There can be few shows in television history subject to the kind of scrutiny that met Chernobyl when its five episodes started going out on HBO in May. As most critics heaped praise on the show, written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, still others descended to pick apart every aspect of its storytelling, from the accuracy of the period details to its timeline of key events. Russian state television, even years after the fall of the Soviet Union, announced plans to create a competing narrative series around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, offering its own version of events that will suggest a CIA saboteur—and not Soviet mismanagement— was behind the meltdown.
But it’s testament to the work put into Chernobyl’s conception and creation that it has survived the radioactive onslaught of scrutiny to become the television event of the year. For his part, Mazin came out in front of the fallout, launching a podcast that ran side-by-side with the show, over five episodes detailing every aspect of research that went into piecing together the narrative drama, as well as being honest about aspects that were changed or re-ordered to make the series work so well. It was in keeping with the transparency of a creator who has racked up more than 400 episodes of a podcast about screenwriting with fellow scribe John August, and who published a bibliography and the scripts for Chernobyl to his Twitter account.
But beyond the headlines, the true impact of Chernobyl is in the conversation it has begun about the Soviet mindset, and the lessons we might have learned—but perhaps never did—from the way the disaster happened. Crafted in the shadow of world politics of the last two years, Chernobyl explores the human cost of misinformation, not only on those caught up in the disaster itself, but in the psyches of those that survived. As Mazin explains, over the course of a wide-ranging hourlong discussion, Chernobyl wasn’t a disaster that happened to other people, but rather to people like us.
Chernobyl details the delay it took for the news of this disaster to hit the world; one this story’s many aspects that seem unthinkable now. What do you remember of Chernobyl as it happened?
Oh yeah, in today’s world, within minutes there would be video that somebody had taken of it, and it would be on YouTube.
My memory of it was strangely within the context of something that had happened three months earlier. In the United States, in January of 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. It was one of those unifying, traumatic, historical moments for my generation: where were you when you heard about Challenger? People will tell you where they were standing and what they were doing. It was something that shattered our sense of who we were. There was a lot of pride invested in Challenger; pride in our technology, pride in our people. That particular shuttle was a really well-known mission because we were sending a teacher into space, so it was a big deal. We were all quite a bit shattered.
And then, almost exactly three months later, we hear about this incident in the Soviet Union, and I remember feeling, for the first time in my life, we were talking about Soviet citizens like they were us. Not potential recruits into an army that was meant to kill us, but rather people going through a similar traumatic experience to the one we had just gone through ourselves.
When did your interest in this period crystalize?
I came back to it later. I took a class in college with an academic named Stephen Cohen, who’s a well-known Sovietologist. It was a fascinating view of 20th Century Soviet history, with an emphasis on the period post-revolution, right up to the conclusion of Stalinism. I became fascinated by it. In my own background, all of my relatives had essentially fled Eastern Europe post-revolution, so it was a part of the world I was always fascinated with to an extent.
But my real inquiry into Chernobyl began about five or six years ago. It began very casually. I become interested in things and start reading about them. There’s no upside, it’s not purposeful, I just like reading. I like knowing things. I’m curious. But this one kind of dragged me in, in a very deep way, and I had a psychic connection to it that, at least for me, was profound.
Halfway around that same time, the format of television started becoming much more flexible in the U.S. The medium had changed in a way that could accommodate the proper telling of a story like that, and that aligned with my interest in telling a story like this. It was all a happy accident.
Which book, or books, were your gateway drugs? The show foregrounds the story of Lyudmilla Ignatenko and her husband Vasily, who was a firefighter at the disaster; her story is told in Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich.
Correct. Prior to reading that, I had read quite a few books that were straight historical analyses; breakdowns of what happened. Obviously, scientific work needs to be done to understand the science. But when I read Voices from Chernobyl, that’s when the tragedy became clear to me.
Ultimately, I don’t know how to experience historical events in any meaningful way unless I’m doing it within the context of human beings and their relationships to one another. It’s just not compelling for me otherwise. I might as well at that point be making a documentary, or one of those awful videotapes that substitute teachers show their class when the teacher’s out. I don’t care to do that.
But when I read these first-person accounts, not only did I get these stories that no one else would have been able to tell, but I also absorbed a kind of sensibility. They all shared a heavy weight in their souls and a beauty of poetry; a remarkable persistence to survive. There’s just such wonderful content in those.
Even when people are tested—for example, the story that inspired Episode 4, where you have three liquidators going around to exterminate pets. I knew I wanted to tell that story literally just looking at Barry [Keoghan]’s face. He’s so expressive and so subtle that, when something changes, you realize that something large has happened inside. But what’s interesting about the story is that, in the actual reading of the first-person account that inspired it, the person telling that story is much more like the character that Fares Fares plays. He’s stoic and he’s doing his duty. I thought that was also important to show, that there was a kind of hardness that develops over time. But also, that glide path of a boy who, in many ways, is going to end up like this man next to him, because that’s what this situation does to you.
