The Rough Cut: The Editors Behind Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer”
For Oppenheimer, the editing team of Jennifer Lame ACE, Mike Fay, Nick Ellsberg, and Tom Foligno applied their collective storytelling talents to film technology both old and new. While Jennifer and Mike worked to shape and refine Christopher Nolan’s story into an instant classic, Nick and Tom were tasked with mastering a hybrid film and digital workflow to make the most of Nolan’s brilliant 70MM IMAX footage.
Based on the 2005 biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, the film chronicles the life of American theoretical physicist and polymath J. Robert Oppenheimer. The story predominantly focuses on Oppenheimer’s early studies, his direction of the Manhattan Project during World War II, and his eventual fall from grace after his 1954 security hearing.
This is juxtaposed against events surrounding Oppenheimer’s relationship with Lewis Strauss, a senior member of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, who sees Oppenheimer as a rival. It stars Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer and Robert Downey Jr. as Strauss, with the remaining ensemble supporting cast including Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, and Kenneth Branagh.
In our interview with the Oppenheimer editing team, we discuss…
- The beauty of awkward people talking in rooms
- Keeping up the pace on a three-hour biopic
- Whistling past the biggest scene in the movie because you already know it will be great
- Bringing film workflows back to life, bigger than ever
- Loving Chris Nolan’s “all business’ approach in the cutting room
Check out The Rough Cut podcast to listen to this interview.
Editing Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer
Matt Feury: Jen, what was your reaction to the Oppenheimer script as well as the concept and how Chris pitched it to you? With the pedigree of Christopher Nolan and the cast, you can bet that this is going to be an amazing movie, which it was. Did you have any concerns about taking on this project?
Jennifer Lame, ACE: I read the script and I loved it. No, I had no concerns about taking on the project. I was working on another movie, so I had concerns that I wasn’t going to be able to do the project. Mike Fay actually helped with cutting scenes so I could come on late.
My only concern was that I wasn’t available when Nolan told me about the project. I had taken another movie, but he let me come on late.
My whole thing is people in rooms talking. Tenet is not my thing. When Nolan told me about the project and I had already taken Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, I slammed the table and said “Are you kidding me?” He actually said “I’m about to make a movie with people in rooms talking.”
I hadn’t read the script yet. Nolan wouldn’t tell me what the script was about. We just had lunch and he said “I’m working on a script with people in rooms talking” and I said “That’s all I want to do!”
That was the only conflict, that I had already taken Wakanda Forever. But he was really kind to work it out. I went on an epic search for Mike Fay, which was really stressful because I had to find someone that Chris would like, who understood working with film, and who could handle the stress of a dailies trailer.
John Lee, the first assistant editor, had left. I was in a major quandary. I had to find somebody. It was only my second movie with Chris Nolan. John had been with Chris for, how many movies? All of them?
Nick Ellsberg: A lot of them.
Mike Fay: Since Batman Begins. So, fifteen years?
Jennifer Lame: Since Batman Begins. So, Chris was used to John. It’s a workflow that nobody understands and John is so detail-oriented.
It was on me to find the right person, which was crazy because I was working on Wakanda Forever. I was trying to find someone who could fill in for me as well as a replacement for John Lee. It was quite stressful.
“There was a moment where I thought I just shouldn’t even do the movie, because I didn’t want to be responsible.”
There was a moment where I thought I just shouldn’t even do the movie, because I didn’t want to be responsible. If they didn’t like the person I found, I didn’t know what I would do. It was really stressful.
MF: It’s funny, you wouldn’t think that a show like Ballers would have anything to do with a film like Oppenheimer. Yet, somehow, it does.
I know Jen’s origin story with Christopher Nolan. For all of you guys, I don’t see any common projects with Jen. I’d love to know how you got on this film. Somehow, you all know each other.
Why don’t we start with you, Nick? How did you get this gig?
Nick Ellsberg: You’d have to go back five years, when I worked on John Wick: Chapter 3 with Evan Schiff, ACE. I started that movie in New York and Evan convinced me to move to LA to continue working on it.
I sort-of knew Mike Fay from New York, but he had moved to LA a long time ago. He was working on John Wick 3 as the VFX editor. Tom Foligno is also a New York guy who moved to LA. He had filled in for Mike and ended up coming back on the project as an additional VFX editor.
We all became really tight on that job. Since then, I’ve only worked with those two guys.
Mike Fay: He cannot get away.
Nick Ellsberg: We all went on to Ballers after that, which was in the same building at EPS-Cineworks. Then, Mike got a call about Ghostbusters: Afterlife with Jason Reitman.
