Far to fall

Far to fall

By James Rampton
April 10, 2024


Fallout executives Jonathan Nolan and Graham Wagner recall the days they spent playing video games that led them to create this expansive Prime Video series based on one of the biggest franchises of all time.

Fallout has a lot to answer for. The video game is so addictive, in the past it has been a real distraction for the creatives behind its gripping new TV adaptation.

Jonathan Nolan, who executive produces and directs the first three episodes of Fallout, jokes that the award-winning video game prevented him from scripting any movies for two years.

“Fallout 3 was the entry point for me,” says Nolan, who also created Westworld and has written movies such as Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight and Interstellar. “I didn’t know much about it, and I was in the mood for a distraction. I think [his Oscar-winning director brother] Chris had tasked me with writing The Dark Knight Rises, and so if that movie was slightly delayed, it was probably in part because of Fallout 3!”

Graham Wagner (Silicon Valley), who is the joint showrunner of Fallout with Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Captain Marvel), had a similar experience of being waylaid by the video game. “I played the game since 1997. I was in college, at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and a friend showed up with a copy of Fallout 1. I don’t think anyone living in that house graduated from the university.”

The compulsive quality of Fallout motivated the creatives to rework one of the most popular video games of all time as a sweeping, epic TV drama.

Executive producer Jonathan Nolan with Fallout star Ella Purnell

“Working in this business,” Nolan explains, “we watch a lot of movies and TV. It’s hard to be surprised by anything, and those games just continually surprise you. Fallout is dark, violent, but it’s also satirical and in some places almost goofy. It’s all these amazing things in one. It’s a really ambitious game, and I’ve never really experienced anything quite like it.”

Launching on Prime Video tomorrow, the show – which is produced by Kilter Films, Bethesda Game Studios, Bethesda Softworks and Amazon MGM Studios – offers more twists and turns than an Alpine road.

Graham Wagner

It is set in Los Angeles in 2296, 219 years after a nuclear apocalypse devastated the planet. The drama recounts the story of haves and have-nots in a world where there is precious little left to have.

When the cosseted residents of luxury fallout shelters – known as vaults – are compelled to go back to the toxic wasteland their ancestors bequeathed them, they are shocked to find that an extremely complex, deliriously strange, wantonly violent and severely irradiated hellscape awaits them.

The brutalised world, which we see through the eyes of the sheltered yet highly capable vault-dweller Lucy (Yellowjackets star Ella Purnell), brings to mind the science writer Carl Sagan’s cheerless prognostication: “Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”

Fallout is also a satire on the pernicious effects of capitalism, which for Wagner was another attraction of working on the drama. “The opportunity to make a show about an America that bet it all on mega corporations, and look where it led – to tell that story on Amazon Prime was just too delicious to say no to.”

The drama follows in the hugely successful footsteps of HBO’s The Last of Us, another TV version of an immensely popular video game. Why are drama commissioning editors now turning to video games of source material?

Walton Goggins plays The Ghoul, a mutilated bounty hunter

“Hollywood is quite conservative,” Nolan reflects, “and so it’s really only when there’s a proven success that people stop feeling nervous and start jumping in.”

There is another reason TV networks are now eagerly adapting video games. According to Wagner, “the technology has got better. When Bob Hoskins made his Super Mario Bros movie in 1993, they just didn’t have the tools to make a Mushroom Kingdom.

“So we’ve benefited from decades of people trying different things. People can deride the video game adaptations that didn’t necessarily connect, but all those of us making these shows learned a lot from them, and they were incredibly helpful.”

The makers of the TV iteration of Fallout also enjoy the advantage of being able to draw on the extraordinarily rich universe that the video game producers have spent a quarter of a century building, telling an original story set in the world of the game.

Wagner says: “We benefited from 25 years of hundreds of creative brains working on this world, developing out every little corner. So we got just a terrific head start.”

Another element that helps video game adaptations to be commissioned is the fact they come with an enormous inbuilt fanbase. “That certainly helps,” acknowledges Wagner. “A company like Amazon is placing bets on where to spend their money.

Fallout takes place in LA more than two centuries on from a nuclear apocalypse

“If I had come up with Fallout and asked for the budget for this show, they would have looked at me like I was crazy. But the success of other video game adaptations makes businesspeople trust the rest of us to take a swing at something like this.”

Even so, is there a danger that these mega-projects will squeeze out smaller productions? “I think that could be possible,” Wagner admits. “But at the same time, when a studio has a success, they have more money to use and to take to different tables in the great Las Vegas of the industry. Some of the most wonderful and experimental films of all time were paid for by more mainstream projects.”

Fallout has many salient things to say about the schisms that divide our society. Nolan recalls: “We started developing the show in 2019. Since then, unfortunately, everything has gone so badly. We thought things were pretty bad in 2019, but we had no idea. That is now three apocalypses ago!

“Those things have, unfortunately, made the show that much more relevant. Within about six months, we found ourselves in the ‘essential versus inessential’ horror show of the pandemic, which there is a stark reminder of in the games. Some people are rich enough to sit out the apocalypse at home watching telly and eating snacks, and some people are not. That was a really horrifying thing to go through. But it made you look again at the storytelling in the games and think about how prescient they are.”

The director, who also created the sci-fi drama Person of Interest, adds: “Humans have this seemingly innate need to break things down into who gets to be on top and who gets to be on the bottom.

Purnell’s Lucy is among the vault-dwellers who must return to the outside world

“My hope is that as we move forward and come out of this very scary moment where it feels like the world is lurching backwards, we try to find a way to build a society that is a little bit fairer.”

Fallout also has the post-apocalyptic setting that has become so popular in TV dramas recently. Nolan assesses why we have been leaning into this cataclysmic view of the world.

“We are living in troubled times. But I do think that throughout film and literature, every generation has indulged in the fantasy that we’re the last of us. We tend to think a little more maybe than we should about the end of the world.”

However, the director continues, “if you’re looking for a silver lining in that, I think the reason we do it is because we want to know how to avoid it. We indulge these dark fantasies because we don’t want them to happen.”

In conjuring up a blasted post-apocalyptic landscape, Fallout looks like a million dollars – although it obviously cost far more than that. The striking locations included the cavernous vault sets on sound stages in New York, the stunning Skeleton Coast and a very eerie ghost town in the once thriving diamond mining village of Kolmanskop in Namibia.

“On the second day, we were shooting at this abandoned diamond refinery, and someone wandered over and told us, ‘No one’s ever shot here before,’” Nolan recollects. “That was a unique experience for us. I’ve never shot somewhere so remote, where literally the only things there are hyenas. It’s an incredibly beautiful and strange place.”

It seems as if these spectacular, high-concept “statement” dramas are here to stay. At the moment in TV production, the belief appears to be that bigger is better. “They’re not making a lot of shows about two buddies opening a pizza shop these days,” Wagner says. “The push is towards more stakes, more stakes, and you couldn’t get any higher stakes than the end of the world.”

Will Wagner’s next production be much smaller scale, then? “Yes,” he laughs. “It’ll be one set, two guys, three cameras and a pepperoni pizza. The pendulum swings back the other way. I’ll take it.”

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