The idea for the title came from Stu Samuels, who was ABC's executive vice president of television movies and miniseries. He wanted it to convey that this was the story of the fallout, not the nuclear war itself.
Immediately after the film's original broadcast, it was followed by a special news program, featuring a live discussion between scientist Dr. Carl Sagan (who opposed the use of nuclear weapons) and Conservative writer William F. Buckley (who promoted the concept of "nuclear deterrence"). It was during this heated discussion, aired live on network television, where Dr. Sagan introduced the world to the concept of "nuclear winter" and made his famous analogy, "Imagine a room awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has nine thousand matches, the other seven thousand matches. Each of them is concerned about who's ahead, who's stronger."
The premiere of this TV movie was a major media event. No sponsors bought commercial time after the point in the movie where the nuclear war occurs, so the last half of the show was aired straight through, without commercials.
A firestorm of controversy erupted before the film even aired over the issue of who attacked first: the U.S.S.R. or the United States. Nicholas Meyer wanted the answer to remain ambiguous so as to focus on the horrors of nuclear destruction, rather than to create an "good versus evil" mentality; rather the evil of the film should remain nuclear weapons in general as opposed to one government over another.
Nicholas Meyer claims he suffered severe flu-like symptoms throughout the making of this film. When doctors could find no reason for his illness, they eventually determined that Meyer was actually suffering from severe clinical depression, which the director attributes to having to face the horrors of nuclear war in such depth.
In the USSR, the film was shown in the spring of 1987 (it was a warming period in Soviet-US relations since the beginning of the Cold War). The film was shown in prime time in a thematic unit with film Pisma myortvogo cheloveka (1986), which also touches upon the consequences of nuclear war.
The original air date (on ABC) was November 20, 1983. Over 100 million Americans were estimated to have viewed the program. Still rated as the most watched ever TV movie on US television as of December, 2012 (not including miniseries), it was watched by 38.55 million households or 46.0% with a Neilsen share of 62%.
With the full support and encouragement of the city of Lawrence, Kansas, the filmmakers from ABC successfully transformed Lawrence into a nuclear wasteland for a few weeks, knocking out windows in storefronts downtown, placing burnt and overturned cars painted with clouds of black spray throughout the streets, covering the streets and sidewalks with rubble and bricks, and setting up giant "tent cities" and shantytowns down on the banks of the Kansas River, where the teeming homeless set up camp after the attack. Over 2,000 Lawrence residents, including many University of Kansas students, were used as extras, and were paid $50 to shave their heads bald and act as if they were dying of radiation sickness. They were asked not to bathe during the aftermath scenes to add authenticity to the movie.
Unable to get permission to use U.S. Department of Defense stock footage of mushroom clouds (although able to get stock footage of Minuteman III ICBM test launches), producers were forced to recreate mushroom clouds using special effects.
The US Department of Defense would only co-operate with the film's production on condition that it be made clear in the story that the Soviets, and not the United States, launched their missiles first.
Director Nicholas Meyer so battled with network censors and the US government over the content, namely the graphic violence, of this film, he quit the production during the editing stages and threatened to petition the DGA to have his name removed from the film. While he did eventually relent and return to the production, he vowed to never work in the medium of television again.
When production began, the nuclear attack scene was longer and supposed to feature extremely graphic, yet very scientifically-accurate, shots of what happens to a human body during a nuclear blast. Examples included people being set on fire, flesh carbonizing, being burned to the bone, eyes melting, faceless faces, skin hanging, deaths from flying glass and debris, limbs torn off, being crushed, blown from buildings by the shockwave, and people in fallout shelters suffocating during the firestorm. Also cut were images of radiation sickness, as well as graphic post-attack violence from survivors such as food riots, looting, and general lawlessness as authorities attempted to restore order.
As the news gets worse, the character Steven Klein (played by Steve Guttenberg) hitchhikes home to "Joplin". This is referring to Joplin, Missouri. Joplin is the birthplace of bombardier Kermit Beahan, of the B-29 Superfortress 'Bockscar', who dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. In Beahan's own words, "I hope to keep the dubious distinction of being the last man to use an atomic bomb".
