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‘They even got a real jetpack in there!’: Todd Howard and Jonathan Nolan on Fallout
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‘They even got a real jetpack in there!’: Todd Howard and Jonathan Nolan on Fallout

If you had asked director Jonathan Nolan what his favourite film of the year was in the late 00s, more often than not he would have given you the name of a video game instead. “Having grown up with the entire history of the medium – I started playing Pong with my brother Chris many, many years ago – that was when games started to take on this level of audacity in their storytelling, their tone, the things they were doing,” he says. “That’s what I felt with [2008’s] Fallout 3: the audacity. Frankly I wasn’t feeling that in the film and television business at that time.”

Nolan, who has just finished directing the first series of Amazon Prime’s Fallout TV show, is sitting next to Todd Howard, the video-game director who led development on Fallout 3 and 4, talking to me a few hours before the premiere of the first two episodes. It is evident within minutes that Nolan understands games almost as well as Todd does. He says he’s drawn to games where your options are open, you decide who you want to be and your decisions have an effect on the world around you: in other words, a game like Todd Howard’s. The two come across like old friends, easy in each other’s company, and enthusiastic about each other’s work.

Fallout.View image in fullscreen

“I talked to a lot of people about doing a Fallout movie or TV show and I kept saying no to everybody,” Howard says. “I loved the work that Jonah had done in movies and in TV, and in a couple interviews he did, he mentioned his love of games … I said to somebody, he’s perfect. I’ve decided. Can someone reach out? We met and fortunately we clicked. You could tell he knew Fallout really well.”

That meeting was in 2019, when there was no precedent for decent video-game adaptations – despite many ill-fated attempts over the years. (We’re in a different place now: the curse of the video-game movie has been lifted, and now there are loads of TV and film adaptations in the works.) Todd never imagined Fallout as a movie, he says. “In 2019, my view was that it’s hard to translate a game, because a lot of games are about a specific character that you have played. But for me, it’s the world of Fallout that is the character … People always wanted to condense Fallout 3 or 4 into a two-hour experience and I always felt, nah. But prestige TV can tell a long story.”

The first two Fallout games were punishing 90s computer role-playing games with a black sense of humour and a strong anti-nuclear message – as the show’s writer Graham Wagner points out, they could have been written by Adbusters. Playing as a survivor of a nuclear war emerging from an underground vault 200-plus years after the first bombs fell, you quickly discovered that life up above ground was short, brutal and dangerous.

Jonathan Nolan attends the world premiere of Prime Video’s Fallout on 9 April, 2024 in Hollywood, California.View image in fullscreen

When Bethesda revived the series in 2008 with Fallout 3, it brought a slightly more hopeful, lighter-hearted tone to the wasteland, preserving the retro-futurist aesthetic and dark humour but somewhat softening its cutting satire, punishing nature and overt anti-American-military-expansionist messaging. There are plenty of moving stories to be found in Fallout 3 and 4, but there’s also a mini-nuke-launcher weapon and plenty of comic violence.

The show leans into this vibe. Unlike HBO’s The Last of Us, this is not a self-serious take on the post-apocalypse. It has cowboy mutants, horrifying wildlife, toxically positive vault-dwellers, malfunctioning jetpacks, plenty of jokes and a lot of gore. Like the games, in which you can veer from cheerfully sifting through trash with the radio on to a life-or-death fight with a supermutant in the space of a few seconds, the series shifts its tone from comedy to horror from moment to moment. In one scene we’re shown the awful moments that nuclear war breaks out, and in another, we’re watching a slapstick fight with an irradiated bear.

The show rather cleverly deals with the different sides of Fallout’s personality by splitting its perspective between three characters. Lucy, a vault-dwelling ingenue with a tough streak, feels the most like a stand-in for the player. The way she behaves when she steps out of the vault is a lot like how I behaved in the games: wandering up to people and saying hello, poking through abandoned buildings in the hopes of finding something useful, and accidentally getting mixed up in escalating fights and shenanigans.

Ella Purnell in a scene from Amazon Prime’s Fallout.View image in fullscreen

That vacillating tone presents a challenge for a film-maker, but it is exactly what Nolan loved about the games. “It was the world and the tone! I’d never experienced that [mix of] darkness and emotionality – the politics of it are so delicious and fun, it feels alive and critical … there are all these weird pockets of the world before that have escaped the apocalypse and metastasised into something else, but also there’s comedy element, which is something that I had never really worked on before in my career.”

“I think that was the hardest thing they had to do, weave it together on the screen in a way where you’re not in control,” says Howard. “When you play the game, you get to be a director.”

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I’ve always seen the world of Fallout as somewhat nihilistic: in most video games, particularly the post-apocalyptic ones, there is some hope of saving the world or restoring it. You have a reason to be a hero. But in Fallout’s wasteland, the world’s already broken, so you might as well just do what you want. It’s this that comes across most clearly in Obsidian’s Fallout New Vegas (2010), with its faded yet still glittering city of vice and its morally ambiguous narrative.

Nolan sees it the other way round, though. “Look at the brilliant Cormac McCarthy and The Road: that is a fuckin’ black hole. No light escapes from that narrative. No one’s gonna make it out. Whereas for me, with Fallout, one of the things I loved is that it doesn’t feel like the end of the world so much as the beginning of a thousand new ones.”

Todd Howard attends the world premiere of Prime Video’s Fallout on 9 April, 2024, in Hollywood.View image in fullscreen

Ironically for a TV show based on a video game, there are very few CG effects in the Fallout series. Everything from the gore to the retro-futuristic aesthetic was achieved with practical effects instead. Howard tells me it was astonishing entering the version of Fallout’s world that the TV production team had build in real life. “I got to set and I thought there’d be more movie magic, but they literally just built a multi-level vault,” he laughs. “They obsessed over everything. I went into the overseer’s office, I sat down at the desk and there was a stack of papers, and someone had written out a note – then I turned it over and there was a report on the power in the vault. They even got a real jetpack in there!”

“That was the point where I nearly lost the support of the producers,” interjects Nolan, wistfully. “I just thought it would be better if we had a real jetpack.”

  • Fallout is streaming now on Amazon Prime

Source: theguardian.com