Producer Charles Roven first met Christopher Nolan twenty years ago, and along with Emma Thomas, the trio went on to produce what many consider to be the high-water mark of superhero films, The Dark Knight trilogy. Their latest collaboration, Oppenheimer, has picked up right where they left off, as Nolan’s ambitious J. Robert Oppenheimer biopic is yet another critical and commercial smash. The project came about in a rather casual way, as Roven and his wife, Stephanie Haymes Roven, were enjoying a social outing with Nolan and Thomas, his wife and producing partner.
“During a social get-together, I was just kicking it around with Chris about what was next after Tenet, and he’s never one to reveal everything. He likes to keep things close to the vest. That’s definitely a Nolan personality trait,” Roven tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And then he asked, ‘Why? What are you thinking?’ And I said, ‘Have you ever heard of J. Robert Oppenheimer?’ And he said, ‘I actually referred to him in Tenet.’”
Roven and his production company, Atlas Entertainment, had already been approached by James Woods on behalf of J. David Wargo, the underlying rightsholder of Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Oppeheimer biography, American Prometheus. So Roven is the one who pointed Nolan in the direction of the book that he would later adapt into Oppenheimer.
“So Oppenheimer was kind of already on Chris’ brain when I brought up American Prometheus. And at the end of our discussion, Chris said, ‘Well, I think I’m gonna read the book,’” Roven says. “And after he read the book, he and Emma called and said, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Roven also offers his thoughts on the current double strike and how Atlas Entertainment’s slate of films has been affected, including John Woo’s reimagining of The Killer and the Gal Gadot-led Cleopatra.
What’s the origin story behind your initial collaboration with Chris Nolan on 2005’s Batman Begins?
I had a meeting with Chris, because I was a huge fan from Memento on. His agent had given me a call and said, “Would you be interested in getting involved in this movie that Chris has written and is directing? It’s called Batman Begins.” And I said, “Of course.” And then I also got a call from Jeff Robinov, who was running [Warners Bros.] at the time. I had done a number of movies already with the studio, and this was only Chris and Emma’s [Thomas] second movie with the studio. So they thought it would be a good idea to have another producer who really knew those ropes, and that was how I got involved.
Cillian Murphy was right alongside the two of you at the time. Could you sense then that he had a bright career ahead of him?
Well, there was never any doubt that Cillian was an amazing actor. He played Scarecrow, and he was fantastic in the role. He’s been a regular Nolan collaborator ever since; he’s just never had a big starring role in any of those movies. So he certainly delivered in Oppenheimer.
Your last go-round with Chris as director was 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. What made Oppenheimer the right situation for a reunion?
Well, in 2011, we actually produced two movies together. We did The Dark Knight Rises, but Chris and Emma were also producers on Man of Steel. So they brought me into that project, and both projects were gonna go around the same time. So I really owe my involvement in that movie to the collaboration that we had. But, now, with Oppenheimer, it was kind of a serendipitous thing. I had been approached by J. David Wargo and James Woods. I never knew Wargo, but James introduced me to him because they were friendly. And Wargo had the underlying rights to [Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s] book, American Prometheus.
So, in addition to having a collaborative business relationship with Chris and Emma, my wife and I are also just friends with them. And during a social get-together, I was just kicking it around with Chris about what was next after Tenet, and he’s never one to reveal everything. He likes to keep things close to the vest. That’s definitely a Nolan personality trait. So he vaguely referred to some things, but he hadn’t landed on anything. And then he asked, “Why? What are you thinking?” And I said, “Have you ever heard of J. Robert Oppenheimer?” And he said, “I actually referred to him in Tenet.”
Robert Pattinson also gave him a book of Oppenheimer’s speeches as a wrap gift on Tenet, because the movie referenced Oppenheimer. So Oppenheimer was kind of already on Chris’ brain when I brought up American Prometheus. The book is pretty fascinating, and it’s got its own amazing history. And at the end of our discussion, Chris said, “Well, I think I’m gonna read the book.” And after he read the book, he and Emma called and said, “Hey, let’s do this.” So that’s kind of how it happened, and that’s why I call it serendipitous.
How does the 2023 Chris Nolan compare to the Chris Nolan you first met in 2003?
Well, Chris has always been Chris. He’s incredibly focused. He really knows what he’s after, and he’s very precise. So I would say that he’s the same guy in those respects. He obviously has earned both the kudos and the control that he has because of how good he is. He’d be hard-pressed to talk about it, but he’s somebody who can handle all the things. He’s not just a major writer-director; he also really knows how to produce. So each time I’ve had a chance to work with him and Emma, it’s really been a delight.
As someone who’s experienced just about everything in this town, is this the greatest divide you’ve ever seen between the AMPTP and the guilds?
Since I’ve been in the business, I would have to say yes. 1960 was the last time these two guilds struck, and even I was a young man then. (Laughs.) The last SAG strike was in 1980, so I was definitely in the business at that point, but it didn’t seem anywhere near what it is right now. It’s just really a shame. As important as it is to get what’s right, the most important thing is to keep talking, and it makes me very sad that they’re not talking.
What’s the status of your slate amid the double strike?