When originally televised, the Presidential speech via radio was delivered by a voice actor who sounded much like Ronald Reagan. This speech was re-voiced by a different actor for the VHS/DVD releases and the version which airs on cable television. Conversely, a startling close-up of a screaming hospital patient was excised from the original ABC telecast, but restored for the home video and cable versions of the film.
During the attack sequence, there are several cuts of footage acquired during the U.S. atomic testing that took place in the 1950's. The nuclear yield on these tests ranged from 15 to 47 kilotons. In the early 1980's the Soviet Union had deployed ICBM forces with multiple warheads that carried hydrogen weapons with a yield between 1000 to 5000 kilotons (1 to 5 megatons).
The film is set mostly in Lawrence, Kansas, which was chosen by the screenwriters as a way to dramatize how nuclear war would affect everyone. During the Cold War, it was theorized that Lawrence, Kansas would be one of the few cities completely unaffected by nuclear war as it is near the exact geographic center of the United States.
Several special effects scenes that were planned in the original script were scrapped when the production was cut from 4 hours to 2 1/2 hours. Among the scenes that were scrapped were a birds eye view of the nuclear explosion over Lawrence, Kansas, witnessed from a 737 on approach. A simulated newsreel of tactical nuclear exchanges between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces in Germany was also scrapped.
One cut scene depicted two groups of students at the University of Kansas fighting each other over remaining food stocks. The first group comprised of student athletes while the second group comprised of science students led by Prof. Huxley.
Some of the scenes were shot on location in Kansas City, Missouri. During the opening credits, the Kansas City Stockyards, the Truman Sports Complex (with the Chiefs and Royals Stadiums), the Liberty Memorial Monument, the downtown area, and the Country Club Plaza and surrounding neighborhoods and parks can be seen. Scenes of Jason Robards and his daughter talking near the Liberty Memorial, glancing over Crown Center, location shots at the Kansas City Board of Trade, and homes in the Brookside neighborhood can all be seen in the film prior to the attack. Hundreds of civilians can also be seen crowding into a fallout shelter in the basement of the old Fidelity National Bank in downtown Kansas City, just before the bombs drop. At the end of the film, Jason Robards can be seen walking through the rubble of the old St. Joseph Hospital, which was actually being demolished at the time.
The scenes of Air Force personnel aboard the Airborne Command Post, in the command center receiving news of the incoming attack, the B-52 crew, and the crew in the silo launching their missiles, are footage of actual military personnel during a drill, and had been aired in 1979 in a CBS documentary, "First Strike." In the original footage, the silo is "destroyed" by an incoming "attack" just moments before launching its missiles, which is why the final seconds of the launch countdown are not seen in this movie.
The nuclear missile launch code, sent to the Minuteman silos to fire their missiles at the Soviet Union, was portrayed in the film as "Alpha-7-8-November-Foxtrot-1-5-2-2" with an authentication of "Delta-Xray"
The original script had an on camera death scene for Nurse Bower, who asked whether the living really did envy the dead. The scene was cut, however, and Bower died off camera. One of the doctors said meningitis was the cause of her death, however, the sound was so garbled in the first viewing that many viewers could not hear the cause of death at all.
Although both David Raksin and Virgil Thomson are credited with composing the soundtrack, only Raksin wrote a complete original score for the film. Nicholas Meyer removed much of the Raksin score and inserted cues Thomson had written for the documentary The River (1938) and gave Thomson partial scoring credit.
The Opening credits features an updated version of the selection "The Old South" from "The River" by Virgil Thomson. The Closing credits feature an updated instrumental of the hymn "How Firm a Foundation," which itself inspired some of Thomson's work, notably "The River."
Tennis great and 1980s ABC Sports commentator Arthur Ashe appears as a TV news reader during the scene in which the University of Kansas students are discussing the developing crisis during enrollment. Ashe died of complications from AIDS in 1993. He had contracted the disease during a blood transfusion associated with open heart surgery performed around the time of this film.