‘Fallout’ creators Jonathan Nolan & Graham Wagner on Amazon’s ‘gonzo’ apocalypse & Hollywood’s video game obsession

Fallout (Source: Amazon)

Amazon is about to enter the video game-to-series fray with an ambitious adaptation of post-apocalyptic adventure Fallout. Mark Layton talks to Jonathan Nolan and Graham Wagner about bringing the popular franchise to the screen.

The era of high-end-of-the-world video game adaptations is well and truly upon us. HBO has an undeniable hit on its hands with fungus-zombie drama The Last Of Us, and Peacock is pouring on the gas with dystopian action-comedy Twisted Metal.

However, Amazon is about to give both a run for their post-apocalyptic money with the launch of its own series Fallout, on Prime Video this week.

Hailing from Amazon MGM Studios and Bethesda Game Studios and based on the franchise that first launched in 1997, the series doesn’t follow any pre-existing narrative. It instead tells a new story in a world that has been expanding across multiple game entries for more than 25 years.

Jonathan Nolan, who created HBO’s Westworld and Person Of Interest for CBS, and exec produced The Peripheral for Amazon, tells TBI that the series is treated just like a new entry in the game franchise, with “new stories, new characters, and a new piece of evidence in this larger mythos of the Fallout universe.”

Nolan, whose movie credits also include collaborations with his brother Christopher on The Prestige, The Dark Knight and Interstellar, serves as director and executive producer on Fallout, alongside Lisa Joy via their Kilter Films, and says he has been a fan of the games since 2008’s Fallout 3.

“Some games are movies that you can play a little bit. Fallout is an open world role playing game where you can break bad, you can break good, you can join this faction or that faction. The idea that there’s one story is anathema to the entire franchise,” he says.

Fallout (Source: Amazon)

Embracing the “gonzo tone”

The Fallout games, and Amazon’s series, are set in an alternate history version of the US, where advances in nuclear technology led to a retrofuturistic society, heavily influenced by 1950s pop culture.

The bulk of the action takes place more than 200 years after a nuclear war ravaged the surface of the planet, now populated by mutated wildlife, desperate raiders and others who managed to survive the cataclysm. Some people were able to escape to fallout shelters known as vaults, where they could live in safety and from which their descendants would ostensibly emerge to rebuild America.

Most of the games have players take on the role of a ‘vault dweller’ as they exit one of the many dozens of underground vaults across the country, for one reason or another, and the show starts out in the same way.

Ella Purnell heads the cast as the optimistic Lucy, whose journey to the surface world brings her into contact with Maximus (Aaron Moten) a squire of the militaristic Brotherhood of Steel, as well as a mutated gunslinger known as The Ghoul (Walton Goggins) – whose life before the bombs dropped is also explored.

The games are known for their blending of bloody violence and horror with anarchic comedy, where you’re as likely to encounter a quippy robot or talking tree as you are a bloodcurdling menace. It’s what Nolan describes as a “gonzo tone” ranging from “horrifying, emotional, mysterious, to satirical, political, almost goofy in places – you have just never experienced anything like it.”

Showrunners Graham Wagner and Geneva Robertson-Dworet were able to pull from this quarter-of-a-century sandbox in creating the series, with Wagner, who has been a fan of the series since the beginning, telling TBI that the most important element to get across on screen was that jarring “vibe” from the games.

“There were moments in the edit where we’re like, how do we balance these flavours that are horrifically violent and just abjectly goofy? Really early in the editing process we realized that the pivot is the point – put the worst moments next to the goofiest moments and that’s when it started to feel the most like Fallout to us,” says Wagner, whose past credits include Silicon Valley, Portlandia and The Office.

Fallout (Source: Amazon)

Discovering new arenas

As a fan of the games, Nolan was the one to bring Fallout to Amazon back in 2020, following a meeting with Bethesda director Todd Howard the year prior.

“Todd had long wanted to meet me, and I long wanted to meet Todd; we were fans of each other’s work and within about five minutes of sitting down over lunch, we knew we were going to do something together,” says Nolan.

“Todd had kind of rebuffed every offer over the years from movie studios and from networks to go anywhere near the thing and we walked out of there with a handshake deal that we were going to make it – we didn’t know where, we didn’t know how, we didn’t know with whom, but we knew we were going to make a series.”

Now that the show is finally hitting screens, it comes amid the wider trend of video game IP being adapted for the screen. Not only are there post-apocalyptic stablemates like The Last Of Us and Twisted Metal, but also shows such as Paramount+’s sci-fi epic Halo and Netflix animations Arcane and Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, among a slew of others both already out and in the works, that originated as video games.

Warner says that improving technology is a “major factor” in recreating these virtual worlds in live action, while Nolan likens the trend to the comic book craze that he and brother Christopher were ahead of with The Dark Knight Trilogy in the early 2000s.

“This is kind of my second rodeo. I was here in 2003 with what felt like maybe the beginning of the snowball of comic book movies, which have now kind of dominated film and culture in general for 20 years. I think it’s fascinating, the way that the entertainment business converges on a genre, like a bunch of scavengers. We tear it to pieces, we dig into it, we try to figure it out.

“It happened with the western in the 1940s and 1950s. Melody Ranch, where we shot Westworld for years, they had filmed 800 westerns by the time they got into the 1930s, even the beginning of that genre. I think what we’re watching here now is, frankly, Hollywood discovering this massive arena for storytelling,” says Nolan.

“Graham and I were both gamers and aware of the degree to which this storytelling has reached people. Fallout 3 was right around the moment that I started noticing in the late 2000s that the storytelling in games was often more provocative, more punk rock, more avant garde and more risk-taking than anything that I was seeing in film and television. That’s where, for me, you started to see that shift towards not just a popular art form, but an incredibly vital one.”

Fallout (Source: Amazon)

Maximising bang for buck

While Hollywood might be currently enamoured with video game adaptations, it’s also facing something of a cash-flow problem and ambitious, high-end projects like Fallout are only set to become increasingly costly – and increasingly risky – in future.

Despite that, Nolan believes that “there’s always a place for shows like this, that truly transport you to a completely different space.” He shares: “Amazon has been incredibly supportive of us from the beginning. We always try to maximize our bang for our buck and not be the most expensive show on any given network.”

Surprisingly, much of show was shot in-camera rather than via CGI, and Nolan adds: “You know, you can ask your visual effects team to do everything. Or you could pack an overnight bag, drag yourself down to Namibia, turn the cameras on and get an awful lot of value for your money.”

Wagner, meanwhile, says that nobody can predict how the next year is going to play out for the industry and suggests that commissioners “may start picking their shots more carefully,” though reports from the US this week suggest Amazon is already gearing up for a second season of Fallout, so the future of this particular post-apocalyptic wasteland looks bright.

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