Interview: Craig Mazin, Creator of Sky Atlantic / HBO series Chernobyl.
On April 26th, 1986, scientists at the Byelorussian Institute of Nuclear Energy detected a significant amount of radiation on the grounds and presumed there was a leak in one of their own labs.
However, no leak could be found.
They contacted the closest nuclear plant in lgnalina; they too had detected elevated radiation levels but had found no source of a leak. The next phone call was to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, a full 250 miles away in Pripyat, Ukraine.
No one answered the phone.
The explosion of Reactor #4 at Chernobyl was the result of the lies, mistakes, cover-ups, ignorance and arrogance that were the hallmarks of the Soviet system.
A group of scientists resolved to discover the truth, even as the Soviet system worked to conceal its complicity in the disaster.
Together they uncovered the truth of what happened that night.
HBO / Sky Atlantic have brought the story to life in one of the most stunning and moving television series ever.
Sky Atlantic’s Chernobyl has quietly become imdb’s most highly rated show EVER and has got the nation gripped. Here, the show’s writer and Executive Producer Craig Mazin tells us more…
What was it that made you think ‘this is what I want to write next?’
There was an article five years ago about the construction of the new containment unit over Chernobyl. It occurred to me that, like almost everyone, I knew that Chernobyl exploded but most people don’t know why - and neither did I. That seemed startling, so I started reading about Chernobyl. Two facts jumped out immediately. The first was that the night of the explosion they were running a safety test. I thought the irony of that was mind boggling - the safety test blew up a nuclear reactor. The second thing was that the man in charge of putting out the fire, cleaning up and figuring out how this happened committed suicide two years to the day after the explosion. The more I read the more stories I found. It was almost an impossible number of shocking, brutally revealing, inspiring, dispiriting stories piled up. I had to sort through an embarrassment of dramatic riches to tell the story of the best and worst humanity can offer.
Could you include all of those stories?
No. There were a number of times where what actually happened was hard to believe. If I were writing this as fiction people would immediately flag it as unrealistic because the level of denial that went on - particularly the night of the explosion itself by episode one - is profound and shocking. I had to actually make it less aggressively true in places.
Which stories do you tell?
A lot - stories of the doctors who were working in Pripyat that night, of individual workers in the power plant who thought the building was under attack, faceless men conscripted to go on a roof covered in radioactive graphite and receiving at least a lifetimes’ dose of radiation in ninety seconds. We tell the story of fire fighters and the story of one of the fire fighters’ wives - Lyudmila Ignatenko, who has spoken eloquently and beautifully about watching her husband die. We follow Valery Legasov, an academic, and the Soviet government official assigned to oversee the task. We also have Emily Watson’s character who essentially represents all of the many scientists who not only risked their personal safety being around the reactor, but also risked their safety challenging the State.
You put the explosion in episode one then deal with the impact. Was there ever a temptation to do a disaster movie type story building up to the explosion?
Everybody knows it exploded. I’m not going to make you wait for that. And the terrible beauty of Chernobyl is what came after. When a nuclear reactor explodes it is not the explosion that is the horror - it is the aftermath. It was the beauty of the human stories that I found so moving, so terrifying and so heart breaking, but also uplifting.
How much research did you do, and did you try to encompass everything?
I followed my own sense of interest. You need to understand the science and medical science. I went down to USC and a Professor of Nuclear Physics explained how nuclear reactors work. I did a lot of reading. It was essential to understand details like what, if a young man is sent to the zone, was he wearing. What does he know about the radiation? What kind of gun do they put in his hand…? That sort of thing.
Was it easy to get this script made?
The first person I spoke to was Carolyn Strauss - a mutual friend through the Game of Thrones guys. I went with her to HBO and they just let me write. It couldn’t have gone easier. If we had somebody in mind they agreed. I wrote the scripts with Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson in mind and they all said yes. We watched these remarkable mini-series by Johan Renck, and I thought he would be great - and he wanted to do it. The show is so awful and harrowing, but the process itself was a true joy.
Why is it important to tell this story now?
We live in a time where people seem to be re-embracing the corrosive notion that what we want to be true is more important than what is true. It’s as if truth has become a joke. One of the most important lessons of Chernobyl is that the truth does not care about us. The Soviet system was soaking in this cult of narrative and then one day the truth erupts. This is why this story is more relevant than ever. We can keep pretending. We can keep telling ourselves stories. The truth doesn’t care. It will do what it does. That is the dark lesson. I think the beautiful lesson of Chernobyl is that, even in times of disaster, people step up and behave in the most remarkable and noble ways.
The scale of the production is hugely ambitious. Tell us more about what was involved?
We’re telling a European story, and with Sky producing alongside HBO it made sense that our production HQ was based in the UK. To recreate 80’s era Soviet Union though, we needed to film in Lithuania, and on set the scale and ambition of our production was astounding, with detail and accuracy essential to our philosophy. Everything you see is true to the time and place, down to the tiniest of threads in the costumes for the hundreds of extras, as overseen by our Head of Costume Odile Dicks-Mireaux. Our production design team, led by Luke Hull, oversaw the demolition of abandoned structures to procure rubble, as part of the process to convert the exterior of a soundstage into the exterior of the Chernobyl Power Plant. It took hundreds of people across London, Lithuania and Kiev to bring this enormous vision to life, and I am so proud of and grateful for the work that they have done.
How has the scale of investment in the series impacted how you approached this project?
In the best of all worlds, the investment doesn’t drive the creative, rather, the creative demands a certain level of production, and hopefully someone agrees to fund it. In our case, that’s exactly what happened. I wrote Chernobyl without any particular concern for budget. My restraints were creative and dramatic and on my own terms. Happily, our production team, led by Jane Featherstone, Carolyn Strauss and Sanne Wohlenberg, were able to partner with Sky and HBO and get the resources we needed to do justice to this significant piece of history. Everyone understood the importance of getting it right.
Watch Chernobyl via Sky Atlantic / NOW TV.