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SYFY WIRE Oppenheimer

How Christopher Nolan’s Unmade Howard Hughes Biopic Paved the Way for Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer hits the big screen Friday, July 21.

By Josh Weiss
Howard Hughes; Christopher Nolan

During an interview with The Guardian in August 2007, director Christopher Nolan teased his third feature-length effort, stating: "I'm doing a film about the life of Howard Hughes, and Jim Carrey will play the role. It will have strong connections with the films I've already made."

He ultimately abandoned the project centered around the eccentric billionaire/pilot/filmmaker upon learning that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio were partnering up for The Aviator (released in late 2004, the film was nominated for six Academy Awards).

But as Ian Nathan notes in his book Christopher Nolan: The Iconic Filmmaker and His Work, the up-and-coming storyteller was still able to channel the spirit of his unmade biopic into the game-changing Batman Begins. "Nolan would model [Bruce] Wayne seizing control of his father's company with Hughes's combination of dashing spirit and unsteady psyche," writes Nathan.

RELATED: Christopher Nolan Went So Method He Used Actual Scientists as Extras on Oppenheimer

The unrealized movie once again proved useful nearly two decades down the line when the writer/director/producer sat down to pen the screenplay for Oppenheimer (opening in theaters everywhere July 21), a three-hour epic concerning the scientist who led the charge to develop the world's first atomic bomb.

"When I wrote my Howard Hughes script, it was the first time I'd taken on a real-life figure, and I tried working from a book, and tried to find a structural approach that would give the experience of this guy's life," Nolan explained during an interview with Total Film for the magazine's June 2023 issue (now on sale). "I was very happy with that script. Obviously, I did not get to test the theories, because I didn't get to make the film. But in my mind, I go, 'OK, I do know how to do this.'"

He later added: "I think having written the Howard Hughes script was very important to having the confidence to take this on, particularly structurally, and just knowing that if I could find the approach, then I would be able to just dive into the guy's life."


Nolan also confessed that he found the script-writing for Oppenheimer much "easier" when compared to his work on the Howard Hughes biopic because of the earth-shattering effect J. Robert Oppenheimer (played onscreen by Cillian Murphy) had on the second half of the 20th century and beyond. 

"This is the guy who has defined our future for us — literally," he continued. "This is a guy who needs to have a film made about him. That drives the writing. From certain views, you're dealing with the most important shift in life on Earth, for humankind. That's very freeing in the writing sense."

For his star-studded World War II thriller, Nolan relied on American Prometheus, the 700-page and Pulitzer Prize-winning biography written by Kai Bird and the late Martin J. Sherwin. "It's so comprehensive," the director said. "You can't fit it all in the film, but knowing that you have all the information at your fingertips... It's very liberating."

Oppenheimer hits the big screen Friday, July 21.

Jonesing for another thriller based on true events? A Friend of the Family is now streaming on Peacock.