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Oppenheimer Production Designer Ruth De Jong on Creating Period Authenticity Mostly on Location for Nolan’s Magnum Opus

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A scene from Oppenheimer / Universal (photo by Melinda Sue Gordon)

All the crafts work on Christopher Nolan’s movies tend to be top-notch and of the highest quality, the filmmaker often working with the same people. That is particularly true with the production design of his movies, Nolan having worked with Production Designer Nathan Crowley going back to Insomnia in 2002. Crowley received five Oscar nominations for his work with Nolan (and a sixth for his production design on Damien Chazelle’s First Man), but for whatever reason was unavailable to perform those same duties for Nolan’s latest, Oppenheimer.

That was a fortuitous bit of luck for Production Designer Ruth De Jong, who had just worked with Oppenheimer Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema on Jordan Peele’s Nope, a movie that also takes place mainly in a remote desert locale, but also requiring quite a bit of building. (You can read Below the Line’s previous interview about designing for that film.) In the case of Oppenheimer, De Jong had to research and construct the entire Los Alamos base, where the Manhattan Project began brainstorming on what would be the most devastating weapon the United States could use to end World War II.

Below the Line had another chance to speak with Ms. De Jong about what was involved with fulfilling Nolan’s vision for a movie that could bring her to the Oscar table this year. The production was so serious about the authenticity that it had most of the crew dressed in period costume, so they could remain on set mingling with the extras.

Ruth De Jong
Ruth De Jong (Photo by Christina Gandolfo)

Below the Line: Having worked with Hoyte van Hoytema on Jordan Peele’s Nope right before this, did he make introductions between Chris and yourself? Or did Chris reach out to you separately? 

Ruth De Jong: We were making Nope, and at that time, it Chris was going to go forth and make this film. I wasn’t aware of any of this, but Chris had worked with Nathan Crowley for many, many years, and I think their schedules didn’t align. Hoyte suggested me, and then, asked me, “Do you mind if I share your number with Chris and Emma?” and I said, “Nope, I do not mind.” Hoyte and I just had such a great relationship on Nope with our teams and the way we collaborated. We truly enjoy working with one another, and it was very seamless, and it made sense. Obviously, it continued on through all of Oppenheimer, so it was really special.

BTL: What was your conversation with Chris like? I spoke to Ludwig Goransson, who composed the score for Tenet, and he didn’t know about Oppenheimer until Chris called him up to read the script

De Jong: Emma called to set up a meeting, and I met Chris and Emma at their home office. We just sat outside around the table and talked for several hours. I had no idea what the material was, and it was there in person that they let me know what they intended to do. I just spoke at length with Chris about … he just opened up about the type of film he was looking to make and the subject matter, and the fact that it was [adapted] from American Prometheus. It was just a few weeks from when I actually started prepping that I learned any and all of this. I wrapped Nope on a Tuesday, and I started at Chris’s office on a Wednesday, October 4. It was just one film right into the other, which in a sense was a good thing, because you’re in that mode, and your teams are all up and running. I had never previously done a full-length feature back to back in that capacity, so it was a lot.

Thinking back, I think it’s the best way to have gone into that project, because you’re just fully in that mindset, and there’s no slowing down. It’s only speeding up. [chuckles] Usually [at] the end of a movie, you’re like, “Oh, great, I can take a break,” but that was not the case in my situation. Obviously, we were just so excited about the material, the subject matter, the world building. He wanted to do everything on location, not on a stage, not in a studio backlot, and that is exactly what I prefer to do and what I’m passionate about. It was extremely exciting, and we had just done the same thing on Nope, so I was there and ready to go. 

Oppenheimer
(L-R) De Jong, Hoyte van Hoytema, Christopher Nolan / Universal (Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon)

BTL: You were able to bring over your whole art department from before, concept artists, art director, etc. onto Oppenheimer?

De Jong: Kind of. It’s interesting, because there’s a specificity to each project, and in certain cases, there are certain folks that are a right fit for certain projects just based on what the material is. In this case, the majority of my team came over, yes, but Chris works closely with his designer a good 10 to 12 weeks before anyone else starts, so it was Chris and I one on one. So the team got a break, and also, a lot of the team had already lined up other films before I even knew this… everyone was like, “Oh, what are you doing next?” I was like, “Oh, nothing. Taking a break,” because I had no idea. I brought with me the core of my art department, but we had specific hires. We hired a new prop master, set dec[oration] was a different team, but the core, I would say, was the same on Oppenheimer. A little different within the set designers. I didn’t use any illustrators, didn’t need them, so the make-up was slightly different, but essentially the same

BTL: Is a movie like Oppenheimer easier or harder to design where the locations are real and some existing like Princeton? Do you still have to think about the logistics for Hoyte to film in those locations?

De Jong: I don’t know how to define easier or harder. It’s my preferred way to work, I guess, to be out on location, physically building sets from the ground up and or utilizing sets that are in the real world. I think it’s a much more authentic, real, natural environment that you’re dealing with.