Mike asked “Nick, do you want to do Ghostbusters?” and I said “Yes, I want to do Ghostbusters!” Then we both got called by Evan Schiff to do Bullet Train. Mike was VFX editor on that. I was the first assistant editor.
At the tail end of Bullet Train, Mike called me and said “Look, something big is coming up. I can’t tell you what it is yet. I don’t want to jinx it. But if this is happening, do you want to do it?”
I thought “What could it possibly be? What’s bigger than what we’re doing right now? I bet it’s a Chris Nolan one.”
Mike Fay: Yeah, you totally figured it out.
Nick Ellsberg: What could be bigger than that?
Mike told me “I want you to come on and handle the Avid side.” There’s a whole long complicated story that I’m sure the other guys can fill you in on how everything came into place.
But Mike was the General Groves of this Manhattan Project, assembling the dream team.
MF: Mike, Nick did a great job. But fill in the rest of the blanks. How did you get on this super-secret film that you couldn’t tell anybody about?
Mike Fay: It’s weird. We all have this New York connection. Jen is a former New Yorker, I am a former New Yorker, so is Nick, so is Tom. We had a whole cadre of us on this film.
Jen reached out to me in November of 2021. She had gotten my name from some friends. She asked me about doing Oppenheimer and she broke down what she needed. My predecessor, John Lee, had been working with Christopher Nolan and Lee Smith, ACE for fifteen years. John was really this rock in Chris’ world that kept his workflow running. John’s amazing.
Then John started cutting. John moved on and Jen was looking for someone to take over. But she also needed someone to cut while she was finishing Wakanda Forever.It was definitely daunting. The workflow itself is very challenging. The prospect of having to cut dailies and assemble as much of the picture as I could before she came on was daunting as well.
“As daunting as it was, I wanted to jump in. I had to do this.”
When I read the script, I knew that this was a special project. I knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of project. As daunting as it was, I wanted to jump in. I had to do this. As soon as that happened, my mind went to Nick and Tom. I thought “Who are the guys that I know and trust? If I’m going into battle, who do I want with me?”
It was these guys. I’m so happy that we’ve been able to stick together and go on to other things, and that they were able to do this. It was a dream team. It was a dream come true. I couldn’t be happier.
MF: Tom, what was your reaction to getting that phone call? What were your thoughts going into this project, about how you needed to prepare for it?
Tom Foligno: I think Mike had me down for possibly working as another Avid assistant. Then Nolan’s long-time film crew decided not to come back and a lightbulb went off. I might have been talking to you, Nick, and he said “Wait a second, you worked in film before, twenty-five years ago.”
When I started, it was nothing but film. There were no computers at all. We did everything on film, sound as well as picture. Mike asked me and I answered immediately. I didn’t even have to think about it. I said “Whatever you’re involved in, I want in. I don’t care what it is.” I didn’t read the script. I couldn’t read the script. They wouldn’t let you read the script. I saw the script come in as lined scripts.
Each day, I read the piece that they filmed and pieced it together. I never really had a script to read, per say. But I could tell as it was coming in that this was something very special. I guess I backed into this film thing. It wasn’t what I intended to do. But I think it worked out. I really enjoyed it.
Nick Ellsberg: Tom said something at the time and I’ll never forget it. Mike was explaining what was involved in this project and Tom said “Hey, I’m not afraid of this.”
It’s because he had been through ten years of the Scorsese-and-Thelma-Schoonmaker camp. He had been put through the paces. He already knew everything he needed to know.
MF: During the downtime, did you guys all ask Tom what it was like to work on Casino?
Mike Fay: Of course.
MF: That’s what I would do.
Tom Foligno: What a great show.
MF: Mike, in this situation where Jen is coming on late, is there a process that you have to go through to get her integrated into what’s already taking place?
Mike Fay: I was basically assembling as much as I could, preparing for when she joined us. I was getting her to a place where she would be able to take everything that I had done and do her pass.
When Jen joined in the middle of May, I had about 110 minutes ready to go. There was still a lot to do. She came on and started working through what I had not gotten to. Then, she was working through everything that I had done up to that point to familiarize herself with all the footage and get ready for Nolan to walk in the door.
MF: When I was watching the film, I noticed the pacing. It’s a three-hour movie but it moves so quickly because you’re constantly, seamlessly transitioning from one thing to another.
