TCA 19: HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Miniseries Strives for the Truth

Chernobyl

At their Television Critics Association panel, HBO unveiled the trailer for their nuclear disaster miniseries Chernobyl to the press. Executive Producer and writer Craig Mazin fielded questions about the miniseries along with actors Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves, Red Dragon), Jared Harris (The Terror, Mad Men), and Jessie Buckley (War & Peace, Taboo)—all of whom emphasized the importance of historical accuracy while telling this harrowing story. The five-episode series, which will air staring this spring on HBO, is “one of the most compelling” pitches the president of HBO Miniseries Programming, Kary Antholis, has heard in his 25 years as a television executive. That’s some seriously high praise!

Described as everything from a war movie to a horror series with some political thriller intrigue and courtroom drama, Chernobyl aims to tell the story on an epic scale. A character-driven narrative with equally haunting and heartbreaking interwoven perspectives, the HBO series aims higher than just telling the story of the disaster as it unfolds. Antholis highlighted the central question running throughout Chernobyl: why? Of course everyone knows about the horrific explosion, but not very many people stop to think about how and why it happened. The series intends to shed light on that.

A period piece, Chernobyl covers the time leading up to and following the meltdown at the Chernobyl Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine. The series extends over a roughly 2-year timeline, from the explosion in April 1986 to about April 1988, wherein the radioactive fallout spread across Europe. Filming primarily took place in scenic Lithuania where a lot of buildings are still intact from the days of the Soviet Union. This includes a decommissioned power plant eerily similar to Chernobyl that the show utilized as a key filming location.

Chernobyl

These painstaking recreations of the time period are all a part of HBO’s focus on giving a fully-realized and accurate portrayal of the incident. “This is as close to reality as we can get and still be able to tell the story in five episodes,” EP and writer Craig Mazin says of Chernobyl. “It was our obsession, and certainly our intention all the way, to be as accurate as we could be. […] We never changed anything to be more dramatic than it was, to hype anything, to amp it up. For us, this is a story about truth.”

But that quest to tell the truth wasn’t always easily accessible. The nuclear disaster occurred in a totalitarian state that no longer exists, and the Soviet Union wasn’t exactly known for its transparency. The writers found competing narratives and had to seek out the most truthful points of view rather than the more dramatic tales to build their timeline. Still, one of the overarching themes of Chernobyl is its function as a cautionary tale.

“Well, anything that happens can happen again. Now, when you watch the series, you will realize how difficult it is to make a nuclear reactor explode. […] The cautionary tale here is bigger than just the nuclear power industry, or even the environment,” Mazin elaborates. “The cautionary tale here is about what happens when people choose to ignore the truth. […] That is something I hope people can take away from the show—that in the end, we have choices about what we will or will not confront as true, but the truth does not care, and it will come to pass.”

Chernobyl

To tell the most accurate version of this story, there was a careful balance of research and poetic license. From a series of books that were written by Soviet scientists who were involved in the incident to a series of reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency, they also looked to first person accounts and even details like blueprints. To add those intricate details of the time period, there was also research done about the culture of Soviet Ukraine.

However, with so many voices and figures involved in such a large scale disaster, it was impossible to include every single one. That’s why a few of the characters, like Jared Harris’ Valery Legasov, and Emily Watson’s Ulana Khomyuk, both Soviet nuclear physicists, are “composites” of first hand accounts given by scientists. Watson calls Khomyuk a “tribute” to the scientists who worked “in and around the disaster trying to prevent it from getting worse, and trying to find out what happened.”

With such tough material to pull from for Chernobyl and the eerily realistic depictions on set, there were moments where the cast couldn’t help but get a little uneasy. Actor Jared Harris recalls their days filming at a nuclear power plant in Lithuania.

“We shot at Ignalina Power Plant, which was a real nuclear power plant. And, we were told that it had been decommissioned and there was no fuel but we couldn’t shoot there before three o’clock on a Tuesday because that was the day they were taking the fuel out,” Harris explains. “So, that was a bit unnerving because one of the things in the story is, initially when people have the danger of being exposed to radiation explained to them it’s terrifying. But you quickly become sort of immune to it because there’s no immediate effect. So, you sort of forget that it’s there. We had a little bit of that experience because this wasn’t a functioning power plant, it wasn’t producing energy, but it still had a reactor that was right behind that wall and it was the exact same one as at Chernobyl. And, had the same problems that the Chernobyl reactor had.”

Chernobyl

The disaster at Chernobyl still echoes today, and the reality of that hit actor Jessie Buckley, who plays Lyudmilla Ignatenko, a Pripyat resident whose husband is a firefighter and first responder. “These are real people and this has affected real lives. One in four people died because of this. And, the people that survived are still dealing with that trauma.”

At the epicenter of Chernobyl is the devastating truth that human error is responsible for the explosion and the terrible loss of life, and that’s what the series grapples with. “Chernobyl was the product of intentionally terrible decisions designed to protect a system that was inherently corrupt and inhumane. And it was also the result of individual humans doing the things that individual humans often do,” Mazin says. “What I found so oddly beautiful about the stories that I read was that in response to what I would consider to be the worst of human behavior, we saw the best of human behavior. Only humans could have made Chernobyl happen, only humans could have solved the problem of Chernobyl. The nobility, the quiet nobility of hundreds of thousands of people, names of whom we will not know, is remarkable.”

Chernobyl also stars Stellan Skarsgård (Mama Mia!, Thor), Paul Ritter (Quantum of Solace), Adrian Rawlins (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2), and Con O’Neill (Harlots), and all five episodes are directed by Johan Renck. It will air in May of 2019 on HBO.