end, I'm very excited about post, and a change of pace. I think my least favourite bit is actually prep, because in prep you're sort of thinking about all the things that can go wrong and trying to make plans, in the absence of knowing exactly what it's gonna be like on the day and everything, seems difficult.

But, you know, once you are up and running and you're shooting, you know, film crews are remarkably resourceful and. Any eventuality they can deal with. Um, and there's a real sort of sense of can-do, so yeah, I would say that that's the bit that's fun to get your teeth into.

Christopher Nolan: Uh, I mean, in terms of, um, setting the project up it was the first time that we'd sort of gone out to a lot of different studios with a project in a while. Um, that was, it's an exciting process. It's always a bit nerve wracking to show people your script and, and see what you think. But, um, we had a great response to it. A lot of people, uh, seemed interested in making it, and that was, that was a great position to be in.

Alex: I wondered if there was, there was something that, you said in those meetings. 'Cause often I imagine, and it sounds like perhaps not the people who were reading your script, 'cause like you say the best at what they do. But sometimes people do like an easy comparison. Like Oppenheimer is a bit like X movie and I guess there was nothing really to use as a, as a benchmark for this film.

Christopher Nolan: No. There certainly wasn't anything in recent cinema. Because we're talking about a blockbuster based on history. Uh, I mean, we could point to our own film, Dunkirk, but that played like an action film. We made that like a suspenseful, you know, action thriller. Really we had to go all the way back to things like Oliver Stone’s JFK, that was kind of the point of reference for the scale. I mean, I don’t know what the budget of that film was, whatever, but it just felt like this enormous event in the culture when it came out and based on this incredibly serious subject matter. And my belief was, you know, and, and continues to be that studio filmmaking, Hollywood filmmaking at its larger scale, when done right, when the whole machine is working, can take on anything really and take on any serious subject matter like that and bring it to a, very wide audience, which is what's exciting about working in the, the Hollywood vernacular.

It's the reason we all come to Hollywood is to try and, be part of this machine that can communicate with everybody around the world, so I had a lot of faith looking at the sort of history of movies that, that there's a place for this, but it had been a long time since the studio machine had, you know, taken this kind of thing on. Uh, so it was a little, yeah, it was, it was a challenging finding references, but at the same time, I think, you know, Universal, when we were talking to them, I think they themselves immediately saw the excitement of that, of something that hadn't been done in a while. Something that was new for audiences.

Alex: To look down the cast of Oppenheimer is to see some of the most celebrated actors working today. This is almost a, a two part question. First of all, was the thinking behind populating some of even the smaller roles with such, you know, prestigious names, and also as, as filmmakers, what's your chosen way of approaching these actors? Do you send out a script? Do you prefer to meet them in person and discuss the project? What is your process in that part of the production?

Emma Thomas: I mean, I think it's different with everybody, honestly, depending on sort of whether they're actors that we have a relationship with already or, or not. Um, you know, with Cillian for example, obviously we've worked with him many times before and sort of have forged a, a long-term friendship with him and, Chris literally just called him up and told him about it and before, I'm trying to remember if we even had a script at that point. Yeah, we did. No, yeah, well, of course that's right. We know, what am I talking about? We'd been through the process with the studios at that point. Completely. '

Christopher Nolan: Well, I don't like to think of actors when I'm writing the script, so I'd finished it and then we had talked about it. You know what we know who can do that intense blue-eyed stare. We know that guy and yeah, we called him at that point. And, uh, you know, asked if he was interested.

Emma Thomas: But you had a long conversation with him about it before he'd read the script.

Christopher Nolan: Oh I asked him to sign on before he read the script. I was like, it's Oppenheimer, are you in or are you out? And luckily he was in. And then I flew over to Dublin and, uh, sat with him and showed him the script. And thankfully he, he loved the script, uh, which would've been a bit tricky if he hadn't, but he, he did. He, he loved it.


Truman: Your invention let us bring our boys home.

