'Chernobyl' Creator Craig Mazin On His New HBO Miniseries And The Debt We Owe To The Truth [Interview]

The meltdown at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Russia was an international disaster in 1984. Plenty of investigations and reporting occurred in the aftermath, but now whole generations have been born and come of age since then. HBO's new miniseries Chernobyl puts viewers inside the meltdown with the plant workers, Russian scientists, doctors, nurses and soldiers in the mid-'80s.

Chernobyl is a change of pace for screenwriter Craig Mazin. Mazin has had a lucrative career in studio comedies, with credits that include the Scary Movie franchise and the Hangover series, as well as plenty of uncredited work on Hollywood blockbusters. Mazin also co-hosts the Script Notes podcast with John August, where they discuss the ins and outs of screenwriting and current trends in the industry.

Mazin spoke with /Film by phone before Chernobyl premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Chernobyl premieres tonight at on HBO and airs in six parts total.

I of course know that writers can write lots of different things but was it tough to convince the industry that you could do a serious historical drama?

As it turns out, it's not that hard because the commitment isn't that tremendous. I mean, when you're talking about writing in television, almost all of my work had been in features and as you pointed out almost all in comedy. So then I come along to television, I said, "Look, this is something I want to do." And they're like okay, well, you know, we like everything you have to say. So here's a deal to write a script of one episode. It's not a massive risk on their part. The big risk on their part was getting that first script and saying, "Okay, yes. We want to commit to making a whole series." Then I guess once they saw that first script, they felt pretty comfortable about it.

How did the first script sell them on it when most of the main characters aren't even in it?

I think one of the things that helped in that regard was that you make a deal to write one script but you also make a deal to write a show bible. My show bible was very extensive. They could see everything laid out very clearly in terms of all the characters and the story, but it helped to have this rather lengthy document. I did that knowing full well that, as you point out, the first episode is different than the other ones. You're smart and observant to note that

It seems like every hour introduces a new element. Was that structure obvious to you or tough to figure out that the first would focus on the meltdown. The second would introduce the scientists. The third would spend more time in the hospital, the fourth with the soldiers?

Yes, this was all intentional in part because I wanted to keep showing people different aspects and facets of this very complicated event, and I never wanted anyone to feel comfortable. This show doesn't really lean on any sense of what I call soap opera. It's not about that. It really is about taking these very broad and very different looks at this event which was, at times, horrifying but also kind of inspiring. It is a political thriller. It's a horror movie. It's a scientific inquiry. It's a courtroom drama. It's pretty much everything and that's because that's kind of how it worked out in real life.

Are Valery and Boris sort of like an odd couple?

Yes and no. I think they are both struggling with the same problem but in very different ways, and I think this was quite true to what was going on on the ground during the events of Chernobyl. You had people who were true believers. They were so innocent and grew up within the Soviet power system. Valery Legasov was a dedicated communist. Some even asserted that he was a zealot. And Boris Scherbina was a lifelong party apparatchik. He was a bureaucrat, and they were both part of the Soviet system. I think going through the process of Chernobyl forced them to confront how that system had failed and what their places were within it. There are different kinds of people who have had different kinds of jobs, and yet, uh, they are forced to find some sort of common ground. I think for them and for everyone, I suspect, that worked through Chernobyl, the common ground was Chernobyl itself. It just disallowed for any rational person, it disallowed the ability to just continue along in a state of kind of ideological denial.

I guess because I've seen a lot of movies, I see two people paired together at odds push each other's buttons until they find a common ground. Maybe that's a trope because it's true of people in real life.

It is. Our culture reflects back what is true. It doesn't always reflect it back reliably. It can distort things. In this case, what I tried to do was bring them to a place where I recognize, in particular, when Boris Scherbina understands in due course of episode two that he's going to die, everything changes for him. I think all of his bluster, the real Scherbina was a notorious screamer who tried to fix things by yelling them into existence. Something as big as Chernobyl and as devastating as Chernobyl kind of robs you of that ability. It takes your tools away. Here was somebody who was used to a certain kind of power and a certain way of imposing himself, and it was taken from him by Chernobyl. His life was taken from him by Chernobyl. And in the moments following that, I think he comes to understand that he is there for a greater cause. So what unifies them insomuch, it's not a bromance, it's more of two men coming to grips with a kind of existential purpose that is a shared purpose. Through that, they can see each other's humanity.

Does Chernobyl illustrate an unfortunate universal truth that no one ever wants to listen to the person who knows what's really happening?

Yes. And we see that more and more now which is why I thought it was so important to tell this story now. We are struggling with the global war on the truth. And if what we used to think of as the domain of the Soviets, the kind of celebration of lies and press as propaganda, that now we realize is not something that is unique to the Soviet state. It's within ourselves as well here in the West. And it's here. We've seen it in the United Kingdom right now and we're all struggling with it. The strange rejection of the expert is mind boggling to me. When we're told that the worst word in politics is "elite," I have to wonder whom else are we supposed to be rooting for if not the most qualified and smart and informed people? We live in a strange world now where scientists are routinely mocked and the truth is questioned at all turns and we are suffering from it. And the one thing that Chernobyl makes clear, and this is the big point of it all, the truth doesn't care. It doesn't care if we ignore experts. It doesn't care if we degrade the entire concept of expertise. The climate will keep changing and similarly in reactor number four, bad things continue to happen whether we wanted them to or not.

chernobyl trailer

I noticed back in 2004 when the Republican candidates called John Kerry an elitist and making it a bad thing to know things. If it was troubling to me back then, it certainly went further and further. What hope is there when it seems like they've succeeded in making "elite" or "knowledgable" or "smart" a bad word?

Well, I cannot tell you what the answer is. My only tool from where I stand and what I do is to draw people's attention to the costs associated with degrading knowledge and truth. There is one. And I will do it every step of the way. I will confront it in all areas. It is not only the Right. When I look here in Los Angeles and I see the terrifyingly low rates of vaccinations in affluent, progressive neighborhoods, I'm drop jawed and horrified. It's everywhere. That's another one of those lessons that I'm trying to bring out here. The point of Chernobyl isn't oh my God, nuclear power's dangerous. It's not. Nuclear power in the West is very safe. The lesson of Chernobyl is that lying and ignoring facts comes with a deadly cost and we can do it and we can keep doing it. We can keep electing reality television stars to office and we can keep believing what we want to believe and reading things on Facebook and deciding that they're true, but we are accruing a debt to the truth and that debt comes due one way or the other.

I didn't mean to just blame the Right. It's just the example I thought of was that campaign, but that's a good example. Anyone can deny science and facts. I feel like we've seen examples of this throughout recorded history, long before Chernobyl. The idea is you're supposed to learn from the past. Is it inevitable that we just keep repeating this cycle? Can we come to a point where we celebrate the truth?

There is hope. I think weirdly, hope often comes in the guise of culture because yes, history does repeat itself and yes, we are doomed to repeat history. But, when there are incidents that can be driven home to us as a species through the emotional experience of those moments, we tend to finally see what needs to be done. I would argue that after the publication of A Night to Remember and the film and following that, Titanic the movie, there's no question that boats are going to have sufficient life boats for people because we've seen Titanic. No one's going to do that anymore. When you look at the history of slavery in the United States and you see the impact that Uncle Tom's Cabin had, culture sometimes is the only way that we can put people's eyes on an emotional truth and make them feel why something has to change. If there's any hope that I have for a show like the one we've made it's that we put people's eyes on this and we make them feel what it means to just listen to the story instead of the truth and to ignore the truth, and make them understand that people suffer.

Thank you, those examples do remind me that some things have actually changed for the better.

They have. Sometimes in the course of things, we think of movies and television as extraneous. And they are I suppose in the context of life saving medicine and terrible wars, but we have a potential to do good things with the culture that we make. It's one of the reasons why I also was so occupied with trying to tell the story as truly accurately as I could, because you do have to change things in order to be able to tell a story in a different format. We have this interesting companion piece, this podcast that we've done. So after each episode airs, we're going to make a podcast available for that episode that goes through all the things that were accurate to history and then what we changed and why because I want to be accountable to that as well. I don't know if anyone's ever done that before.

I can't think of one. That sounds like a very innovative way to use our modern interconnected media to address perhaps a flaw that people frequently point out in biopics and historical drama.

Yeah, I think it became really clear to me before we ever shot a single frame that if our story is in no small way about the dangers of narrative, that we couldn't be guilty of the same thing. And yet narrative is inherently flawed. So I think this is an important thing. I understand why people would be afraid to do it because you might think well, I'm undermining my own story. I don't mind undermining my story. I don't mind telling people, "Look, here's the deal. Valery Legasov had a wife and children. I didn't show them and here's why, because I just didn't have the narrative space." But I have no problem telling you that they existed and I have no problem explaining why I made that choice, and you can disagree with it or agree with it but I'm not afraid to undermine what I've done here because we are dealing with truth as best we can.

Were you able to be involved in the sound design, when the geiger sounds increase and decrease when characters get closer to radiation?

Yeah, if our sound team were here and they heard you ask that question, I'm sure they would laugh and perhaps possibly also cry a little bit because I was obsessive about the sound. We were very much involved in all aspects of the production but sound in particular is immensely important for me and we drilled down to the tiniest, tiniest minutiae when we were dealing with sound and made sure that we were presenting something that was both realistic but impactful. And yes, it was an enormous part of the post-production process and one I was very much involved in.

Was the research on Chernobyl different than any other project you've worked on?

Oh my gosh, yes. It was an enormous task and it was wide ranging over many different kinds of sources from government reports to first person accounts to scientific journals to historical works, photo essays. A lot of stuff that needed to be translated, audio tapes, just an enormous amount of work went into this to make sure that we were telling the story properly and that really was about avoiding false drama. So much of what happens in the show is just shocking. It's shocking to believe that that's what happened.  Well, our feeling was if we started pushing the envelope on those things then we would diminish the impact of all the things that we were accurate about, so we stayed as accurate as we could.

What was your experience with Chernobyl as it happened?

I was 15. I remember that when we heard about Chernobyl it was somewhat within the context of the Challenger explosion which happened just three months earlier. We had had this national tragedy and embarrassment. We had such pride in our space program and so much pride in our shuttles, and one of them explodes on television and it plunges the nation into mourning and a sense of self-examination. And then a few months later, the Soviet Union, our sworn enemy, experiences the exact same thing although worse, far worse. When it happened, I remember that I and everyone else seemed quite concerned for them. There was no sense of haha, that's what you get but rather oh no, and I hope those people are going to be okay. I wonder sometimes if that's what would've happened had we not suffered our own tragedy just a number of weeks prior.

chernobyl review

You've done the Script Notes podcast for many years. Have you met any successful writers who've told you they were listening to your podcast before they got their break?

It's starting to happen. We're closing in on our 400th episode which is shocking, so we're talking about seven plus years of doing this, which is amazing to me. And so now enough time has passed where we are starting to get stories in from people who have grown up on the podcast and have become writers and they're starting to work. We hear it all the time from also assistants who move on to become creative executives and eventually they'll all be running the studios and all be doing interesting jobs and I will be very old. We will hopefully enjoy some sort of lovely podcast emeritus status in Hollywood, but yes, it's starting to happen and it's incredibly gratifying to me. It's nice to know that we played some positive role for writers, especially considering that it's free. So many people are trying to take advantage and I hate that, so I'm glad that we exist as a free resource for everybody.

As you notice trends in the industry, there are obviously more needs for content writers than ever, but is taking advantage of writers trying to get them for free running more rampant than ever? How can writers protect themselves?

Is it more prevalent now than before? I'm not sure. I guess I would say it's always been there and always been prevalent which is regrettable. It's hard. There are things that the Guild is doing now that I think are really encouraging. John August spearheaded this move to create a Start Button with the Writer's Guild. So when you start working, you hit the Start Button so that the Guild can track your progress and check in with you and say, "How's it going?" So that you have an opportunity to say, "I'm on my third free draft over here." And then they can get involved. That said, there will always be an element required of individual courage and individual protection of self-interest, and it's hard because the business is aligned to make writers feel powerless. They intimidate writers so it's hard to be able to say, "No, I won't do that." It's hard for me but when I say to a producer, "I'm sorry, I don't do 'producer drafts.' I just do the draft I'm paid for." There's a shocked silence every time. They just can't believe it. I just think, "Why are you shocked that my position is that I don't work for free? It's strange." But it's the way it goes.

I experience that shock too on my level with journalism services.

Yeah, I hear about it all the time from people that freelance. They're just like, "Holy God, can they not understand it's my career? It's my livelihood."

Do you have other historical, dramatic or television ideas that you're developing after Chernobyl?

I do. I don't think I can talk about any of them just yet but I do and they are in their early stages. I've been working really hard just to finish Chernobyl. I just got back from the final sound mix in London so we've got the Tribeca Film Festival. We're going to show the first two episodes on Friday, the 26th which is the 35th anniversary of the accident at Chernobyl. Following that, on May 6th we premiere here in the States and May 7th in U.K. Then I'm going to take a week or two off and then I'm going to start the next thing. It will be very different but yes, it will be dramatic and it will be based on real events for sure.

Do you think this will be a new phase for your career?

Yeah, I think so. I think that it's not necessarily that everything I'm going to do is going to be strictly dramatic or strictly historical or based in reality, but the experience of making Chernobyl was a joy. It was an utter joy for me from start to finish. And while I don't regret a moment of the work that I've done in feature films and comedies and all sorts of movies honestly that I have my name on or don't have my name on, this process of making television like this was just the most fulfilling thing I've ever done. I would be mad to not want to continue doing it this way. It was a labor of love. Yes, I think this is how I want to do things for the rest of the time that Hollywood lets me do things.

Have you had to turn down studio gigs to focus on these?

Yup. Lots and that's okay. That's part of the challenge of marching to the beat of your own drummer and performing labors of love is that you do have to sometimes just say no to things that might be very lucrative or popular. But, I just feel like I've done that for 25 years and I wanted to start doing things that are different, in part because I can, because they're letting me. I'm hoping that those things are seen and appreciated but for my own creative and mental health, I'm much happier doing this I think than anything else I've ever done.