Ruth De Jong
AS: How about “cracking the code” of a script? Production designer Bo Welch said that you get to the point in working with a script where you “break the code” and then you’re off and running.
RDJ: My process is more about allowing the script to be a living document. Allowing it to evolve based on where the director is with it. For instance, with Nope, Jordan was writing continually through all of our prep. The original script I got was nothing like the script we shot. You have to stay very nimble for those changes and for the evolution of the characters. I’m never searching for a code. It’s more an overarching, How do we want this film to look and feel and be? It’s completely organic. It remains nimble. You always have to pivot. For instance on Oppenheimer, we had one actor whose schedule was continually changing. One minute I’m dressing this office in New Mexico and then I’m striking it because it turns out we’re actually filming him in LA. I never want to remain so rigid to a code, because it changes. And then when Chris walked in and said, You’ve got to find DC in New Mexico, that wasn’t in my mind. If I get too rigid I’m less likely to remain nimble and see something that is even better at the end of the day.
AS: You avoid getting locked into something from the beginning.
RDJ: And I would hope too that the director doesn’t get too locked in, and too precious. Chris said, Do not be precious. Today it could be this, tomorrow it could be that. And that allowed us to really get to where we got to with Oppenheimer. It’s a complete evolution from the minute the camera starts rolling in the beginning until the minute it stops in the end. Every day you get new information that adjusts your process.
AS: Do the actors ever have any input on the sets you design?
RDJ: Often with key characters they see the set beforehand and talk to me when they come into the space. Cillian [Murphy, who played Oppenheimer] came in very early on and he’d ask me questions. In real life Oppenheimer had this big painting collection so we wanted to make sure we made art a theme in all of his personal spaces. Cillian wanted to know really specific things, like about the paintings and the rugs. It’s always great when they’re that involved in the space. I like to design spaces so real, like putting things in the drawers because you never know when an actor’s going to just naturally open them up.
AS: Sarah Greenwood recalled Robert Downey JR coming in, saying he needed more weapons in his Sherlock Holmes living space. It became a collaboration.
RDJ: Absolutely. It’s great when the actors get involved, it enriches the whole process. That’s part of the reason I design the way I design. Matt Damon put it this way in a Washington Post article about Oppenheimer:
Nobody is ever, ever, ever going to convince me that this would be better if shot on a soundstage. When you have to go through the journey of getting out to the middle of nowhere in New Mexico and you don’t know what the weather’s going to be or what the wind’s going to do, that all affects the performance. The unpredictability and reality of being out there just gives you something that you can’t get in a controlled environment. [Inside Christopher Nolan’s 57-day Race to shoot Oppenheimer, Yuan, 7/19/23]