‘Oppenheimer’ director Chistopher Nolan on ‘the danger of knowledge’

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Christopher Nolan. Courtesy of Christopher Nolan

Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s protagonists often find themselves seeking information that ultimately may do more harm than good. This is true of characters in films such as Memento and Tenet, and certainly plays out in his latest, Oppenheimer. The film tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called “father of the atomic bomb,” and stars Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., and Florence Pugh. Nolan tells The Treatment he is heavily influenced by film noir, whose stories are often about the danger of knowledge. He also explains why, for the first time, he wrote the script in the first person, and why the film really needs to be seen twice. 

More: Visit the full archives of Christopher Nolan in conversation with The Treatment

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

KCRW: Let's talk about the theme that runs through your work: this idea of looking to find a piece of information and getting much more than you bargained for — in both narrative and emotional terms, a really big bite of the apple.

 Christopher Nolan: You could characterize it as the danger of knowledge. It's there in a lot of my films. I was talking to somebody the other day about the end of The Dark Knight. Alfred burning the letter from Rachel… so holding that knowledge back from Bruce Wayne. This idea, I think, comes back to my interest in film noir, and thrillers. The danger of knowledge and the idea of withholding knowledge for good reasons, as opposed to for bad reasons. 

The idea that intentions and consequences form a really important part of how we look at these characters in these stories — how we decide who the villains are, and who the heroes are. I've always been drawn to stories where that's confused, and there are layers that are ambiguous. When I looked at Oppenheimer's story, it was the most clearly delineated dramatic example of that type of paradox I’d ever encountered.

The question in your film is about things being binary, and basically finding out by the end that they are not — that these worlds all collide, both literally in this movie, but figuratively so often in these films as well.

[That’s] the great thing about thrillers, the great thing about film noir that I was always drawn to. So I think that whatever genre I've worked in, it carries that spirit of storytelling to it. It's the type of storytelling where character is defined through action. It's a very old fashioned form of characterization in literary terms, it goes back to Chaucer — before the modern novel. [With] the modern novel, psychology comes in. The idea that you, as an author, create fully formed characters like windup toys, and then you let them go to see where they go in the story. It's a more modern notion. 

I think film noir, and the thriller have always looked back to that older form of characterization. Whether you're talking about a fable, or a fairy tale, you're defining character through action. And the reason is, in the film noir (the thriller), you want to be surprised by people. You want them to do things that you didn't see coming, and have that change your perspective on who they are. That's always pushed me in the direction of looking for character and story to intertwine in interesting ways. Certainly with the Dark Knight trilogy, you're looking at Bruce Wayne inventing himself as a superhero figure, and a vigilante figure with great ambiguity in terms of what we're supposed to feel about what he does.

 It's all about immediacy. [Bruce Wayne/Batman] is a character of action, working in the moment. Oppenheimer could not be more opposite than that. In some ways, he’s the intellectual version [the other side to the coin of this very action oriented character]. At the same time, the contrast I found in studying and researching him, and then writing the film is this contrast between somebody who is one of the most brilliant people who ever lived — an extraordinary intellect, clearly able to think way further ahead than most of us, at least in theory. And yet, his actions through his life and through history — particularly as it relates specifically to The Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb, there's an almost willful denial of consequence.

You mentioned the idea in film noir that a character is defined by action. And the modern world in so many of your movies, going back to Memento, intrudes on that — both with characters’ internal fights, and their resistance to the modern world trying to psychoanalyze who these people are. That really comes to an apotheosis here, especially knowing that Oppenheimer has been analyzed as schizophrenic. Were you able to use the disconnect that he may have experienced with reality in shaping your story?

 I think that when we look at movies, we tend to look at it through the prism of the modern novel — in critical terms. So even when people talk about screenwriting, they tend to talk a little bit in terms of the modern novel, those forms of characterization. And cinema has never really thrived on that. There are certain areas, certain genres in which that rises to the fore. But cinema generally has tended to rely more on this more demonstrative form of characterization that we’re referring to. 

Dunkirk was a film where I looked at that mechanism. I said, “Does this allow you to completely strip away the concept of backstory?” It did, to my satisfaction, and the film worked for audiences. So it's that thing of looking at [the material] and saying, “Okay, I'm not writing a novel. I'm not attempting to fully explain or explore every aspect of every character.” We're looking to use the story movements to give you insight, and invite you on the journey of figuring out who these people are. And in the case of Oppenheimer, what I felt I needed to do was to take the audience on this journey with him, and look at things through his eyes. So I wrote the script in the first person, which I had never done before. The stage directions were: “I walked into the room, I sat down, I took my hat off…”

Was that to limit self-awareness? Does removing that omniscient perspective allow you to be more in the moment while writing?