Just as your experience with this disaster put a human face on the Soviet Union, so long considered ‘other’, it was hard to watch this show without seeing parallels with the way we treat the people considered other today. Are we incapable of learning the lessons of history?
Well, it was certainly one of my intentions to tell a Soviet story from the point of view of Soviet citizens, which meant being inside of them. Naturally, the second you get inside of them you immediately begin to empathize with them, which is the point. I’ve said many times: the Soviet system didn’t fall out of the sky and land in Russia. It was invented by human beings. The same thing happened in Nazi Germany. It is comforting to imagine there was something in the water in Berlin or something in the air in Moscow. There was not. It’s all us, all of it.
There is no question that, when I was writing this, I wanted not to suggest that the villain was some kind of Soviet system that could never exist anywhere else, but rather that the villain was a kind of Soviet thinking that absolutely can and absolutely has existed everywhere else. It comes in all different colors. Sometimes it pretends it’s on the right, and sometimes it pretends it’s on the left. But what it is, in reality, is a system of human beings controlling each other, demonizing each other and ruining each other, out of a kind of inherent human madness.
I started laying out the show bible in 2016, just prior to the election. The scripts were being written in 2017, after we had experienced this change in the United States. Recently, I’ve been particularly fascinated by what’s been going on in the United Kingdom, and how these two things are connected. What do we keep finding as we look into these stories? Our friends from Moscow. Now, the communist period ended there; the Soviet era is over. But the methodology of the KGB lives on in a President who was in the KGB. That methodology is very much about messing with your head. And it’s easier than ever before to do that.
I’m greatly concerned that we’re all capable of sliding back into that kind of thinking, all of us. We live in a time in which we’re not actively watching tens of millions of people being slaughtered. But tens of millions of people were being slaughtered not long ago in China, and across Europe during war, and in Southeast Asia, and going back further in Armenia, and in the pre-United States, and in Africa. This is our history. We do this to each other. If people watch this show and, at the very least, say, “I recognize myself or people like me—I recognize them in the face of the actions of my system,” that’s a good thing. Because it’s not us and them. It’s us. We have an us problem.
Was there a cathartic aspect for you in the writing of the show, to work through all these thoughts?
Well, once you’re through the whole thing… You arrive at the end of writing a show like this and you’re very, very depressed [laughs]. But then the ending, in its own way, is somewhat hopeful, because what do we see? And this actually started with the very first thing that I ever said to HBO: This is a story about the absolute worst that human systems can do, and the absolute best that human individuals can do. It’s the best and worst of us all at once. To see the way people—particularly in the Soviet Union, in a culture that is so steeped in trauma and tragedy—still will rise and sacrifice to help each other… That was beautiful.
The fact that the exclusion zone has become one of the largest wildlife preserves in the European continent is remarkable. And the fact that it stands there as a warning to us is remarkable. It doesn’t need to be a crippling warning. The warning of Chernobyl is not, ‘Don’t mess with science.’ It’s not even, ‘Don’t mess with nuclear power.’ It’s, ‘Be careful. Because when you’re not, people are going to die. And it won’t be the people who make the mistakes generally; it’s everyone else.’
I’ve long harbored a dream to visit the exclusion zone and the abandoned city of Pripyat to see the place for myself; pay tribute to the lives lost there. Did you get to make that trip?
Oh, of course. I couldn’t have not. It was really important. And it was a very moving experience for me. In part, because I had been going there in my head for a while at that point. I had spent so much time reading about it, watching documentary footage of what it was like before and what it became. I almost knew my way around the streets, and the geography of the plant. It was remarkable to be there.
There were things that, just because I’d visited, I was able to say, “OK, here’s something I didn’t realize.” Often very tiny things, like how on the side of the Polissya Hotel, which is a centerpiece of Pripyat, they ran these long strings of lights, like little Christmas lights. I never saw them in photos. I never saw them switched on, really. And our guide who grew up there, he said, “Yes, those were on at night and it was very lit up, they loved these lights.” So we were able to reproduce the lights when we made our version of the exterior of Pripyat.
But it was surreal. We got as close as the pump room of Reactor 3. And in that room, you can’t stay too long because the dosimeter is beeping like crazy. You get a little bit of time in there. But when you walk around that facility, you do get a sense of size. It is massive. I started to understand more, being there, why it was easy for people to deny that something like a reactor had exploded. Because the building seems too big to have failed. It just does. It seems impossible, the thought of it. The Soviets were good at that. When they built things, they may not have been the prettiest things, but they were always big.
Did you go before or after the New Safe Confinement—the massive shelter built over the entire Reactor 4 facility—was built?
