When film editor Jennifer Lame read the script for Oppenheimer, "I thought, 'Oh, this isn't going to be too crazy,'" she recalls with a laugh. The 3-hour-long drama about the creation of the first nuclear bomb bounces between different timelines and features sudden, elliptical visions of atoms splitting, molecules bouncing together, and fire consuming the Earth's atmosphere; however, for Lame, it at least appeared easier to cut than her first collaboration with Christopher Nolan.

"I figured it wouldn't be as hard as Tenet," she says. "When I read the script for that film, I realized immediately that there was going to be a lot of crazy stuff that I'd have to do. I thought Oppenheimer was going to be pretty straightforward. There are some different timelines in it, but I'd dealt with that before."

On paper, Oppenheimer may have seemed like a fairly straightforward biopic about the life and legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Best Actor in a Leading Role nominee Cillian Murphy), known as the father of the atomic bomb. As time went on, Lame began to understand the true scope of the cerebral blockbuster and Nolan's creative vision for it.

"When Chris started to talk about the importance of editing and how he wanted to blend Oppenheimer's visions with his reality, I realized, 'Right. That's going to be really difficult,' and that part was challenging," explains the editor. "We really wanted to make sure that the audience had a physical reaction every time they saw what Oppenheimer himself was seeing in his mind."

"The real challenge of Oppenheimer," Lame adds, "was making sure we never got complacent. There were scenes that were great, but then we'd say, 'Actually, that could be even better.' That takes a certain amount of discipline and energy that I think Chris and I both have."

At the 96th Oscars, Oppenheimer won seven awards, including Best Picture. Lame, who was a first-time Oscar nominee this year, became a first-time Oscar winner when she took home Best Film Editing.

"I feel so humbled and lucky. 2023 was a really great year for movies, and the other editors in my category are all insanely talented," Lame tells A.frame. "I'm still in a little bit of shock. I try to pinch myself every now and then about it, and there are times when someone tells me congratulations and I'm like, 'Oh yeah, it is awesome!' I'm just really happy."

Christopher Nolan and Jennifer Lame behind the scenes of 'Oppenheimer.'

A.frame: Christopher Nolan's script for Oppenheimer was written in the first person and nearly 200 pages long. As an editor, what were some of the first questions you had for him after you read it?

The first thing I did was tell him how much I loved it. I didn't really have much to say about it editing-wise, because it was already so tightly written. He asked me, "Is there anything you'd cut or get rid of?" and I couldn't really think of anything. But I did ask him about the visualizations of certain scientific concepts that he'd written into the script. I asked him how he was going to pull those off, and he told me what he, ​​[visual effects supervisor] Andrew Jackson, [special effects supervisor] Scott Fisher, and Hoyte van Hoytema had already been discussing how to film the actual visions that Oppenheimer sees in his mind. A lot of them were written into the script, and where they happened felt very intentional.

Chris said, "I think editing is going to be a huge part of the film." We talked about editing throughout the history of the form, how editing allowed cinema to do something different than any previous form of photography or art, and how we could use it to make you feel like you are in Oppenheimer's brain. I was, of course, incredibly intimidated by that, but from there we really just engaged in a lot of experimentation.

When Tenet came out, you said that it was the hardest film you'd ever had to cut, because you had never done anything like it before. How challenging was Oppenheimer in comparison?

The pacing aspect of Oppenheimer was incredibly challenging. I was tweaking things all the way to when we were scoring it. I'd have an idea or Chris would have an idea and we'd tweak stuff. There were also a lot of characters, and we had to make sure that we were keeping track of everyone and doing our due diligence in every single moment. On Tenet, the biggest challenge was related to the machinations of the whole thing and managing the different backward and forward sections of the film. On that film, I was also cutting action sequences for the first time. I'd never cut a car chase or a boat chase, and there are cars, boats, planes, and basically every mode of transportation in that movie! [Laughs] I was so far out of my comfort zone.

I was also meeting a director for the first time, which in my job, is not fun. I wish I could just work with the same people over and over again, because it's such an intense relationship, you know? I have to learn how each director works and thinks and feels and how they respond to certain things. So, on Tenet, I was learning about this whole new person whom I, obviously, found slightly intimidating and working with material that I found super intimidating. By the end of it, I definitely felt like I got it, and I was like, "Oh, I really hope I get another chance to do another thing with Chris, because I think I could nail it now." For our second film together to be much more in my comfort zone, where it's people in rooms talking? It was great. It was actually fun for me, which may seem strange given the material. But it was fun to make a second film with Chris — because I knew the drill — and it was even more fun to do something with him that I felt really confident in handling, as opposed to doing something that I felt really nervous about.

I had a great time, which is so weird to say because if you know my personality at all, you know that I never have a good time. [Laughs] I'm always very negative, so it's very funny that I had such a great time working on a movie. By the end of it, even Chris was like, "I'm ready to be done with this, because it's so dark." I was like, "Really?! I'm having a great time!" It felt like the culmination of all these things that I've been working toward for so long. I just love the movie, and I loved getting to work with this cast and all the department heads, from Hoyte and Ruth De Jong to Luisa Abel, Ellen Mirojnick, and everyone else. It was always A++-level work, and it allowed me the freedom to be so creative and not have to worry about anything.


The movie is relentlessly paced. Even in the moments when it slows down, there's still this sense of forward propulsion. How difficult was it to achieve that over 3 hours?