Jennifer Lame: When you’re dealing with a three-hour biopic based on a ginormous topic and a ginormous book, pacing is a problem. That was always a problem we were faced with. A lot of people thought earlier drafts of the movie felt too fast, which is hilarious because it was longer than three hours for quite a long time.
How do you make people feel like they’re not being rushed through something, but also make this not a four-hour movie? It was never really close to four hours, though. I think the assembly was three. Do you remember what it was, Mike?
Mike Fay: I want to say it was three hours and twenty-five minutes, or something like that.
Tom Foligno: I think it was closer to that.
Jennifer Lame: Cutting out twenty-five minutes in this type of movie is not easy. How do you not make people feel rushed, but also make them feel like they’re on this journey? How can they connect with the character when your pacing is quite hurried, in a way?
Not hurried, but the movie is fast-paced. You don’t want people to feel like they can’t sit in a scene and feel like they’re connecting to everything. There’s also a lot of tricky information. There’s McCarthyism, the atomic bomb versus the hydrogen bomb, fission versus fusion, and Robert Downey Jr, the Senate aide, getting on a cabinet of a presidency. It’s a lot. It’s not easy information to digest. It was very challenging.
Mike Fay: Jen has an innate talent for taking all of this material and making it brisk. I remember when you started, Jen, watching you immediately leap in and start working and simplifying, condensing and getting things moving.
I think you were going off of the feeling you got when you read the script, which is this sense of speed and urgency. You were putting that into the film. That was an amazing process to watch as you dove in and just started just going to town.
“Chris Nolan knows that about me, so when he saw the length of my cut, he was actually worried.”
Jennifer Lame: I come from a school where your first cut is a fine cut. I’ve never assembled a ‘long cut’, if that makes sense. Chris Nolan knows that about me, so when he saw the length of my cut, he was actually worried. He thought “Oh, Jesus, if your cut is three hours and twenty-five minutes then we’re in trouble!” He knows I already cut things tightly because I come from that Noah Baumbach, fast-talking world.
I usually work with directors who don’t watch assemblies. So, you put the movie together as best you can and cut scenes. I have the whole movie ready to go, but it’s not like you’re assembling, where you’re putting in music and sound effects and throwing long shots together.
I try to cut the scenes as best I can and then put them together and not worry about sound and music. Chris knew that about me from Tenet.
MF: Nick, give me an example of how the cutting rooms were set up for audio and picture.
Nick Ellsberg: This was a unique situation because Mike and I actually went on location. Mike started working on it way before I did. He was there during the early days of pre-production. He was very involved in camera tests and meetings with Chris and the producers.
What people don’t realize is that Chris Nolan screens dailies every day on film, on set. That is a huge logistical challenge that’s also really worthwhile. It’s really fantastic. This was the first film ever to interlock Pro Tools to play back uncompressed audio with film projectors.
We did it for dailies and then we ended up using it all throughout the director’s cut. We used the legacy bi-phase port on the SYNC HD hardware and made that sync up to our film projectors. We were able to use that to screen work prints before we had a DTS (Digital Theater Sound) track.
One of the first things we had to do was figure out “Where are we going to set up the cutting rooms, which will also be the film cutting rooms?” We were going to start by having everyone together and then, when we go into production, move everyone to a house that Nolan has to edit. There, we were able to keep the film room separate, because they need a lot of space.
We toured different locations and ended up working out of Digital Vortechs, who has provided Avids for every one of Chris’ films. They are a great vendor.
But then we had to figure out where we were going to work when we were in Santa Fe, which was going to be the bulk of production. Mike was frantically speaking to production coordinators, saying “We have to find a condo somewhere to set up a room.” We ended up having to really figure things out on the fly.
Everything worked out perfectly. The editing process on Chris’ movies is such an operation and such a machine. He likes to do things the same way every time.
Going into post-production, everything was already decided. “This is where it’s going to be. This is how you’re going to set it up. This is the equipment you’re going to use.” There wasn’t a lot of guesswork. Nobody needed to ask “What should we do this time around?”
It had already been decided, which was nice. We made some tweaks and changes throughout the production process. But basically it was “This is the facility you’re going to work at. This is how we set it up.”
Much of the location footage was shot at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico.
Mike Fay: During production, we were moving every two or three weeks. If the company moved, we were following along behind them. Looking back, on this show I had the most Avids that I’ve ever had in my life.
MF: Never enough, Mike. Never enough.
Mike Fay: Right, exactly. I think I had fifteen different Avids, from the condo in Santa Fe to the office in Albuquerque to the back of our dailies trailer, cutting on an iMac. I’m used to having a home base as an editor, where it’s your little nook where you cut. But on this show I was a nomad. We were nomadic, moving from place to place. Out in the middle of the desert, in the back of an 18-wheeler, which was our dailies trailer, where we screen dailies. I put an iMac in there.
