Jonathan Nolan Talks ‘Fallout,’ Wanting to Finish ‘Westworld’

Jonathan Nolan has co-written some of the finest genre films of the 21st century (from The Prestige to Interstellar to The Dark Knight) and co-showrun one of the most groundbreaking sci-fi TV shows ever made (Westworld). Now, he’s back — this time as director and executive producer — of Amazon’s dramatic adaptation of the blockbuster Fallout video game franchise.

The project (from showrunners Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner) follows three very different survivors in a post-apocalyptic landscape 200 years after a nuclear war. The show clearly differentiates itself from similar fare with its retro 1950s esthetic and strong helpings of humor and shock-violence (trailer below).

I met up with Nolan (brother of director Christopher Nolan and partner to his producing and showrunning collaborator Lisa Joy) at his hotel during the South by Southwest Film and TV Festival. His clean-cut look from his days on Westworld has been replaced by the filmmaker sporting long, slicked-back brown hair and a wispy beard, and it wasn’t until afterward that I realized who he resembles — Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne during his prison stint in the first act of the Nolans’ film Batman Begins.

Since Westworld was surprisingly canceled after four seasons, Nolan also had the short-lived Amazon sci-fi series The Peripheral (which was renewed for a second season, then un-renewed during the Hollywood strikes). Below, he talks about helping adapt Fallout (he directed the first three episodes), the impact of that other video game drama The Last of Us, his friendship with Elon Musk, still wanting to finish Westworld, a benefit of Christopher Nolan’s “no chairs on set” rule, and the curative power of pilates.

So in Fallout, you have a Western environment, an ultra-capable woman living in an artificial world who breaks out into the real world, and a murderous unstoppable gunslinger. How did you manage to do this again? 
It’s kind of a theme! We’d always wanted to work with Geneva, and Geneva had always wanted to collaborate with Graham. And we knew that the tone of the show would have to be just like the game — this hybrid of dark, mythic and violent but also funny, satirical and almost goofy in places. So with the powerhouse combination of those two writers, our conversations developing this world were so much fun because we all played the games. We sat down with [the game’s developer] Todd Howard and Athena Wickham of Kilter Films five years ago, and it came together. It was clear from the first conversation they were excited about the idea of an original story within this world.

Every [iteration of the] game gives you a different insight into the same world, only with different characters. Some games are like movies with playable bits. But Fallout is an open world. There are stories you can follow down, but it’s really your decision. You can create your character. You can play a character that’s bad or noble, or bounce back and forth. We talked a lot about [the Clint Eastwood classic] The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — one of our characters is a plucky optimistic vault-dweller [played by Ella Purnell,] who strives into the world to win the hearts of minds of whoever is alive. Then you have Walton Goggin’s character [The Ghoul] — ruthless, heartless and will take the most expedient route to whatever outcome he wants. Then you have Aaron Moten’s character, who is in the middle, which is how I play the games. I think Geneva and Graham nailed the feeling of an RPG without the viewer making those choices; the characters are making those choices. 

Walton Goggins (The Ghoul) in “Fallout”

Walton Goggins (The Ghoul) in Fallout

Amazon Studios

For a long time, the line was there hasn’t been a good dramatic adaption of a video game so the bar for doing that is really low. Then The Last of Us came along, and it’s also a post-apocalyptic story. Obviously, the story and tone are very different, but when you saw that were you a bit like, “Damn, now the bar is suddenly high.
I was delighted. To your point, when Todd and I first sat down for lunch, the bar was not only not high, it was non-existent — especially in the TV space. You would have people adapting a first-person game and [a studio would be like,] “So the show is going to have a first-person point of view.” No, that’s a grammatical tick of the game, that’s not how you adapt it. It’s always nice to be the first one. But when somebody makes something as good as The Last of Us, it makes it easier, because suddenly everyone understands what’s possible.

Also, I love comic books, but how many people do you know actually go to comic book stores? Compare that to how many friends you have who play video games. There was a run in the late 2000s of games where the storytelling was provocative and exciting, and there was a lot more punk rock in video games than I had seen in the movie business. When people have spent 50 to 100 hours in a world, their level of investment is very different. 

You mentioned how the games have different characters each season. Will the show recast each season as well?
That all sounds good in theory when you talk about the idea of an anthology show. But when you find a great group of actors, you want to keep working with them. So balancing that with the way the games operate is something we continue to talk about. 

The show has such a groovy retro-futurism aesthetic — the future as seen from the past. It’s such a backdrop for this story that’s obviously from the game, and that had to appeal to you as a director. 
It’s also the closest I’ve come to working with comedy in my career. We’re usually a word-perfect production — you have the script, it’s been worked on meticulously, let’s shoot what’s on the page. With comedy, you have to be more flexible. You have to embrace the chaos a little bit. We have incredible comic actors on our set, and the opportunity to get into a scene and play with it was exciting to me as a director. 

To me, the closest show tone-wise is The Boys, which obviously isn’t a bad thing.
Absolutely. We’re in a moment right now, where things are so fucking dire in the world, that to have a show that doubles down on that would be a little scary. One of the things about Fallout, it’s not the end of the world, it’s about all these beginnings for a new world. 

