Why Christopher Nolan Let His Actors Improvise in Oppenheimer

The ‘Barbieheimer’ wave seems to have engulfed the entire world, and amidst all this, Cristopher Nolan reveals some million-dollar secrets about Oppenheimer’s filming. 

Based on the life of the legendary physicist Robert J. Oppenheimer, the film boasts an exceptionally star-studded cast, including Cillian Murphy, Florence Pugh, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Kenneth Branagh, and Robert Downey Jr. Upon its July 21 release, the film has been met with positive reviews from viewers and critics alike, and some have even gone on to say that it’s Nolan’s best work to date!

Cristopher Nolan has never been a director who uses a run-of-the-mill script and slaps some CGI to make a film. From crashing a real Boeing 747 to destroying uncountable million-dollar IMAX cameras, the man is known to leave no stone unturned to make every frame ‘just perfect.’

Why Christopher Nolan Let His Actors Improvise in Oppenheimer
Nolan Crashed a Real Plane in Tenet | Source: IMDb

However, Oppenheimer is a lot different from his previous ventures. Instead of dealing with impossible physics paradoxes and hypothetical space-time continuums, the film explores the different shades of human emotions in a controversial biopic.

In an interview with The New York Times, Nolan explains the creative liberty he gave to his cast while shooting the film.

Nolan had already instructed the cast to do thorough research on their respective characters and allowed them to improvise in certain scenes. According to him, this created a continual element of surprise, both for him and the other cast members. Check out his full quote below: 

Each actor was coming to the table with research about what their real-life counterpart had been. They had tons of homework to do. [Laughs] They had a great resource with “American Prometheus.” They then did their own research and what it meant for me, which isn’t something I’d ever really been able to do in the past. So, for example, with the scene in the section classroom with all the scientists, we would be able to improvise the discussion. The script is there, but they could come into it with passion and knowledge based on all of their own learning.

It was a continual process of surprise. Sometimes you’d have a really invigorating discussion about what’s really going on, because this is a story where people’s behavior, political or personal, is riddled with ambiguities.

For example, there’s a moment where James Remar, who played [Henry L. Stimson, Truman’s secretary of war], kept talking to me about how he learned that Stimson and his wife had honeymooned in Kyoto. And that was one of the reasons that Stimson took Kyoto off the list to be bombed.

I had him crossing the city off the list because of its cultural significance, but I’m like, just add that. It’s a fantastically exciting moment where no one in the room knows how to react.

Why Christopher Nolan Let His Actors Improvise in Oppenheimer
The Cast of Oppenheimer | Source: IMDb

This creative process is fascinating, especially considering that Nolan hasn’t done enough work in this genre. As already stated, the director’s work has been predominantly sci-fi, i.e., something you won’t follow without a pen and paper!

However, Oppenheimer is the first biopic that Nolan has taken on, and it makes sense that the real-life research done by every cast and crew member be thorough.

Thankfully, Nolan’s leadership is backed by an exceptional cast. Murphy’s co-stars have raved about Cillian’s unparalleled dedication to the role and his voracious research on Dr. Oppenheimer. Considering Murphy’s history with Nolan, it makes sense for him to immerse himself fully into the part.

The dedication wasn’t limited to him, as all other cast members dug up on their respective characters and left no stone unturned. For instance, James Remar’s understanding of Kyoto’s role provides a great insight about a character that can only be discovered through meditative research.

Why Christopher Nolan Let His Actors Improvise in Oppenheimer
Cillian Murphy, Christopher Nolan, and Hoyte Van Hoytema in Oppenheimer (2023) | Source: IMDb

Although Nolan had a giant team of researchers excavating facts 24×7, he understood the value of first-hand research for the actors to get into the skin of the characters. 

This extra mile is what makes Nolan’s filmography different from the rest and captures the ambiguous complexity that is paramount for a story as dark as Oppenheimer.

Want to know how Oppenheimer was shot? Read the article below!

P.S. It’s the first film to have ever been filmed in a certain way!

About Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer is a movie written and directed by Christopher Nolan. It’s based on the Pulitzer-winning book ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer’ by the late Martin J. Sherwin and Kai Bird. The movie is produced by Nolan, his wife Emma Thomas and Atlas Entertainment’s Charles Roven.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was a theoretical physicist who is now considered the Father of the Atomic Bomb. He was responsible for the research and development of the first nuclear bombs, later called the Manhattan Project.

The biographical movie by Nolan sees Peaky Blinders’ star Cillian Murphy essaying the lead role of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The movie released in theaters on July 21, 2023.


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