Digital Vortechs was amazing with their support for us. We were moving all the time to these far-flung domestic locations, but they still got us what we needed when we threw them curveballs. They were fantastic.
Nick Ellsberg: Can we just give a quick shout out to our huge team? I’d like to acknowledge them by name. On the Avid side, we have Scott Ross, who has been invaluable. He also worked on almost all of Chris Nolan’s films going back to the Batman days.
We also had Jay Trautman and Ed Marsh, VFX and extractions editor, who were awesome. They were so great. In the film room, working with Tom, we had Mike Wilson, Ray Boniker and Andrew Blustain, who went above and beyond. I can’t imagine getting through this process without them.
Mike Fay: And James Brewer as well. An amazing team.
“He spent a lot of time writing it and he knows that he shot it, so he expects that it will be great.”
MF: This movie moves so quickly because of the intercutting that you do. It’s a bit of a nonlinear narrative in different time periods. Is that kind of nonlinearity liberating to work with, because maybe there’s more flexibility to play with the story? Or is it more challenging?
Jennifer Lame: I think it’s a little bit of both. I tend to work with writer-directors, which is fun, because the film is their baby. But I feel like most writer-directors are okay with killing their babies, to some degree.
The movie is very much Chris’. He spent a lot of time structuring that script before it was shot. The intimidating thing about those scripts is making it all come to fruition. He spent a lot of time writing it and he knows that he shot it, so he expects that it will be great. A lot of those sequences and that structure is built into the script.
Then, once we put it all together and get it working, we sometimes move things around. It’s liberating as an editor to have this great script that I can then just dive into and play around with.
All of the cutting between the timelines is in the script. I’m not making that happen. I just put the scenes in the order Chris wrote. It was actually helpful that I wasn’t on a shoot. I was able to come in and say “This doesn’t make sense. This is a little confusing.” I had fresh eyes, so I was able to point out a couple of problems.
Chris’ scripts are pretty tight in terms of what he shoots and what we edit. When you move things around, it’s a big deal. It’s fun, but it’s also quite difficult.
MF: Something else that has gotten a lot of coverage is how this film was shot in 70mm IMAX. How did you manage the different formats in the cutting room?
Tom Foligno: That’s the trick. I worked in the film room, which was actually in another place. It was between where they were cutting the film on the Avid and where the lab was processing the film.
We had a big place where we would store all that film. There were a lot of different formats of film. We primarily shot with the IMAX 15 perf and the 5 perf/70mm. VFX also shot some 35mm, which we incorporated into the show as well.
Also, the IMAX 15 perf and the 5 perf/70mm were both black-and-white and color. That was a whole other challenge because shooting black-and-white 70mm had never been done before.
Mike Fay: 65mm. I think they may have done it on the original Tron to shoot background plates.
Nick Ellsberg: Doesn’t count.
Mike Fay: Yeah, not the way that we did it.
Tom Foligno: There were some problems, but eventually we got through it. The dailies all had the earmarks of a real classic picture in the way it was shot. I worked for Scorsese a long time ago, when he was shooting on film. He would rarely shoot two cameras. Christopher Nolan never shot two cameras either. It reminded me so much of that.
The way it was coming in and the way Nolan was shooting it gave me a feeling of “Oh my God, this is going to be really great. I haven’t seen this in a long time.” I stopped working for Scorsese a long time ago. I came out to LA to work on TV shows that shoot with three cameras.
The mindset is “Just get what you can!” It was so great to see somebody still doing this kind of filmmaking. I was really happy to be on this show. And, somehow, I remembered how to do all that stuff with the slicers and synchronizers and benches. I could still do it.
MF: Thank God. Let’s jump forward into the digital realm. Nick, does it place any burden on you as the assistant to manage those film elements in the Avid timeline?
Nick Ellsberg: Yes. Luckily, we were standing on the shoulders of giants. John Lee and Eric Lewy, our predecessors, had worked out systems to keep it all straight. We inherited some of that, which we ended up adapting and using.
On the film side, it’s readily apparent which format you’re holding. The 5 perf/70mm looks a certain way, for example. We never handled the IMAX 15 perf film. It was always a 35mm reduction. But you can physically hold it and see that it’s a different format.
