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We Rewatched Oppenheimer And It's Completely Different Now

It's hard to overstate the impact Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer" had on the entertainment world over the past 12 months. From the unprecedented grassroots "Barbenheimer" campaign that dominated popular culture in the weeks leading up to the film's release to its decisive showing at the 96th Academy Awards, "Oppenheimer" was one of if not the most awe-inspiring media project to emerge in the 2023-2024 awards season. Its success is due in no small part to the unyielding efforts of all involved, who created a story so massive it was impossible to fully take in when it debuted.

There are plenty of small details you may have missed in "Oppenheimer," but they're not what we're focusing on here. Instead, we've looked back on all the information that has been unveiled about the film since its premiere in July 2023, found in news articles, cast interviews, Nolan's screenplay, behind-the-scenes content shot for the DVD release, and Jada Yuan's book "Unleashing Oppenheimer: Inside Christopher Nolan's Explosive Atomic Age Thriller." For us, these facts not only enhanced our appreciation of Nolan's latest historical epic, but changed the way we see some scenes entirely.

The star-studded cast was carefully chosen to challenge Cillian Murphy

From its opening scenes, it was clear that "Oppenheimer" would be one of the most star-studded cinematic affairs of the year. As they saw the incredibly familiar A-list cast, some viewers may have assumed this was merely a ploy to boost ticket sales and awards credibility. While that's certainly a valid interpretation, it's also true that Christopher Nolan cast so much top-tier talent in "Oppenheimer" specifically because he wanted to challenge star Cillian Murphy.

"What we were looking for was a remarkably centered performance at the heart of the film, but also an ensemble piece," the director said during a behind-the-scenes interview on the set of "Oppenheimer." "I knew that what I needed to do for Cillian was to surround him with the greatest actors in the world who could challenge him and push him." Murphy was both grateful and daunted to finally be called upon by Nolan to lead one of his multi-hour epics, feelings that were exacerbated when he learned of the Hollywood heavy-hitters he'd be acting alongside. Two such actors, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, praised Murphy's work as "beautiful" and "mercurial," respectively.

Producer Emma Thomas said the all-star cast also had the added benefit of granting the historical figures their due weight in the cultural context of the film. Because the scientists who worked at Los Alamos were also "rock stars," in her words, the audience can instantly grasp their in-universe celebrity and credibility.

Those atomic sequences were all real

Discussion abounded ahead of the film's release about how Christopher Nolan recreated an atomic bomb explosion. But while the Trinity Test is certainly the peak of the movie's visual spectacle, it might impress readers more to learn that every fantastical effect seen in the film was caught on camera. Yes, this includes the vibrant atomic visions Oppenheimer witnesses throughout the story, which were referred to by the film's special and visual effects departments as "mad scientist" scenes.

To recreate the scientific wonders Oppenheimer saw so clearly in his own mind, VFX supervisor Andrew Jackson and SFX supervisor Scott Fisher had to think outside the box in order to avoid using CGI (as they explain in behind-the-scenes interviews, post-production effects would compromise Nolan's process, as well as the unparalleled visual resolution the team was capturing through IMAX cameras). They used specially built machines that spun marbles at random, small explosives and pyrotechnics, magnetic beads in wooden boxes, and a whole host of other improvised gadgets that would make a film student weep with joy.

Even when incorporating these effects into a scene with actors — such as the moment when Oppenheimer imagines spinning atoms while lying in bed — Nolan would go to lengths to create the effect in-camera. In this particular scene, he stood above Cillian Murphy and held what appears to be a sophisticated version of a glow-whip toy in front of the frame.

Cillian Murphy spent three months preparing for one of the film's shortest scenes

Within its staggering three-hour runtime, "Oppenheimer" covers an impressive amount of the titular physicist's life. And while Christopher Nolan's predilection for sweeping montages and exhaustive exchanges of dialogue is on full display in the film, some of the story's foundational elements are captured in less than a minute. One such example of this storytelling comes early in the film, when Nolan and Cillian Murphy manage to simultaneously express Oppenheimer's growing confidence and expanding influence on the scientific community by having the character deliver a lecture in fluent Dutch.