Oppenheimer: It was hardly my invention.

Truman:  It’s you on the cover of Time. Jim tells me you’re concerned about an arms race with the Soviets.

Oppenheimer:  Yes, well, it’s that... now is our chance to secure international cooperation on atomic energy, and I’m concerned

Truman:  You know when the Soviets are gonna have the bomb?

Oppenheimer: I don’t think I can give you a-

Truman: Never


Christopher Nolan: The depth of the cast. You know, we have to point to our casting director of many years, John Papsidera, who's been with us since Memento. The challenge to him, we want it to feel like a big cultural event. We want it to feel like a really big film and scale in films comes from a lot of different sources and for me, casting is one that's often overlooked.

And I don't just mean the biggest stars in the world or something like that. It's about having a wide range of faces and energies and different types of people, you know, some of whom are familiar to audiences, some of whom aren't, but there's just a feeling of scale to the, the humanity in the film as indeed there was to the real life Manhattan Project, which ultimately, I mean, I read this incredible statistic while I was researching the story, but, the Manhattan Project touched the lives of about 600,000 Americans. It was such a huge industrial effort. There were so many companies involved now, you know, 99.9% of these people had no idea what they were working on or why they were doing a particular task. But the truth is it required a huge amount of America to make the bomb.

Alex: When you are assembling this stellar cast and you've got, uh, the studio behind you at this point, are you still having to take a step back as producers and just look at the project that you're embarking on and, and really, I guess, assess the risk attached to making this film and this film finding an audience just to detach yourself from the creative process almost, and, and look at what you are trying to do here.

Emma Thomas: Yes, I mean, definitely. And you know, when we first sort of came up with our, plan. You know, before we'd gone out looking for financing, we thought about, well, what's the right amount of money to spend on this? You know, we knew we needed to sort of make the film within a box, we are not irresponsible filmmakers.

We always want to be asked back. And we want our filmmaking partner, um, in whatever studio we were going to end up at, to not completely lose their shirts. And obviously when you're making a film which is, you know, uh, we knew it was gonna be R rated, we knew it was gonna be very long. We knew it was gonna be, a film about sort of big ideas, you know, this sort of terribly difficult period in history. And it didn't have a sort of big action component. Um, so we, we, we knew that there were sort of certain things, levers that we had to pull to make it potentially more commercial, and less risky. And one of those things was going to be to cast it up, and, uh, make it as efficiently as possible.

Christopher Nolan: Yeah, I mean, I think the efficiency’s, the thing there's no way that you can wave a magic wand and make the subject matter more appealing. Really what you're doing is saying to the studio, we'll make it for this amount of money. And if you can find a way to sell it, we'll partner with that and sort of try to make it a practical proposition. In other words, you don't want to burden the film with unrealistic expectations for success, so we do it smaller. I mean, you know, we had done it on Dunkirk very specifically with, with Warner Brothers.

Uh, I mean, I think really what we said to them at the time was, we'll do it for half the money that anyone else would do it. but, and, and this was the quid pro quo, we want you to spend the same as you would on marketing it, as if it costs twice the amount of money. You know, we want it to be an event. Emma, I think that was part of your conversation with the studio earlier on. It's, you know, we want it to be a cultural event. But we'll recognize the limitations and, and try and not put too high a box office burden, I mean, it was interesting in the way you asked the question, Alex. I mean, my, my first thought was exactly what Emma said, which is yes, we do take that into account and we do worry about that. But I think there's a point certainly, for me, there's a point where I have to stop worrying about that and just get on and make the film. There's a point where you just have to believe in the movie and believe that it's going to work.

Emma Thomas: By the way, I mean, you know, I, the conversation I'm talking about, where we are deciding what we want to be asking for, I actually on, on this film, I felt a lot better about the sort of risk that we were taking once I read the script. I think when we were first having those conversations, I had read the book. Now the book is a massive weighty tome and it's very dry, it's very factual. It's a great book, but its not-

Christopher Nolan: It's very academic.