In the Avid, a master clip is a master clip and takes are takes. We would have things telecined in their native projection aspect. Then we would change it, depending on how we were viewing it, using resize tools in the Avid. Using Avid’s color-coding system, we could clearly label what was an IMAX shot, what was a 35mm shot, what was a 5 perf/70mm shot.
MF: I saw a DGA talk between Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino said that working with 70mm film meant that he didn’t have to cut as often because there’s so much information in the frame.
Did you feel that like when you were working with this format? Does it feel like you want to linger a little more with a shot because of all that detail?
Mike Fay: No, I don’t think so. When you screen the print, no doubt it’s beautiful and you’re aware of the increased resolution. But when you’re cutting it, I think you’re really following the characters. You’re following their eyes and you’re following the story.
The quality and resolution of the footage is a little less important. I think Tarantino, with The Hateful Eight and some of his 70mm pictures, is going for a larger kind of composition, a different kind of approach. I think Chris Nolan’s approach is very much like what Jen was saying, “Keep the story moving.”
For that, we’re constantly moving forward and cutting all over the room. Lingering in a shot because of its quality or its resolution was secondary.
Nick Ellsberg: There are some moments in the movie where you lean on the IMAX. There’s Jen’s favorite shot of the movie, where the three guys on horseback are going up the mountain. You can lean into a shot of a huge vista and find little details in it. It definitely lends itself to that.
Christopher Nolan and Hoyte Van Hoytema, ASC did not treat Oppenheimer like a nature documentary. The pace is absolutely not impacted by just wanting to sit back and look at how beautiful the vistas are. But that is a built-in landing pad that’s available to you.
MF: With digital, I can do as many takes as I want. Do you find that it’s different with film, especially with IMAX? Does it feel like you’re getting less coverage?
Jennifer Lame: Nolan still shoots a good amount of takes if he needs to. He doesn’t let it hold him back. Not to speak for him, but I think Chris does like constraints. That’s why he likes the film process.
There’s boundaries and there’s limits and he works within them. He uses them to be creative. It’s really nice. I’ve worked with directors that shoot insane amounts of footage, so it’s nice to work with someone who has constraints and uses them. It’s just so fun.
Mike Fay: Our loads on the IMAX 15 perf had a runtime of about three minutes. As soon as that camera is rolling, they are into the action.They get into the scene as quickly as possible.
It is refreshing to get back to a set of takes that are condensed down to just what’s needed. It’s not “Let’s reset. Go back to one and do it again.” I think we did a reset here and there, but it was very rare.
It was always cutting and then resetting. Takes would not run on forever. Nolan is very thoughtful about what he’s shooting. He gets what he knows he needs. Yes, he’ll get the number of takes that he needs. But in terms of setups, he’s very aware of what he’s getting. He’s not just shooting five cameras to cover it.
Tom Foligno: You would get very thoughtful footage. Nolan is very economical. It was never about just throwing stuff against the wall. They knew exactly what they needed and they had great actors who could nail it in the first couple of takes.
Working that way means you don’t have to shoot that much. Then, when you’re editing, it’s really great because you don’t have a hundred choices for cuts. It’s just there. “I like this take.” That’s it.
It makes it a lot easier for everybody if you have a director who is a master at making movies. That’s what I think Chris Nolan is. I’ve seen it a few times in my life, but not very often. This is one of them. I’m really happy about it.
Jennifer Lame: Chris is so efficient. He is obsessed with time. That’s what I love about working with him. I’m sure these guys can speak to it, too.
Dates never move. We hit our dates. We have certain weeks for everything. He is so efficient on every level of the process, not just with shooting the movie. It goes all the way to finishing the movie. It’s so incredibly refreshing to work with the director who does not move dates. We do not move previews. We do not move picture lock. We do not move sound mixing.
On every other movie I have been a part of, those dates are always in flux. They’re always moving. Not moving them allows you to be incredibly creative because you don’t have to worry about the timing. You don’t also have to think “This could go on forever, we could change things forever.”
We had screenings every Friday. It was an adrenaline rush. I was hyper-focusing in a way that I’ve never hyper-focused on a job before. It was just really fun.
MF: It’s interesting to hear you say that, Jen, because you hear so much from Nolan’s actors about the production process. They talk about how structured and almost austere it is on set. Everybody is really there to work.
Does that change the way you work in the cutting room?
“It’s so nice to show up to work every day and feel like you’re going to get a lot done. That’s a good feeling.”
Jennifer Lame: Every minute we’re in the room, we’re working. We’re still talking. It’s not unpleasant. In fact, I find it really pleasant, especially as you get older and you have kids and you have a family. It’s nice to know that, from the minute I get there to the minute I leave, even if we’re not physically editing, it’s all going towards working.