That new cover was in place. We went shortly before principal photography began, so I think it had been in place for well over a year at that point. It’s also beautiful in its own way too.
So, when you’re driving up to Chernobyl, the Ukrainian countryside actually reminded me of Pennsylvania. It’s just green, green, green. You’re driving along endless green, green, green. And then suddenly the driver points, and peeking over the tree line in the distance… It’s a bit like when you’re a child, when you’re driving to Disney World, and then at a certain point you suddenly see a bit of it. It’s just incongruous to where it is. It doesn’t belong there, and yet it is there and it’s stunning. It’s an amazing achievement, what they did, at obviously tremendous cost.
There’s a great documentary about the construction of it, and one of the things that is so remarkable is how they moved it into place. They couldn’t build it in place, because that would be too dangerous. They built it probably 500 meters away, and then had to move it into place. The way they did that took just the most remarkable engineering. The whole thing is mounted on hundreds of tiny little hydraulic things, like little shoes. But the problem is you’ve got them all on one side, and you’ve got them all on the other side, and if one of them is literally a millimeter off, the whole thing starts to torque and twist. So it is all being controlled by a computer, at incredibly slow speeds, to move exactly uniformly in place. And they did it! It’s incredible. I mean, the triumph of technology here, and we need it because this problem of Chernobyl is going to be the birthright of many generations of humans to come. Long after you and I are gone.
Right, unless we manage to destroy the planet in other ways first.
We’re certainly trying.
The irony of Chernobyl is that, when handled properly, nuclear power is a lot cleaner than the other forms of energy that are fast eroding the planet.
You know, I struggled a little bit because some people have looked at Chernobyl and said, “Well, this is why we should never have nuclear power.” And that’s not accurate. But more annoyingly, it’s been the pro-nuclear industry who have just been pointlessly critical, because they feel like anything that questions the wonderful gorgeousness of nuclear power is going to lead us down a path of endless cycles of heating and carbon creation, and therefore Chernobyl has to be rejected.
And I just think… but it happened. I mean, the responsible advocates for nuclear power are not afraid of talking about Chernobyl. You need to talk about the things that go wrong to understand why things go right. Chernobyl was a kind of reactor that nobody else had ever used or ever would. It was a reactor that was functioning in a system where a safety culture was not particularly important or enforced. It was in a system where information was withheld from people. And, there wasn’t even a containment building around it. I mean, there are so many reasons why it went wrong, and nuclear power is a very good way to create power without damaging the climate.
Every way of creating power causes problems. The problem with nuclear is that it’s a bit like air travel. You can get into a car accident and walk away. It’s hard to get into a jet accident and walk away. But there are way more car accidents than jet plane accidents. We’re not very good at handling statistics like this. It does become emotional for people, and I tried to just stay in the middle, where the truth is, I think. But I do get frustrated when Forbes invites its 12th nuclear power industry lobbyist to write an article about how we’ve got something wrong. I always look at it and go, “No, I think we actually got that right.”
The conundrum of a show that has had the kind of popularity and success of Chernobyl. It became watercooler television in an era in which we’re told that does not exist anymore. People are equally fervent about indulging in it as they are about picking at the fabric to debate the veracity of the show. There are so many articles about how accurate this show is.
Yeah, I like those [laughs]. You know, we really made an effort to be accurate. We were obsessed with accuracy. And I think the closer you get to absolute accuracy, the more people will pick at it. If you don’t give a damn, nobody will bother writing about it. Look, I can write a Buzzfeed article that says, “Eight Things Chernobyl Got Wrong About the Soviet Union,” but what I can’t do is write a Buzzfeed article that says, “1000 Things Chernobyl Got Wrong”. And of course, some of the things they say we got wrong, we didn’t get wrong, we made choices.
You came out in front of all that criticism. You did their work for them. You presented a podcast for each and every episode of the show, running around an hour apiece, going through what’s presented.
And that’s one of the reasons I did the podcast. I wanted to be accountable for all of that. What I never wanted anyone to say was, “Oh, did you not know that Valery Legasov wasn’t present at the show trial of Anatoly Dyatlov?” The podcast is my way of saying, “No, I’m well aware. But I made a choice, and here’s why…”
The slight things you get wrong are the slight things you get wrong. But by and large, what we’ve heard… I mean, even today, someone sent me a tweet. He obviously grew up in the Soviet Union, and he said, “Watching Chernobyl was also like going down memory lane. You got everything right. You got the glasses right. You got the shoes right.” That, actually, is what we mostly hear. The complaints were, you know, a couple people I think felt like maybe we had wandered into their domain. That they are the sole gatekeeper of Soviet culture and what happened. People who grew up in the Soviet Union, or people whose parents had grown up in the Soviet Union, what we’ve heard from them has been overwhelmingly appreciative, because they can tell we made an effort. And I think it’s an unprecedented effort to trace Soviet citizens the way they were. And not through the lens of romantic nonsense or villainous nonsense, or even just an American lens in general.
