Oppenheimer © Universal Studios

Building the epic backdrop to Oppenheimer

As Christopher Nolan’s biopic of the scientist behind the atomic bomb sweeps the awards circuit, we speak to production designer Ruth De Jong about how she helped bring Oppenheimer’s world to life

Ruth De Jong is discussing the stomach-churning moment during the making of Oppenheimer when she had to tell film’s director, Christopher Nolan, the news that their location for the White House had fallen through less than a week before they were due to shoot it. “I said, ‘We’ve lost the White House’, and he goes, ‘Well, I guess you’ll have to build it’,” she recalls. Thinking on her feet, the production designer and her team somehow managed to source a flat-pack Oval Office set, secure a stage at Universal Studios and build the entire thing in just five days. “I didn’t know if there’d be enough hours in the day. Even if you have 24-hour crews, you’re putting an entire Oval Office together, the seams have to be cinched, it has to be perfectly plastered. It was a true feat.”

The seemingly impossible is a concept at the heart of what is arguably one of Nolan’s most ambitious pieces of cinema to date. Starring Cillian Murphy as Robert J Oppenheimer, the sprawling biopic tells the story of the 20th century figure often referred to as ‘the father of the atomic bomb’ from his own perspective, exploring the burden of being the individual behind a triumph of human ingenuity that ultimately led to seismic and destructive ramifications for the entire world.

Oppenheimer’s release last year was met with a mixed response from critics. Some of the more negative reviews noted the film’s cursory treatment of female characters including Kitty Oppenheimer (played by Emily Blunt) and psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), while others claimed that the film trivialised the US nuclear attacks on Japan during the Second World War. Despite this, it quickly became the highest-grossing biopic ever at the box office, thanks in part thanks to the accidental marketing genius of the Barbenheimer double bill. It has also swept up on the awards circuit so far, winning the coveted Best Film and Best Direction gongs at the BAFTAs and earning 13 nominations ahead of this year’s Oscars.

Oppenheimer © Universal Studios
All images: Oppenheimer © Universal Studios