Hoyte, I think one of the reasons we work together so well is how adaptable we are to these environments and how we adjust and pivot and look to integrate what we’re doing with what exists and not fight it. It was a dream come true from my standpoint and a blessing. Essentially, with building the entire town of Los Alamos, we gave Chris an entire backlot that was all his own that we created from the ground up. It was perfectly period, and I intended everything was built to be able to shoot 360. 

There was just a massive playground for them to explore and use and shoot. We were able to build in an evolution of the town growing. To me, it is just the perfect condition to work. Similarly, with the Trinity site that we built, all the bunkers and base camp, and the tower and all of that. Utilizing physical locations that are period, I think what’s nice about being forced on location is there are parameters built in with how Hoyte can shoot it, how I can work with it. With that, it brings a very naturalistic reality.

At the core, what Chris and I wanted to do with this film is have the audience and the cast members just bring them right there in it.  A lot of times, I often feel you’re watching a period film, but you’re separated. “Oh, that’s 1954,” and you recognize that you’re watching it, versus being immersed in it. That was my goal with this design, to really make it as immersive experience for both the cast and the audience. Hopefully, we achieved that.

Ghost Ranch
The Redrock Cliffs of Ghost Ranch / photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons (Artotem)

BTL: As far as the cast was concerned, were they literally living there for months at a time while shooting, similar to the scientists working there? 

De Jong: Yeah, we all were living in the middle of New Mexico, in the middle of nowhere, for that time that we were shooting Los Alamos and Trinity and all the different bits, we were sort of a traveling circus, I would say.

BTL: How close were you to the actual Los Alamos, which is still an existing location?

De Jong: It has been modernized. We were very close, and that was part of the reason we scattered all over and ended up… we knew New Mexico was the exact locale and Los Alamos was the exact local of where everything went down, but the present day Los Alamos is very modernized and there’s nothing period about it. It’s strip malls and Starbucks and you name it. We opened it up, so that we could be in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico – as long as the vista and the plateau, and the essence of what it is and the flora and fauna fit to the actual Los Alamos. The Rockies in general have a similar aesthetic, so we looked Utah and in New Mexico and landed at Ghost Ranch, which is along the same mountain range as Los Alamos, which then enabled us to tie-in period interiors at the actual Los Alamos, Oppenheimer’s house, Fuller Lodge, Bathtub Row. Some of the old period buildings that were built by the Army Corps at the time for the Manhattan Project. We brokered deals with those locations and completely dressed them out and used those as our interiors, and built the exteriors at our Los Alamos that helped enable us to get it all, both interior-exterior, in an affordable manner. 

It was very much in the world of and proximity to Los Alamos as well as the Trinity test site. We were just about 60 miles north, but exactly five miles off the mountain range. You’re seeing the exact same view the scientists were seeing as they were prepping this test.

BTL: The reason I asked about the proximity is because Chris has said that some of the actual current-day Los Alamos scientists appeared as extras in Oppenheimer.

De Jong: Oh, yes. Chris would get those extras to begin debating all these different things, and instead of extras just saying mumbo jumbo to one another, all these extras would get into these epic conversations about theory and physics and fision and hydrogen and atoms. Chris was like, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing.” You go to the actual place, and you have the most incredible extras. That was awesome to have them, and the idea was everyone in Los Alamos – it’s privatized now, but the National Lab is still there – and all of that work is still being done, and the security levels are still incredibly high.

Even for Chris and I to get into certain areas, it took weeks and weeks for [us] to be cleared with the government via our passports or whatever. It was wild. There was no just going past the gate and checking out all the old… They have a lot of it that’s still there behind this very specific gated area, which we would have never been allowed to shoot at, but then they have the massive huge buildings that have gone up since the Manhattan Project where they continue to do all their other work that they’re doing, carrying on from the Manhattan Project, essentially.

(L-R) Hoytema, De Jong, Nolan on set of Oppenheimer / Universal (photo by Melinda Sue Gordon)

BTL: Knowing that Chris was going to shoot using IMAX, as he has a lot of his movies — and I think Jordan used IMAX cameras, too — it’s going to have this huge scope and scale, but it also means you have these wide-angle shots with no people in it. How do you go into this knowing you have to design something that can be shot as if it was in those times before they built up the compound?

De Jong: We had to be very strategic. Having just done Nope, we were on the same IMAX 65, and we had big worlds and big, epic expanses we were covering as well as close-up of the actors and the sets. You just think that way, you work that way. I sort of came up that way under Jack Fisk. One of the earlier films I did, There Will Be Blood, where you’re just out in the middle of nowhere, and you want to give your director 360 degrees. The crew remains very nimble. We are very specific about where we chose to put base camp, and how far away that is. Chris didn’t want base camp or personal vehicles anywhere, inhibiting the shooting and the eloquence of keeping our sets pure. Everybody was very respectful of that, and we kept all of that a great distance away, so it never impacted our sets.

