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Chernobyl Director Johan Renck Says Sound Was Key to the Miniseries' Terrors

Plus, Renck talks about those British accents, the Chernobyl legacy, and crafting a trial like we've never seen before.

by | June 8, 2019 | Comments

Chernobyl, Episode 2 (Liam Daniel/HBO)
(Photo by Liam Daniel/HBO)

Chernobyl seemed to come out of nowhere. Hot on the heels of Game of Thrones‘ final episodes, the five-part HBO miniseries from creator/writer Craig Mazin and director/co-executive producer Johan Renck goes deep into the multi-layered, almost unbelievable story of how the accident at Ukraine’s now-infamous nuclear power plant became one of the worst man-made calamities the world has ever seen.

The groundbreaking series — which features stellar performances by Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, and Emily Watson — doesn’t just explore the accident, it touches on the far-reaching ramifications that followed it, telling the stories of the many citizens who made unfathomable sacrifices, and gave their lives, in order to save the continent from imminent doom.

To give further insight into the terrifying story being told, director Johan Renck spoke at length with Rotten Tomatoes about his creative vision for the project. During our chat, he explained the challenges in telling a Russian story with a large cast of British actors, the filmmaking importance of using sound and silence to convey the appropriate tone, and the enduring relevance of the Chernobyl disaster all these years later.

HBO's Chernobyl premiere (Liam Daniel/HBO)
(Photo by Liam Daniel/HBO)

Aaron Pruner for Rotten Tomatoes: You directed all five episodes of Chernobyl, which sounds like a massive undertaking. What was your vision going into the production?

Johan Renck: The first and foremost thing for me was that I wanted to make it experiential, rather than sort of on display, so to speak. This is not a diorama in which you get this world presented to you. To me, it was much more about finding within some kind of very long-gone authenticity, finding a way to shoot this and to deal with this so that you feel immersed. You almost feel like you were there. There’s this sort of experiential side of it. So I think that was my agenda, so to speak, from the onset of this project.

Has there been any pushback from viewers or complaints regarding accuracy in the story being told?

Renck: There are some people who find it really hard to understand why this is in English and not Russian. And also some people who have difficulties with dealing with the British accents in there. On the other hand, I get tons of messages from people who live in Belarus, Ukraine, or Russia, saying like, this is so authentic, I sort of relate to every thought that goes into the apparel or in a suit or a trashcan or a whatever it is, everything is so minutely accurate. So then, you know, all we can do is try to be accurate and authentic.

Chernobyl Jared Harris (Liam Daniel/HBO)
(Photo by Liam Daniel/HBO)

Well, let’s talk about working with the British cast. I can understand how some people may take issue with the accents or the fact that the actors you cast weren’t Russian or Ukrainian, but, for me, it didn’t take long for the Britishness of the cast to fall away. Were there any methods in trying to tamp down the variety of dialects featured in the show?

Renck: Having a British actor portray a Russian character is almost like taking an Italian actor to do a Russian. The British are, you know, very expressive in their facial language, very sort of courteous and apologetic. Whereas the Russian and the Eastern European persona — and again, I come from Sweden, I come from that part of the world — is drastically different. It’s much more of a sort of underhanded, almost stone-faced type of behavior. There is no willingness, there’s no desire to appease somebody else or please somebody else by the way you communicate. It’s very straightforward. And, added to that, you have this Slavic flamboyance that comes out in heated moments.

In a dream world, we would have had a year of rehearsals with our 104 speaking roles, to try to shave off some of the local edges of the accents, you know? Because you have Scottish actors, Irish actors, Welsh actors, Southern England, Northern Ireland, and all those accents are drastically different from each other. The agenda was, originally, to kind of shave off all those edges to an extent that it became some weird form of neutral English. But that task was just unobtainable given the time and given the amount of cast we had.

HBO's Chernobyl, episode 3 (Liam Daniel/HBO)
(Photo by Liam Daniel/HBO)

You talked about coming from an experiential place with this. Let’s talk about the end of Episode 2 where we are following the divers into the tunnels under the plant. That scene was darkly lit, had basically no dialogue and relied mostly on the stakes of their mission which was signified by the constant ticking of their radiation detectors. What are the challenges in presenting a story like this, in this scene and in the grander scheme of things, without going too far and exploiting the moment?

Renck: You know, there is a bunch of challenges in there, but they’re all good fun challenges. You mentioned the divers, and that to me was a very tricky scene on paper because you’re dealing with three people in pitch darkness, who are cannot talk to each other and you can’t see their faces because they’re wearing masks. You can’t really gather body behavior because of their outfits and all of that.