If the scene doesn't ring a bell, it might be because it takes up less than 30 seconds of the film, with Murphy's Dutch monologuing in particular lasting a mere eight seconds. Yet for this relatively tiny moment, the actor needed three months of daily preparation. "It's a small scene, but I remember talking to [Nolan] in preproduction and saying, 'Chris, what do you want to do about this Dutch scene?' And he said, 'What are you going to do about this Dutch scene,'" Murphy recalled in "Unleashing Oppenheimer. "It's very much that he works at the top of his game, so he expects everyone else to do their work, to do their due diligence."

Hearing his director's veiled warning loud and clear, Murphy asked the production's Dutch-Swedish cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, to record the dialogue multiple times at different speeds so he could practice along with it daily as the shoot progressed. And though he didn't understand much of what he said (describing his fluency as "purely phonetic"), Murphy remained committed to Nolan's vision and rose to the occasion.

There's a reason why Jason Clarke is terrifying as prosecutor Roger Robb

From his first exchange with Oppenheimer, it's clear that ruthless prosecutor Roger Robb will be a terrifying and formidable opponent for the father of the atomic bomb. Robb is played by Australian actor Jason Clarke, best known for playing CIA officer Dan Fuller in Kathryn Bigelow's Academy Award-nominated war film "Zero Dark Thirty" and gangster John "Red" Hamilton in the 2009 Johnny Depp thriller "Public Enemies." Both of these roles landed Clarke on Christopher Nolan's creative radar, but they weren't what drew him to the actor for the character of Roger Robb. In fact, Nolan was swayed not by the fruits of Clarke's current career, but by the one Clarke abandoned: law.

Before he entered the entertainment industry, Clarke studied for several years to become a practicing attorney. This compelled Nolan to cast Clarke as Robb, the actor quickly proving that he hadn't forgotten his days at law school. "He was able to bring a grounded, legal sensibility about how a prosecutor would operate," the director praised in "Unleashing Oppenheimer." "You can see all kinds of details he added, like the use of notecards and body language, to intimidate, to bully, and then to back off, and let people speak at different points. I'm very struck by simple things he did when he's going to kick it up a notch and comes physically close to the person he's interviewing, and drags his chair, which makes a wonderful noise."

Florence Pugh felt those controversial sex scenes were empowering

Unfortunately, as Jimmy Kimmel's controversial Oscars joke about "Poor Things" arguably proved, collective pearl-clutching regarding sex scenes in films is still very much in style. As such, when "Oppenheimer" somewhat unexpectedly produced two unsettling but worthy sex scenes between Cillian Murphy's titular character and Florence Pugh's Jean Tatlock, their presence was almost instantly deemed "controversial." Yet despite the ongoing (and, frankly, useless) debate on whether or not movies should contain sex scenes at all, Pugh stated in a behind-the-scenes interview that these moments were part of what made her appreciate this character.

The "Dune: Part Two" actor said in the featurette, "We did a few nudity scenes and a few sex scenes, and everything about [the character] in those moments is completely in control. Watching a woman like that in that much power, especially during that era, is a very powerful thing." This staging is an extension of how Pugh says Christopher Nolan wrote Tatlock in the screenplay: someone who knows what she wants and isn't punished for it by her lover.

Christopher Nolan was inspired by westerns and his own Batman films

As his career progresses, it's clear that Christopher Nolan's work on his seminal "Dark Knight Trilogy" has influenced his other films as much as it did the superhero genre at large. In "Oppenheimer" specifically, he uses dramatic rhythms and punctuations usually reserved for comic book films. 

While some of these choices may simply be baked into Nolan's style at this point (after all, Nolan pioneered some prevailing tropes in modern comic book movies), he arguably invoked superhero imagery most blatantly for the sequence in which Oppenheimer first dons his iconic hat, jacket, and pipe at Los Alamos. In describing the outfit to The Hollywood Reporter, Nolan likened it to Christian Bale's Batsuit, which was unveiled with similar weight about halfway through "Batman Begins."

