The Day After: The nuclear war drama that traumatised a nation

Nicholas Meyer followed up Star Trek: Wrath of Khan with the most-watched TV movie ever made

Apocalypse then: 40 years ago, Nicholas Meyer's The Day After gave Americans nightmares they never forgot. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)
Apocalypse then: 40 years ago, Nicholas Meyer's The Day After gave Americans nightmares they never forgot. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)

Forty years ago this November, 100 million Americans finished their dinner, fed the cat, and settled down in front of the TV to watch the world end.

The movie was The Day After, a made-for-TV film that depicted in unprecedented, gruelling detail the run-up to and then the aftermath of a global thermonuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union.

The film left audiences traumatised, remains the most-watched TV movie of all time and may well have influenced then-president Ronald Reagan to pursue a policy of nuclear disarmament with the Soviet Union’s leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

As Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer revives the spectre of nuclear war, Yahoo UK chatted to director Nicholas Meyer about how, after the success of his franchise-reviving Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, he found himself directing a film that would become nightmare fuel for a generation, and why he believes it’s even more prescient, and frightening, today.

Watching The Day After 40 years after it was first released is as upsetting an experience as it was back then...

Nicholas Meyer's The Day After imagined the worst case scenario during the Cold War. (Alamy)
Nicholas Meyer's The Day After imagined the worst case scenario during the Cold War. (Alamy)

It was intended to be upsetting. I should remark that there are more upsetting movies about nuclear war than The Day After. There's a movie called Threads, and there was a Peter Watkins movie called The War Game that they wouldn't even put on British TV.

So, it has to sort of take its place alongside these very depressing speculative accounts about nuclear war.

Do you think we’re guilty of putting the threat of a nuclear confrontation to the back of our minds?

As upsetting as these movies are, the effect wears off. There's something I learned of which is called the rubber band effect. When the human mind is confronted with something that is simply appalling the mind reels, and it's upsetting, it's depressing.

Then time passes and somehow we snap back to a kind of status quo. But the fact is the moment at which you and I are now speaking is, I daresay, the most fraught moment in the history of this planet. Right now. As we are talking. Things are a hair’s-breadth from being terminally out of hand. And how is your day going?

How did the film come about? Why did ABC decide to make a movie about nuclear armageddon?

Lawrence, KS - 1983: (L-R) Director Nicholas Meyer, Jason Robards, behind the scenes, making of the ABC tv movie 'The Day After', about the effects of a nuclear war on a small mid-western town. (Photo by Dean Williams /American Broadcasting Companies via Getty Images)
Director Nicholas Meyer with actor Jason Robards, behind the scenes, on The Day After, about the effects of a nuclear war. (Getty Images)

ABC absolutely didn't want to make the movie. Everybody hated the idea and was completely against it. The one person who caused the movie to be made was the president of their 'movie of the week' division, Brandon Stoddard.

He had had a tremendous success with a television series called Roots. And he was looking for a follow-up, a kind of event picture, and he saw the [nuclear power-plant disaster] movie The China Syndrome.

This put into Brandon Stoddard's mind the idea of making a movie about what would happen in the event of a nuclear war between the United States and what was then the Soviet Union. Everybody at ABC hated this idea from the get-go.

And by the way, I've tried over the last couple of years intermittently trying to get a new version of the movie made. A global version. And I've been to all the streamers. And nobody wants to do it now any more than they wanted to do it then.

You were coming off a big screen hit with The Wrath Of Khan, why go back to television? It’s an unexpected step.

William Shatner as Admiral James T. Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Captain Spock.
Nicholas Meyer's Star Trek IIL: The Wrath of Khan is considered one of the best Trek movies of the series. (CBS via Getty Images)

Well, my steps are always unexpected. Fred Astaire I am not [aughs]. The truth is I was being psychoanalysed at the time. I began my analysis when I was 30, and finished it when I was 40 and it was probably the most difficult, time-consuming, expensive and worthwhile thing I ever did for myself.

In formal psychoanalysis, the analyst doesn't talk much, if at all. The patient does all the heavy lifting. I was lying there trying to rationalise my way out of making a movie about nuclear war. The paradox, I had realised, was that it's the most important dilemma that we have ever confronted, our ability to destroy ourselves, and yet it is so terrible that nobody can bear to think about it.

So initially you weren’t enthusiastic?