Emma Thomas: It's very academic and I, my biggest concern with this film was how on earth we were going to make a film that was a sort of summer blockbuster. Um, I totally understood what appealed to Chris in terms of those big points that he had talked about earlier on the, decisions that were made, the risks that were taken, you know, all of that. I could see that, but I couldn't quite wrap my head around how he was going to make that book digestible for a modern day, um, cinema audience.

Once I read the script, I felt a lot better about it because he'd written something that was compelling and exciting. It was absolutely grounded in physics and history and all of that, you know, everything was in there, but it felt accessible. And not just accessible, but kind of exciting and, and you know, the, sort of the different elements of the film, the kind of the putting together the team and then the courtroom drama, like all of that stuff was stuff that I could relate to as an audience member. And I suddenly felt like, okay, no, we can do this.

Christopher Nolan: I think the length was the most complicated bit of that equation because your instinct was the shorter the film can be, the more practical it is as a, as a proposition in the marketplace. And I felt at a point, once I sort of figured out a structure of what the material was going to need to be, I realized that I would have to write a long script.

And I remember, I remember trying to explain that to you and your reaction, but, but I said, you know, if I try to pace it up and, and wish that it were a smaller, sharper, faster film, I'll wind up with a film that's tedious to watch. I have to write it with the confidence of it's going to be a three hour film. I have to write the script for a three hour film, not the script for a two hour film that then is stuffed into, you know, winds up being three hours sort of, because it has to be. And that was a big, it. It was, that was a hard conversation to have, but it was, it was an important thing for the creative life of the film, because even that was difficult for me to explain I knew what I meant. I knew the kind of film that we were aiming to be and the size that, that sort of comes with that.

Fortunately, we were pitching it to the studio right after, you know, the most successful film in the American Box office was Avengers End Game at three hours. So we had at least had that to point to and say, you know, the audience is there for long films if they're engaged with the material in whatever way you can manage to engage them

Emma Thomas: Well, and I think that, you know, the other thing is, you know, we've all watched 90 minute films that feel like they're three hours. And, you know, yeah. The truth is I think that this film, for me anyway, the, the three hours go by very fast. And I think I began to understand that once I actually read the script, you know.

Alex: Describing American Prometheus the book as very dense is almost an understatement. I remember speaking to you, Chris before Oppenheimer had even come out and I said, I was reading the book and I'm still reading the book! So yeah, it's dense. Um, I want to talk about something you touched on there about making Oppenheimer a cultural event, but before we get to that point, it'd be great to hear about the actual shoot itself on the ground. You've both talked about this as one of the most challenging projects you've taken on, and part of that was obviously recreating, uh, the culmination of the, Manhattan Project, the Trinity test. Once you'd seen, the level of detail in the research your design team and your special effects team had included in constructing this bomb, were you able to expand the sequence? Was there an evolution of that on the ground and the shoot evolving as you discovered the work that had been done?

Christopher Nolan: I mean, very much in the case of the Trinity test and the gadget itself because in that phase of pre-production, where quite often I have my producer's hat on as much as my director's hat, and you're trying desperately to get people to scale back what, what they're going to do when you're dealing with reproducing history in particular, it's like, where would you stop? How big would you build Los Alamos? So, you know, it's, it's sort of limitless. So you have to try and constantly encourage people to say you could do sort of more for less. And in the case of the gadget, I was very clear with, with Ruth De Jong and Scott Fisher, who were working with the prop department, you know to make the thing. I was like, I only need this, that, the other, I'm only gonna show this. This is what's in the script. Look at what's in the script. And that was one area in which they just ignored me completely and just built the entire thing in great detail because they knew, you know, they're very experienced, craftspeople, and they knew that the film, you know, it's the centrepiece of the film and we're going to need to explain it to the audience. We're going to need to feel that we can film it in a documentary like manner. And so when I saw what they'd actually done, it immediately freed me up in the filming of that, that sequence to film every stage of the process of preparing the gadget.

