The Broadchurch and Humans producer had only just recently set up her own indie when she received a call from Kary Antholis, who was HBO miniseries chief at the time, asking her to check out an outline from The Huntsman: Winter’s War’s Craig Mazin.
“I took a look at the pitch and I thought it was one of the most fascinating, compelling and brilliant outlines I had ever read and I called Kary back within 24 hours and said ‘yes please, I love this.’ I then flew out to meet Craig and Carolyn [Strauss] and we became a triumvirate of passion and hope [for the show],” she told Deadline.
Chernobyl tells the story of the 1986 nuclear accident in the Soviet Union and stars Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson. It dramatizes the true story of one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history and tells of the brave men and women who sacrificed to save Europe from unimaginable disaster. The miniseries focuses on the heartbreaking scope of the nuclear accident that occurred in Ukraine in April 1986, revealing how and why it happened and telling the shocking, remarkable stories of the heroes who fought and fell.
Harris (left) plays Valery Legasov, the Soviet scientist chosen by the Kremlin to investigate the accident; Skarsgård plays Boris Shcherbina; the deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers and head of the USSR’s Bureau for Fuel and Energy; and Watson plays Ulana Khomyuk, a Soviet nuclear physicist committed to solving the scientific mystery of what led to the disaster at Chernobyl, so that it can be prevented from ever happening again.
“I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of pitches and treatments and outlines and I had never read one like this. It was a story that I thought I knew, particularly being European, and remembering it happening, I was at school when Chernobyl exploded. When I read this document, I realized I had absolutely no idea how close Europe came to annihilation or how many people sacrificed their lives for the clean-up. It was that clean-up that I found so fascinating as well as uncovering the lies that were told and the corruption behind the causes of the RBMK reactor being able to explode. As a result, the way that Craig wrote it with so much humanity and passion, the human story and sacrifices stopped Europe from being destroyed, was just a profound story,” she added.
Mazin has said that the drama is as “close to reality” as possible within a five-hour structure, something that Featherstone agrees was “absolutely critical”. She said that Mazin had done a tremendous amount of research and the vast majority of what has made it into the series is based on known facts. “It’s such a responsibility to tell a story like that because there are still many thousands of people suffering the consequences of it and it impacted Belarus and Ukraine, in particular, in a life changing way for centuries so we had to do it properly. It didn’t really need much embellishing, the true story is more extraordinary than any fiction I had imagined and so it was a case of being respectful to it and telling it as if you were covering all angles of the story, we never dramatized anything for effect.”
The “vast” production, thought to be one of the biggest TV productions to come out of Europe, was filmed largely in Lithuania with a crew of many hundreds as well as some scenes shot in Ukraine. After a year and a half of negotiations, the team also secured the ability to shoot at the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, a sister site to Chernobyl. It was directed by Johan Renck, who has directed episodes of Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead as well as music videos for artists including David Bowie. “It’s a massive challenge to try and realize something that big and that experiential and I think the skill of all of the people that we brought together was that they were ambitious. You also need a great leader on the floor and Johan has a great eye and he thinks differently to other directors, and he also sees the humanity and emotion in people,” Featherstone said. The crew also included cinematography by Jakob Ihre, music by Hildur Guðnadóttir and casting by Nina Gold and Robert Sterne.
The series marked the first official co-production between HBO and Sky after the two companies struck a formal partnership. “The show knew what it was; it was a very clear proposition. We got some extremely helpful notes from both sides, they weren’t ever conflicting and I don’t think there was a single complicated moment. We never had that creative conflict. Financially, it was challenging, in my experience that’s always the case because if it’s not financially challenging you’re not pushing hard enough. It’s been a real pleasure, genuinely,” said Featherstone.
Chernobyl is also one of the first shows to launch in HBO’s new originals slot on Monday night, something that Featherstone, who previously produced HBO/BBC co-pro Tsunami: The Aftermath, said is a great opportunity, particularly for British drama producers.