Meanwhile, in the script (which Nolan wrote in the first person from Oppenheimer's perspective), Nolan's Oppenheimer thinks to himself that he looks like "Gary F***ing Cooper" when he emerges in his Los Alamos get-up after the Trinity Test. This could also be an embedded reference or inside joke, as Cooper actually played a character loosely based on Oppenheimer during Hollywood's decades-long journey to make a film about the world-famous physicist.

Playing physicist Edward Teller was a huge personal milestone for Benny Safdie

Of all the brilliant minds Oppenheimer manages to frustrate throughout the film, perhaps none are as challenging to him as Edward Teller, played by American actor Benny Safdie. Though the multi-hyphenate artist is likely best known for co-writing and directing the Adam Sandler crime drama "Uncut Gems," he was discovered by Christopher Nolan through one of the director's other recent collaborators — "Tenet" actor Robert Pattinson. The "Twilight" star acted alongside Safdie in 2017's "Good Time" (also co-written and directed by Safdie), which brought the latter's "remarkable presence" to Nolan's attention.

After vetting him with director Paul Thomas Anderson (who worked with Safdie on "Licorice Pizza" and apparently provided a "glowing recommendation" for the actor), Nolan extended an offer to Safdie. This meant more to Safdie than Nolan likely realized, as Safdie had once planned on pursuing a career as a physicist. "There was a moment in my life where it was movies or physics, and I chose movies," he said in "Unleashing Oppenheimer." "So for [Nolan] to come and say, 'I want you to play a scientist in this period of time,' the correlation was just too insane."

Safdie's intimate knowledge of science surely informed the choices he made as Teller, as was apparent to Nolan on set. He told the book's author, "I think [Safdie] is able to portray that Teller's betrayal is not necessarily for entirely political reasons, but because he genuinely believed that the scientific validity in what he was engaged with justified that betrayal."

George R.R. Martin provided set pieces for key moments in the film

Though it seems like basically all of Hollywood pitched in to make "Oppenheimer" happen, it's no less bizarre that certain scenes wouldn't have been possible without help from George R.R. Martin of all people. Throughout the film, Christopher Nolan maintains the relentless pace of his story even during quiet scenes of dialogue partly by staging many of these scenes on trains going in and out of Los Alamos.

Determined to shoot the entirety of "Oppenheimer" in-camera (which is to say, without the use of CGI, green screens, or rear projection), Nolan needed access to a real railroad in New Mexico. Fortunately, Martin — a dyed-in-the-wool New Mexican himself, who's lived in Santa Fe since 1979 — co-founded a private railway that he allowed Nolan and co. to use. You obviously wouldn't be able to notice this while watching the film — when Matt Damon's Gen. Groves is grilling Oppenheimer about his meeting with Col. Pash (Casey Affleck), "A Song of Ice and Fire" doesn't exactly spring to mind. The opposite was likely true for the actors on set, however, as the exteriors of these so-called "Dragon Cars" were appropriately wrapped with images of a bright purple dragon.

The young actors improvised scientific debates at Los Alamos

Christopher Nolan populated his Los Alamos with the real, passionate characters who contributed to the Manhattan Project. From Seth Neddermeyer (Devon Bostick) and Kenneth Bainbridge (Josh Peck) to Lilli Hornig (Olivia Thirlby) and Hans Bethe (Gustaf Skarsgård), these characters turn routine scientific discussions into some of the most engaging scenes in the film. This is due almost entirely to the performances of the many talented actors involved, all of whom researched their characters so extensively that Nolan had them improvise some of these scenes.

