Ruth De Jong
The thing about Chris is that everyone assumes he’s this otherworldly presence, that he’s up on a pedestal, but he’s so grounded and in touch with the process of filmmaking. He knows what every single department does and knows its very basic tools.
In addition to buying the Home Depot sheds, we also rented a bunch of trailers that we cladded and then after the shoot we took off the cladding and sent them back to the rental yard. We saved so much (and got so much!)
AS: Then did you end up building the interiors at your Los Alamos location as well?
RDJ: We realized that building out all the interiors there would be too cost-prohibitive. Chris had gone and scouted the real Los Alamos but was really distracted by all the non-period elements, the Starbucks, the stucco strip malls and everything else. Knowing the situation we were in, I did a big scout for two or three days by myself. I just marinated on how we could use the boys school that was sitting there in pristine period condition. Yes, every visual exterior is terrible but I’m inside thinking, We’ve gotta use this interior. Then I went down to Oppenheimer’s real house and thought, We need to use this interior. Then I went down and found an untouched and unused building that had been a women’s dormitory for the Manhattan project. From those locations I put a whole presentation together. I brought it to Chris and said, Look, in the story you’ve got them doing a Christmas party at the Tolman’s house on Bathtub Row and then you need an auditorium for Oppenheimer to announce that the bomb has been dropped, and we’ve got the scene of Groves giving him a medal in front of the school. What if instead of building the boys school we do all of our shots facing the actual boys school and then all of our reverses at Ghost Ranch? And also all of our interiors in this lodge (formerly the boys school). It will be our “town center”, continually bringing the audience back to this meeting place.
Originally we had planned to be at our Los Alamos set for two weeks. Instead we cut it down to six days for all exteriors although we did build Oppie’s office interior/exterior at our ranch as well as some interiors in the T-section. It worked out perfectly. When you see Oppie getting his award and he’s in front of the real Fuller Lodge location and then the reverse is the entire audience at Ghost Ranch (with our epic vistas), it worked seamlessly.
For Oppie’s home at the real Los Alamos, we blocked out a stucco strip mall with greens. We did it all in camera, it wasn’t a paint-out. Then at our Los Alamos ranch set where Kitty’s hanging up the sheets and you see the town in the deep, deep background, those are those Home Depot sheds behind her, standing in for their house.
To continue to save and cut corners, literally, for the T-Section, (our technical section at Los Alamos where Oppenheimer held his lectures and where the most prestigious, important work happened), we built the front to scale — forty feet wide, but built the back only five feet wide! When Chris proposed it initially I said, No way, you’ll take the camera back there and it will look ridiculous! He promised he wouldn’t. He did go back there but used it to our benefit of course! In the behind-the-scenes it’s laughable and you can see all the wackadoodle, Home Depot trailers. When you’re right up on them with a BTS crew, you think, That looks ridiculous. But it was so smart of Chris, the ways in which we were able to save but still have scope and scale.