I really appreciate that because our jobs are hard. They’re long hours. We all have families. It’s not easy. It’s nice when you work with someone that’s respectful of time. Every minute you spend there, even if you have to stay late, you know it’s for a reason. It’s so nice to show up to work every day and feel like you’re going to get a lot done. That’s a good feeling.
MF: Visuals of particles and waves pervade the film. You’re really looking at the world from Oppenheimer’s perspective. You’re almost seeing the things that he is imagining. Were there any guidelines you followed in terms of how and when to use those visuals?
Jennifer Lame: Those were written into scenes, but it was a creative process to figure out when to cut those in. I would say that montage was very free-flowing. I remember recutting it completely on a Saturday while hanging out with Chris, cutting it, talking, and playing.
All of that stuff was really fun. It was creative and exciting. Chris is fun to do that stuff with, because he just wants you to play. He’ll just say “Give it a play” and wander out into his backyard and come back forty-five minutes later.
All of that was about feeling the rhythm. It’s very hard to talk about editing on some level, because you just have to throw yourself into the character’s brain and try things. It’s trial-and-error. Once you get it, you realize “Oh, that works. Now I feel like we’re actually going inside his brain.” It doesn’t feel like an edit I just made. You have to keep trying until it feels organic and not like you’re telling somebody to feel a certain way.
Because I did Manchester by the Sea, I had a feeling for what that was like. That was the first time I really played around with time and it was stressful. It’s hard. The big lesson I took from Manchester and working with Kenny Lonergan is, when you play around with time and you cut back and forth, it can’t feel manipulative. It has to feel emotional. There’s so much trial and error involved in making sure that that’s how it feels. It’s a little hard to talk about. Or it’s not very fun to talk about.
“When you play around with time and you cut back and forth, it can’t feel manipulative. It has to feel emotional.”
That’s why I do so few interviews, because it’s such a hard, weird thing to talk about. It’s like talking about playing the piano. You just practice a lot and you get better at it. Sometimes it’s boring to talk about.
MF: Editing is like anything, you practice and you get better at it.
Jennifer Lame: Yeah.
MF: It’s not just the visuals that are nonlinear. A lot of audio elements are too. The one that stood out to me is this foot stomping sound. You don’t even know it’s feet stomping. It almost sounds like a slow train approaching. It’s finally revealed to be a crowd stomping while they are listening to Oppenheimer’s post-bombing speech. What was the origin story for that element?
Jennifer Lame: That was definitely in the script. Can’t take credit for that.
Someone who can speak to the footsteps is Mike, because he was tortured by those footsteps. That was written to be an audio motif in the script. Chris recorded a ton of it live in that room. All the sounds you hear are from those people.
Mike had to constantly make stringouts of that. It was so challenging. There’s always something in every Chris Nolan movie. I’m trying to think of what it was on Tenet. It was all the backwards and forwards audio. There’s always something like that.
Every time we made a cut, Mike would have to make his steps again. He was the step man. I could never do it. Chris would say “Just call Mike. Call Mike” because you had started it before I came on with that teaser.
Mike Fay: We shot a whole bunch of that, but we needed to be able to have control over the time and the tempo and how and when it ramped up.
The interesting thing about it was the crowd had an inherent sense as to when they wanted to accelerate themselves, which was pretty quickly. It doesn’t linger and then go like that train, a slow ‘chugga-chugga’. That’s how we wanted it to go.
It was about trying to take all the recordings we had of it, which is all production. We maybe did some foley footsteps.
Jennifer Lame: I don’t know if we ever used it.
Mike Fay: It may have been for sparse moments here and there. We had to mine all of those takes to elongate and stretch and build it, so Jen and Chris could have different speeds and were able to slowly build it up.
Tom Foligno: It’s the spine of the movie. We call back to it throughout. You hear it in the middle of the movie when they’re around that table looking at the charts that tell them where they could bomb things and how much they could destroy. That stomping comes back a bunch of times in the movie. Even at the end, I think, isn’t there something at the very end?
Mike Fay: Yes, during the climax in Room 2022.
Tom Foligno: That was very intentional from the beginning. It was in the script. And I think it was like a real character in the movie.
MF: Something else that’s in the script is the Trinity sequence. I think people are going to remember that for a long time. It was beautifully done and just so tense. I loved every second of it. But I can’t imagine that every single visual was scripted out.
