The president of HBO miniseries and Cinemax programming, Kary Antholis, was apprehensive when Craig Mazin pitched an idea for a series revolving around the Chernobyl disaster. You’d scratch your head too if you knew of Mazin’s portfolio.
His claim to fame is writing The Hangover Part II and Part III as well as Scary Movie 3 and 4. While they’re box office hits (the former two rather than the latter ones), Mazin is known as a comedy scriptwriter.
And Chernobyl deals with one of the biggest disasters in history. Essentially, it is a bleak story to be told.
“It’s safe to say we were sceptical about the idea of doing something that seemed to be a uniquely Russian story. But then Craig launched into one of the most compelling pitches I have heard in my 25 years as a television executive,” recalled Antholis at a press event in Pasadena, California.
Mazin told her that the series would be a horror film, war movie, political thriller and courtroom drama, all rolled into one.
Chernobyl is a five-part mini-series, premiering on May 7, which tells of the catastrophic meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on April 26, 1986, in Soviet Ukraine.
The incident, which occurred due to a combination of reactor design flaws as well as operators’ missteps, is considered as the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history.
“This is as close to reality as we can get and still be able to tell the story in five episodes,” Mazin, 48, said. “We never changed anything to make the series more dramatic than it was. For us, this is a story about the truth. The last thing we wanted to do was fall into the same trap that liars fall into.”
The “liars” Mazin spoke about refer to the Soviet bureaucrats who thwarted attempts by scientists to minimise the aftermath of the tragedy. Whenever a disaster happens, governments are quick to contain the situation, and sometimes manage the damage by spinning tales to the media and public.
And the events at Chernobyl was no different. Here, a delayed announcement of the blast and evacuation caused irreparable harm and long-term effect to the residents.
The official death toll reported at that time was 31, but “the most commonly cited estimates are in the tens of thousands. We don’t know how many lives were shortened as a direct consequence,” Mazin added on the result of the interference.
“The cautionary tale here is about what happens when people choose to ignore the truth. And in this case, it was to protect a Soviet system that was corrupt and inhumane,” he said.
Mazin spent five years doing his research and crafting the script for Chernobyl, a project he called the best creative experience of his life.
The series stars Jared Harris as scientist Valery Legasov; Stellan Skarsgard as Soviet deputy prime minister Boris Shcherbina; and Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk, a nuclear physicist trying to find an answer as to how the nuclear crisis happened.
For 29-year-old singer-actress Jessie Buckley, starring in Chernobyl was emotionally exhausting. She plays Lyudmilla, the wife of a firefighter who was first on the scene when the reactor exploded and was exposed to radiation.
“One in four people died because of this (accident). And the people that survived are still dealing with that trauma. So, it was a big responsibility to be truthful in trying to explain how this insane thing happened,” she said.
Buckley, who was born three years after the Chernobyl disaster took place, admitted she knew little about it.
“When I was in primary school, every year, families in my town would foster these Chernobyl children.
“So, in a way, I have always had a peripheral relationship with them. (Chernobyl) felt like a kind of dystopian world, where something had happened. But I didn’t really know the ins and outs of what actually happened.”
In preparation for her role, Buckley read Lyudmilla’s account in the book Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History Of A Nuclear Disaster by Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich. The actress got emotional when explaining what she read in the book.
“It is the most horrific death; your body literally melts from the inside out. And you have this woman whose husband is dealing with a harrowing ordeal and yet the love she has for him … It’s amazing how powerful love is.”
In the series, Buckley’s Lyudmilla watches her husband die a slow and painful death while accepting the fact that caring for him in close proximity means being exposed to radiation as well.
Good in humanity
Directed by Johan Renck (The Walking Dead), the series was mostly shot in Lithuania in East Europe as the town still has many Soviet buildings intact. One of the actual sets that was used for the shoot was once an active nuclear power plant, and this raised some concerns with the cast and crew.
Actor Harris explained: “We shot at Ignalina Power Plant, which we were told had been decommissioned. But (at the same time) we couldn’t shoot there before three on a Tuesday because that was the day they were taking the fuel out.”
Harris continued: “Initially when exposure to radiation is explained, it’s terrifying. But because there’s no immediate effect, you sort of forget that (the radiation) is there.
The British actor felt it was a similar situation when shooting at the power plant. “It wasn’t a functioning power plant, because it wasn’t producing energy, but it still had a reactor that was right behind that wall and it was the exact same one as at Chernobyl.”
When asked if he visited the real Chernobyl – opened to public as a tourist destination since 2011, with 72,000 visitors last year – Harris said his wife wouldn’t let him. “My wife said, absolutely not. And I was too chicken,” the 57-year-old said.
While the series explores the lies and cover-ups by politicians surrounding the events, it also showcases the good in humanity.
“These are stories of human heroism,” stated Oscar-nominee Watson, 52. “These are extraordinary people basically putting up their hands and saying, ‘Yeah I know I’ll be dead in a week but, I am going to go in to help.”
Mazin chimed in: “What I found so oddly beautiful about the stories I read (while researching) was that, in response to what I would consider to be the worst of human behaviour, we also saw the best of human behaviour.”