LBB's Alex Reeves speaks to the director of the HBO/Sky miniseries that's already become the most highly-rated TV show of all time
Johan Renck used to think he had a good understanding of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Growing up in Sweden, he remembers the effects on his home country due to the fallout from the 1986 explosion that had drifted west on the wind. He was a teenager at the time. Only a few years prior, Sweden had held a referendum on nuclear power, so he remembers that Swedes were reasonably well informed about the pros and cons of nuclear power. “For a long time we were told not to eat berries or meat or anything like that from the north of Sweden,” he says. “Friends of mine were taken out of school. One friend of mine moved to New Zealand for a year because of fear of the radiation.”
The catastrophe continues to play out 33 years on. Johan recently read an article in a Swedish newspaper about a wild boar that had been shot in the north of the country that contained shockingly high levels of radiation. “Probably due to how these animals forage,” he says. “They dig with their snouts and pick up stuff underneath the moss. It seems this creature had gotten onto a patch of land that was still emitting radiation and had eaten stuff from there.”
It’s this depth of curiosity that has contributed to Chernobyl, the HBO and Sky UK miniseries that Johan directed, becoming such an engrossing and widely-acclaimed watch. On this project Johan had the ultimate chance to indulge his obsession with detail. “They say that God is in there, whatever that means,” he says in justification.
When Johan first encountered the script for the five-part drama, Craig Mazin had already spent the past three years researching and writing it. “Just from the title page I was intrigued,” he says. The word Chernobyl and everything he thought he knew about the event already had him intrigued. “Reading the script subsequently made me beyond intrigued. It’s a magnificent script on every level. Then it all started twirling in my head because I thought I knew about Chernobyl but it turns out I knew very little.”
Directing the series would be the perfect excuse to indulge his curiosity, to make sure the detail was right. He started digging around for any information, reading whatever he could get his hands on, watching documentaries to get the facts about the disaster straight in his mind. “I was profoundly captivated by it,” he says.
Craig’s research had laid a foundation for Johan’s research. “There was a beautiful map laid out,” says the director. “So it was quite easy to navigate, to dive into things that interested me. There’s a blanket element of research in which you have to understand the big movements, but then your own personality will guide you towards areas that you find more interesting.” Johan met personally with many survivors and former liquidators (the people with the unenviable task of minimising the damage done by the reactor explosion). He soaked up all their stories and read every account.
With a background in directing music videos and commercials, including many meticulously art directed works for designers such as Armani, Calvin Klein and Chanel, one subject that Johan was eager to get right was costume. What you see in Chernobyl isn’t a cartoonish approximation of how people dressed in the ‘80s Soviet Union. It’s as accurate as Johan’s team could possibly make it. He recalls how costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux scoured all of Eastern Europe in order to find the exact right buttons for the uniforms that would have been worn at the time. “It was about trying to salvage whatever there was that was absolutely real,” he says. “In many cases we would find one piece of the original and then copy that for our uses. We could only use the real buttons. There were no shortcuts made at all.”
Add to that the insight that the Soviet Union was faltering by the mid ‘80s, embroiled in an expensive war in Afghanistan and struggling financially. This is the sort of thing Johan was keen to reflect in the series. “This would be a motley assembly of whatever they could get,” he says. “Not everybody would be wearing the exact same things. That’s something that I feel became such a strong parameter in its authenticity. You see a big bunch of people assembled to carry out a piece of work and they aren’t cookie cutter, they don’t wear the exact same uniforms.”
It was vital to nail the details for the production’s locations. Much of the series was shot in Lithuania, for several reasons. Johan and the production team quickly zeroed in on Ignalina - a decommissioned RBMK-class power plant that he calls “the sister plant of Chernobyl”. Having been built on the same blueprint, it was the perfect place to recreate the events that occurred at its Ukrainian counterpart.
Many of the most location-sensitive sequences in the miniseries are set in Pripyat - the city that was built solely to support the workers of the Chernobyl power plant and their families. A bizarre ghost city that’s gradually being reclaimed by nature, its empty streets are one of the most recognisable visions of the nuclear disaster. These ‘atomograds’, as the Soviet Union called the settlements, are dotted all over the former superstate, wherever there was a nuclear power plant. Ignalina’s wasn’t similar enough to serve as Pripyat’s twin though, so those scenes ended up being shot in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.
The horrors of radiation’s effects on the human body aren’t documented much in popular culture. And this is one of the many ways in which Chernobyl is a groundbreaking work of filmmaking. It’s also another avenue of disturbing detail that Johan felt his team had to research in order to faithfully tell the story. His brief to make-up artist Daniel Parker was to keep the gore aspect as authentic as possible - not a pleasant task. “He did a massive research job in terms of figuring out stages of radiation and the exact medical ramifications of it,” says Johan. “On the other hand, I’m not interested in being gratuitous. You want to display the horror of it, but you don’t want to be speculative. I’d advise you strongly not to Google it. There are some tremendously horrifying images.”
All of this meticulous attention to the reality of Chernobyl was central to Johan’s overarching goals for the work of film: “I want it to be experiential. I want it to feel like you are there. There is a massive difference between watching something that is obscured by the filters of filmmaking. The image is important to me, but the general ambiance is not trying to convolute things. It’s not supposed to be like looking at an old photograph. It’s supposed to feel like what it felt like.”
