Ahead of the BAFTA and Oscar awards ceremonies, we sat down with Oppenheimer editor Jennifer Lame to ask – how do you edit a film about the end of the world?
For a director famed as much for his precision-filmmaking as his fondness for temporal shenanigans, it’s odd to discover Christopher Nolan brought Jennifer Lame onto Oppenheimer months after production had started.
It’s testament, perhaps, to the trust Nolan had in Lame after their work on Tenet – if she can put together the pieces of a palindromic action thriller with her sanity intact, surely she can edit anything.
Oppenheimer, however, wouldn’t be without its challenges. We spoke to Lame about her unconventional way into the project, the difficulty of editing particle physics, and the anxiety of nuclear Armageddon. Just a quick chat, then.
How did you get involved with Oppenheimer?
Well, I’d done Tenet with Chris. But obviously, that’s only one movie. Like, I didn’t know if I was gonna do another one. He’s a man of few words, so you don’t really know. But I got a call from him just to have lunch, have a check in. And he mentioned that he was working on something. He said, “It’s a lot of people in rooms talking”, and I was sold.
But I’d already committed to Wakanda Forever, but because we had worked together on Tenet, he was okay with me skipping production, and him and Ryan Coogler are friends, so he didn’t want to tear me away too soon. And then he called me to his house to read the script, kind of like when he calls everybody to read the script.
So did you have any idea what the story was going in?
No no no, he doesn’t tell you anything. I honestly can’t remember if he mentioned Oppenheimer’s name. I think I just went in and read it.
Just, “It’s lots of people talking in rooms”?
Yeah, it was crazy. And then you read the script at his house, and then you have to immediately go talk to him. So, you know, you have to hurry up. Yeah. But also take it in, because he’s gonna immediately ask you a million questions. But it’s kind of exhilarating. Because when someone emails you a script, it’s not much of an event. You read it wherever and then you call them, eventually. So there’s something kind of fun about the way he does it. I really appreciate it.
What was your first reaction on reading the script?
So I purposely – no, not purposely, I just hadn’t read the book. So I was actually really relieved because I had no existing relationship to the material in a good way. I knew the basic story of Oppenheimer, but in America, they don’t really teach much about him. And as I read the script I realised why, because he’s such a controversial figure.
I was riveted. “Wait, he was a communist? He was really liberal? I just assumed he was a super conservative guy that invented this horrible thing. And then I was so invested in the Strauss-Oppenheimer friendship, or kind of weird rivalry – how petty it was and how vulnerable Strauss was. And so right to the very end, I just tore through it.
What was it that really attracted you to the project then? Because you’ve both got such varied filmographies, from superhero films to horror with Hereditary… Was it just the chance to work with Chris Nolan again?
Yeah, I mean, Tenet was very difficult for me, I’ll be honest, because it was so out of my comfort zone. But I really enjoy working with writer-directors. And I’ve basically worked with only writer-directors, I think, which is kind of a unique thing. I find that they really love the editing process, because it’s almost like another writing pass. I also find that even though they wrote the material, a lot of people assume they’d be very precious, but they’re not. They’re very malleable, and they’re so close to the story, they’re really invested.
I have once worked with someone who wasn’t a writer-director, and there’s kind of a distance there, you know? It’s more like, this is my movie. And that’s the script.
The other thing about being an editor, I think, is a big part of doing your job is establishing a relationship. So I really like working with people more than once. And so by the end of Tenet, I really hoped he’d hire me again, because by the end of it you finally get into a rhythm and you finally get to know the person and understand how they work. You already have that, you know, relationship.
You can definitely tell that relationship’s working from how precise the film’s pacing is – it’s relentless, was that something you were really trying to capture?
I think for me as an editor, my fear is always about making things too rushed, right? Because I think you can lose an audience very quickly there. I was always very self-conscious about the first twenty minutes because there’s so much happening, and I never wanted people to feel so overwhelmed that they checked out, you know? But I think what’s so great is that the movie can handle the pacing that we gave to it, because the whole concept and the whole story were so relentless. I think the fact that a lot of audiences feel that anxiety and dread is great, because that’s what that time period was like, it was just non-stop.
Did your relationship to Oppenheimer change during the editing process?
It’s so funny. My initial reaction to the script is very much how I related to the movie, which is rare. Often you read the script, you absolutely love it, and then you’re chasing that feeling, and you can’t ever find it. But with this movie, I feel like I actually found that initial hit that I got.
My favourite character was always Strauss. I mean, I love Oppenheimer. But there’s something about Strauss that’s so vulnerable, and so sad. And, yeah, obviously, he does bad things, but I don’t think he’s a bad person necessarily. When I read the script, I found him funny – his whole relationship with the Senate aide, his performative nature, and I actually find really emotional when he doesn’t get the cabinet position. And Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is so heartbreaking. And the fact that he can break my heart after he’s been such an asshole for the last 50 minutes of the movie is so amazing.
So I assume Tenet will have been a bit of a trial by fire with this sort of thing. But Nolan plays around with time so much. Even in Oppenheimer, which compared to Tenet, I suppose it’s a much more narratively straightforward thing, but you’re still jumping between two or three different timelines. How do you balance those in the edit? Without going mad, ideally.
Well, luckily, I had kind of done it before with Manchester By The Sea. That was really difficult because it was the first time I’d worked with flashbacks and different timelines. The thing that I found more intimidating with this project was the visualisations, because he wrote a lot of that stuff into the script. Like, how are you going to show the world he’s imagining an atom, you know, without it being cheesy?
So we had to cut that stuff to make it feel really visceral at first, almost horror-esque. And then it slowly comes into place. But it’s this motif throughout the film. And we didn’t ever want it to feel forced or a gimmick. It was really hard. Locking that in, and really attaching those images to Oppenheimer as a person was really challenging.
I’m glad to hear you were talking about a horror element from the start, because the thing that stood out for me on the second viewing was how terrifying I found the whole film…
I think that kind of developed over time. What was interesting was, when I read the script, I had a reaction that I think a lot of people had, which is like the first part is this coming of age, almost kind of like a superhero origin story. Then the middle part is kind of like the heist, right? Gathering the team and then executing the bomb. And then the third part is like a courtroom drama.
So we never actually said or spoke the word horror. But when we started editing, it became very clear that that imagery had that horror feeling to it. And maybe that was a good thing if we scared people – it scared Oppenheimer.
And as we just worked on the movie over time, I think we both… It’s a very disturbing subject matter. I think the horror elements just came out naturally because of our relationship to the material, because we would sit and have talks about, you know, nuclear warfare and what we’re going through in the present… I think that stuff just naturally came into it.
So would you say your relationship with the material changed? I suppose it’s a big question, but being in that world of nuclear weapons and deterrents for so long…
I mean, it’s funny, because when I was a kid… I’m a child of the late eighties, early nineties. So growing up, the Iraq War happened, Saddam Hussein, all that. So I was always kind of obsessed with nukes, thinking someone would use them and being terrified. And then I went through a long period, as we all did, where I thought everything was fine. Then obviously, the Russia-Ukraine thing happened. And now we’re dealing with what’s happening with Israel and the Middle East…
Just talking to Chris, and he’s a science, statistician kind of person. He’s very into all that stuff. And, you know, he would say things like, there’s so many bombs in the world. Statistically speaking, at some point, one of them will go off. It’s hard to shake that idea that there’s so many of them out there. I definitely had some nightmares. And you kind of see that in the movie.
The second half of the movie is way more disturbing than the first because we can’t stop it now. Oppenheimer does his best to slow them down, and they say: “Well, now we have to build a bigger bomb”.