Jennifer Lame’s filmography prior to 2020 might not directly lend itself to the notion of cutting together two of Christopher Nolan’s densest, most timeline-bending works. Having made her bones editing deeply personal dramas, such as Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, or several of Noah Baumbach’s comedy-dramas throughout the 2010s, her pivot into the world of Ari Aster’s supernatural, mind-distorting horror Hereditary in 2018, was perhaps the first sign of Lame’s versatility as an editor.
Being brought on board Tenet proved to be an immense challenge – as Lame herself will tell you – yet one she handily proved herself capable of rising to the occasion for. It’s a tremendously edited film that juggles an otherworldly number of moving pieces and timelines which go backwards and forwards with near abandon. It may be Nolan’s densest work, yet Lame’s hand makes it all come together in a watchable and compelling way. Oppenheimer might not unfold in reverse at any point, but it jumps across multiple time periods – the 1920s, the late ‘30s, each year of World War II, 1949, 1954, and the early ‘60s – inside the head of both its titular protagonist, and that of its antagonist, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). It shifts from black and white to color, swaps aspect ratios in a motivated but incessant manner, and has to hold the audience’s attention amidst all of that for a whopping three hours.
In the wake of Oppenheimer’s miraculous success as an artistic achievement – to say nothing of its explosive success at the box office – we sat down with Lame to dive deep into many topics, from her process of editing this singular masterwork, to what it was like making the leap from the likes of Marriage Story to Tenet, to how much of Nolan’s vision is in the script vs. what is revealed in the edit. That and more down below.
Griffin Schiller: First of all, I wanted to get your take on why you feel people were so receptive to Oppenheimer and why they were willing to sit in a theater for three hours to watch a historical biopic, which isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to market, and even went in for repeat viewings.
Jennifer Lame: I had no idea what was going to happen. And usually, whenever I work on a movie, I can never think about how it’s going to be received. You just have to make the best movie you can. But I think that I was hoping that people would have the same reaction to the finished film that I had when I read the script, which is that I did not know a lot about Oppenheimer. I didn’t really know much about his story. I knew nothing about the whole Strauss thing and the hearings. So when I read the script, I just found it unbelievable, like a thriller. I ripped through it, which doesn’t always happen. And the way you read a script with Chris is you go to his house, you read it, and you have to talk to him right after. So that can be nerve-wracking, but I mean, I completely forgot about that when I was just reading it. It was like reading a novel or something. So I think for me, when it was received so well, I was relieved that people felt the same way about the movie that I did when I read the script, which is that it’s just this amazing story. And I don’t think of it as a biopic, I think it’s really relatable. Some woman, I don’t remember her name, wrote a really beautiful piece in the New York Times about how Oppenheimer actually made her feel, she identified being a woman and experiencing the world as a woman in terms of how sometimes you do things and you get punished for it. I was like, “Yeah, that’s the thing about this story is it’s so relatable in so many different ways and aspects.” So I think people, thankfully, got that that’s what it was, and I think everybody found their personal way into it.
GS: That’s what always keeps me coming back to Nolan’s films is he paints in very broad strokes in a way where you can identify without sacrificing specifics. I feel like he deals with very large thematic ideas, but then he finds a way to get you down to a personal level with a character, whether it’s someone in Inception, the protagonist–
JL: The kids and his relationship with his wife.
GS: Yeah. That’s not a very easy thing to do.
JL: Oh, my God. It’s the hardest thing to do.
GS: But I want to go back to the beginning of your working relationship with him because any chance to get to talk about Tenet, I jump on it. I adore that movie.
JL: Oh, that’s so nice to hear because, obviously, that was the weird pandemic thing.
GS: I can rant about just some of the weird takes regarding that film all day long, but I had a blast with it, and I was curious because I read that he selected you or he wanted to work with you on that movie because of your work on Manchester by the Sea if I’m not mistaken. Is that correct?
JL: I actually don’t know. We never really had an explicit talk about that, but I think two of the movies he had seen that I’d done recently were Manchester and Hereditary. So for him, I think he liked the idea that I could work on different types of movies, and I think he found that to be helpful. But we’ve never actually had that discussion.
GS: That sounds interesting, to then throw you in the midst of what has to be such a disorienting experience, cutting things that are moving in different timelines. Could you just briefly walk me through your time on that film, and maybe how that prepared you for something like Oppenheimer?