It was really difficult, but only because I never wanted the movie to feel rushed. I kept going back to my first experience reading the script. I was ripping through the pages, because I found everything leading up to the Trinity Test really thrilling but also everything after Trinity, too. I knew nothing about it. I knew none of those other parts of history, and I found myself really enmeshed in the personal conflict between Strauss and Oppenheimer. Based on my initial reading of the script, I felt that the movie could handle that kind of pace. There's something about the movie and about the moment in history that it explores that is a bit relentless. It was this crazy thing where everybody just had to keep driving and driving forward to make their dates, to build the bomb, and the air of uncertainty about what would happen after. It had this anxiety baked into it.

In a weird way, I realized that the the relentlessness of the pace worked. People can get tired of that and I'm really hypersensitive to that, but the relentlessness feels like part of the essence of the movie, which is why I think people accepted it and were okay going along for the ride. A lot of the time, when films are like that, people say, "That movie caused me stress. It was too cutty and too fast," but I think the pace of Oppenheimer is really based in the characters themselves and the period and moment they were in. It fits the film.

Even with all of its moving parts, the movie feels quite cohesive. Did you break it into different sections when you started your work?

No. What was great about this movie was that I came on after it had already wrapped filming. That isn't typical for me, but I was working on another film that had been pushed back, and I wanted to stay on it as long as I could. Because we'd already worked together, Chris allowed me to skip production, which he doesn't typically do. I think he's only ever done that with an editor one other time. All of that is to say that I really started from the beginning of the film. I never get to start from the beginning. I've always edited the movies I've worked on out of order because I've worked on them during production, so I'm usually editing them while the directors are shooting them. On a film like Tenet, that's really difficult to do, and honestly, it probably would have been difficult to do with Oppenheimer. To be given the scenes out of order and have to put them together like that would have been really hard. But I got to work on it from beginning to end. I just opened my script and started putting it together from first scene to last scene, and that really allowed me to form a connection with the dramatic through line of the film.

I spent four weeks going through the whole movie from beginning to end with the characters, and I think that helped me achieve the cohesiveness you mentioned. I even kind of skipped over the Trinity Test sequence, because I knew it would be great and I knew I could do that with Chris and I saw that all the pieces for it were there. I really just wanted to get through it from beginning to end with the characters, you know? So, I never thought of it as multiple pieces. I really just tried to keep the through line of the characters together throughout every section of the movie, and I wanted to make sure everyone felt like each character had a clear arc from beginning to end.


There are moments in the film that are very surreal and almost experimental, like when Oppenheimer disassociates during his speech at Los Alamos. What did you do as an editor to make sure those scenes were jarring and disorienting enough, but not so much that they became distracting or pulled the audience out of the movie?

That's basically my nightmare. It was really difficult, and it just came down to screening it a lot. Chris starts having these Friday screenings early on, where we have like two or three people come into the editing room, and we don't really ask them too many questions. We just hang out and try to gauge the feelings of the people in the room. In that speech scene, in particular, it was really important to feel people's reactions. Were they stunned, shocked, and overwhelmed? Did they giggle? Did they seem bored? Chris likes to make movies for everybody, and it's important for him to see audience reactions. As a filmmaker, he's got such a great relationship with his audience, so it's always about testing that stuff as much as we can, even if it's just with two or three people at a time, and then tweaking it afterward. It's really fun, but it's daunting, too.

Was there one scene that ended up being your favorite to edit?

One of my favorites to edit was the Pash-Groves-Oppenheimer trifecta sequence, when Oppenheimer goes back to campus and he starts inadvertently lying to [Boris] Pash — the Casey Affleck character — and then we keep cutting to the train where [Leslie] Groves is like, "You did what?!" When I started putting my assembly cut together, I had a lot of fun with that sequence. It was written really beautifully, and I like how it's a weird left turn in the script. It's hilarious.

In equal measure, that scene became challenging, because I fell so in love with it but we had to shorten it. Not just because of length but because it is a weird left turn and it happens close to the Trinity Test. We couldn't spend too much time there. It was one of my favorites, but it also presented the sad challenge of having to kill some of your darlings.

Jennifer Lame backstage at the 96th Oscars.

Congratulations on your first Oscar nomination. What does it mean to be recognized by your peers and to be recognized for this film?

It's very humbling and shocking. It's not something I've ever thought about or expected, especially when it comes to my editing. In my mind, the best editing is usually invisible editing, so it's cool to be part of a film that I feel so connected to and to feel so connected to everyone else who made it. It's nice to feel like I did my part to help the film, and it makes me so happy when someone tells me that it didn't feel 3 hours long and that they could have watched more of it! I'm happy that I was able to help make a movie that so many people worked so hard on shine. For me, just getting to work on the movie is amazing. To then be given a nomination for it is insane. It's just been a great year, and I'm kind of still in denial of it all. You know, you get an Oscar nomination and then you drop your kids off at school. It's like, "Wait. I got what?"

Anytime someone compliments me on the film, it means a lot to me because my job isn't one that people always talk about a lot. I'm usually just happy if people like the movie, but to hear viewers specifically say things about the film's editing that they liked or thought worked is really nice. It's such a good group of people to be nominated with, and I love the Oppenheimer team and all the department heads I've gotten to know because of awards season. To get to listen to everyone talk about their craft, which I admire so much, is a real pleasure. I've gotten to spend a lot of time with some great people, which doesn't happen often for me.

Is there anything that you wish more people knew about film editing, that they would keep in mind while they're watching a movie?

There is that annoying but true quote about how the best editing is editing you don't notice. I think the thing about editing which I would love for more people to know is that it's actually quite difficult to talk about, because it's a lot like music. It's very intuitive. On the jobs I do, I feel like my best work comes when I genuinely love the film. It comes from reading the script and realizing, "I know my way into this emotionally." If you love a movie, odds are the editor probably loved it equally, as corny as that may sound.

By Alex Welch

This article was originally published on Feb. 28, 2024.

A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.


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