Jennifer Lame: I’ll give you the honest story behind that. I don’t know if you remember this, Mike and Nick, but when I first assembled the movie, I breezed past that section because it would have taken so long.
I only had four weeks to assemble the entire cut. Then Chris got Covid, so that was great. Then I got Covid separately from Chris, so I got an extra week. But then I made it. I finished the entire cut. He told me I didn’t have to.
But I breezed past that section. I made a short cut of it. It’s so funny, because we screened it for Emma (Thomas Nolan, Christopher Nolan’s wife and producer). Chris likes to screen for Emma very quickly. She said “Wow, that was amazing for a first pass.”
Chris and I had worked on it together for at least two weeks. It wasn’t just my cut. But we skipped over Trinity because he said “I know this part is going to be great. We need to work on the other stuff.” I remember Emma reacted by saying, “That was so great. But I was a little underwhelmed by Trinity.” We literally hadn’t cut it, and we didn’t tell her. I wish I had that version. I wish I could watch it again, because it’s hilarious that she saw it like that.
“That was so great. But I was a little underwhelmed by Trinity.”
Chris and I waited to cut that sequence because he knew that it was going to be great. That’s his thing. He’s so good at that stuff. That’s another reason why it’s so nice for me to work with someone who’s still confident like him, because he wasn’t worried about it.
Chris said “We’re going to do it together and it’s going to be amazing. But we need to focus on the story and shaping the characters.” I forget what week we finally sat down. We took a few days to sit down and we did it together.
It was really, really fun because Chris is so good at it. My background is not in creating action and tension. I’m still learning that. Chris is an amazing teacher because in all of his movies, that’s his thing. He’s so good at it.
So we did it together and I added what I could add to it. It was super collaborative. Chris was never judgmental. We did it together and it was so fun. It was one of the most fun things to cut with Chris because I did not have time to do any of that on my own. He is just a master at building tension like that.
MF: Jen, you said that your wheelhouse really is being in rooms with characters. What is it you love about that? Would that be one of your favorite scenes in the film, something that took place in the small room?
Jennifer Lame: I cut a very long version of the Casey Affleck scene. I was very proud of it, and Emma loved that scene when we first showed it to her. But it definitely got shorter. That’s what I’m into. Two amazing actors, awkward tension, so many layers of what’s happening in that scene. Cillian Murphy’s performance in that scene is so incredible.
It’s the only time you see Oppenheimer being nervous and twitchy. He plays it so well. And Casey just delivers that perfect bad guy. He’s so good. I love that. I spent way too long on that scene during my assembly, as well as the Truman scene.
I just love that stuff. I don’t know why. I think that’s why I love editing. I like human interactions. Those are my favorite scenes to cut.
Nick Ellsberg: Awkward human interactions.
Jennifer Lame: Awkward interactions, yeah. My specialty.
Tom Foligno: How we know.
Jennifer Lame: There were so many amazing scenes for me in the movie. I could have spent three weeks just cutting that scene with Casey and Cillian, although I can cut them quite quickly because I love them so much. But I just want to keep mining the footage. I love it.
It’s the same with the Truman scene. I was giddy to show Mike my cut of the Truman scene. That’s the kind of stuff I spend way too much time on.
MF: If you need an awkward moment cut, call Jen Lame.
Jennifer Lame: Yeah. Call me. I’m trying to think of others. I have so many. Every scene in Room 2022. I love that. The whole last section of Room 2022 is so great. I love every scene with Lewis Strauss (played by Robery Downey Jr.) Strauss is my favorite character. He’s always acting one way, but then he reveals himself. Then the question is, how sympathetic do you want people to be? How do you want to reveal him?
I found the different layers of Strauss’s personality, his psychology, to be incredibly fascinating. I actually feel for him. I don’t see him as a straight villain like some people do. I really like him. I have so much empathy for him.
I see him as this Willy Loman character who thinks that he’s good at playing this game that he’s not so good at. I really love him. I love that character. Every scene with him, I loved.
MF: After every film, you should take away something with you. You should learn something. What did you learn from working on Oppenheimer?
Jennifer Lame: It’s funny, because I came on late. I was really nervous about doing the assembly in four weeks. I usually never come on late to a project. Most editors I asked said “It’s horrible. Don’t do it.” I was really nervous about it. But I actually thrived. I really loved it. I feel like this was one of the better assemblies I’ve ever cut, even though it was done in such a short time.
I had such a short time frame instead of the whole shoot. I only had around three or four weeks. It taught me that, even though it was difficult and I was convinced it was going to be terrible, it was actually great. That’s not a new lesson when you work on movies. Every time you think something is going to be terrible, it’s usually not terrible.