And of course realizing how much suspense can be, you know, wrought from that, it was an excellent collaboration. I felt very lucky with the people that we had hired that I was able to walk up to that set and get everything I needed, including things that I had not known that I would need.

Alex: You are, again shooting in IMAX on this film, and I've seen some, uh, some photos from the set of, uh, your DOP Hoyte Van Hoytema holding this, and it's not a, small piece of kit, it's this huge IMAX camera on his shoulder. So he's filming handheld, I believe there's no monitors on set. What advantages does that give you when shooting this film? Because I think Emma you described it as relentless earlier and considering the scale of this film, the shoot was quite fast and furious.

Emma Thomas: yeah, I mean, you know in, prep on this film, we had had to, slash, significantly, um, when we were in the budgeting phase, and one of the things that, that Chris offered up is something that he could do was shoot the film faster. Um, so we ended up shooting the film in 57 days when we'd originally been hoping for,

Christopher Nolan: I was bluffing at the time just for the record, but they called my bluff. All the departments called my bluff and said, fine, let's shoot it that fast. So, yeah.

Emma Thomas: But, um, so yeah, so it, it's a, it was a much, much, much faster shoot than we had originally envisioned for this film. Um, and one of the ways in which we were able to achieve that was, you know, every department had to sort of throw in ways to, to make it work. But Hoyte’s contribution was that he only really worked with sort of one camera package that we actually shot on sort of, um. Two different formats, but he, he did a lot of, uh, work handheld, which allows you to be far more flexible and, um, fast-paced in the way you shoot.

Christopher Nolan: Yeah. Especially because we, we didn't have steady cam. Hoyte decided, you know to look at the budget issues, looked at the pace we wanted to work at…We looked at a lot of old movies in particular. I remember screening, we screened a print of Sidney Lumet’s film The Hill with Sean Connery, beautiful black and white film. We were looking at it for the black and white cinematography and one of the things that we were both very struck by is the camera movement in it and how it was achieved with, you know, it's all on the dolly or handheld. Um, you know, that combination and then it has, jib arms sort of shots rather than crane shots. Um, I mean, I don't mean to get too technical, but you're basically talking about an older form of filmmaking where if you want to move the camera, you've gotta lay down tracks and figure out how to do it.

Whereas if you're looking for spontaneity, you're going fully handheld and therefore you don't have a steady cam, which bridges, you know, something that came along in the eighties to sort of bridge that gap and you don't have a techno crane, things like that. They're very expensive to carry and take a lot of time. Even though they're useful tools, it's a surprising amount of, time that goes into figuring out how to use those tools. Once you take them off the table and you take video village out of the equation, you know, you take playback out of the equation, things like that.

And you're really back to where we all start as sort of independent, scrappy filmmakers where you, you really just, you've got a camera and you're getting on and you're shooting things the best way you can in the circumstances you have. You develop speed and energy, and if you have great synchronicity between the director and the DP and then also the cast. You can really achieve a look, a feeling of emphasis that's really energizing and, and fun. What it allowed me to do as a director is turn up these sets with very large groups of, of characters, you know, sometimes, you know, 12 speaking parts in a room together and we could just sort of let them play with it, you know, let them rehearse it, try at different energies, different positions in the room, whatever. And not really worry about how we were going to film it until we'd really thrashed out the performances. And then Hoyte was able to just sort of come in with me and, and sort of figure out how best to capture that.

We were letting the energy of the shots. Be entirely driven by the energy of the performances and the interplay of, of the actors, and, and that was the right thing for this project.

Alex: in terms of the Trinity test, just to go back, I mean, we were talking about, uh, Ruth De Jong who is your production designer and Scott Fisher, he's your, special effects supervisor. Is that correct? So when you're recreating this Trinity test, obviously the actual Trinity test, as far as I understand it, and you're definitely better placed to inform me on this, but they were discovering things as they were doing that. It was a fairly ad hoc experiment in some ways because it had never been done before. Were there any titbits of information that uh, emerged in your research that you hadn't perhaps realized at the script stage that you were like, well, we absolutely have to include that in the film. It's hard to believe that that was an aspect of this test.