JL: Tenet was such a leap for me in so many regards. I came from the New York indie world to work on this big movie, and obviously, it has a bunch of action in it, which I hadn’t really done before. So there were so many new things. The way Chris works with film, so many new things. But I’ll never forget one time we were in London, and Chris had to come into the cutting room because he worked on the prologue, and I had done a really rough cut of an action scene when I showed it to him. He was like, “Okay, it’s a bit of a mess.” And we went on a walk, and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to get fired. This is it.” But we just went to get a coffee and just talked, and he was just like, “I can cut action. Anyone can cut action. You’re here because I think you’re great at telling stories, and I respect what you’ve done in the past,” and was just like, “don’t worry about it.” That’s what’s so great about him and Emma and the way they make movies is, it looks like this big huge machine of a movie because it’s big budget and it has all these locations and such, but they come from the indie world, and that’s kind of how they make movies. Everyone feels very intimate. And so even though there are so many terrifying things, I actually was like, “Okay, I do know what I’m doing, he trusts me, I can do this. ” So from that moment on, I was like, “I don’t need to let all of this overwhelm me.” And to your point, with the backwards and forwards, I would keep charts, and it was hard to keep track of. Because it’s not just the backwards and forwards, it’s the subjectiveness of it all. If you’re backwards, that person’s forward. There was a moment where I did let it overwhelm me, and I think he sensed it. He’s such a good director. He said, “Chill out, just get your work done. You’re good at this.” That’s a sign of such a good leader.
GS: Please tell me he said, “Don’t try to understand it, feel it.”
JL: [laughs] That’s hilarious! No, unfortunately not.
GS: I’m honestly in awe of your work on the film because, especially during the climax of it, where there’s just an absurd amount going on, I don’t know how you keep track of the movement of that. But going back to Oppenheimer, I feel like you’re dealing with a similar sort of thing, if less chaotic. Obviously, he works in non-linear, and I have to imagine a lot of that is obviously scripted out. He has it in his mind, but for you, is it that straightforward? Is it like you’re cutting a straightforward narrative or do you have to keep track of the different timelines as you’re going back and forth between them?
JL: I remember when I read the script, it was all in there, even the use of black and white. And again, my thought was like, “Oh, this is brilliant,” because he’s using black and white, not for the past, but for subjectivity and Oppenheimer’s colorful story. But again, even when I was reading the script, it didn’t throw me. I was just like, “Yeah, obviously, that’s great that he’s planning…” Because I knew he would do that. It’s funny because John Lee, his first assistant on all his movies, would say, “Chris always has a new difficult thing.” And the minute I saw black and white film, and then IMAX, I was like, “Okay, that’s the difficult thing.” But then you kind of just forget. Because at the end of the day, the reason why his movies work well, and they’re so incredible, is the human emotion and the drama of the whole thing, not the different timelines. I think the different timelines are something he does, and it’s brilliant. It adds just another level of emotion; it’s another tool to use for the drama. So I didn’t think of it as a device I needed to keep track of. It was more like, oh, when we cut from this scene to a Strauss scene, or a black and white scene, or when we cut to Princeton for the first time, and you see Oppenheimer as an old man, I always find that devastating because up until that point, you’ve just seen as this young guy trying to figure it out and struggling, and then you see him as this older guy with the hat and the pipe, and it’s just like, how did that happen? I want to keep watching this movie to figure out how that happened.
GS: I want to talk about the fact that you have a bomb go off at about the halfway point of this film or so, but then you have about a whole other hour of time you have to fill. How do you maintain the pace of that? How do you keep people locked in? Because usually when something like that happens, that’s the climax of the entire movie, and then you’ve got maybe 15 to 20 minutes left at most. But here, there’s a whole other chapter. What is the secret to maintaining that audience investment and interest? I can imagine it’s easy to have people check out after that.
JL: I think, for me, the secret was that I found the bomb to be the least interesting part of the movie. My favorite part of the movie is the part after the bomb. What happened to this person? And it’s really funny because, and I think I’ve said this before, the first person Chris screens a cut for is Emma, and I barely cut the test segment. I just breezed right through it because A, I knew that Chris and I would spend time on it, and I saw the footage. It was all there, you know what I mean? But I had to get through the cut, and I had to get through watching all the footage. And to me, the most important thing was watching all the footage with the actors in it. I’m sure that helped me in the sense that that’s what I was the most interested in, and that’s what I found the most interesting. And so for me, as the editor of the movie, I was like, “I want to make sure that people that are watching it find it as interesting as I do.” And I love spending time in that section and culling that section for all the best material, shaping it.
