How The Dark Knight Trilogy Prepared Christopher Nolan For Directing Oppenheimer

After Christopher Nolan completed his "Dark Knight" trilogy in 2012 with "The Dark Knight Rises," the director returned to telling stories whose protagonists didn't have quite so much pre-existing baggage. Though he primarily worked on original stories like "Interstellar" (taking over from Steven Spielberg's vastly different version), and "Tenet," Nolan also delved into historical accounts with 2017's "Dunkirk," which saw the director carrying the burden of historical accuracy while also telling an engaging story. Now, Nolan once again faces the pressures of adequately bringing a well-known figure to life with the upcoming 2023 biographical film "Oppenheimer." 

The key difference this time is that J. Robert Oppenheimer is someone who existed in real life. The life of Oppenheimer is one that's been accounted in detail by several biographers and historians. While the caped crusader came with hefty expectations, it's a character open to interpretation. The real-life father of the atomic bomb has an entirely different kind of responsibility that comes with his life story. Yet with so many resources to pull from when researching a historical figure as famous as Oppenheimer, Nolan found the experience "strangely similar" to his time spent delving into DC Comics.

Hitting the books

In the cover feature for the 2023 Preview issue of Total Film, Christopher Nolan talked about the work that went into creating his Batman movies, and the vast ocean of comics he and his team had to pull from:

"When I was working on the 'Dark Knight' trilogy with my collaborators and taking on Batman, we availed ourselves of the enormous amount of wonderful work done by writers and artists over the 75-year history of the character. So there was a body of work and a wealth of information about this character that we were drawing from."

When it came time for Nolan to tell the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, he found himself at a point similar to his development process for Batman. There was a wealth of accounts and documents that would allow Nolan to properly delve not just into historical accuracy for the timeline of events, but also into the mindset of the physicist and his reasoning going into the creation of the atomic bomb:

"With Oppenheimer as a real-life figure, about whom so many things have been written — there are so many different interpretations of what he did, and why he did it — the process was strangely similar."

'It was such a thrill to be able to call Cillian and say, 'This is it'

Christopher Nolan's films have some truly intimate character work on display, though it's sometimes overshadowed by all the high-concept sci-fi. With "Oppenheimer," there's more to it than just the standard of staying truthful to history that comes with (almost) all biographical works. For Nolan, it's about creating an engaging interpretation of a man who shaped the world, and it's not too dissimilar to how he dove into creating his version of Bruce Wayne:

"It's taking on an iconic figure who's been reinterpreted in many different ways over the years and trying to find our version of that — our truth behind that at the heart of it. It was a process that I was actually very familiar with."

Even when it came to casting the role, Nolan took it as seriously as he did with casting Christian Bale as the caped crusader. Nolan worked with Cillian Murphy on his entire "Dark Knight" trilogy (where he played Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow) as well as "Inception" and "Dunkirk," but only as part of the supporting cast. When taking on a project as big as "Oppenheimer," Nolan told Total Film he was confident in placing the responsibility of the lead role on Cillian's capable shoulders, and glad to finally have the opportunity to do so:

"I've always known since I first met [Cillian Murphy] — however many years ago it is now, almost 20 years — that he is one of the great actors. Not just of his generation, but of all time [...] And I've been waiting for the project, and I know he has too, where we can collaborate with him as the lead, and I could put the enormous weight — cinematic weight — on his shoulders, and watch him carry that burden. It was such a thrill to be able to call Cillian and say, 'This is it.'"

While we shouldn't expect a trilogy of "Oppenheimer" films, Nolan fans can trust him to deliver a visually impressive biographical account of one of the more famous physicists in history who changed the world — for better or worse. 

Oppenheimer arrives in theaters on July 21, 2023.