Christopher Nolan: Yeah, I mean there were a lot of things like that that would come up from the different departments starting really with the art department, but it then expands out to costume, you know, everything else, uh, props and so forth as people start to research the real life events. They're coming up, they're finding imagery, they're finding film clips, they're finding all kinds of, um, bits and pieces that, you know, some of which I was aware of, a lot of which I wasn't. I didn't look at a lot of audio visual material when I was writing the script. I really stuck with the book, and then the primary sources it went to. So by putting the team of creatives together who have researchers, we had some excellent researchers on the film.

They were coming up with all kinds of things an interesting example for me was Ruth coming to me to explain that when they hoisted the gadget onto the tower, they'd realized that, that the scientists had put mattresses underneath. In case the thing fell off the wire, which, you know, it sort of says in one, in one detail everything about how scrappy and, and sort of ad hoc and, and make it up as they went along this was, so I immediately was like, well, we knew we would have the mattresses there for, you know, the guys watching test for base camp. So we just brought them over to the Trinity site, which was relatively nearby and, and shot that because as soon as she said it, I'm like, no, that's, that's such a telling detail. It's a small thing, but it's just there in the film as they roll these mattresses underneath. And whether or not a mattress would be of great help if you dropped an atomic bomb by mistake. I. I don't know. It's a, it gets a bit when the wind blows, as they say. But yeah, it's, uh, it's a fascinating detail. There were many, many things like that that, that different departments found through their research.

Alex: Reminds me of that, uh, the fact that Harold Lloyd, uh, used to, I think he had a mattress out of shot below him when he was doing his famous skyscraper stunts that was meant to catch him if he ever did fall, and he never fell. But they did a test with a dummy years later, and if he had fallen, he'd bounced off the mattress and plummeted to the street below.

Christopher Nolan: Yeah, I think there's, we, we do a lot of putting mattresses out for the, you know, stunt guys will put their mattresses out and I'll say, well, would that really help? And the, the phrase they always come back with is, “well it’ll take the edge off”

Alex: No film shoots obviously ever runs entirely smoothly. What was the biggest challenge you faced during the shooting portion of this film? Uh, was there a particularly tough day on set or a scene that was a, a struggle to make a reality?

Emma Thomas: Hmm. I think that for me, the trickiest thing was when we lost a, there was a location we lost. And then we had to scramble to--

Christopher Nolan: yeah. Lost our White House set. Yeah. From a production point of view--

Emma Thomas: that was pretty sticky. Yes, and from an art department point of view, they then had to scramble to build one or to sort of take a set that they, they rented and, and sort of repurposed for our, White House set

Christopher Nolan: They had to turn around very quickly. I think the thing with that set that made it particularly challenging is it's one of the best known real environments in the world. It's in more movies and TV shows and it's on the news every other night. So, um, it had to be what it needed to be. Often as a director, when you lose a location, you say, okay, well we can't have that great big hall what if we do it in a shed, you know, and reconceive the scene. Well, you can't do that with the White House. You can't do that with the Oval Office, it had to be what it was.

Emma Thomas: And it happened with very little time to sort of find an alternative. And I think when we then did walk on set, you could smell the wet paint. Still drying.

Christopher Nolan: absolutely. But, but I think a lot of the things that were difficult in the filming. And not unlike Dunkirk. Actually, you know, I would probably tell the story a little bit different from the crew because a lot of the things that were difficult in the filming were supposed to be difficult.

That is to say, you know, when you're out in the New Mexico desert dealing with, you know, terrible weather coming in, and having to dodge storms and all the rest, well, that's what was in the script so. It was actually fantastic that it worked out that way, but it made for very, very hard conditions. You know, you have to keep everybody safe.