We were essentially a European production. Only two people other than myself are American. Everybody else is either British, Swedish, Lithuanian… The fact so many of our crew were Lithuanian, and had personal history with the Soviet Union, they kept us honest. And we were dedicated to that. In the end, for a show that has been scrutinized so carefully, not only by social media and think piece journalists, but also by the Russian government itself, I think we’ve come out pretty well. I’m pretty proud.
The Television Academy seems to agree. 19 Emmy nominations is an incredible haul.
I am so excited to go. I’ll be there for the Creative Arts Emmys too, because all of my people are going to be there, and that is going to be quite a party. I am rooting so hard for all of them, because the work they all did was so extraordinary. There’s a collective sense of pride for the work we’ve put into this show.
It’s five episodes, but the scope of the show is enormous. And all at the hands of a single writer and a single director.
Look, it wasn’t easy. But no show, no movie, none of them are easy. My least favorite phrase in reviews is when they call the creators of a movie or a TV show lazy. No. Listen man, you may not like it, but people worked 13-hour days, day after day. It’s hard to make a bad thing into a good thing. It’s a hard job.
The Russians put out a trailer for their theoretical Chernobyl show, where the KGB is trying to stop a CIA operative. People have been like, “Oh god, what did you think?” You know what I think? I think it’s hard to make television shows, and regardless of what’s going on with politics and Putin and the government, in my heart I will always sympathize with whoever is out there doing the work. Even if the point of the show is to smear us, or propagandize some false narrative about what happened, mostly I’m watching them get beaten up on YouTube—even Russian commentators are killing them—and I’m like, “I know how that feels.” I kind of want to take those folks out to lunch and go, “We’re in the same business, you and I.”
And I can’t necessarily expect anyone to hold their criticism because they feel bad for me that this was hard to do. I don’t think I need to go out and say that. The point is, we’re asking for people’s attention. These things cost money to see. It’s more like, if your job is to analyze these things and present them back to people, it would help to have at least a little bit of a sense of what’s required to make them, and how that works. I’ve read reviews of films I haven’t seen and been able to dismiss them because I go, “No, there’s not a chance what you’re saying is possible.”
Sometimes there is what they call the illusion of intentionality, which is, as a consumer or a reviewer, you’re presented with a show and you assume it was all how it was meant to be, and therefore it’s reflective of your intentions. But there are days when the actor doesn’t show up. Days when someone is sick, or has a drug problem, or fights with you. There are days when the weather says no. There are days when the machine doesn’t work; the shark is broken again. It happens, and then you’re just scrambling and doing the best you can to hold things together.
Later, someone goes, “Why would you choose this thing and not that thing?” And you want to go, “I chose that, but I had to do this.” What can you do? It’s just part and parcel of the joy and misery of show business. It’s how it goes.
Is that what’s behind the podcast, or making your scripts available for download, or the list of books you used as reference? Is all that transparency your attempt to allow people to empathize a little bit with the process?
I think that’s really a perfect word for it. I think people should be empathetic for the process. They don’t have to like the end result. We are entitled to our opinions, and when we put stuff out there, we’re not saying, “Here it is, please watch it, but for the love of god no opinions please.” We want people to say, “Oh, we love it!” When they don’t, it’s upsetting, and when they do, it’s wonderful. But an empathy for the process I think would be great. Someone who says, “Listen, I appreciate what you tried to do, but I hated it.” I would say, “No problem.” That’s better than, “You’re an idiot and you’ve done idiot work yet again.” And yet, you see a lot of that.
I wonder if a lot of critics and commentators feel like the people making film and television are kind of untouchable—they’re not real people—and they feel emboldened to say, “Well, if you’ve put yourself out there, you’re fair game.”
Listen, they’re not wrong. If you put yourself out there you are fair game, but then it’s up to you how to play that game on the other side of it. Yes, you can absolutely take a swing at my head with a bat, but you don’t have to. You can explain where you think I went wrong, and why it didn’t work for you, but these personal things are remarkable.
In part, it’s because, like everything else, the conversation on the internet is essentially about hurling yourself to the far extremes of where the most clicks will occur. That distorts everything. When you look back at the kind of reviews Roger Ebert wrote—or even Pauline Kael, who in her day was considered inflammatory—it’s not like what you see now. A lot of it feels like its own performance. It’s a kind of theater.
So I think anything that we can do as creators to, like you say, show that this is not just wealthy people waking up in the morning, emerging from their bath of milk and honey, and gorging on panda meat, is a good thing. I mean, we’re all on antidepressants. Everyone making everything you love is on anti-anxiety or antidepressant drugs. Start from that, and go from there, because that’s the truth.