 The screenplay form is wonderfully objective. You can't, or shouldn't really write too much intention into it, because that's sort of cheating. And if you're not the director, yourself, it’s giving the director an impossible task. [For example], you can write into a screenplay that a character opens a drawer, and looks for a corkscrew. Well, that's cheating, because you don't know what he's looking for. They don't have any way of showing that as a director. [But] if you say: “The character opens the drawer, is frustrated, shuts the drawer, opens another drawer, pulls out a corkscrew” — then it becomes clear. That's simple delineation of action and intent, and as you write a screenplay you're essentially writing a list of facts. And I did stay true to that set of rules, but I shifted it into the first person so that I was writing it through his [Oppenheimer’s] eyes.

 Even when he wasn't on camera?

 No, the film has two timelines. They're delineated by color, and black and white. The black and white scenes are in the third person, and they’re more from Robert Downey Jr.’s character, Lewis Strauss’, point of view.

There’s more of a journalistic quality to the black and white segments. The frame size of the film shifts in that timeline as well. This device seems to tie into your larger preoccupation with characters who deal in abstractions. What is the appeal of having characters who live in the abstract having to face the repercussions of their actions in the concrete?

There's a line that reoccurs in the film, which we've used in the ads: “Theory will take you only so far.” With Oppenheimer, I had the chance to really try and dig in and show the interior state of somebody who is brilliant enough to look at physics in a new way, part of this revolutionary movement of the movement from classical physics to quantum physics …

We try to look into that process with him as a young man, and to see him react to objects that we might think of only as solid, “dull” matter. For [Oppenheimer] these things hold vibrations of atoms, waves, and energy that all connect and that's threatening and frightening to him in some ways. It reflects his own neurotic state as a young man. [He’s] trying to figure out how to deal with the real world, while he's almost possessed by visions of this world within our world that is unseen. He's starting to realize [this unseen world] is very real, and will have consequences. That's the thread that runs through the entire film right through the Trinity test, which is the ultimate expression of that destructive power. And then and then through to the end. So, for me, it was finding out how the thread of his own interior state synchronizes with this thread of the atoms, the energy, the strong force of attraction that holds things together. 

There’s a moment in the film where Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer looks at his hands, and appears to be taking in the full weight of the consequences of his actions. There’s a similar turning point at the end of The Dark Knight, which also reckons with technological ramifications, but do you feel like the Oppenheimer moment more reflects a character facing adult responsibility? 

I think you make a good point. But I do feel if you see the film again, [you’ll find] that there's a certain ambiguity to where he goes in the third act and he has an incredibly layered set of motivations.

You're dealing with somebody so much more intelligent than any other protagonist you had to deal with. [Someone] so much more capable of rationalization and denial, because really brilliant people with amazing intellects are capable of creating an entire universe in their minds to justify anything. There's a really interesting scene between Kenneth Branagh playing Niels Bohr and Oppenheimer, where Branagh asks, “Is it big enough to end all wars?” We’re talking about the size of the device they’re building. In that scene is a different brilliant scientist, Niels Bohr, saying very clever things that make sense. But are they rationalizations? Are they the ultimate rationalizations of why to proceed, or why it's okay to proceed? 

Those were the kind of things we found in history that then lend themselves to interesting ambiguities and storytelling. Nothing is simple, no motivations are clear. I was shocked to find in the real world  story of the atomic bomb, a version of Checkov’s gun — if you introduce a gun in the first act, it has to go off in the third act. That's a literary idea, but we found it in history. It's like once they were on this journey, for all the right reasons, they had no choice. The Nazis were trying to make a bomb, fascism was threatening the entire world — they had no choice. Oppenheimer is capable of looking at things in a lot of different ways. I think he was very capable of knowing where things were going to go with or without him. I'll put it that way. There are a lot of interesting mixed motivations going, and that's why I find the story so dramatic. At every turn, we found no clear answers to some of these extraordinary questions and dilemmas.

What I saw in Oppenheimer's real history was a man who was the father of the atomic bomb, who enabled this to happen. He never apologized for his role in that, but all of his actions post-1945 were the actions of someone suffering under extraordinary guilt, and trying to atone for something. And yet, outwardly, there was something he never acknowledged. That disparity was one of the things that most made me want to tell that story. Intellectually, he knows that he can never take on the guilt of what he's done, he can never allow that to happen. He experiments with it at one point, and he realizes that this is not the way to go. All of his actions, and the ways in which he expresses himself for decades afterwards are incredibly precise — truly dancing between the raindrops. But when you look at the actions, and ask why would he be doing this? Why would he be making this speech? Why would he be trying to convince the army to promote tactical nukes instead of the Air Force with genocidal H-bombs? That's the danger of viewing philosophy in terms of language. If a person is a brilliant speaker, they can rhetorically arrive at any conclusion. Two and two can be five. That rhetoric, I think, works on himself as well. 