You have to do things carefully, and you're in high winds and then thunderstorms coming in, so you have to shut down when lightning is seen and those kind of things. But certainly for Hoyte and myself at camera, you're very aware of the fact that you are getting exactly what we wanted it to be and what it was supposed to be. Um, and so it seems hard. It’s physically hard making those things, hard for the crew, hard for the cast, but creatively, it's exactly what it's meant to be. So in, in a lot of ways, it's, it's going very smoothly, even though everybody else might think that it's not. But it's, it's sort of like on Dunkirk, when we would go out on our little boat, um, and when the sun was shining and the sea was completely flat. It really was a problem, you know, then you're like, okay, we don't have the drama, we don't have, we're not telling the story, so what do we do? Hours would go by sort of sitting around, kind of waiting for the wind to whip up or whatever. So you do get these things on film where some of the more challenging circumstances are actually very, very positive for the film, and, and it means things are going well.

Alex: When you have your finished film, obviously we hear a lot about this, um, the idea that certain films are, uh, are tested with test audiences and then these test audiences feedback, and sometimes the film is altered based on these, comments and scores, and sometimes it isn't. Is that a process that you used with Oppenheimer?

Christopher Nolan: Yeah, we use that process on all our films. We don't do it in the sort of formalized research based way that a lot of studio films, uh, are done by that is to say we don't sort of score things and, uh, recruit wide audiences. We, we start in a more intimate way. We start bringing people who know nothing about the project into the edit suite, kind of one at a time, and just sort of seeing how the film is playing while we're cutting it.

And then we, we organize bigger screenings with, you know, a hundred or so people, two hundred people sometimes, and get their thoughts and get them to write cards and stuff. But, you know, by controlling that process and making it a little more organic than if, for example, you hired a research company as, as a lot of people do. We are able to interpret the feedback in, in a pretty holistic, pretty organic way. We've been doing that for many years now. I mean, long, long time actually, probably since, Batman Begins, I think. So, um, that process works. But the truth is, if you're making a film for a wide audience, um, you can't really shirk the moment of sitting with a large audience watching the film.

You need as a director. And my editor and everybody, you need to sit in a room with an actual audience and feel, you know, the audience will tell you how the film is playing. They'll tell you where you need to tighten things up. They'll tell you where things are confusing and so forth. It's a very important part of the process

Alex: let's talk about the first time, perhaps not with an audience who you were hoping would give feedback on the film, for example, but the first time you watched it with an audience of strangers who had no investment in the film where it was a completely cold audience, let's call them. Where was that very first time you watched it with an audience, and, and how were you feeling in that moment?

Christopher Nolan: I was in Lincoln Square. But you didn't want to go?

Emma Thomas: I did not. Well, no, that was, yes. That was the first time we saw it with a, a truly cold audience. A truly cold audience. Yeah. That was the opening night, opening weekend. And I totally got the fear and I, I was like, can't we just skip this bit of the process? And Chris was not having any of it. As soon as I got there, I realized he was right. Because there's something about watching an audience watch the film that completes the process, um, for us. And um, you know, it was pretty fantastic because they were wrapped.

Christopher Nolan: but we came in, right at the back of the cinema. We snuck in right as the Trinity test was, as the gadget was exploding. Yeah. It was the perfect moment. And it was packed there. They had people on folding chairs.

Emma Thomas: Yes. Which I don't think was strictly legal.

Christopher Nolan: No, it is. I've looked into it.

Emma Thomas: You have?

Christopher Nolan: Yeah. You can take. You could take the empty spots if, uh, nobody needs them for wheelchairs and things. You can put folding chairs there. But I, that wasn't something I was aware of before and it was absolutely packed and, and yeah, you could hear a pin drop. I mean, as long as we've been doing this, to me, the difference between sitting through a test screening where everybody knows in that room that they're being asked to tell you what's wrong with the film. The difference with seeing it with an audience of people who've paid their own money to go see it, and they want a good night out of the movies, they want the movie to be good.

