Ruth De Jong never expected to become one of the most exacting, talented production designers working in Hollywood today. Having come up as a painter and photographer, De Jong graduated from Texas Christian University with a BFA in both fields. Right before she was about to take her degree further, however, De Jong had a chance conversation with Jack Fisk, a titan in the field of production design, and – based on her precise eye for fine arts – was offered a job alongside Fisk on Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.
From there, the production design bug had firmly planted its teeth in De Jong, and she found a way to apply and merge all of her artistic passions into one career. Thoroughly inspired by nature, Ruth De Jong tries to work on location with as many of her projects as possible. She cites Fisk’s work and vision as a major influence, particularly on Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, and while her own body of work – There Will Be Blood, Nope, The Tree of Life – often conveys said influence without overpowering her own unique vision and talent. It’s arguably her first collaboration with Christopher Nolan, on Oppenheimer, which serves as the peak of her career thus far.
Oppenheimer pushes everyone in its cast and crew to their limit, but De Jong had one of the most demanding – and, from an audience’s perspective, most impactful – tasks: to immerse us in every environment, every room. It’s a movie that requires you to feel as though you are there with J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) at all times, that you are standing next to the real atomic bomb, that you are an inhabitant of Los Alamos. At one point, it even required her to put together Harry S. Truman’s (Gary Oldman) Oval Office in just three days. In my great conversation with De Jong, we covered – among other things – her affinity for the American West, her close bond with her mentor Jack Fisk, and when artistic license trumps pure historical accuracy.
Griffin Schiller: First of all, the big question for everyone, I think, is the massive success of Oppenheimer. It really struck a chord with audiences, and my theory is that it’s a kind of film we don’t really see anymore but we’re constantly craving and yearning for. I want to get your take on why you think Oppenheimer has been such a phenomenon this year and why people outside of just cinephiles are really gravitating towards it?
Ruth De Jong: That’s such a great question. Going into this film, obviously, and with Christopher Nolan at the helm, we knew we wanted to make a great film, an epic film, an honest film, a pure film. We knew it was a lot of talking and men in rooms talking. I think while the script and the story was incredibly captivating, I don’t know that any of us ever imagined the success it would have had. I think we thought, “We are going to make an excellent film. We are dedicated to this specific project and to Chris,” but for the success that this specific film had, it’s not like we’re part of some Marvel Entourage, or you name it. Ultimately, it started with Chris, and the script, and the story, and then the execution of that. It was such a tight film, and it was so many genres in one, in a way. The music, and the editing, and the cinematography, all of our work put together, is what you dream of, I think. It’s not every day a film like this comes together with this sort of synergy and epicness. Ultimately, Chris was our fearless leader the entire time and had this in his mind’s eye. We also, with each of our crafts, just went to the highest level possible. You put all that together, and I think it was very well received beyond our wildest dreams.
GS: And especially for a three-hour movie, it’s like people were coming back to go see it because of that.
RDJ: There’s people that have raised their hand, they’re like, “I’ve seen it six times.” I’m like, “What?”
GS: I know, I’m working on five myself, and every single time I’m like, “It needs to be 70mm IMAX, at CityWalk.” To feel that, the immersion of it all…
RDJ: That’s where we watched our dailies, which was awesome.
GS: Dailies? That’s insane. You’re seeing a level of detail there that you probably wouldn’t get in the editing bay.
RDJ: Yeah. It’s incredible.
GS: Actually, that’s one of my questions I wanted to ask was, when you’re designing the sets and everything like that, and you’re trying to account for the IMAX format, you have to be more precise, I would assume, and more specific with what you’re doing. What is your process when you’re dealing with creating sets for IMAX versus when you’re shooting in a regular format?
RDJ: Great question. My process is no different. I think when a filmmaker says, “I’m doing IMAX in 65,” I’m thrilled because then the detail is able to be exposed, it’s able to be seen, the expanse can be utilized. To get to know our Los Alamos, and our Trinity Tower, and Basecamp, and all of that, 360° on this scale and this screen, you’re like, “of course. That’s what it deserves,” versus even 35 or digital, God forbid. I don’t design differently. We wanted to world build from the beginning. We wanted to bring Los Alamos out of the dirt, and raise it there. We knew we’d be starting with a completely blank slate. Chris and I had no interest in using a backlot anywhere, much less a stage. I welcomed it because the goal was to immerse the viewer in these worlds, and transport them without them even realizing, “Oh, wait, it’s 2023. I just came in to watch a movie.” I wanted to just take them right in with Kitty and with Oppenheimer, and it felt, even having made the film the very first time Chris screened it for me, I could not speak after. He was like, “Let’s go to lunch.” I was like, “I literally cannot talk,” because my chest was tight, and I’m not emotionally in the space that Oppenheimer is, because mine is more a function of execution, go, next location, next location. It was just awesome to get to sit there and be a part of it as well and go, “Oh, my gosh, we did it.”
