Update Post: November 28, 2023 11:58 pm
When director Christopher Nolan set out to make Oppenheimer, the plan was to shoot the film in 85 days. But, as they were developing the project and prepping it for production, the budget started to balloon and there were locations that they needed to shoot at that they couldn’t afford. One of the big locations they need was Los Alamos, which needed to be built from the ground up.
During a recent appearance on the Team Deakins podcast, Oppenheimer production designer Ruth De Jong talked about how Nolan went about opening up the budget so Los Alamos could be built for the film, and they could shoot at all the locations that Nolan wanted to shoot. De Jong said:
“It felt like a $100 million indie. This is not Tenet [which was shot in 96 days]. 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.”
There was then a point where executive producer Tom Hayslip told De Jong that they wouldn’t even be able to shoot in Berkeley and the production designer said: “But we have to go to Berkeley. That is Oppenheimer!” The producers were trying to figure out ways to shrink the budget on the design side, but then Nolan stepped in and was basically like, “I’ll shoot it in 55 days” and that gave them the budget they needed to get the Los Alamos built. De Jong said:
“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.”
The film’s star, Cillian Murphy, previously talked about the speed that which Oppenheimer was shot, saying that “the pace of that was insane.”
“We made the movie unbelievably quickly. We made it in 57 days. The pace of that was insane. The sets are huge, but it feels like being on an independent movie. 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.”
So, the whole reason why they shot the movie so fast was so that the budget would be open to give the production team more money to play with. It’s pretty amazing that they actually managed to pull that off!