More Details Emerge About Nolan’s Oppenheimer Film – Story, Budget, Release

Christopher Nolan dropped an atomic bomb over the internet when news outlets announced his deal with Universal Pictures for his next movie based on J. Robert Oppenheimer. In the time since, multiple outlets have jumped the gun to reveal new tidbits about the movie, not all of which may be accurate. Details about the film’s plot, release schedule and most importantly, the behind the scenes drama around studios bidding for the film have made their way online. This post is my attempt at pulling together all such disparate information and discussing what makes sense and what doesn’t.

In terms of storyline, Variety states that the movie will detail not just Oppenheimer’s discovery of the atomic bomb, but also his subsequent efforts to oppose the development of the hydrogen bomb while calling for more control over nuclear weapons internationally. This makes it more than just your average biopic wherein you’d expect the story to conclude with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With this revelation though, I can already picture a narrative with multiple timelines propelling the story forward. Three timelines can run in parallel:

  • Oppenheimer’s participation in the secretive Manhattan project covering the events leading up to the discovery of the bomb and the choice to deploy it in Japan.
  • The final days of World War II as the US closes in on Japan and gets ready to drop their nuke.
  • The years following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as Oppenheimer, subsumed with guilt and regret, attempts to restrain or monitor the use of these weapons.

All storylines can coalesce into the bombs being dropped at Hiroshima and / or Nagasaki in a montage of sorts overlaid with Oppenheimer’s “I am become death” quote closing off the movie. In a broader sense, this narrative structure would not be much different than Nolan’s first movie, Following, that debuted in 1999. None of this theorizing about how the plot will proceed is confirmed though – that’s just me speculating on how such a storyline could unravel, pulling off our experiences of watching Nolan’s Dunkirk.

In terms of production, this is touted as being a movie with a $100 million budget, with The Hollywood Reporter citing an additional $100 million reserved for marketing. Including promotions then, the budget of this Oppenheimer biopic comes to around $200 million. It’s unclear how much of this footage will be shot in IMAX but it would be reasonable to assume the explosions would be filmed in 70 mm. Filming could commence in early 2022 for a “late 2023 or 2024” release per Variety due to the requirement of “extensive digital effects”.

Now that last part is what makes me skeptical. Nolan’s digital effects have been gradually reducing; his most recent Tenet had only 280 visual effects shots. Unless the “effects” here implied some extensive research plan in somehow simulating an atomic bomb explosion in a similar vein that Nolan and Kip Thorne worked with VFX artists to render a realistic black hole for Interstellar, I don’t see how this would be a movie requiring that many effects. Another possibility is that Nolan plans to recreate some moments from World War II in the lead-up to the conclusion involving fighter planes and some battles to lend the movie a sense of scale, as Oppenheimer’s story proceeds in the background.

Even so, the most important reason for a late 2023 or 2024 release at this point may have more to do with hopes of the pandemic settling down. After Tenet hauled $326 million at the box-office, Nolan would rather have his movie release in full audience attendance and would be more than willing to wait out the ongoing coronavirus scare. The “late” is rumored to be a November release, making it further likely that this is Nolan’s Oscar-bait movie and his best shot at landing that coveted, well deserved and much overdue Best Director Academy Award.

Lastly, most of the pieces talk about what went on behind the scenes so here’s how things seem to have gone. The relationship between Warner Bros. and Christopher Nolan was supposedly already on thin ice towards the release of Tenet, with Nolan pushing hard for a theatrical release. The final nail in the coffin seems to have been Warner Bros. prioritizing its streaming plans over creative interests, nixing its image of being a filmmaker’s studio. Nolan shopped the film around at multiple studios and naturally, they were all interested.

The studios in the running included Sony, MGM, Paramount, Universal and even Apple. At one point, news outlets rumored that Netflix was interested as well. Netflix chief Ted Sarrandos had responded he’d be more than happy and accommodating to land Christopher Nolan. The respective studio heads all read the script in complete secrecy at Nolan’s place. Nolan’s wishlist included the aforementioned $200 million budget, a theatrical exclusivity window of 90 to 120 days and a 3 week blackout period that would see the studio not releasing any of their films in the 3 weeks before and after the film.

Apple and MGM bowed out of the deal due to the theatrical exclusivity constraints while Paramount lost interest after the exit of studio head Jim Gianopoulus. That left Sony and Universal as the final competitors. Universal won out given its less than lofty streaming aspirations; chief Donna Langley had cultivated an image of courting filmmakers and franchises and being a friendly place for them, essentially emerging as this generation’s Warner Bros. While it’s unclear what the final terms of the deal signed included, Universal seems to have pleased Nolan enough for the veteran director to end his 20-year relationship with Warner Bros. and jump ship.

And Universal would be more than glad. For if Nolan enjoys the experience of working with them, who knows, the studio may have just landed another lucrative “franchise” on their hands, one comprising of a series of unrelated, original films from this generation’s greatest cinematic auteur.