GS: It is one of those things where it’s like, you leave the theater and you don’t even really know what to say. You have so many thoughts going throughout your head, and you need time by yourself to process it and whatnot. I always love when a movie follows me home.
RDJ: Yes. Absolutely.
GS: I read that the way that you typically work is you design with a 360 degree mindset. Is that something where, on each of the films you’ve worked on, whether it’s with Jordan Peele, Kenneth Lonergan, or Christopher Nolan, obviously, is that something that they value?
RDJ: I think so. I think once you have that, why would you have it any other way? That’s how I like to create. You’re immersed. You’re not just doing it for the director; you’re doing it for the entire cast. I remember both Matt Damon and Cillian talking about even just being in this remote place in New Mexico, driving from the remote hotel, the 20 minutes up the road, no cell phone service. You can’t just be sitting there scrolling. You’re in it, and you’re looking around going, “Oh, this was Oppenheimer’s drive every day to his house,” type of thing. They’re immediately transported. Everybody shows up to work; you’re there. I think if I could do every film this way for my entire career, that’s what I would do. I would ship off to a location and create a world. I think that transportiveness is something you always want to bring to the audience, and how do you do that, and how do you achieve that? I always find it, yes, there’s movie magic, and you can go to a sound stage, but you’re missing the weather. You’re missing the light, the way the light moves throughout the entire day. I think giving that to Chris and Hoyte and allowing them, with the way Chris shoots, to say, “you know what? I’m going to go over here and do this,” or, “I’m going to go over here and do this.” He is not married to the storyboards rigidly like, “this is what we’re doing.” He’s very organic. He has in his head exactly what he wants, and we know what we’re shooting that day, but if he’s like, “I want to get this, I have this idea,” or if an actor is there discussing something, you’ve got room to experiment.
GS: Well, that’s something I’m really curious about, because he is so specific in his vision, and yet it feels like everyone is sort of able to jam on the same idea with enough latitude. I’m just curious about the constraints that he puts on a project, and how it makes your job easier, while still allowing you to be creative and put your own spin on certain things.
RDJ: I’m never concerned about needing to bring a design aesthetic or signature, because it’s not about me. I’m essentially a worker that is executing a vision that Chris has. He’s got a script and he has a story. I love working with writer-directors for this exact reason, because there isn’t a flair I need to project onto the project. It’s more, how can I be a chameleon? How can I assimilate to Chris’s process, and give him exactly what he wants? “How do I give you more than you can dream of on budget, on time?” That to me would be what I would strive to do, versus adding my own flair. I would hope every film is entirely different. Even going from Nope to Oppenheimer, it isn’t like, “Oh, I could tell that was designed by so-and-so.” It’s like when you look at an interior designer’s work, it’s like, “Oh, they have a style.” I think what’s amazing about designing for films is that you’re not taking your aesthetic and trying to stick it in all of these films. You are trying to paint this world that is entirely its own thing for that one project.
GS: I feel like if you were to draw a throughline between stuff, you have such a knack for capturing the American West, just from your work on Yellowstone and Nope. Even here, there’s some western stuff going on in there. To your point, outside of that, they all feel very distinct to the projects that they’re tied to.
RDJ: Yeah, that’s an astute point. I think I have a fascination with the American West. Of course, I live in Montana, grew up in LA, but the west still feels like it’s this uncharted territory with each film. It’s this project where you’re going, “How am I going to do this?” I don’t know. I think it’s also bringing in nature as much as possible. I think a lot of my films are based around nature in some respect, and incorporating nature within the storyline.
GS: One of my favorite scenes in the entire film is the cross examination between Oppenheimer and Roger Robb. I don’t know if I have this right, but did that set actually come apart, where light was able to leak in, or was it all in post?
RDJ: We cut a hole in the wall. Scott Fisher, our special effects supervisor, scored the wall. We closed it, wallpapered it, and then he had this rig on the outside that created what felt like an earthquake and a crack. Then we shot an 18K, I think it was, Hoyte can answer that perfectly, through it, and so you get that piercing light. We did everything in-camera. There were no set extensions, no CGI.
