This image released by Universal Pictures shows writer-director-producer Christopher Nolan, right, and actor Cillian Murphy on the set of
This image released by Universal Pictures shows writer-director-producer Christopher Nolan, right, and actor Cillian Murphy on the set of 'Oppenheimer.' Image Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP

Christopher Nolan was still sleeping when his film, ‘Oppenheimer,’ landed a leading 13 Academy Awards nominations last Tuesday. Emma Thomas, Nolan’s wife and producing partner, roused him after a flurry of congratulatory messages came through on her phone.

“Don’t take it as being blase,” Nolan told The Associated Press, laughing. “We just didn’t want to jinx anything. Watching the nominations was more than our nerves could take so we just had a restless night and slept through.”

Nolan and Thomas didn’t have much reason to be anxious. ‘Oppenheimer,’ Nolan’s sprawling American saga of J Walter Oppenheimer and the creation of the atom bomb, has more or less been the Oscar front-runner since it made its acclaimed debut in late July. On Tuesday, it earned nominations for of its achievement, including acting nods for Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr. and Emily Blunt.

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Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas pose with their Goldne Globe awards. Image Credit: AP

‘Oppenheimer’ was nominated for Nolan’s direction and adapted screenplay; for Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography; Jennifer Lame’s editing; Ellen Mirojnick’s costume design; Ruth De Jong and Claire Kaufman’s production design; Luisa Abel’s make-up and hairstyling; best sound; and Ludwig Göransson’s score. It came one nomination shy of tying the record for best Oscar nominations ever.

“It’s flabbergasting,” said Thomas who spoke with her husband in an interview a few hours after nominations were announced. “Then we got on with the routine of getting a 16-year-old out of bed, but with a spring in our step.”

Though Nolan is regarded as the big-canvas auteur of his era, he’s never won an Academy Award — nor have any of his films won best picture. He was nominated for best director once before, for ‘Dunkirk.’ But Nolan’s absence from the movie’s biggest stage has often been more notable than the honours his films have collected. After his ‘The Dark Knight’ was overlooked for best picture in 2009, the academy expanded the category beyond five films.

But this year’s Oscars may be leading toward a coronation for the 53-year-old Nolan and a three-hour opus that broke records — and Hollywood conventional reasoning — in grossing nearly $1 billion worldwide. On Tuesday, he and Thomas reflected on the movie’s Oscar success.

Christopher Nolan with Cillian Murphy (Oppenheimer) and Tom Conti (Albert Einstein) on the set.
Christopher Nolan with Cillian Murphy (Oppenheimer) and Tom Conti (Albert Einstein) on the set. Image Credit: Instagram/christophernolann

Do you see the success of ‘Oppenheimer’ as a statement to the industry — which usually funnels big budgets only to sequels and remakes — about what’s possible for an original film made with scale?

Nolan: I grew up loving Hollywood movies and believing studio filmmaking can take on anything. Seeing audiences respond to that this summer was incredibly thrilling and getting this kind of recognition from the academy, I don’t know what to say, really. It certainly confirms our faith in what studio filmmaking can be.

Have you reflected on why ‘Oppenheimer’ has resonated so much?

Nolan: It’s always a tricky thing to try to analyse the zeitgeist or analyse success. We were really interested and excited, in particular, to see young people responding to a piece of history. I keep coming back to the unique nature of the story. I think it is one of the great American stories. It encompasses so much that’s important and dramatic about our history. That gives audiences a lot to hang to, when you get a great group of actors and incredible cast like we have, you can make this feel real and emotionally accessible. That’s as far as I can analyse its success. Beyond that, sometimes you catch a wave and it’s a wonderful and unique thing.

Thomas: Oftentimes, you think of history as being the ancient past, and it’s not terribly relevant to today. But I think the unique thing about the Oppenheimer story is that everything the movie deals with has direct relevance to this moment in time as well. And so I think that’s something that really touched audiences.

Nolan: Yeah, that’s a good point. When I first started on the project, one of my kids said to me about nuclear weapons, people my age don’t really worry about that so much. This was a couple of years ago. With everything that’s going on in the world since, that’s very much changed. We came along right at a time when people were beginning to worry about this again, and worry about the fate of the world. Oppenheimer’s story is so relevant to that — not just the threat of nuclear weapons but also the burgeoning threat of AI and what it can do to our world.

Though your films have often been celebrated by the academy, neither of you have won an Oscar. Does this year feel different?

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Nolan with the lead cast of 'Oppenheimer' during the film's Paris premiere.

Nolan: I think the breadth of recognition that we woke up to this morning is something we haven’t experienced before, and it’s really thrilling for us. It’s a very unique feeling to see the academy recognising all different aspects of the film, from the performances to the technical achievement of the film. I mean, I grew up watching the Academy Awards. It’s the pinnacle of sort of the recognition of your peers.

Do you see ‘Oppenheimer’ as the culmination of your collaboration together?

Thomas: It definitely feels like a film that was made with all the things we’ve learnt together over the years. It all came together on this film. But I’m hoping it’s not the culmination. I’m hoping that we’ll get to make another one. (Laughs) We’re at the midway point!

Nolan: We’re just getting started! With every film, you try to build on what you’ve learnt previous films.