That moment of Oppenheimer looking at his hands so well conveys the enormous weight of what he’s done in developing the atomic bomb. Cillian Murphy has described being “lost in that moment.” Were you able to feel that from his performance immediately?

 His close up in that moment… It was one of the rare times where everybody watching the dailies was just speechless — truly moved in a way that nobody expected to be. His whole performance is remarkable. But that moment in particular, was just one of those very special moments in dailies. Where you’d been sitting there with your department heads saying [things like] “Hang on, is that in focus?” “Did we get that bit of lighting?” [But after that close up], everyone just sat there not knowing what to say. 

There’s an extraordinary scene between Murphy and Florence Pugh who plays physician and romantic partner to Oppenheimer — Jean Tatlock. Can you talk a bit about the casting process of this film, and how the performances came together?

 Florence Pugh is fantastic in the film, and fantastic to work with. I was so moved by what she and Cillian did together. It is an amazing cast. Obviously, Oppenheimer is at the center of it, and having written the script in the first person I wanted it to be this very subjective telling, that was the dominant kind of order of business. But the people around him, the ensemble, are going to have to be some of the greatest actors there are around. And so Florence coming to the table, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey, Jr., Matt Damon — that group starts to form around him because these are the people that he's being influenced by, and interacting with. In the case of [Pugh as] Jean Tatlock, this is someone who really influenced everything that then happened to him in ways that aren't necessarily apparent at the beginning. There's a fatalism, in that you kind of know where the story's going to some degree. That's the noir of it. That's, to a certain extent, the femme fatale — the subject of obsession. Jean Tatlock was a communist, and told him that. He met her in that context.

You dress Oppenheimer as a noir hero. He looks like Bowie from the “Thin White Duke” period. The clothes are a little bit too big, the shoulders come in before he does, and the brim of the hat is actually bigger than his real hat. Was Bowie a direct style influence on how you decided to present your Oppenheimer?

 Totally, particularly with the trousers. I found a picture of Bowie on tour, and I had another picture of Oppenheimer that I showed [costume designer] Ellen Mirojnick … because when I first gave that reference, I think they thought I was kidding. But when you look at Oppenheimer's trousers, he had these incredible high waisted, very baggy clothes. They were the clothes at the time, but pushed a little further. He was very, very presentational, very conscious of his appearance and how that could empower him. 

He's a self-created icon. It's similar to Bruce Wayne becoming Batman for symbolic purposes, which is how we address it in The Dark Knight Trilogy. We talked a lot — Ellen, Cillian, and myself — about, “When does he start wearing a hat?” “When does he switch from cigarettes to the pipe? “When does all that happen?” We laid it out in the film the way you would in Batman Begins, or Casino Royale as James Bond puts his tuxedo on for the first time.

There’s a Rashomon moment in the film with Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) which could almost exist as a one act play. Is that a storytelling device that you’ve been keeping in your back pocket?

You’re getting dangerously close to spoilers. I know, it's weird to talk about spoilers in history. But hopefully, it's a strong and sincere interpretation. We've tried to really burrow in on the subjective, and how these private conversations might have taken place. Einstein and Oppenheimer had a fascinating relationship. Einstein really did represent the generation to come before. He was the person who opened this door into quantum physics, and then wasn't able to go through himself. He showed the world that classical physics needed to be completely rethought. He unleashed his theory of general relativity on the world as a young man. Our image of Einstein — indeed the one that’s in the film — is the older Einstein with the white hair.

 The point by which he’d become an icon! Oppenheimer saw, as a lot of young scientists did, the iconic power of who Einstein was. Later in the film, Oppenheimer picks up his pork pie hat for the first time, and his pipe. He created his own version of the iconic scientist — took over from Einstein. There’s a cover of a magazine in the 1950s that just had the pork pie hat and the pipe, and everyone knew who it was. I think Einstein had shown him the power of that, and the authority that that could give him in the world. But Einstein also represented somebody who had changed the world, and then had been uncomfortable with the consequences. 

The thing in their relationship that we come back to a few times is the subconscious condescension from Oppenheimer towards Einstein in a way that he eventually gets called on. He sees him as someone who hasn’t reckoned with the consequences of what he’s done. And you don't have to know much about Oppenheimer to see the irony of what’s coming.



Rebecca Mooney