They don't want it to be bad. They don't wanna pick it apart. They actually wanna enjoy it. That's a really wonderful experience, and I think it's really important as filmmakers that you remind yourself of that. You have that experience, you know, of, of just when the audience is on your side and they, you know, what do they make of it when, as I say, they've paid their own money and and they want to enjoy it.

Emma Thomas: It's actually quite magical, I think.

Christopher Nolan: Yeah. It's an uncanny process. Because even with individuals, I mean, with a, with a large audiences, it’s a very powerful version of that. But even when you bring an individual into the screening room certainly for me as a director, I find that, I watch it through their eyes. And I'm really surprised about what they say at the end because I felt those things as it moves along. And I think that's the bedrock of what makes theatrical film distribution, a magical experience. Because we have that connection. We tend to be watching the film both subjectively but also empathetically with the rest of the audience. And I don't think there's any other medium that does that.

Alex: Earlier on, you mentioned that Avengers End Game proving that, uh, that there was an audience there for three hour movies. I mean, Oppenheimer is a, it's a dense three-hour plus R rated movie that last year beat every superhero movie at the box office. The three of us saw each other at the premier in London before the film's release, can you tell me what was the expectation you both had for the success of the film then compared to how, how close that was to the film's eventual success?

Emma Thomas: Wow. Well, I would say that the film has done, at least, basically it's done double what we thought was the pie in the sky hope for it. Um, I would say,

Christopher Nolan: I mean, it's hard to put numbers on it. I mean, it, it's, yeah, vastly exceeded you know what either of us would've sort of hoped for in a best case scenario.

But as with the films, you do sometimes get a sense. I remember walking down the street in New York and somebody walking past me. This was about six months before the film came out, and they, they just said. Oppenheimer. As I walked past and then I turned around and, and the guy just looked at me as he walked off and he just went, good luck. Like, like in that, in a very interesting way. And it stuck with me because you know, I went home and I, I told you about at the time, 'cause I said, I think we've got a tiger by the tail. You know, this is the story that. It matters to people. Yeah. Particularly in America, it really matters to people and it hadn't, hadn't been told in, in this way. And so, you know, I started to feel, you know, that that sort of weird sense of excitement around it pretty early on. Um, but I had no idea that it was going to translate into the, the scale of, of box office all around the world. I mean, that, that's been the really surprising thing for us I think, I've been just so flabbergasted by the, the amount of interest in the film from all around the world.

Alex: I, I think I'm right in saying, I hope I'm right in saying it is the second highest grossing R rated movie of all time. For both of you, what does, what does Oppenheimer's success say? About the state of the movie business and the appetite of audiences at the moment.

Christopher Nolan: Well, it's, I mean, it's a funny thing 'cause. Everybody has a tendency to talk down the movie business. Really for the whole time I think I've been working in, in movies, I felt the sort of cultural establishment, always predicting the demise of movie theaters and, and of it and I now get asked that question, you know, what do I think about the health of the movie business? And I, I'm like, I don't really know how to respond. We just released a three hour R-rated film about quantum physics and it made a billion dollars. Like what? Obviously, obviously our view is that the audience is there and they're excited to see something new.

Um, you know. I think the success of Oppenheimer certainly points to a sort of post franchise, post IP landscape for movies it’s kind of encouraging. It reminds the studios that there is an appetite for something people haven't seen before or an approach to things that people haven't seen before.

Alex: I have a couple of quotes from other filmmakers regarding Oppenheimer's success. Damien Chazelle said “the film almost worked in defiance of perceived wisdom of what it's believed audiences want in a summer movie, and that makes its success all the sweeter”. Denis Villeneuve “that movies like Oppenheimer are released on the big screen brings the spotlight on the idea that film is a tremendous art form that needs to be experienced in theaters.”. How does it make you both feel hearing the optimism Oppenheimer's success has created in other filmmakers?