Crew members, the ADs would often dress in period costume, so that they could be out in the middle of the scene directing the scene, but you couldn’t tell. The rest of the crew, for instance, if we were shooting Los Alamos, they were just hiding inside the buildings. It’s not like there were trees and bushes to dive into, so you just had to make yourself small and nimble and know to stay out of the way.

Essentially, we opened set every morning and handed it over to Chris and Hoyte and the cast. The work was done, electrics, everything was rigged. We were shooting in natural light, there weren’t massive lighting setups when we were shooting out at those big exteriors. It really was left to the crew and Chris. There’s no video village or hovering, we don’t have any of that. We keep it very nimble and almost very stealth-like in a way. Chris can choose to change the direction of filming at any given moment, and there isn’t a 30-minute adjustment to move all this crap out of the way.

That’s just something we discussed from the very beginning and made sure that the crew and every department was very aware. They kept their kit small, they kept their setup… like if props had a big thing with food, you name it, we would give them specific buildings to step in, and they could run in and out. They’d be dressed in period costume, so we tried to integrate it very seamlessly so it’s not to waste a half hour moving stuff out of the way, since that would add up over the day.

BTL: Were any of the Los Alamos building interiors usable, or were they just used for the exteriors?

De Jong: We had a few. That was a cost thing. Oppenheimer’s office was a full interior-exterior at Los Alamos in the T-section. You could go in and out of all the buildings. We just didn’t have a laboratory that they’re always going back to and having their debates and where Oppie is giving his lectures. The lecture hall, that was at Los Alamos proper, inside one of the period 1940s buildings, and the Fuller Lodge we used interior-exteriors, but then we shot the exterior vistas, the reverses at Ghost Ranch, when the huge crowd Oppenheimer is addressing when he’s getting that award afterwards.

Oppenheimer’s house down at Bathtub Row, we used the full interior-exterior at the actual Los Alamos, as well as built an exterior facade that you see in that initial scene when he’s driving Kitty through Los Alamos, and they go out down the dirt road, and then he pulls up to the house in the actual Los Alamos. We tried to combine those two locations and set seamlessly, and I think it worked brilliantly. [It] enabled us to get so much more, because cost-wise, it’s very expensive to do that many full interior-exterior builds. We were concerned about having enough building structures, so you would believe that’s what it was.

Emily Blunt (L) and Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer / Universal

BTL: I want to shift gears from the massive set of Los Alamos to the tiny room where Oppenheimer is being interrogated over the course of the movie. Usually, that would be something you’d build on a soundstage and have removable walls, etc. Was that not the case this time? Did you literally just find a place to shoot those important scenes?

De Jong: No, not the case. I think that’s what sets Chris apart. I think the comfortability of saying, “We can build this on a stage and have all the walls move.” All of a sudden, that pulls you out of this moment and this time. In terms of shooting, we were really keen on subjecting Oppie to what this room actually was. We designed this room, pulling directly from the research.

During World War II, the US government built all of these temp buildings on the Mall in DC, and they were these two-story temp buildings. Most of them are brick, but they were up for many years. They’ve all since been torn down, but we had the footprint. We knew where the windows were. We knew how the tables were set up, the chairs, whose legal teams sat where, and the sofa behind Oppenheimer where Kitty was often sitting or whoever was on deck getting questioned next.

Strauss did that on purpose. He wanted to put Oppenheimer in this shitty room, instead of doing it in a normal hearing room, like where his [interrogation] went down. He wanted to just make it miserable, and it was miserable. Chris wanted to do the same thing, and he’s like, “We’re going to be in the space. Myself, Hoyte, and the camera fits in here; nobody else fits in here.” It was incredibly small. 

Most cinematographers would be like, “Absolutely not, this does not work. I’m not shooting this for two weeks in this small, cramped tiny space with all these actors.” That was all purposeful. We could have easily built it on stage – no problem. We knew exactly what it was, but there were very specific directives from Chris, in addition to the look and feel, just emotionally, how it was going to impact the actors in the process of getting those scenes. That’s why we ended up there, and I think it was effective. People watching it realize. It makes you just want to run for the hills when you’re in that room, when he’s getting grilled and Kitty’s like, “Why don’t you fight? How are you just sitting here and taking this crap?” 

It’s brutal to sit there and watch it. Every time I watch it, it’s so painful. I’m glad that was a directive from Chris, because I think my first thought was like, “Oh, I’ll definitely build this, absolutely. This will be the one set that’s on stage, right? Because they don’t exist anymore. Where are we going to find a long narrow crappy turn of the century building?”

BTL: Have you started prepping something to do next or are you in the same holding pattern everyone is in, due to the strikes?

De Jong: Exactly. We are all in the same boat right now. Look, this is important. These things need to get worked out, because the times have changed, the studios have changed their courses. Along with that, all of these contracts need to be updated. I’m hoping by October it all gets worked out, but who knows?

Oppenheimer is still playing in theaters across the country.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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