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Christopher Nolan Explains the 'Odd' Choice to Write Oppenheimer in First-Person
The filmmaker had a very specific reason for his unorthodox screenwriting style.
Last month, we learned that Christopher Nolan had written his script for Oppenheimer in first-person, creating an unorthodox reading experience for the film's star, Cillian Murphy. Now, the filmmaker has opened up about that "odd" creative decision, why he did it, and what it meant for the rest of the filmmaking process.
“I actually wrote in the first-person, which I’ve never done before," Nolan told Empire while discussing the film's attempts to get inside Oppenheimer's head. "I don’t know if anyone’s ever done it before. But the point of it is, with the color sequences, which is the bulk of the film, everything is told from Oppenheimer’s point of view — you’re literally kind of looking through his eyes.”
Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Oppenheimer biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Nolan's film attempts not just to document the legendary physicist's work as he changes the world through the creation of the atomic bomb, but to get inside Oppenheimer's head and explore the core of what went through his mind as he developed these often dangerous ideas. And sometimes "inside his head" was meant to be literal.
“The first person I showed the script to when it was finished after [his producer and wife] Emma [Thomas] read it was Andrew Jackson, the visual effects supervisor,” Nolan explained. “I said to him, ‘We have to find a way into this guy’s head. We’ve gotta see the world the way he sees it, we’ve gotta see the atoms moving, we’ve gotta see the way he’s imagining waves of energy, the quantum world. And then we have to see how that translates into the Trinity test. And we have to feel the danger, feel the threat of all this somehow.’ My challenge to him was, ‘Let’s do all these things, but without any computer graphics.’”
That desire, to work through Oppenheimer's decisions and ideas often on a literal atomic level, led Nolan to his unconventional screenwriting style. According to the director, absolutely every aspect of the script was written in first-person, in Oppenheimer's voice, right down to the stage directions. It was all in service to the idea that they were telling a very personal, very direct version of one man's story. It was also, crucially, an invitation to the audience to try and place themselves more directly in the midst of Oppenheimer's world-shifting predicament.
"I wanted to really go through this story with Oppenheimer; I didn’t want to sit by him and judge him," Nolan said. "That seemed a pointless exercise. That’s more the stuff of documentary, or political theory, or history of science. This is a story that you experience with him — you don’t judge him. You are faced with these irreconcilable ethical dilemmas with him.”
Oppenheimer arrives July 21. Get tickets now.