For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt of our interview with Chernobyl showrunner Craig Mazin from the latest issue of Backstory.
To borrow from Craig Mazin’s line of thinking, the what of Chernobyl is much less crucial than the why. A lot of writers could have made serviceable miniseries centered around the nuts and bolts of what happened to cause the plant explosion, and it may have even made for compelling television. This series reaches for something more, something deeper, and it’s all there in the series’ opening line, as Legasov asks, “What is the cost of lies?” Mazin is also much less interested in the mechanics of how the plant exploded—although there’s a compelling explanation for it in the series—and more fixated on the Soviet culture of lying that he believes is the true reason for not only the accident but the cover-up the government initiated afterward in an effort to hide it from the rest of the world. “By the time I arrived at the outline for the third episode, it was becoming clear to me that there was one organizing principle to all this and one thing that kept rearing its ugly head over and over again. That was the debasement of truth and the willful embracing of a convenient narrative. It was the whole problem. People lied. They lied when they built it, they lied when they were running it, and they lied after it exploded. That is the inherent tragedy of Chernobyl.”
While watching the series, it’s impossible to not make connections to the absence of truth occurring in today’s world, both here in the United States and in present-day Russia. And although Mazin conceived the series and the idea of lies as its thematic glue before the 2016 election, he, too, could not ignore the parallels as he was penning the scripts. “It does deepen your relationship to the work because you begin to feel connected to people from 1986. I am living in a moment in time where my understanding of how [people] must have felt was heightened, and that’s a good thing,” he says. “It was not even about the result of the election, it was about the process itself. It was about the way we were beginning to discuss everything. Everything had fallen headfirst into narrative without even an attempt to pretend it wasn’t anymore. It was a bombardment of competing stories, and somewhere behind it all was the poor truth limping along saying. I’m still here if anyone’s interested. And no one seemed interested.”
From the very start, Mazin didn’t want this to play out like a conventional series about a disaster, meaning the first episode doesn’t focus on the day of the fatal moment. In fact, we only see the explosion from afar and through the window of a home. It’s not until the fifth and final episode that Mazin takes us through the events of that day. “I remember sitting with Scott Frank [Out of Sight, Minority Report, Logan], who is my writing hero, and describing for him how I wanted to lay this all out,” Mazin recalls. “I said the thing about stories where there’s a disaster is we are accustomed to beginning the show that morning where everyone wakes up and everything is fine. As an audience, we go, ‘Oh, boy, you don’t know what’s coming.’ My problem with is it’s vaguely pornographic in its address of disaster because what it’s doing is making all those characters seem foolish and dumb in light of what we know is coming. And I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in who they are and how they responded and only then seeing what happened to add context to it. It’s much more interesting to me to reveal that later.” As it turns out, showing what happens at the conclusion of almost six hours of story adds a depth to the incident that would not have been there had we seen it at the beginning of the journey. “We know who those people are. We know who has died. It’s one thing to watch Dyatlov make a series of terrible decisions where he doesn’t know that the shutdown button is dangerous, but when you know the shutdown button is dangerous, it’s different. It’s frustrating and it’s angering, but you also know at some level that under no circumstances did he think for a second that anything he was doing could possibly lead to an explosion. That matters. It changes the experience of what you’re watching. It makes it more about the people and less about the event itself.”
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