From creator/writer Craig Mazin and director/co-executive producer Johan Renck, the five-part HBO mini-series Chernobyl explores how the 1986 nuclear accident become one of the worst human-made catastrophes in history. After the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, Soviet Union suffered a massive explosion that released radioactive material across Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, and as far as Scandinavia and western Europe, countless brave men and women sacrificed their own lives, both knowingly and unknowingly, in an attempt to save Europe from unimaginable disaster.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Johan Renck talked about being drawn to the truth of the story, approaching Chernobyl like a five-hour movie, the freedom he got in developing his vision for the scripts, how the project changed him, the casting process, shooting that scene on the Bridge of Death, and how he feels he needs to take a break from work before deciding what that next thing will be.
Collider: This mini-series is just so incredibly well done. It seems like it must be so overwhelming to try to tackle all of this subject matter in five episodes.
JOHAN RENCK: Luckily that wasn’t so much my problem as Craig Mazin’s problem, writing the series. A lot of these things come down to the fact that it’s how it appears on the page. It all starts there. I was obviously intrigued by the subject matter, initially. I’m Swedish, and I very well remember the accident. I was living in Stockholm, at the time. So, I’m really grateful that I could focus on my job. Many times when you get into these things, you have to assume a certain responsibility and try to make whatever the script is dictating, and embrace and embody that, but this script was undeniable from the onset. For me, being able to focus on being a filmmaker rather than anything else is an amazing position to be in. I’m still in awe when I look at this, in terms of the mathematics of the script and taking care of all of the aspects within these five hours, without succumbing to tropes or any pure exposition. It’s just a phenomenal piece of writing, so that made my life a lot easier.
How did you get involved with this, as not only the director, but directing all of it?
RENCK: As a mini-series, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. That was never a question. When they approached me, it was about the whole thing. The script was on my table and I was infatuated by the title alone because I knew it was very much down my alley. I’m drawn to stuff with a certain darkness, and darkness with beauty within it. As a Scandinavian, I like hopelessness and the weird austerity in the hopelessness of things. I’m very much drawn to melancholy and those kinds of emotions. So, I knew just by seeing the title page, that a lot of that would be in there. I had also just come back from a two-year venture in eastern Europe, on another mini-series, and admittedly, another eastern European story wasn’t on my wishlist, to be honest. But after reading the first episode, I asked for more scripts, and I read them and it was very clear that there was no way that I was gonna be able to stay away from this. That’s how it began. I’m getting very savvy at this, so I know that one very important thing, in doing these things, is knowing who you’re gonna work with because you’re gonna spend the best part of two years on something and it’s gonna be challenging on a lot of levels. So, we had a meeting, and I met with Jane Featherstone and Carolyn Strauss, who were producing this, and Craig [Mazin], who is the writer and a producer on it. They came to New York, and we had an afternoon in which we just talked about the general approach, on their end of things, and what they wanted from me. After that meeting, the whole thing was very much a sealed deal because I felt they wanted to do this like a movie. They wanted to have a filmmaker’s point of view on it. They gave me a lot of room to be a filmmaker. They actually gave me all the room I could ever ask for.
You mentioned shooting this like a movie. Did you shoot all five episodes at once? Did you shoot this like you would have a film?
RENCK: Yeah, I insisted on that. You have to cross board it and shoot it like a movie. It has nothing traditional television about it. It is basically a long movie, chopped into five parts, so that’s how you have to deal with it. It was shot like that, and every aspect of it was dealt with, in that way. I’ve been working in television for a long time, and I know all aspects of television. There were never any compromises on it, and there was never any desire to do anything but what was best for the project.
From what you knew about Chernobyl going into this, did doing this project change your perspective, at all, on what happened, or do you feel like you look at what happened differently now?
RENCK: I thought I knew a lot about Chernobyl, but it turns out that I knew nothing. This is the first thing I’ve ever done that’s based on reality. Everything else I’ve ever done has been pure fiction. And going into it, initially I was like, “Well, my task here is to make the best possible film experience out of this, even if we have to bend the truth,” but I became a staunch advocate for the opposite, very shortly into the process, because then I became obsessed with the truth, to honor all of the participants and those hundreds of thousands of people who were affected, and also because it became an agenda of its own. When truth becomes an agenda of its own, it becomes a remarkable thing. This is not a drama documentary, in that way. This is fiction, but truth of subject matters. Craig did an incredible job, in terms of researching all of that, but it was the same with my due diligence. I read all of the books and saw all of the documentaries. I had to really dig deep to understand all aspects of it, and I know everything about Chernobyl now, I’d say. Obviously, you know about some aspects of the danger and the magnitude of the catastrophe, but then the human impact and all of those people who put themselves in there for the greater good, I had no idea about the magnitude of that and the sacrifices that were made. It became a truly profound experience, understanding and learning about it. I’ve gotta be honest, I work in a pretty silly profession. I make films for people to get entertained by. But all of the sudden, for the first time in my career, there was another purpose in it. There is a purpose to telling this story and honoring the participants, and I feel pride in regards to that. I feel pride to be involved with this. I had the most amazing time ever, creatively, because of the nature of how we did this. And with my job, as a director, I was completely fulfilled in what I could do and how we did it all. It was a beautiful joy, on all levels, and there was a purposefulness to it all, which I’ve never experienced. It changed me.
You have such a terrific group of actors in this. How did you approach casting for this? Were there any of the actors that you immediately thought of for their role, or did you consider a variety of different actors for these roles?
RENCK: It’s an organic process. We spent a lot of time casting. We saw thousands of actors for this. We spent months in a small room in London to see all of these people. Obviously, what you want is the best actors you can find because that’s really important. You want people with very fine-tuned instruments, who have the capacity to deliver on a lot of levels. What happens is also that the characters, on paper, start transforming once you meet the actor. It’s a very complex process because the actual actor will affect the character, and there’s a little dance between what’s on the page and what the actor’s doing, which slowly evolves into something. And then, when you cast that person, the requirements for whoever the next person should be changes. Like with all these things, it’s all about instincts. There’s no rule book or manual to follow. It’s all what you respond to emotionally, and who you feel has an interesting approach or handle on it, or who had a particular type of exuberance or charisma that is captivating. We could write a book about the casting process. We worked with Nina Gold and Robert Sterne in London, who are arguably the best of the best, when it comes to casting, and they would curate. The choices they had made were great to begin with, and we were in a position where we had a lot of very talented and extraordinary people in front of us.