Ruth De Jong

But Chris was clear—We are not making a documentary. I needed to divorce myself from the research so we could create our own “Los Alamos”. After all, Chris said, We’re selling popcorn. From our conversations breaking down the script visually, we set out to scout all of Oppenheimer’s former stomping grounds, regardless of whether we would actually be shooting there or not. It was important we know them, see them, experience them together, as they ultimately influenced our choices later on. We went to Washington DC, New York City, I.A.S. (the Institute for Advanced Studies) in Princeton, Berkeley, New Mexico—Sante Fe, Los Alamos and White Sands Missile Range. 

The very first thing he wanted to tackle was nailing down what our Los Alamos would be. He was very clear that he wanted to build it and it needed to be 360º, but we couldn’t replicate Los Alamos exactly because it was so massive. They had about four years, two billion dollars, and the Army Corps of Engineers from the US government starting in 1942. I had none of that! They had an enormous amount of money, time, and resources and a whole team to execute it. I had a team to execute it but very little time and a finite budget! We’re putting numbers to it and we’re way over what we knew could be afforded and executed in the time we had. I did these architectural, white foam-core models that were ¼ scale. It was so big we had to actually put it up in the backyard of our offices. We’d walk around the table with Hoyte [Van Hoytema, DP] and Chris and it was like our own Monopoly game. We started plucking from the model, asking, If we lose all of these, does it still work, feel expansive, and give us what we need? Ultimately, we ended up exactly where we needed to be, nothing more, nothing less. And Chris and Hoyte shot every inch of our Los Alamos, giving us the scale and scope, for the right price. 

The original goal was to build the entire interiors/exteriors on our “Los Alamos” ranch location. So we could have our own backlot essentially, uninhabited, uninterrupted. Knowing we were shooting in IMAX and 65mm and wanting the epic, epic expanses. It needed to be on a plateau. So Chris and I scouted Ghost Ranch. It was a ranch outside of Abiquiu, New Mexico. I knew about it from previously designing a tiny indie western and recalled it could potentially be a solid fit.

Chris knew he wanted to be up on a plateau but it didn’t have to be as drastic as the real Los Alamos. We had to be able to access it. We had to be able to get a crew in and have our infrastructure. The views when we got up on that plateau were incredible and epic in all directions. We brought Hoyte out after we found it and we all agreed it was insanely cinematic. 

AS: Production designer Nathan Crowley told me that when he did the Dark Knight movies with Christopher Nolan they would also prep together before anyone else was on board. He said they’d even go into Home Depot together and find odd parts to help make models of various Batman vehicles.
Funny you should mention Home Depot—that must be a common theme with Christopher Nolan! When I was deep in the budget crunch with the town, he was like, What about Home Depot sheds? They’ll be great in the deep background, as forced-perspective shapes for us. And I was literally like, You are telling me to purchase a Home Depot shed? Never had I heard that in the history of my career! The art department started laughing. But he was dead serious. And that’s exactly what we did! 

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