Le jour d'après The Day After  Year: 1983 USA Director: Nicholas Meyer
In 1983's The Day After, nuclear bombs are fired into America. (Alamy)

I was, I think, the third director to be offered this movie, and I was coming off a modest run of hits. I had written a best-selling novel. I had written a screenplay that had been nominated for an Oscar. I had saved a sci-fi franchise [laughs]. After doing features you're not meant to be doing a movie of the week.

At which point my shrink decided to open his mouth. And he said, ‘Well, I think this is where we find out who you really are.’ Checkmate. And that's how I wound up doing it.

What was the shoot like? Did you find yourself getting depressed?

Lawrence, KS - 1983: Director Nicholas Meyer, crew, behind the scenes, making of the ABC tv movie 'The Day After', about the effects of a nuclear war on a small mid-western town. (Photo by Dean Williams /American Broadcasting Companies via Getty Images)
Director Nicholas Meyer (left) behind the scenes, making of the ABC tv movie The Day After. (Getty Images)

It was tougher for the actors. For me, directing is exhausting. There's no time off. You're just doing this thing 24/7. And you're so busy negotiating the logistical difficulties and the hurdles, I didn't allow myself to have that introspection.

As the movie went on there were political hurdles that increasingly got higher and higher. Until at one point, I was fired off the movie in the editing process. And I left the movie for three months and then I kind of was eased back into it through a lot of negotiation.

Did, or do, you have nightmares about it?

No. I have other nightmares. I have not had what my actors used to get while we were shooting the movie, which we called nukemares. Steve Guttenberg had nukemares. I never had one.

What was the reaction like after it aired?

The Day After, aka: Der Tag danach, Fernsehfilm, USA 1983, Regie: Nicholas Meyer, Szenenfoto
1983's The Day After presented a nightmarish vision of a nuclear missile strike. (Alamy)

I remember watching it with my fiancée and saying, ‘Be honest, if you weren't my girlfriend would you be sitting through this?’ I'm not sure that I would be sitting through it. I couldn't imagine that anyone would sit through it.

So I was completely flabbergasted the next morning to find that 100 million people had watched this movie on a single night. Making it the most watched movie made for television, a record which will never be broken by the way because now there are too many channels so, I win [laughs].

Did the movie have any impact outside the expected TV audience?

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room at the White House in 1987. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) is a 1987 agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union. The treaty eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges. (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) at the White House in 1987. (Getty Images)

One person's mind did change overnight, and he happened to be the president of the United States. Ronald Reagan, and this is amply documented including in his own memoir, but also by his official biographer, Edmund Morris.

I got to know Morris, and he told me the only time he ever saw Reagan flip out was when he saw this movie. He had come to power believing in a winnable nuclear war. I think Reagan, a former movie actor, had been raised on 100 years of Hollywood endings.

He was completely unprepared for the movie and ultimately went out to Reykjavik, sat down with Gorbachev and signed the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty, which was the only treaty that ever resulted in the physical dismantling of nuclear weapons.

Of course, the 'p****-grabber'-in-chief walked out of that treaty, but for over 30 years I may have contributed to world peace.

It's a nice legacy...

It's something.

That and Wrath Of Khan...

1976:  Nicol Williamson (right), Robert Duvall (left) and Alan Arkin (center) in a scene from the Universal Pictures movie 'The Seven-Per-Cent Solution'. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Nicholas Meyer earned an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay for the 1976 Sherlock Holmes film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution starring Robert Duvall (left) and Alan Arkin (centre). (Getty)

And let's not forget The Seven-Per-Cent Solution because Sherlock Holmes was dying on the vine as well [laughs].

Are you an optimist or a pessimist about the chances of a nuclear war?

[Pauses] A pessimist.

I am now producing a documentary which is called How To Stop A Nuclear War, which is based on Daniel Ellsberg's memoir The Doomsday Machine, Confessions Of A Nuclear War Planner.

Ellesberg memorably said, "Luck is not a strategy. Hope is not a strategy." Have you ever seen those signs that say wet paint? Ever been able to resist the impulse to touch the paint – just to see if it's really wet? I think that's where we are. There are signs everywhere saying wet paint. And y'know, somebody's going to touch one.

They'll just have to do it.

The Day After is streaming on YouTube.

Read more: Cult movies