Emma Thomas: I mean, obviously it's hugely gratifying. I mean, I think that the great thing I think about all of this is that, you know, Hollywood is, um, very much a sort of industry that tends to look to what's succeeding and try and repeat that. And I think that what we're hearing from other filmmakers is that there's a positivity around original filmmaking and stories that, maybe aren't based on IP that has been tried and tested and, proved to be successful somewhere else. And I think that that's something that, obviously if studios, um, and, and financiers, um, decide that this is the way to go, then obviously that, that works for other filmmakers. So I'm hopeful that they'll try and be a little bit more daring in the choices of films that they choose to finance.

Christopher Nolan: Well, I think it gives filmmakers another talking point. Just as we were able to point to Avengers End Game as an unlikely running time for such an incredibly successful film. Something like Oppenheimer working it, it gives other filmmakers a point of reference, for how something can work in the marketplace that the studio can relate to. So, yeah, it's, it's thrilling to see other filmmakers enjoying that and, and feeling like it might help them get something different made, you know, um, it’d be lovely to be seen as, part of, of helping other filmmakers.

Alex: Chris, Emma that is almost our time together done. But I would like to end the interview with a couple of quick-fire-ish questions. And the first one is, can you remember your favourite day, either on the set or during the edit of this film? Was there a particular day that sticks in your memory as a good one?

Christopher Nolan: Gosh. Um, yeah, you've got something going.

Emma Thomas: There's so many, honestly, truly there are so many. 'cause I, you know, I think that the first day we shot with Robert Downey Jr. and I sort of saw the way that sequence was going to work with him and Alden Ehrenreich, that was really exciting. But then again, also the scene that we shot with all the scientists where they're all bickering. I mean, there are, there were so many great moments on set. So I think I'm actually going to have to go pick, um, the first time I saw the film, that was really exciting. It was long. It was, you know-

Christopher Nolan: it was even longer!

Emma Thomas: Even longer. It was about three and a half hours, but it was, that was really exciting. I was like oh yeah, this works.

Christopher Nolan: I think, well, for me, unusually, it was sort of the hair and makeup test actually. Um, we shot them on the first ever black and white IMAX film stock. You know, we got a, a test role in from Kodak, and it was the first time we worked with Cillian in the full guise and got the hat on him and, you know, everything. And then Downey with developing his look, uh, and seeing Emily and Cillian as a couple, those images really resonated and stayed with me. Um, actually wound up using the shot of Downey from the hair and makeup test as the cover of the Time magazine that Alden Ehrenreich, you know, holds up in front of him because I just, there was something so exciting about seeing.

We screen those, uh, at the IMAX Theatre, seeing black and white on that scale with those incredible faces and like Cillian's amazing eyes, which looked even more amazing in black and white actually than in colour. Because of the way that, you know, the blue is, is captured by real black and white stock as opposed to just, you know, desaturated colour stock. These hair and makeup tests stuck with me because you, you suddenly started to think, okay, this is gonna work and it's gonna work in a really cinematic and exciting way.  

Alex: And the final question is a look into a possible future if you do win on the night, who is the one person you both have to thank, who may or may not have been involved in the film, but without whom you wouldn't be on that stage?

Christopher Nolan: We are sitting opposite each other, so-

Emma Thomas: Yes, clearly. It's easy enough, Chris.

Christopher Nolan: It's like, Emma, you know, nothing happens without Emma, so, uh, yes, she's-

Emma Thomas: and vice versa.

Christopher Nolan:  Exactly. So that that's a simple question to finish with. Thank you.

Alex: It's been a pleasure talking to you both. Thank you for your time and congratulations

Christopher Nolan:  Thank you.

Alex: My thanks to Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas. Follow the podcast to explore the rest of the nominees and much more in the months to come.

Thanks too to the producers of this series, Matt Hill and Ollie Peart at Rethink Audio with Sound design by Peregrine 'Pez' Andrews. I'm Alex Zane. This was a BAFTA production. I'll see you again as the countdown to the EE BAFTA Film Awards 2024 continues.