Don’t expect Christopher Nolan to make a light romantic comedy any time soon, but the filmmaker does admit he has needed to decompress after the “nihilistic” experience of Oppenheimer.
The acclaimed film follows the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), focusing on his role in masterminding the creation of the world’s first atomic bomb.
“There’s definitely part of me wants to leave the story behind,” Nolan tells us in a new interview promoting this week’s home release of Oppenheimer, which opened theatrically in July and eventually grossed $950 million worldwide to the accompaniment of deafening Oscar buzz. “It’s a great privilege to be able to talk about a film that you’ve made that’s now going into the home on 4K and Blu-ray and all the rest. It’s great to be able to sit here and talk to you about the success of the movie. That’s a huge privilege. But the subject matter is very dark. It’s nihilistic and yeah, there’s part of me that’s quite keen to move on and maybe do something not quite as bleak.”
The star-studded, critically lauded film is currently the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture at the 2024 Academy Awards, as well as the Best Director statue that has long eluded the filmmaker. The 53-year-old London native has five previous nominations (for writing Memento, writing and producing Inception, and directing and producing Dunkirk) but has never won.
Despite critical adulation, Oppenheimer has also faced some criticism — not for what Nolan portrayed on screen but what he didn’t: the devastation, death toll and subsequent suffering of the Japanese following the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
Arguably the most high-profile to speak out is Spike Lee, who called Oppenheimer “a great film” but told the Washington Post that he would have liked to see “some more minutes about what happened to the Japanese people. People got vaporized. Many years later, people are radioactive. It’s not like [Nolan] didn’t have power. He tells studios what to do.”
Nolan is even-keeled, even grateful about Lee’s comments, as is his wife and producing partner, Emma Thomas.
“Well, I mean, Spike Lee’s one of my idols, and for him to say that he thought Oppenheimer was a great film, that was the bit I focused on,” Nolan laughs. “No, I was just blown away by it. And he was very specific and respectful, and he was saying that he would’ve done a particular thing because he’s a different filmmaker, and different filmmakers interpret things differently. So I honestly I was just thrilled that he got something out of the movie.
“As far as the approach you take in a particular film, really for me, you want the film to speak for itself. I could sit here and explain why I did things or defend them or whatever, but ultimately it’s the experience of the film, what the audience gets from it. That’s kind of the ultimate answer.”
“When I looked at what he said, it was kind of perfect,” Thomas says of the Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X director. “He just talked about the film that he would’ve made, and that’s always really fascinating to me, the ways in which different directors take a subject matter and sort of do different things with it. Chris was very clear from the beginning that he wanted to tell this story from the point of view of J. Robert Oppenheimer himself, to the extent that he even wrote the script in the first person. And the way Oppenheimer receives the information about what’s done with his invention is exactly as it happened in real life. He heard about it on the radio just like the rest of America. And so the way Chris told the story was very true to what happened in real life and also the way he set out to make it.”
Nolan, who has called Oppenheimer “the most important person who ever lived,” says the movie was originally conceived from his own fears about nuclear Armageddon, even if he doesn’t consider the biopic “activism” filmmaking.
“When I first spoke to my 16-year-old son about the subject matter I was taking on, he actually said to me a couple of years ago, ‘Well, nobody really worries about that anymore. That’s not really a thing on people’s radar,’” Nolan recalls. “And I did say to him at the time, ‘Well, maybe that’s a reason to make the film.’ And sadly, with the changes in the world over the intervening years, he’s not asking that question anymore. No one’s asking that question anymore. People are very aware of the dangers. I think that movies have to be, for me, first and foremost, and it’s a strange word to use with this subject matter, but they have to be entertainment. They have to be engaging. Whether or not that’s a horror movie or romantic comedy, whatever it is, it’s about engaging the audience and giving them a story that’s very compelling.
“I think with Oppenheimer, my hope was that the seriousness of the subject matter would resonate beyond the story, beyond the actual dramatic experience of watching the film. But I feel that if, as a filmmaker, I’m too self-conscious about that or trying to tell people what to think or be a didactic, that tends to put people off. They feel that effort. And I feel that effort in films sometimes, and you’re less receptive, actually, ironically, to whatever the intentions of the filmmaker might be. So to me, it’s really about engaging the audience in a great story, and then hopefully if I’ve done my job right, there’ll be resonances beyond that. Maybe just by bringing my own fear of nuclear Armageddon, my own fear of how these weapons might one day be used, just bringing that into the foreground of what the story is. Hopefully that’ll resonate with people.”
If Oppenheimer is the most important man who ever lived, does that make Oppenheimer Nolan’s most important film yet?
“I definitely think it’s an important film,” says Thomas. “I think that the story that it tells is one that people felt they knew, but then when they see it, they realize, ‘No, we didn’t quite understand the importance of that moment in history and that particular man.’ [But] I don’t know if I could quite make the claim that it’s the most important of his films. And by the way, he’s not done yet. So who knows where he’s going to go next?”
Oppenheimer is avalaible Tuesday, Nov. 21 on Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD.