HBO’s terrific five-episode miniseries Chernobyl has two big surprises up its sleeve.
The first is just how compelling and watchable it is, despite being what amounts to an incredibly grim horror story about the people who sacrificed their lives after a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in 1986, so that the situation wouldn’t grow even worse. It is matter-of-fact about the sheer scale of the pain and trauma these people experienced, and what had to be done to ultimately save the world.
The second is that the man behind it is Craig Mazin, whose most notable credits prior to Chernobyl were ... the two sequels to the 2009 hit comedy The Hangover. Even setting aside the fact that Hollywood writers often have to work on wildly different projects to stay employed, there’s still a pretty big gap between Chernobyl and the Hangover movies!
But people who’ve listened to Mazin’s terrific screenwriting podcast, Scriptnotes, which he co-hosts with fellow screenwriter John August, will know that Mazin is deeply thoughtful and knowledgeable about how to craft a compelling narrative, no matter the subject at hand. Chernobyl simply showcases that thoughtfulness and knowledge within the context of the prestige TV miniseries, where it’s easier to immediately appreciate.
And even more of his thoughtfulness and knowledge is on display in The Chernobyl Podcast, a companion to the miniseries that explicitly deconstructs and calls into question a lot of what Chernobyl depicts. Each episode of The Chernobyl Podcast — there are five, one for each episode of the miniseries — lets you know what was definitely true, what was only sort of true, and what was condensed or invented for dramatic effect, relative to what you’ve just seen onscreen. I’ve never encountered anything like it with this sort of docudrama, a preemptive attempt to debunk the show you’ve just watched, because its writer wants you to go find the truth yourself.
So I was excited to talk with Mazin about how writing comedy prepared him for Chernobyl, why he’s become more suspicious of the all-consuming nature of political narratives after making the miniseries, and how all of us on planet Earth right now are like the man in the control room at Chernobyl before the reactor blows, insistent that disaster isn’t bearing down on us, even though it is.
Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
When I talk about Chernobyl with other people, lots of them inevitably reveal that they’ve looked up your IMDb page and realized, “Oh, he wrote the Hangover sequels, and now he wrote this?” And I’ve listened to your Scriptnotes podcasts, and I know what it’s like to be a writer in the television and film industry and how you have to do a lot of different stuff if you want to succeed. But I’m wondering if you see a commonality between some of the other things you’ve written and Chernobyl.
I don’t want to pretend to shoehorn them together. They’re very different things, right? But there is something that is necessary for a certain kind of comedy, and that is an appreciation for the truth, no matter how dark or upsetting it may be.
A certain kind of comedy survives basically on transgression, and the transgression is only funny if it seems to be poking at something that’s true. Even if it’s something that’s awful, it’s true. So a comedian has to have his or her eye on things that might make other people squirm.
It’s why, by the way, comedy changes over time. Things that used to be funny aren’t funny anymore. Things that weren’t funny then are funny now. Because the line of what we know and don’t know moves around and changes. And as it does, the nature of what it means to transgress changes. So there is a certain emphasis on having the willingness to see things as they are, and not as they should be.
When it comes to how I approach the audience [in Chernobyl], comedy did come into play. You can tell these stories now over as many episodes as you want. It’s amazing. Amazing. But sometimes I watch some of these miniseries and I go, “Well, you definitely filled out what you had there, right? I mean, they gave you eight episodes, and you filled it, but really, you had six.”
And for me, doing Chernobyl, I started with six, and as I was working, I said, “You know what? It’s going to be five. Because I think these two need to be smashed together.” Because I have the sense memory, and post-traumatic stress disorder of first screenings of comedies. Where the thought of boring people or wasting their time is just — it sends me into paroxysms. So the training that I got from comedy, which is to respect and take care of the audience, definitely, definitely came through.
I don’t want to say Chernobyl is funny, but you use humor really well throughout, and it’s a very dark humor that aligns with we think of as stereotypically Russian. How did you find the spots to sprinkle in those dark jokes?
Mostly, I went by feeling. As I’m writing this, I felt I need a break. I need to be reminded that there is a world that exists beyond these little moments. There are other things. Life is still happening. You can’t just watch a funeral for 60 minutes. And life is funny. Even when things are falling apart, life is funny.
So some of it was just a sense of, “Okay, you know what? I feel like it’s time to remind people that there’s still something [funny]. Even if it’s a dark and absurdist thing, it’s still amusing in our world.” And then it’s just a question of tone. And these are the things that comedy writers obsess about endlessly and always have.
This is where I do my normal PSA: All awards should go to comedy writers. They should get every Oscar; it’s so much harder than writing drama. I can now officially say that, it’s true. Writing comedy is vastly more difficult than writing drama. Or at least it is for me.
Another thing I found that connects the Hangover movies to Chernobyl is the power of narrative, where whether it’s three drunk friends trying to reclaim a missing night or Legasov trying to argue for the truth of what happened, it’s all about finding that “true story.”
With something like Chernobyl, it would be so easy for it to be anti-nuclear power or anti-communism, but instead, you’ve made it a story about something more universal, which is the danger of narratives and how they corrupt the way we think about the world. How did you come to center on that theme, both in Chernobyl and in your work more generally?
I work in a narrative business. I’m a narrative salesman. So I’m a little bit like a drug seller. And I am aware that there are perfectly good uses for this drug. And more to the point, I’m not sure human beings can really understand or learn about the world around them, without it.
I think the reason narrative works is that our brains are designed to work with it. There’s a reason opioids work so well on us, because our bodies have natural endorphins and receptors for them, right? So we figured out a way to hijack that system, and that’s what narrative does too. With that comes a certain sense of responsibility. And when you make these things, you start to realize the power you have over an audience.
Comedy, in particular, is like stage magic. You have complete control, you know exactly what you’re doing, and you’re pulling tricks. You’re misdirecting, and you’re setting things up and paying them off, and moving them back around and surprising people, and then they laugh. And if you’re making a horror film, they shriek.
It’s dangerous. I don’t know how else to describe it. I think it’s dangerous. It’s not dangerous if it’s done just for thrills or laughs. But what’s happened is everybody has caught on. So politics is now nothing but weaponized narrative. That’s all it is.
And advertising figured out how to use narrative to sell you things you didn’t need. My favorite example is the engagement ring. I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, there was an engagement ring, and it was a diamond. I heard that story and thought, well, that’s just the way it’s been. But no! The De Beers Company invented the diamond ring as part of an advertising campaign in the 1920s. Diamonds were kind of shitty and useless before then; nobody cared about them, and they’re not even rare.
That’s narrative at work. And it has taken over every aspect of our lives. We don’t get sold products anymore; we get sold stories. They walk out onstage and they give you a story about how this is going to change the world and blah, blah, blah. Everything is a narrative. And we’re suffering. We’re kind of drowning in narrative poison.
If I can do narrative to undermine the point of narrative, well, fuck it ... I mean, I can’t think of anything more ambitious to do than that. And to do it in a story that underlines the worst that narrative can bring about, or at least some of the worst narrative can bring about, well, it makes for a good narrative. What can I say?
I’m sure that must have come out of your research, because there are competing narratives of what happened at Chernobyl to this day. How did you start to zero in on the story you were going to tell out of those competing narratives, and when did you start to think of the idea of poisonous narratives as a theme tied to this particular story?
It became clear that there were certain aspects of the story that everyone agreed on. And those stories struck me as terrifying and shocking. From that point forward, if there was a conflict, I would go with the less dramatic, and the less shocking, less sensationalist versions, because I had enough. And every time you nudge things to make yourself look better, you are threatening to undermine the entire thing.
So when I had a choice, I went for the less dramatic version. We’re dealing with a largely oral history. There’s a lot of written material, but the written material occasionally disagrees with itself. It’s a story that took place in a closed society. There’s a lot of challenges there.
I started writing the scripts in 2016, and the presidential election occurred later that year. ... So I think I was in the middle of episode two or episode three at that point. But even then, the campaign was going on and it just became clear to me that [narrative] was at the crux of it all. And I actually went back and rewrote the very beginning of what Legasov says to start the show off.
It’s the story of the Soviet Union, but the danger is you make the story about how the Soviets were a bunch of liars and it’s easy for America — and some Americans continue to do this, remarkably — to say, “See? Those Soviets ... they’re liars.” And it became clear to me that Soviets are just people, and we’re just people, and lying is not in the water over there. It’s something people do. And they do it here. The Soviet system is a warning: Don’t take it this far. Please, for the love of god, don’t take it this far.
What’s an example of a time when you chose the less dramatic story, even if the more dramatic one might have been more superficially exciting?
The best example I can think of is the three divers that go into the water [to drain a flooded basement so nuclear material does not make contact with the water and create a massive explosion] at the end of episode two. Up until six months before shooting, the story that I had seen everywhere, and which was repeated not only in news articles but in many reputable books, was that those three men went into the water, they were completely submerged, so they were scuba diving through total water, and they died two weeks later. And that is a hell of a story. It certainly makes that moment and that sacrifice just all the more gut-wrenching.
But about six months before shooting, as I was still working on the scripts and researching, I read a book called 01:23:40 by a guy named Andrew Leatherbarrow; he’s sort of an amateur Chernobylologist, and he wrote a terrific book [that contained the same story as it had previously been told]. Then he changed it because he had done further research, and according to his research, he had discovered that, in fact, those guys didn’t die. And they weren’t submerged completely in water, and two of them are still alive today.
And I read that and I thought, “Oh, no!” I mean, “Hooray!” but “Oh, no!” And look, I could have made an incredibly good case to just leave it as it was. I had 99 sources saying they were dead and one saying they were alive. I went with the alive one, which by the way is correct, and I’m actually happy to help set the record straight about that, and that they weren’t completely submerged.
Johan Renck, the director and I, had to rethink that. How does that scene work? What do we show? When do we tell people that they lived? That’s the best example I can think of.
It’s difficult to watch this show and work on it, I imagine, without thinking about the current trend toward dismissal of scientific topics in the US and the ways that US bureaucracies perpetuate themselves. When you look at the classic Soviet bureaucracies, what are the main differences and similarities between them and a similar organization in modern America?
Well, on an individual basis, any person in the Soviet Union, whatever their worst was, there is somebody like that in the United States perfectly capable of doing that, or who did it. That’s an individual basis. When you look at the systems and the culture, there are some differences.
The main difference is that our culture has always been an open culture. Our politicians have been attacking each other in the press since our country was established. We have a long, rich tradition of mocking our leaders, even ones who were powerful. Look at the Thomas Nast cartoons of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed; this was an organization that ran New York. [Nast] is a guy who would post cartoons repeatedly of [Tweed] as just this big fat man with a sack of cash for a head. And that was in the 1800s.
We’ve always done this. We have an open society and we have always also attacked the press. Our leaders have always attacked the press and gone after the press. Similarly, our press has often behaved poorly. The Spanish-American War appears to have been the fault of just terrible journalism, designed to sell newspapers, right? But then we talk about that too.
In the Soviet Union, and continuing today in Russia, there is no such deep-seated tradition of cultural self-mockery. Quite the opposite. For very good reasons, the East — and let’s just say Russia, as the largest country in that area — is insecure. I’d say they feel looked down upon. They feel like they have been viewed unfairly, and treated poorly, and laughed at, and made fun of. They’re not wrong.
They think that more than any other country on earth, they sacrificed in World War II to stop the advance of Nazi Germany. And they’re right. And I think they are humiliated by their past. They know that the world made fun of their cars and their clothes and their lies. They were kind of reduced to a joke, and then their entire country collapsed and disappeared.
This recapturing — let’s call it Make Russia Great Again, the spirit that you see embodied by Putin — is understandable to some extent. I don’t agree with it, but I understand its nature.
We have the opposite. In the United States, we are unjustifiably proud of ourselves. We should be proud; we’ve done some amazing things. But we’re too proud. And I think in Russia, they are carrying around a little bit too much insecurity, when I think the Russian culture has an enormous amount to be proud of. I think it’s a remarkable culture, and I think they’re a remarkable people.
One of the things I loved about Chernobyl was being able to show that incredible spirit of Ukrainian people, Russian people, Belarusian people. They’ve done remarkable things. The stories of what they did in World War II still have not yet been properly told. It’s remarkable. But also, they had a century of tyrants. A century of tyrants. And that, I think, is the big difference in the cultural history. On some level, I hope that if they’re watching this show, they feel good about themselves.
Have you gotten responses from people who’ve seen it in Russia?
I’ve gotten a lot of responses. Some from people within Russia, a lot from within Ukraine, but I would say the largest number of what I’ll call Soviet-relevant responses come from former citizens of the Soviet Union, and they have been overwhelmingly positive. Shockingly so.
One of the things that gratifies me the most is that when we made the show, we just made the decision among ourselves, among every production department, that the best way we could show our respect to this culture was to depict it accurately, down to details no one in the United States would ever care about and no one in the United Kingdom would ever care about. But somebody watching it in Ukraine would say, “They cared enough to get it right.”
That’s the kind of response we’ve been getting back. They noticed, and they appreciate it. And that is great. That makes me feel terrific.
How hard was it to get all that information about what everything looked like and what everybody was wearing?
It wasn’t easy. We did have the advantage of producing this show largely in Lithuania, which is a former Soviet Socialist Republic. We also shot a little bit in Kiev, [Ukraine], and in Moscow. Our crew was 90 percent Eastern European. Many of them were old enough to have been Soviet citizens themselves.
And we were able to draw upon those resources to find everything we needed that was real. If we need a desk fan, well, someone’s out there rummaging through a yard sale in Poland and found this one. Sometimes we had help because the Soviets would sometimes just make one of a thing. Like, this is the miner hat, so now we don’t have to get a hundred different miner hats. We get the one miner hat they made.
We also had consultants whose expertise was just military costuming. What would they wear? How would they wear it? What would it look like? What would it not look like? Every bit of clothing, suits that we made for Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård, were made from bolts of cloth that were taken from the ’80s. They were vintage cloth from Soviet 1985.
That was the level of detail we went to, and with a few rare exceptions, we got it right. I’m very proud of that.
I want to talk about the finale. I wasn’t sure about it until about halfway through, and then I was like, “Oh, this is my favorite episode.” It’s a courtroom drama, kind of, which is a very different kind of horror from the rest of the show. But you also cut back to the initial explosion at the plant. How did you decide to structure the episode that way?
I just decided to do everything backward, because I’m a backward kind of guy. The normal thing would have been to start [the series] with the day of and show people, meet them, get to have them come to work and laugh about their night before. And then show them begin a test, and it all goes wrong, and you end with an explosion. And that would have been episode one.
I thought, eh, let’s start with the explosion and go from there. It’s just more interesting to me, and also, I’m not sure I’m gonna really care about these people, what they’re doing, and the decisions they’re making, if I don’t have the context for it, which is this disaster.
It seemed to me that after absorbing all the impact and tragedy [after the explosion], the finale needed to explain how it came to pass, so that we could look at each other and say, “Let’s not do that again.” It’s one thing to say, “Look, if you text and drive, you can get into an accident.” It’s another thing for me to make you look at an accident for an hour and then say, “Now let’s go backward and talk about how this happened.”
So this is an unraveling. It is in part a courtroom drama, but it’s also a scientific inquiry. And I wanted people to see that these things don’t happen because God willed it. It doesn’t happen because of bad luck. It doesn’t happen because you were doomed, or because of fate. It happens because of science. Facts. And if it happens because of science, that means if we pay attention to science, we can avoid it happening.
The intercutting between the two was essential, because it was a way to show how accurate this testimony is. The testimony isn’t telling you a story. It’s describing the facts of what was happening in that room. And to me, that is compelling.
If people watch it and they go, “Well, geez, that was a lot of science, and I kind of missed the tragedy and all the rest of it,” I’ll say, “Well, then all respect to you, you missed the fucking point.” The point is not to wallow in sorrow porn. The point is to say we have a responsibility for that sorrow to not occur again. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we made the show.
So the most important episode is the final episode. That’s the one that matters the most. It is holding the cost up to our faces. And right now, like it or not, we’re unfortunately those guys in the control room going, “Well, the one thing we don’t have to worry about is this thing blowing up.” That’s us, on this planet, right now. So that’s why the fifth episode, I hope people, like you, find their way through it and go, “Okay, yeah, I get it.”
To pull things full circle, at a certain point, the truth itself becomes a narrative. I’m wondering how we can tell truths in ways that make them more narratively viral, more narratively catchy. Did you learn anything from Chernoybl to suggest how truth can become a compelling narrative on its own?
The thing about truth is, in its best version, it’s not narrativized, and it’s not viral. What you can do, though, is attract people to a truth through something that is narrative or viral, and then say, “In all honesty, what you have seen is sort of, kind of the truth. But look at all this other stuff.”
That’s why I’m doing the companion podcast. The last thing I ever wanted to say to people was, “Now that you’ve watched this, you know the truth.” No, you don’t. You know some of the truth, and you know some of the stuff that’s been dramatized.
For instance, Legasov was not in that courtroom. The truth is he was not there. But I can’t tell the story without him being there because nobody’s going to want to watch that. They know this guy; they want to hear from him. But it’s important, then, for me to go on the podcast and say, “Okay, but in reality, here’s the real truth-truth, which is not narratively interesting.” So in the context of what you’ve seen, you’re now interested in going further and getting more. And that stuff is not a story. That stuff is just truth.
And ideally, through this, we start to maybe find a new way to present things to people where we’re not so worried as artists, that people are going to question whether or not we, quote-unquote, “got it right.” We can’t get it right; we can only get it sort of right. That’s the best we can do.
But if we can share everything else, including things that challenge or undermine the narrative we presented — because we are dealing with an imperfect process that boils two years down into five hours — then I think they will appreciate what we do more, not less.
Chernobyl is available in full on HBO’s streaming platforms.