GS: I agree with you. We all know about him creating the bomb. You’ve got the shot of him, the mythic stance with a pipe and the hat and everything like that. It’s like, okay, we know Oppenheimer. We know what happens with the bomb. What happened afterward? That is the part that grips me the most because it turns into this really tense courtroom drama, which is just the perfect playing field for drama in general, I feel like. I know that Nolan has mentioned that JFK is a massive influence. Was that something that you guys revisited when you were making this? Because I see a lot of JFK influence in it, not just the Kennedy name drop, but the way that the subject matter is approached at that constant page-turning pace.
JL: I loved JFK when it first came out. I was a huge fan, but I hadn’t revisited it since. And funnily enough, they just did a screening of it, a 35mm print at the Academy Museum. I went, and it was amazing. It was just so fun to watch. I guess there are comparisons you can make, but it’s kind of a different thing too. I love the obsessiveness of Kevin Costner’s character, and that’s what draws me into JFK; it’s why I can’t look away and that’s a long movie, but I’m constantly on the edge of my seat. I think the big thing I took from it was that I love obsessive movies. Like I love Zodiac, the Strauss/Oppenheimer rivalry, the tiny machinations of people fucking with each other. It’s so great. It’s funny, though, because I try not to watch movies while I’m editing that are big influences, especially if they coincide. My favorite thing to do when I’m editing is to watch movies completely at random. And then I’ll be like, “Oh, wait, that is a cool idea that could slip in.”
GS: How much fun did you have reusing that clip of Strauss being humiliated in the courtroom?
JL: Oh, my God. So much.
GS: There’s always a time, I feel like, where you could cut back to that for a moment.
JL: Yeah, and the way Hoyte and Chris shot that was so fucking cool. Everything looks great; the black and white IMAX looks stunning. And it has this visceral feeling. It’s just very emotional because Strauss’s character is so fragile. He has that ego, and I just think the black and white has this kind of fragile quality to it. It really helps so much with his character to me.
GS: I love how it illustrates his worldview as a person.
JL: Yeah, totally.
GS: The first time I saw it, the title cards at the beginning, fission and fusion, I was like, “Okay, cool, whatever.” I didn’t really think much of it, but then the more I kind of sat with it, I’m like, “No, those inform the entirety of these characters.” The compartmentalization of Oppenheimer as a man of contradictions who won’t be able to keep it together, vs. Strauss, a fusion bomb on the verge of detonating at any time.
JL: Just you saying compartmentalization, I have PTSD about, because that word comes up so much in the movie. All of the Army guys are like, “Compartmentalization compartmentalization.” All the scientists are like, “We can’t function that way.” And it’s like, yeah, it’s two different worldviews. And that speaks so much to Chris’ script and all the crazy layers to it. That’s what’s so fun about his movies too, is you can watch them over and over again, and you discover all these new crazy things each time.
GS: I want to talk about the cross-examination scene between Roger Robb and Oppenheimer. It’s like the “third bomb” kind of goes off at that time. How much of that is you just letting the actors do the heavy lifting and getting out the way, versus, I need to cut here because we’re building up the intensity, and I need to ramp up the amount of cuts that are going on in that scene?
JL: I think the cuts were only there in terms of what the actors were giving us. I think Chris and I cut that scene pretty quickly once we found the performance for each character, because they kind of just had this natural rhythm. And honestly, as an editor, when you’re working in a scene like that with two people in that level, and you find the performance, the cuts just find themselves, it’s actually quite easy. And the goal is to just not fuck it up. The worst thing is if you go, “Oh, it’d be cool if we put two cuts here,” but you just fuck up the rhythm of the scene, even though the cuts might look cool. I think we had that intercutting with Strauss in his green room, having his fit. So we had all that to play with too. But again, it was just finding the most honest take of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance and cutting it in a way that we can let it breathe. It’s just this dance of a performance, which can be daunting because sometimes you are cutting it, and then you’re like, “Oh, that was way better in the dailies. What did I do wrong?” So you really just have to vibe it out.
GS: I have to imagine there was probably a decent amount of stuff you had to leave on the cutting room floor, just by nature of the fact that you physically could not put something in the film reel. What are some of your favorite scenes that didn’t make it into the film? Or favorite moments that perhaps you’re like, “I love that, but it’s taken too much time”?
JL: Honestly, there’s no scene that we completely cut out that I can think of. I think what ended up happening was that certain scenes had to just get cut down, which was hard because I was just talking about the Pash scene. I love it. My first assembly of that was quite long, and it had so many good awkward moments, I find that sequence quite funny.
GS: Oh, it’s incredible because we all know who Casey Affleck is, and then that reveal happens, and you’re just sort of like, “Oh my God.”
JL: He’s so good at playing the bad guy. And then watching Cillian play Oppenheimer be a terrible liar is amazing. This person who’s been so cocky and confident and is about to go visit Florence Pugh’s character and do all this crazy shit. And then he gets in that room, and he completely crumbles, and it’s just amazing. And then you have the cross-cutting with Matt Damon being like, “You did what?”
GS: Oh my God, Matt Damon. He’s so funny in that.
JL: Yeah, and my assembly of that scene was twice as long, so we had to cut that down. And same with the scene where Oppenheimer goes to visit Truman. That scene was twice as long. So I think that the trick is just cutting it and making it have the same kind of feeling as the longer version, if it’s good, without messing it up. Chris is really good at that. It’s just slowly cutting it down, making it feel like it has the same essence, but we never cut an entire scene. We really just cut lines. And the other thing is, I know everyone talks about the IMAX platter and getting it to three hours, but if I ever brought it up, Chris would be like, “Oh, we’re not doing that.” We never cut for time. He never wanted to talk about, “Oh, we need to shave off five more minutes to make the platter.” It was like, whatever happens happens. It kind of just naturally got there, literally down to the minute. But I swear to God, we never had a moment of “We need to take three minutes out of this movie.” That never happened.
GS: That was going to be my next question, was how much your decisions were based on the physical constraints of the reel? But it sounds like you said that wasn’t actually a factor in it.
JL: No, I think in this movie, Chris really made it a point to not want to cut for time. And so if we ever cut a scene down, like when we made the Pash scene shorter, it wasn’t because it was too long. It was because, with the pacing of the film, you can’t spend 15 minutes with this one-off character people will check out. So it wasn’t that we had to cut it down for time; we had to cut it down because we had to move on to the next piece so people could feel like the pacing was consistent. So it was always for pacing and to make sure the scene did what it did, but then we needed to move on.
GS: I wanted to talk about your working relationship with Ludwig [Goransson]. I guess this is the second film you did with him.
JL: No, the third. We did Wakanda Forever too.
GS: Right! So obviously, you know his music pretty well; you know how his mindset works. So I’m curious, when he sends you two to three hours worth of music, how do you go about figuring out the placement of it all? That seems a bit different than how most filmmakers work, where you’re working off of temp music and whatnot. But Chris Nolan doesn’t do that.
JL: Luckily, I don’t think I’ve really ever worked with a director who is a fan of temp music, which I love because it’s never a good path to go down. I also find it wastes a lot of time. And I also find when you’re doing assembly, you shouldn’t worry about music. It becomes a crutch. So it’s just freeing to put something together with no music. But then the way that Chris and Ludwig work is they’ve done tons of work before I’ve even come on, of just meeting and talking and having themes and ideas. But Chris doesn’t let me listen to those ideas when I’m doing my assembly. So, I’ll do my assembly, and then we’ll come on, and we’ll start working from the beginning. And then we’ll kind of work our way through a first pass. And then we have a first screening for Emma. And right before that screening, he’ll start playing the music, and he will do that thing, “Well, what do you think this could be used for?” And we kind of play around with it, and then we just put a bunch in and just see what happens. And Chris is an amazing music editor. So, in my history, coming from the indie world, I typically have not worked with music editors. So usually, in this pass, it’s before the music editor comes on. So we just throw in a bunch of stuff and we mix it together. And it’s so fun. And some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Some of it’s terrible. We’ll use the same piece over and over again, and it’s just such a fun process that we have. And then Ludwig will come in, and we’ll show him a section of the movie, and then he’ll have new ideas. It’s such a creative process.
GS: Yeah, it feels very alive.
JL: It feels so alive, and all the way until the end, new ideas were coming into play. Even on the mixtapes, down to the last week, there were new ideas. How fucking thrilling is that?
Oppenheimer is currently available to purchase on 4K UHD, Blu-Ray, DVD & Digital.