Well, fortunately, I was able to get some deals done and closed before the strike. Obviously, the writers can’t write during the strike, but I was able to at least close some deals enough so that when the strike is over, they can be commenced. Or I got the scripts delivered before the strike. So, even though nothing is perfect, that was okay. It’s just sad that you can’t move anything forward. When you’ve got writers not writing, it’s pretty tough to set things up. Like I said, I have some projects that the scripts were delivered on — and I can try to move some of those things forward — but I can’t really schedule any pre-production, because I don’t know when the strike is gonna be over and the actors are gonna come back to work.
During the premiere schedule on Oppenheimer, the SAG strike was called when we were about to start the first screening in London, and our actors had to leave. They got to be on the red carpet, but they couldn’t be a part of the introduction of the movie. So that was also sad because they love the movie so much. The only premiere where we really had a full premiere was the one in Paris. We were actually going to go to two theaters in London, but that was aborted.
I was also shooting a wonderful movie in Paris. John Woo is remaking his own movie, The Killer, which was one of his seminal Hong Kong movies that he made in 1989. So we had to shut that down because we lost all of our SAG actors, and of course, we honored that. We’ve got somewhere between 10 and 18 days left, so that was obviously very disappointing.
For a film as storied as the original The Killer, what’s Woo’s motivation behind revisiting it?
Well, he was motivated by the Jean-Pierre Melville new wave gangster movies that Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon starred in, and those were obviously shot in Paris. And so he just became motivated about doing an homage to The Killer in Paris because he was inspired by those movies. He also came up with an idea to make it fresh. In the original Killer, the great Chinese male actor Chow Yun-fat played the killer, but the killer in this movie is played by Nathalie Emmanuel. And by changing the dynamic to a woman, the storyline became quite different. So, while it’s an homage to his movie, it’s definitely not a remake. There’s a lot of original content in it that’s different from the first movie.
You’re slated to work with David O. Russell for a third time. What’s the story behind Super Toys?
I do love my collaborations with David Russell, and we’ve done well together. My company, Atlas Entertainment, was part of a combination of entities in the early 2000s. Atlas Entertainment merged with Gold/Miller Management and became Mosaic Media Group. We also brought in some co-financing partners when we made this overall first-look deal with MGM, and we started the development of what was then called Toyman.
Back then, it had a completely different team of writers, and I was one of the producers of it, because it was part of the Atlas deal with those international partners. When the deal expired, MGM ended up licensing their rights to Sony, and to my knowledge, I didn’t even know that that license happened. And one of the writers that Sony hired to do the script was David Russell, and the script then took on a new name, which was Old St. Louis.
The underlying rights ended up going back to MGM around 2010 or something like that. It looked like the movie was gonna go forward with a different cast at a different studio, who was going to then re-amalgamate those rights together. David’s script was owned by Sony, and it’s one of these most complicated Hollywood stories of miscellaneous rights in different places. So I was potentially going to be a producer on that particular movie, simply because by that time, I already had my relationship with David through Three Kings and we were talking about doing something else.
So what ended up happening was that movie fell apart, and the rights went back to Sony, the underlying rights went back to MGM and my company, Atlas International. And that was it until the post-production of Amsterdam (2022), David and I started talking about taking a look at that script, because it was really good. And so we did. It’s a period piece that deals with the transition from toys and dolls and games to computer games back in the ‘70s. It’s about a traveling toy salesman, and David renamed it Super Toys. So that’s how it came together, but when you asked about the status of my slate, that’s probably, at the moment, the one that got hit the hardest.
Gal Gadot’s Cleopatra has been in development for quite some time, and Kari Skogland was the last director on the project. Was it making headway prior to the strike?
It was. We moved it from Paramount to Universal, and Kari is still on it. It’s another one where we’re sitting in a stalled situation. We can’t really move the script forward because of the writers’ strike. Kari went off and did the Wind River sequel, but she’s still attached to it.
Is there still a desire to continue Uncharted after an impressive box office run, especially for the time in which it was released?
Oh yeah! We had a really good time with that movie. The fans really liked the movie, and people who didn’t know anything about the game really liked the movie. So we are definitely looking to make another one of those.
You worked with James Gunn and Peter Safran on The Suicide Squad before they became the new heads of DC. How involved do you expect to be with their new regime?
Right now, they’re really rebooting everything, and it’s a little bit unclear to me exactly how finite their desire is to use or not use any DCEU actors in the same roles. So I’m not really sure, but at the moment, we’re not really having any discussions. James and I are good friends. My wife and I are very good friends with him and his wife, Jenn [Holland]. And so we see each other socially, but we’re not really talking about any business.
Looking back at your body of work, when did you feel like you’d cracked the code of being a producer?
To be honest, I really learned a lot of lessons on my very first movie, Heart Like a Wheel (1983). When you do your first movie, you are really learning while you’re earning. So I had some very great difficulties on that movie as a first-time producer, and I had actually worked on sets before. I had a good lesson by being an associate producer on the first film that I worked professionally on, which was Some Call It Loving (1973). And some of those problems are the same, and you see them over and over again. But the one thing that I realized very quickly is that this is not a cookie-cutter business, and it’s actually one of the things that I love most about being a producer. You face new problems on every single movie, and the perfect example is the strike. For the very first time, I just experienced being shut down by a strike. We were 80 percent done with The Killer’s shoot, and we had to shut down. So I’ve never experienced that before.
Oppenheimer is currently playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.