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‘Oppenheimer’ sets all eyes on Ghost Ranch

Presbyterian conference and retreat center’s spectacular setting is primary location for the acclaimed film

by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service

During filming of “Oppenheimer,” Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center was transformed into Los Alamos, New Mexico, circa the early 1940s. (All photos by David Manzanares)

LOUISVILLE — In “Oppenheimer,” the Christopher Nolan film released by Universal Studios on July 21, there’s one breathless moment when J. Robert Oppenheimer, portrayed by Cillian Murphy, walks General Leslie Groves, played by Matt Damon, out onto a vast plain in the middle of the New Mexico desert.

As the two figures — the “father of the atomic bomb” and the director of the Manhattan project — gaze at the towering rock formations across the endless miles of vivid sky, Oppenheimer asks Groves if it isn’t the perfect spot for a town where scientists could live with their families.

Groves, who apparently didn’t need much convincing, quickly replies, “Build them a town!”

And that’s just what happened.

Relationships between Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center and Hollywood go way back.

Only, for the purposes of the critically acclaimed film, it happened not at Los Alamos, but rather at the Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center, once it had been identified as the ideal location.

The production company ended up building an elaborate set on the site, a “town” that became the lookalike stand-in for the real Los Alamos, where the top scientific minds had moved in the 1940s to work under Oppenheimer until the atomic bomb was completed.

Ghost Ranch — which has been part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) since 1955 — is a Presbyterian-related conference and retreat center situated on 21,000 acres of canyons and cliffs, plains, grasslands and streams in north central New Mexico. It is a member site of the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association, which relates to the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Christian Formation.

“Oppenheimer” set constructors took care to portray what Los Alamos, New Mexico, looked like 80 years ago.

Not surprisingly, many of the world’s most celebrated actors, directors, photographers and others have walked and worked this landscape — also made famous by painter Georgia O’Keeffe —inspiring movies as well as television series, reality shows, commercials, music videos and the fashion industry.

Perhaps that’s why many visitors are mysteriously drawn to Ghost Ranch — because they have seen it before they ever arrive.

For more than eight decades, Ghost Ranch has had a long and storied history with the film industry. A list of the movies filmed at Ghost Ranch naturally begins with the first film ever shot there, “The Light that Failed” (1939) with Ida Lupino, Ronald Colman and Walter Huston. Other more recent titles include the 1991 film “City Slickers,” “3:10 to Yuma” (2007), “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), the 2008 mini-series “Comanche Moon,” the 2008 film “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” and the current AMC+ television series, “Dark Winds.”

Because most of these projects have filmed in locations not typically used for Ghost Ranch’s own programming, activities and guests, film production has been especially successful in expanding rather than interfering with the retreat center’s mission over the years.

From row housing to dusty streets, the people who brought the world the film “Oppenheimer” worked to get the look of the Manhattan Project right. Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center was proud to open its picturesque setting to cast members and crew.

According to Carol Ho, Ghost Ranch’s Director of Operations, “Oppenheimer” was a little different from many of their usual projects “because it had such an intense set that was built here to make it look like Los Alamos.”

“That took a lot more time to construct and build and put together,” she said, “not to mention to be here while they were filming.”

Walking alongside the filmmakers and crew every step of the way — from the preparation period through each project’s completion — were Ghost Ranch’s field producers, David and Andie Manzanares. Their job is to ensure that as locations are identified, sets are constructed, and filming gets underway, all protocols are followed to protect and support Ghost Ranch.

Despite the very early mornings, late nights, long hours, unpredictable requests and last-minute changes, the couple finds great joy in their work, which not only helps creative artists realize their unique vision, but also enables Ghost Ranch “to steward a place of great beauty, to nurture the human spirit and mind, to discover the sacred, and care for Creation.”

“A crowning achievement that was specific to ‘Oppenheimer’ was advocating for and finally receiving a ‘standing set’ designation by the New Mexico Film Office,” said David Manzanares. “This increases the likelihood that filmmakers will choose the Ranch because we now have a set to offer in the middle of this breathtaking cinematic landscape that is Ghost Ranch!”

Beginning on Labor Day, Ghost Ranch will offer visitors a tour of “Oppenheimer” sets, which for now remain on location.

Starting this Labor Day, the standing set used in “Oppenheimer” will be a highlight of the Ranch’s popular Movie Tour, which gives guests exclusive access to the locations of films shot at Ghost Ranch.

“Another great thing about production — aside from the economic impact to the Ranch from production and location fees — we also ensure that producers know all about our accommodations, tours, trail rides, activities, buildings for use as production space, vehicle and equipment rentals on the Ranch, picture animal rentals, picture vehicle rentals, background actor casting, and even road improvements, along with other financial opportunities that are as varied as the jobs themselves,” said Andie Manzanares. “Film and production projects not only impact Ghost Ranch, but also reach far into our community.”

As soon as production on “Oppenheimer” wrapped in the winter of 2022, the entire crew, under the direction of David Manzanares, started working to restore the location. Now that the movie is in theaters, the field producers and Ghost Ranch staff will faithfully maintain all the locations — including this new standing set — until they welcome their next project.

As soon as production of “Oppenheimer” wrapped last winter, Ghost Ranch staff began working to restore its stunning location to how God created it.

“For now, we can catch our breath and get ready to start the process all over again,” said David Manzanares with a smile.

Even as Ho and her staff prepare to welcome whatever crew will discover Ghost Ranch next, they are simultaneously bracing for an onslaught of visitors.

“We just did a big overhaul of our movie tour,” she said. “Because of the interest and excitement generated by ‘Oppenheimer,’ we now plan to offer the tour a lot more frequently!”

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