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Oppenheimer: How Long Did It Take To Film & What Complications Were There?

"Oppenheimer" is a three-hour-long film that features an incredible amount of special effects — including a very real recreation of the Trinity Test nuclear explosion that doesn't use CGI. Many of the sets are built from scratch, and the sprawling story incorporates dozens of individuals interacting over numerous locations across time and space.

A project this size can take countless months to prepare and many more months to film. For Christopher Nolan and company, though, the entire shoot lasted for a mere 57 days. That equates to more than three minutes of final footage captured every single day — an impressive feat for any film, let alone one this ambitious.

Of course, the less-than-two-month shoot took place after months of preparation. Even then, though, Nolan only gave his crew three months to get ready. "We're not like other big films that prep for months and months and months," executive producer Thomas Hayslip explained in an interview with The Washington Post. "Chris is of the mind that he and the crew need 12 weeks of prep and we'll get it done in 12 weeks, and any more than that is just a waste of time."

To be fair, before preparations started in earnest, the director had spent months preparing the script, which was an adaptation of Oppenheimer's famous biography "American Prometheus." Nolan visited the Los Alamos setting with his son before filming, too, as a source of inspiration to help him complete the script. The pair took in the sites, did some location scouting, and the passionate filmmaker even jumped a fence to take pictures of Oppenheimer's old abode while his offspring stood watch. In the end, though, once shooting started, the driven director would only give his team a little over eight weeks to get the job done.

A race against time

Before filming, Christopher Nolan had a few tough decisions to make, starting with Los Alamos. To properly recreate the 1940s feel of the isolated outpost of life in the barren New Mexican landscape, Nolan knew he would have to recreate Oppenheimer's desert headquarters himself. The original Los Alamos was too transformed by time and tourism to be a good candidate for its on-screen equivalent. Instead, Nolan started from scratch, building an entirely new set north of Santa Fe on a retreat center called Ghost Ranch.

Nolan and his wife and production partner, Emma Thomas, began prepping their production team in September 2021, roughly six months before filming started. Winter building was slow, and the weather held things up at multiple points. Between the frozen ground and snowy construction conditions, the set was barely completed in time for filming to start on February 28, 2022 — less than 18 months before the film's release date.

In the end, the group would have just six scheduled days to film at the New Mexico set location. They flew through this initial period and then moved on to film scenes in select locations in the original Los Alamos town on March 8. Throughout this arduous experience, Nolan's disciplined approach and structured on-set expectations, clearly refined over the course of a prolific career, helped keep his crew focused and inspired.

The on-set Nolan filming experience

In the above-referenced Washington Post interview, it's made clear that one of the most important aspects that made the microscopic shoot window for "Oppenheimer" successful was the director himself. Christopher Nolan stayed laser-focused during principal photography. He followed a daily structure that ensured everyone was getting plenty of sleep and spending time with their families. He personally followed an immaculately predictable routine that even included walking onto the set at precisely 7 a.m. every morning, eating bacon, avocado, and an omelet.

During filming, everyone was encouraged to stay focused and in character. They arrived in costume, and the use of modern technology was discouraged. Bathroom breaks were allowed (the lavatories were kept close by), but other than that, it was all filming all the time for every second of the 57-day sprint.

Emily Blunt, who plays Oppenheimer's wife, Kitty, in the film, commented on the experience, saying, "Chris's sets can seem strict going into it, and then you realize it's about placing the movie first. Every scene is so dialed in, because everyone's been conversing with each other. No one's been sitting in their own isolation looking at Instagram, distracting them from what they're doing. I found it the most focused, collaborative experience of my career. I just ran to work. I loved it."

The conditions were intense, and the time was short, but the results speak for themselves. Nolan is a master of his craft, and he clearly doesn't waste a minute of his time, even when he's tending to a personal project that he had spent months dreaming up beforehand.