Did you have any do’s or don’t’s for portraying a post-apocalyptic world given we’ve seen this onscreen so many times?
You don’t want it to feel dour. But the guide was the games. When I sat down with Fallout 3, taking a break from writing, I was burned out. I had no idea what to expect. The sense of humor and irony and the cutting level of satire and this depiction of an Eisenhower-era America that never lost its swagger and kept lumbering forward … it just had a unique tone. It’s political. It has a crazy point of view, and it’s crazy violent. [Writer and entrepreneur] Stewart Brand has talked about how we’re good at ending the world. We’re good at destroying the world, but we’re also good at bringing it back. He’s not saying don’t take action to avoid destroying the world, but that things change and people adapt and move on. 

Speaking of dire times, Peak TV has had some grimness lately with streamers cutting back. Do you think Amazon would greenlight this show if you pitched it to them today like they did a few years ago?
I hope so. It’s very hard to gauge. I mean, certainly, there are shows that they would not make now that they would a couple years ago. But there’s such a huge love for this world and these games, we’re just grateful to Amazon. 

Jonathan Nolan on Fallout set

Jonathan Nolan on the Fallout set

JoJo Whilden/Prime Video

Is there any possibility that Westworld‘s original planned ending will be dramatized in any form — whether as a graphic novel or a movie or anything? Do you still have hope for that?
Yes, 100 percent. We’re completionists. It took me eight years and a change of director to get Interstellar made. We’d like to finish the story we started. 

How much did Warners taking the show off Max bother you? To not just cancel it but to remove it from the streaming service. 
Look, my career began on CBS [with Person of Interest]. The amount of people you can reach with a free, ad-supportive service [like Roku and Tubi, which had Westworld last year] is vastly higher than with a subscription service. That part didn’t bother me. But in terms of finishing the story, you understand that you get the time that you get, sometimes it’s as much as you want, sometimes it’s not. I’m so fucking proud of what we made. It was an extraordinary experience. I think it would be a mistake to look back and only feel regret [over how it ended]. But there’s still very much a desire to finish it. 

Elon Musk showed up at your Fallout party. I read you guys are friends. What do you talk about when you hang out? 
We met at a physics conference about 15 years ago and have been close ever since. We talk about the future. The things that scare us about the future. The possibilities. We’ve talked AI over the years. Like me, he’s a reluctant techno-optimist. There’s a chance to make a better world and the possibility of screwing it up pretty badly.

I love that Chris recently gave you credit for The Dark Knight’s most famous line and even rather humbly admitted he didn’t really get it at first. What was the inspiration for that line? Do you remember what you were thinking when you wrote it?
It came later in the script. We’ve done a version or two of the script where we were looking for something that would distill the tragedy of Harvey Dent but that would also apply to Batman. The richness of Batman is in the way this principled, almost Boy Scout-like figure is wrapped up in this kind of ghoulish appearance and his willingness to embrace the darkness. So I was looking at Greek tragic figures. The first part of that line is ‘you either die a hero’ — and that part’s important, because not everybody wants to be a hero; it’s engaging in heroics that puts you in this space, where you have this binary outcome. The idea is there are people who put themselves on the line and so often that wager turns on them. It’s also that old idea of absolute power corrupting absolutely. It felt uniquely resonant to the tragedy of Harvey Dent and the tragedy of Batman. The fact that it resonates with people beyond the film is gratifying. I was proud of that line.

What’s your favorite non-Fallout game? 
Right now, I’ve been playing a lot of Inscription. BioShock is pretty extraordinary. And Portal and Portal 2 are just extraordinary in terms of the gameplay. I got an NES shortly after we moved to the States. I was a kid with an English accent that did not endear me to a lot of kids in suburban Chicago when I was 11 years old. Nintendo was kind of a lifeline to me. The first system we had was Pong; playing it with Chris when I was 5 years old. To bear witness to the beginning of a medium all the way up to now is pretty incredible to watch. It’s like being around for the beginning of the novel or TV. 

By the way, you look great. What have you been doing? Any biohacking stuff [from Elon]? 
Only if pilates is considered biohacking. A few years ago I learned I had broken a vertebra in my spine years before that. I had rowed crew at Georgetown for a year with Bradley Cooper, we were on the same boat. And some time doing that I had broken my back and didn’t realize it. The doctor said I’m going to have to get spinal fusion surgery at some point, but that I can put it off with diet and experience. I was in daily pain directing Westworld season three. Like Chris, I don’t sit down — he got some friction last year for saying he doesn’t have chairs on the set. The chairs on the set are only for the muckety mucks, the producers. So when you don’t have chairs on set, you’re saying to the best-paid people, “You can’t sit here.” You’ve spent time on sets, everybody who’s working is moving. I found myself crouching all the time to push the pain out of my back. So I started doing a lot of pilates, stretching and core strength and it was absolutely transformative, 100 percent. I feel better and look better. I no longer have any back pain whatsoever. 

Finally, is there anything from the experience with The Peripheral or Westworld … I don’t want to say “lesson learned,” but anything that you’re now applying to your career choices, or to Fallout in particular, having gone through those experiences?
You’re always learning. So much with shows and movies is economics. Batman Begins was a hit, but it wasn’t a huge hit. The excitement was “Can we go again?” You just want a chance to go again. You put everything you have into one movie or one season. If you get a chance to go again, then great. If the “lesson” was to ease back on the complexity or the weirdness of something, I don’t want to learn that lesson. 

YouTube Poster

Fallout premieres on Prime Video on April 11.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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