He feels vindicated in this mission. Multiple Ukrainians who were there in the ‘80s have contacted him since the series began airing, expressing their amazement that he was able to make this part of history look exactly the way it was when they were there. “Down to the smallest detail it is completely correct,” he says.
Of course, the success of the series goes beyond simple authenticity. The overarching themes of the show have resonated around the world. And although Johan first got into it out of pure historical curiosity, his motivations slowly shifted as he learned more. “Much later on, a realisation of some kind of purpose dawned on me,” he says. “I understood that this is the story that has to be told. And that the voices of these survivors, or even those that didn’t survive, must be shared with the world.
“It was a first for me. I’ve been frolicking around in the world of filmmaking for a long time and it’s always been about my own desires to make something. But here all of a sudden I did something based on truth and reality. And a completely new sensation overwhelmed me: this must be done and I must be a part of it.”
Enough time has passed that we now understand the facts about Chernobyl. That was one reason why the definitive dramatic account of the catastrophe was ready to be made now. But there’s a more profound reason, says Johan. “I think it’s very apparent in the script that there is a Zeitgeist - a clear mirror image of a lot of things that are going on in our world right now. There’s a war on truth on the planet right now where many government bodies are choosing their own gains before the truth. This is something we see in Brexit, Trump’s America, Brazil and all around Europe. The general idea of science is being ridiculed: ‘I prefer my opinions to yours.’ This is not about opinions. This is about truth. A lot of tragedy is being vested upon the planet because of this culture of hating the truth.”
This leads us to where Chernobyl goes beyond the basic recounting of facts and harnesses the power of storytelling. One clear example of this is in the decision to produce the series in English, using the actors’ natural accents. Johan’s confident in this choice: “To do it in Russian and Ukrainian was not an option. This is a story for a Western audience and there was no way to do that. Secondly, Hamlet wasn’t written in Danish. You’re allowed to write foreign projects in the English language. Thirdly, [non-Russian actors] speaking with a Russian accent is the most ridiculous thing on the planet. Only in very bad movies do they speak like that. That was never even on the table.”
To make sure the story was well told, a huge priority was to find the best actors. And with 104 speaking roles in the series, casting was a huge undertaking. The resulting cast is incredible. Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Emily Watson and the dozens of other well fleshed-out characters transform the epic story of a global disaster into something to be experienced on a personal level. But it’s interesting that several of the mostly-British cast have baggage that may have got in the way of the casting process for a UK director. For example, Alex Ferns, who plays the laconic mining chief Glokhov in one episode, was previously best known as a much-hated villain in the soap opera EastEnders. The actor who plays deputy chief engineer of the power plant Anatoly Dyatlov, Paul Ritter, is recognisable for his role in the sitcom Friday Night Dinner - worlds away from the gravitas of Chernobyl. “As a Swede casting in the UK, I’m not aware of a lot of the mileage or history of many of these actors,” says Johan. “It was really about the casting session. That was guiding all of it.”
Pulling together acting talent from across genres has helped the series to stay compelling throughout its five hours. Craig began as a comedy writer and, while Johan insists “I am not a comedy guy at all”, there are moments of humour from characters like the two mentioned above that provide some well-needed relief from the grief. “These strange comedic aspects have an important function in this harrowing world,” says Johan. “Comedy serves our themes: many times it has to do with Soviet politics or deflecting or lying. Those few moments add a bizarreness to everything that I think works.”
It’s yet another aspect that the director has carefully sought to balance. “For an actor it’s a wonderful character trait - the Dostoevskian flawedness of humans. Anything that takes away from flatness and adds complexity and layers to characters is something we all love, as a director, as an actor or as a viewer.”
Hildur Guðnadóttir’s foreboding, pulsating score adds a further layer of complexity, underpinning themes Johan was keen to emphasise: “One thing that I kept coming back to was that there is a very strong sense of science fiction in this. You’re in a different time, a different world, with humans fighting an enemy they’ve never seen before. This enemy is invisible and completely unreliable, volatile and random. When I was slapping temporary music on, this was a tool for me to understand what I felt I wanted things to feel like. Hildur is the perfect person for this because she’s prone to darkness. She did incredible work finding these soundscapes and general tonality of it all.”
After two years spent pondering an event full of horror, balancing the many challenges that 100 days straight shooting presents, as well as the slog of post production, Johan’s relieved to have this gigantic task behind him. But he’s obviously grateful for the chance to make what has become the highest-rated TV show of all time on IMDb - and something with such a resonant message at that.
These days the exclusion zone around the ruins of the infamous nuclear power station is safe to visit, albeit for limited windows of time. But Johan still hasn’t been to the real Chernobyl. He was supposed to visit last summer. Finally, it was his chance to see the place he’d been telling the story of for almost two years. But there were several forest fires in the area at the time. The authorities told Johan that it wasn’t safe to visit. He’d spent months learning about the horrors of radioactivity, so he understood. “I immediately said, ‘that makes sense. The trees are burning, releasing contained radioactive material.’ They said ‘I don’t know about that. It’s just burning everywhere!’ I thought I was a professor,” he laughs. “But I AM going. I have been promised that I will be taken to Chernobyl. I have to go to Pripyat. I have to see this power plant for real.”
Johan Renck is represented for commercials by tempomedia in Germany, Reset Content in the USA, Sioxan7e Quin5e in France and Gisla & Renck in the UK.