Christopher Nolan on his approach to time in Oppenheimer and this DVD commentary [Exclusive Interview]

There is a huge theme of responsibility and accountability in this film. I know that artistic approaches to real people and historical themes can be almost overwhelming if you allow yourself to be bombarded with questions like, “Oh, but what about my responsibility to the survivors?” or all these other things. Did the book American Prometheus help you overcome this obstacle?

Very. Very. No, you’re absolutely right, and I don’t know what your experience is or what you refer to in your work, but it can be completely paralyzing. I first encountered this in Dunkirk. My solution for this movie was to come up with characters and say, “Okay, I’m researching the bigger events, but I’m just going to come up with fictional characters to take you through the real events.” It was the opposite. It’s like, “Okay, we need to get inside this guy’s head,” if we have the information and research that American Prometheus provided. Martin Sherwin worked on this book for 25 years. Kai [Bird] he has been working with him for the last five years.

It’s funny, I recently talked to Kai in New York. He asked me how long it took me to write the script. And when I actually got down to the point where I actually started physically writing the script, it turned out to be a matter of months. And in his opinion this is a very short period of time. And I said, “Yes, I was in research for 25 years before I started.” [laughs] The thing is, they were… my co-authors had been working for 25 years. So it also frees you up emotionally.

Oddly enough, there is also all sorts of sense of responsibility. There are also legal issues, copyright issues and things like that. Where if you have a book that has everything you need, it’s very liberating. It’s a playground where you play. And you say, “OK, I read the book and I trusted their interpretations of the basic issues.” I thought their approach to it, looking at things from Oppenheimer’s point of view, the balance between the personal and the global, was really good. It really gave me the confidence to kind of delve deeper into the topic. And then I looked further, when I went beyond the book, guided by the content contained in the book, I reached for the primary sources. So I turned to, for example, the minutes of the security hearings, the minutes of the Senate confirmation hearings, and so on. So yes, you don’t want to feel paralyzed. You don’t want to feel overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility. I think you have to exercise a sense of responsibility when choosing a topic and approach and then just do it.


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