Oppenheimer taught me that I could be really efficient with my time, which is something I struggle with sometimes. I was able to lock in and get it done in those four weeks. I was proud of myself for doing that because I was incredibly nervous coming on late.
I also loved the script so much. I didn’t want to let Chris down. He was doing me a huge favor by letting me come on late. I don’t know if that’s a lesson I learned, but it’s something I took away from it.
MF: I think that counts.
Nick Ellsberg: I’ll say that when I started working in editing fifteen years ago, film was still the standard. The very first job I did on a movie was to pick up a film can and bring it to the cutting room. That was the last time I ever had any exposure to film, after that very first foray. Even if I worked on movies that were shot on film, it was a fully digital finishing process.
On this one, it was extremely edifying to have the experience of being able to learn how to do all this stuff. It was always in the back of my mind, but I didn’t have any first-hand experience with it. To really learn the process was amazing. Shooting on film, finishing photochemically, and in these two incredible formats, the 5perf/70mm and the IMAX 15 perf, I never thought that I would ever have an experience like that.
There were definitely growing pains while I was going through it. Some things you just have to learn the hard way. But now I wish every job could be done this way. The end result is incredible. There’s nothing more satisfying than knowing you were part of such a large team.
It helps that the movie is amazing. But it also looks amazing. It sounds amazing. There’s nothing that compares to that. Seeing the answer print go up for the first time. Wow, that’s a journey.
MF: Tom, I can’t imagine there’s anything new you learned about film, but I could be wrong. What did you learn from working on Oppenheimer?
Tom Foligno: What I learned was, what goes around comes around! Don’t put away all this old stuff. You’ve got to retain it, because it could come back any minute, and it did.
I’m just happy to learn that there is somebody out there who is still trying to make movies like this. It’s not just that Nolan made it on film. I think that Oppenheimer is very different from all of its other movies, to tell you the truth.
“This one really is a classic movie that just isn’t made anymore.”
This one really is a classic movie that just isn’t made anymore. It increases in value because of the way it was made. When everybody else goes and watches it, it’s just another movie. But we saw it happen. The way Nolan goes about it is a master filmmaking class. I’m just glad I was there and I could take it. And I got paid for it.
Mike Fay: You got paid?!
Nick Ellsberg: Oh, wow. I should have gotten paid.
Tom Foligno: Did you get all your checks yet?
Nick Ellsberg: No, not yet.
Mike Fay: I gotta submit some time cards.
For me, it really was on two fronts. To echo what Nick and Tom have said, I started in 1998 at the beginning of the digital revolution in New York. It was indie cinema. Film rooms were rare. It was usually a single Avid shared by an editor and an assistant cutting a picture.
I did film dailies on one show in 2002 with Mark Goldblatt, ACE, on a show called Bad Company. It was immensely educational, learning how to sync dailies and do dailies screenings every day. But I largely avoided working in film. Part of me thought I wasn’t going to get that opportunity.
Then Oppenheimer came around and it was honestly refreshing. I’ve done countless digital shows, challenging digital shows. But after a while, it really just gets to be more of the same. I’m interested in the technical challenges that we are faced with, but it becomes more of the same.
That’s what was really fascinating about this show, diving in and learning to master a completely photochemical and optical filmmaking approach. I would love to see other filmmakers embrace that photochemical finish because the products you can get from it are just beautiful.
Not to get too cheesy about it, but there’s this intimacy with the original camera negative. It was in the camera, printed through, and then you screen that print for someone. It’s just beautiful. I would never have gotten this opportunity if not for Christopher Nolan and his approach.
That’s on the technical side. On the editorial side, we had such varied, beautiful performances in this movie. We were constantly trying to eke out the subtext of the show. The thing that I learned from watching Jen and Chris work is that you can always abbreviate down. You can always get more from less. It was beautiful to see their approach to this, how they wrestled all the material down to such a captivating format. That was really educational.
MF: Captivating, that’s a great word to close out on. There is no doubt that the imagery in this film, this 70mm IMAX, is captivating. That said, I think it doesn’t matter what it was shot on. This is just an amazing picture. You all did a collectively brilliant job.
Like many people, I have a lot of reverence for Christopher Nolan and his work. He’s always trying new things while still embracing older technology, which I love. He’s always impeccably dressed. Tell me at least once he came into the cutting room in a tank top and flip flops.
Mike Fay: No. Not once.
Nick Ellsberg: He dresses for battle, that’s for sure.