GS: So to your point of trying to make things feel as natural as possible when you’re designing sets, and you know that you’re going to be doing everything for real, especially something like the Trinity Test, where the bomb is going off, how does that affect your choices when you’re either building Los Alamos, or you’re building the tower that the bomb is dropping on? When you have to account for the special effects, how does that affect your job?
RDJ: I think it’s a little bit of a shared responsibility, where I’m designing to what the thing needs to be. For instance, the tower was an exact height. We replicated that exactly. When we built Basecamp, I built that bunker, and they did that little bomb test behind the bunker. Then Scott Fisher comes in, and we analyze the set. He’s like, “Okay, well, I think I’ll do my special effects rig back this far.” It’s sort of just trial and error, but I think a lot of my set is built to what it needs to be, and then special effects come in, and then we find the tweaks. It’s a collaboration. I can’t say we changed any design, for instance, for any of the special effects. Well, we ended up building a second tower. We had the tower way up 106 feet high, and then we built a second tower that Cillian could get up in, but that’s more of a cheat. It was just more so that you didn’t have all these crew members that had to go work 106 feet up in the sky. I think initially, Chris was like, “we’re going to shoot up there,” and then when you’re like, “we want more,” we can just put a tower on the back of a truck over yonder. You just navigate that as you go, there’s no science to it. We’re always talking about which angle, or direction we are interested in placing the sets. The amazing thing about working with Chris and Hoyte is their lack of preciousness, in the sense that it’s more about the organicness and naturalness of what this scene requires, versus, “we can’t look that way.” We really don’t operate that way, which is refreshing, because we were just trying to be as honest and pure as possible with capturing real life at all these moments in time.
GS: I’m curious about the recreation of Los Alamos as a place, because it’s an interesting thing where it’s a historical site, but it doesn’t exist anymore. You’re kind of going off of pictures. I guess if there were schematics, you reference that, but there’s also some creative liberty that has to be taken when you’re designing it. If you could walk me through the process of just how you even started with that, and then when did you feel like you had to get something exactly right, like as it was in the history books, versus where you can kind of modulate it a bit?
RDJ: Yeah, that was a conversation Chris and I had early on. One of the first things I did was cover the walls of the art department in our office in this two story house, really ironing out every single scene, and putting imagery to those scenes, because so much of it happened, and we have photographs of it. Some of it, no, not exactly or specifically, but a close approximation can be found. Then Chris and I studied all of that imagery, and he would constantly remind me, “Ruth, we are not making a documentary. I’m not interested in making a documentary. I’m interested in selling popcorn. I want this to be exciting.” Really, what he’s saying is, “you need to take in the research, then divorce yourself from it. The essence of all of these places we’re scouting, everything we’re designing to, is our film.” When you look at the real pictures, I remember my first week in the office, going “Los Alamos was massive, and the US government gave them $2 billion in 1941.” $2 billion. They had the Army Corps of Engineers, and they had three years, and I had none of that. I had two months. I think right then and there, you go, “great. Here are my parameters, this is the direction I’m heading.” I also didn’t panic because I knew what Chris and Hoyte were like, and that is how our personal Los Alamos came together. So your point, I do feel the scale. I do feel the scope. It’s just, they were so smart about shooting it. We were smart about the placement of the buildings, and the 360° of it. The real Los Alamos was very contemporized, modernized.
GS: I’m pretty much out of time, but I wanted to ask, because Jack Fisk was on Killers of the Flower Moon. By nature of your working relationship with him, I’m curious, what did you take from him and his work with Scorsese, your work together on There Will Be Blood and how do you feel like that informed your approach to a biopic?
RDJ: Yeah, Jack and I collaborated together on There Will Be Blood, and Chris and I talked about There Will Be Blood a lot. That experience, going out to work in Marfa at the time, and that was before Marfa was the cool hip place it is now. Marfa was kind of unknown back then. I think a lot about that time. Obviously, Jack as a designer and his early work is so inspirational, what he did with Terrence Malick, especially Days of Heaven. You can see where my affinity for natural sets was born. Jack and I have a deep connection. We’re very best friends today in life, and I think it’s a full circle moment, of being in the company of my mentor. It’s almost like, “Is this happening?” We’ve seen each other’s films, and we’re so complimentary of each other’s work, and I think it’s exciting to be rooting for someone, and vice versa, and also have a collaborator you can always talk to as you’re getting into the weeds. We’ll forever be doing that. He’s such an inspiration to me.
Oppenheimer is currently available to purchase on 4K UHD, Blu-Ray, DVD & Digital.