“I hope to do more with them. I know HBO is expanding their hours so there will be more opportunity, it is an amazing place to work. After Game of Thrones on a Sunday, I hope that the love of that will continue over to the Monday evening,” she said.
It’s been four years since Featherstone left Endemol Shine-backed Kudos to set up on her own and she said that it’s gone a “bit quicker than I’d have imagined”.
She has already secured major projects for Netflix and Amazon as well as linear broadcasters in the UK. The company’s most recent big-budget order was for The Power, a global thriller based on Naomi Alderman’s book for Amazon. The show, which sees her team with The Handmaid’s Tale’s Reed Morano, will start shooting its ten-part series at the end of the year. “Given that it’s set in four continents, it needed to have a big SVOD [backer]. It’s an enormous, global show so that made sense to me to find a platform that could release it around the world on the same day because that’s the nature of the piece,” she said.
Over on Netflix, in conjunction with the BBC, is Giri/Haji (left), a dark character-driven crime story set between London and Toyko. Written by Joe Barton, the eight-part series stars Boardwalk Empire’s Kelly MacDonald, who plays a London-based forensics lecturer and policewoman who forms an unlikely friendship with a Japanese detective searching for his brother who has become entangled with the Yakuza. The show has been filmed and is currently in the edit ahead of an autumn debut. “That was commissioned a couple of years ago, but we insisted on having enough time to have the scripts written, so we took a year to do that before making the show and that’s been essential. It’s very hard to describe because it’s not like anything else, it’s uncompromising, funny, wonderful, dark character piece about four people who come together in London with different life stories and has also got this thriller motor running through it,” she said.
Sister Pictures is still working with AMC to develop mystery thriller Pandora with Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley and is adapting Adam Kay’s hilarious medical memoir This Is Going To Hurt for BBC Two as well as working with a number of new writers.
One of these is Mika Watkins, who started as an intern on Left Bank’s The Crown before becoming showrunner of YouTube’s big-budget sci-fi drama Origins. Watkins, who has also worked on Amazon’s Hanna, is now working with Sister to develop Joketsu, a period drama set in 16th Century Japan about a female samurai.
Featherstone said working with new writers is one of the joys of her job. “Mika is obviously a huge talent,” she said. We’ve got two or three other things with new writers but I’m not overdeveloping at the moment.”
Elsewhere, the company is hopeful of a second season of Toby Jones’ delightful comedy drama Don’t Forget The Driver. The six-part series, which concludes its first run this week on BBC Two, stars Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy star Jones as a coach driver living in the seaside town of Bognor Regis, who gets caught up in a refugee situation. “It’s a quiet piece but we have to hold on to these things,” she said, adding that television must be careful not to follow the Marvel movie route of bigger is always better.
“We have to not only chase the big [shows], it’s really important and it’s becoming harder because as budgets having increased and rates having increased to such a level, it’s harder to make the lower budgets things at all because there’s so much competition. There is a challenge coming for those lower budget shows and the public service broadcasters,” she said.
Featherstone made headlines in October 2017 when she warned that the British drama community must protect nuanced shows and not rely entirely on the global SVOD services, which would eventually “turn off the tap” of international co-productions.
“That has basically happened. HBO will be doing a few more co-productions and the SVODs will do a few co-productions when it suits them and when it works with what they need, when they want to get a piece of talent on their service, but it’s not the answer to sustaining drama and comedy in our country. It can’t be the only answer. I don’t know the answer. If I knew the answer I’d be [BBC Director General] Tony Hall and I don’t want to be but it is really difficult [for British broadcasters],” she added.
That is why Sister Pictures has a broad mix of shows with different broadcasters and platforms. “Now there’s so much opportunity, the question of us as producers, given that there is so much content, is how do we make our shows noticed without jumping the shark?,” she said. “We’re having enormous fun and my timing has coincided with a wonderful boom in the industry.”
Chernobyl launches on HBO May 6 at 9pm ET and on Sky Atlantic in the UK May 7 at 9pm.