Johan Renck felt the call of Chernobyl grow stronger as he charged through more of Craig Mazin’s scripts for the five-part limited series. But, ever an apprehensive man, his initial reaction was caveated. “I love this, but I’m not going to do it,” he told himself. The problem? He’d just brought his family home after months shooting The Last Panthers in Eastern Europe, and the idea of a return to the Bloc for the whole family—a wife and three kids—was too much to conceive of.
Still, the itch kept itching. Mazin, along with EPs Jane Featherstone and Carolyn Strauss, came to visit him in New York, to persuade him to sign up. In retrospect, he now believes, he had already made that decision. “I realize maybe they thought they were there to convince me to do it,” he says now. “To me, it was just about getting further ammunition to use on my wife and kids.”
He could see the path of the show, and what he could bring to it. “I started playing the theater of it in my head,” he says. He felt the pathos of Mazin’s telling of the story and saw the responsibility to get it right. He loved that the scripts focused on the human side of the catastrophe and were grounded deeply within characters. “I wanted to rub shoulders with reality, but still with some of the enhancements we can bring to it with filmmaking. I wanted it to be like nothing else.”
But as his excitement grew, he pushed a tricky conversation with his family to the back of his mind. “I’m a bit of an ostrich like that,” he notes. “I like to stick my head in the sand.” The result of going to ground? “It was kind of catastrophic,” he says, with only a subtle hint of humor. “I didn’t know how to tell my wife, so she found out I was doing it by reading an article in the trades. I was like, ‘Oh, I was supposed to tell you.’ It was not good at all.”
Thankfully, his marriage survived—indeed, Renck welcomed a fourth child while in production in Lithuania—and the experience they had in Eastern Europe turned out to be wholly positive for the entire family. “The kids loved it, my wife loved it, it was all good. But yeah, that’s the way it goes.”
For his work on the show, he has been recognized for the first time by the Television Academy, with two Emmy nominations. It’s testament to the complexity of the challenge he faced, navigating a series that turns between action, drama, thriller and, of course, horror. Renck rejects the notion of referencing what has come before. “I’m not a film school person,” he says, “I just sort of taught myself how to do this.” He began in music, and segued into directing when tight budgets demanded that he helm his own music videos. So his approach was to push the authenticity of Mazin’s already meticulously-detailed scripts.
“We could not cheat anything here,” he says of this approach. “Everything had to have cultural authenticity. Growing up in Sweden in the 1970s, to be honest, was not drastically different from the Soviet ’80s. We were a social democratic government with two national TV stations. Our grocery stores had maybe two kinds of cereal, and one type of sausage. There was a resemblance there, so I felt I knew visually what we were going to try to do.”
He loved the variety that the story encompassed. “There was a vignette aspect to it, because of these different stories running side-by-side. All those stories were different animals, but they all pointed back to that exploded power plant. It never feels disjointed.”
What it does feel is big. In Renck’s hands, the scale of the disaster is immediately clear. He would have it no other way. “My motto in filmmaking is to make it as difficult to film as is humanly possible,” he says. “That’s how you make it good. In any artform, one of the things we respond to is this inherent feel that there’s a struggle behind it. Film is cumbersome and horrendous. Dry and Sisyphean work, in so many aspects. You should never take the path of least resistance. Always make it as difficult as possible, and look for the most difficult solutions, because I think that comes through on the other end.”