In "Unleashing Oppenheimer," Nolan marveled about this fact and shared that when he wanted to film a debate about a certain scientific topic, "[I] could just say to Jack Quaid, who played Richard Feynman, 'Just get in there and argue about that,' and he could." Even when shooting the scripted scenes, Nolan would begin by having the group improvise the discussion leading up to where the script began, creating the illusion for the audience of being thrown into the middle of a spontaneous intelligent discussion. Michael Angarano (who plays Robert Serber) described the absurd level of knowledge amongst the cast as "hilarious," joking that "for a bunch of actors, you have never seen so many World War II-slash-Oppenheimer history buffs than the dozen or so of us talking."

James Remar created one of the eeriest moments in the film on his own

Part of what makes "Oppenheimer" so unsettling is how many world-changing, life-or-death decisions are made by powerful men in tiny rooms who care only about how history might hold them accountable. Arguably the most chilling example of this comes when Oppenheimer accompanies Gen. Groves and several other important Manhattan Project personnel to a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson (James Remar). During the somber yet strangely detached discussion concerning which Japanese cities the U.S. military will choose to decimate with Oppenheimer's weapon, Stimson unwittingly delivers a dark (and somewhat true) joke that Remar himself introduced into Christopher Nolan's script.

As Nolan recounted to The New York Times, "[Remar] kept talking to me about how he learned that Stimson and his wife had honeymooned in Kyoto. That was one of the reasons that Stimson took Kyoto off the list to be bombed. I had him crossing the city off the list because of its cultural significance, but I'm like, 'Just add that.'" Sure enough, in the final cut of the film, Remar's Stimson makes an offhand remark about his family's personal connection to the city. Like the young actors who played the rising stars of the scientific community, Remar's dedication to his brief, singular scene is more evident in "Oppenheimer" than audiences realized when it first premiered.

Christopher Nolan's children were integral to the film

For Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas, growing up during the Cold War gave them a persistent sense of existential anxiety. Thomas said in a behind-the-scenes interview that the potential for nuclear armageddon was "something that we were very aware of," while her husband described it as "white noise" — something so constant and terrifying that you couldn't pay attention to it without going "crazy."

Though Nolan in particular had been interested in Oppenheimer for some time, it seemingly wasn't until his family was discussing him that he and Thomas realized why it needed to be made now. She recalled on camera, "When we were having those early conversations at home about whether or not this was the right film to do next, I remember our son, who was, I think, probably 16 at the time, said to [Nolan], 'Well, I don't think anyone really cares about nuclear bombs anymore.'" This is partly why Nolan's awareness of how present the nuclear threat is today became central to the film's thematic identity, and is also perhaps why he chose to cast his daughter Flora as a young victim of the atomic bomb. Upon a rewatch, when Oppenheimer sees her in a vision during a speech, it's a powerful symbol that nuclear warfare has the potential to devastate the people we treasure most in our lives.

Christopher Nolan deliberately cast one of Hollywood's most recognizable actors in a cameo role

Despite carefully constructing its narrative around the very real feud between J. Robert Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss, Christopher Nolan's film doesn't resolve their conflict the way one might expect. Adhering to how these events unfolded in history, the director chose to rest the climax of Strauss' side of the feud on the adversary who brought him down — Dr. David Hill.

For Nolan, Hill wasn't immediately obvious as the climactic figure of Strauss' senate confirmation hearing until he ventured outside "American Prometheus" and researched transcripts from the procedure. Realizing that Hill had to be one of the most important figures late in the film despite having no natural place as a prominent figure elsewhere, Nolan and casting director John Papsidera took a unique route — casting Rami Malek, one of the most recognizable actors in Hollywood, in what is essentially a cameo role.

"We were trying to figure out how to make Hill distinct, and Rami has one of the most memorable faces there are," Papsidera said in "Unleashing Oppenheimer." Nolan concurred, elaborating that Malek's presence actually makes the fact that his character doesn't speak somewhat foreboding. "You're going to feel that he has a significant part to play," he said, "but you don't understand what it is." Malek's casting is but one example of how — almost a year after the film's premiere — Nolan's "Oppenheimer" continues to surprise us.