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.

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