To some extent, you go back to the founding principle of filmmaking, which is: we’re translating psychology and behavior. We’ve got to try with most of the tools that you would use normally — there’s no terrified eyes, there’s not a gasp or sound or scream, or anything like that. That particular scene, during the shoot, it was clear this is a sound-driven thing. The one thing that will help us understand what these guys are feeling inside is the sound of the dosimeter increasing in intensity, the deeper this tremendously contaminated water gets. Of course, it’s scary enough to just see a couple of guys fumble around in the dark. But that’s just sort of superficially scary — you have to find it find the profound scariness. And that was then channeled through sound design more than anything else.

Emily Watson in Chernobyl (Liam Daniel/HBO)
(Photo by Liam Daniel/HBO)

And one of the most important aspects in telling the story here is the use of sound, the use of silence, and the organic nature of the score. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir was recently interviewed and she talked about visiting the power plant in Lithuania where the series was shot and using the actual plant as a source of the show’s music.

Renck: She had this guy with her who used special equipment to record sound from things that you would never think even emit a sound. For instance, one of the recurring themes in there is something she always called “the door.” It’s where they just put the microphone on a door and the weirdly intricate sounds coming from a static door, there’s these little weird sounds of metal and tension and just buzzing that you would have no idea existed. Those are the types of sounds she recorded, as well as an atmospheric sound. And from those elements, she used those as her sounds for her instruments.

Even further, though, the use of sound, and music, is starkly different here from most dramatic TV shows or movies. Usually, the audience would get a sweeping score or jarring music cue to let us know a big moment is happening, to tell us how to feel. But you didn’t do that here.

Renck: Both Hildur and I are firmly, firmly against underscoring, in which the music is there to guide you on what you’re to feel. You know, somebody opens a door and there’s something scary about to happen and then the music starts coming out to tell you it’s scary. All of that is something that both Hildur and I deeply loathe. That’s sort of underhanded, and also you don’t need it. There’s this permeating sub-current of dread and hopelessness and harrowingness in it already. You don’t need to put another layer on that cake, it is at capacity now.

Chernobyl (HBO)
(Photo by HBO)

In HBO’s Chernobyl podcast, show creator Craig Mazin talks about his visit to the infamous power plant before production on the show began. Have you visited Chernobyl?

Renck: Well, here’s the thing: When we were shooting in Ukraine, we planned a day off on the schedule so that I could go to Chernobyl, which was obviously what I wanted to do. On the day of my departure to Chernobyl, we get a phone call from The Exclusion Zone. Last summer was very, very hot, it was the hottest and driest summer in Europe for 300 years or something like that. So on the morning of my departure, we get a phone call from The Exclusion Zone saying we have seven or nine or whatever forest fires raging and you can’t come. By now, I’m some kind of nuclear expert because of everything that I’ve sort of delved into, so I go, “Oh, yes, I understand the burning trees obviously release contaminated organic material. Yeah, that seems not good.” And they went like, “Yeah, I don’t know about that. It’s just f–king burning everywhere.” So I couldn’t go but I’m going to go this summer and production, obviously, you know, they owe me that trip.

Chernobyl, Episode 5 (Liam Daniel/HBO)
(Photo by Liam Daniel/HBO)

In the final episode, we finally get to a trial which finds Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin being judged for their crimes. It’s here that we learn of the truth that has been eating away at Legasov — this whole time, he knew on some level that the power plant’s fail-safe button was faulty and that, ultimately, it was the final lynchpin that caused the explosion. How important was it to get this scene right? And what, if any, were the dramatic liberties taken in depicting how the drama played out?

Renck: The trial is, to some extent, not from a factual point of view. From the event’s point of view, it’s the least accurate thing. Legasov and Shcherbina weren’t at that trial, they weren’t even there in the real life thing. And that trial was a complete show trial in which nothing was revealed at all. It was just getting those three scapegoats — Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin — to get their guilty sentences and for the Soviet state to wash their hands of the whole thing. In real life, this event took place over several instances. We first had this conference at Vienna, then we had the show trial, and then, you know, nothing came out until after Valery Legasov’s suicide, and the tapes got sent out.

This was just a way, from Craig’s point of view, to sort of wrap this up. We can’t make a six-hour episode out of this and we have to find a way to truncate things and turn them into what they were. A lot of it is based on court transcripts. A lot of what was said from the participants is absolutely real, of course. But the event is a little bit of an amalgamation of a few things happening. It’s sort of a multi-layered thing. To the state, it’s a grandstanding thing — it’s a staged show trial to start out with. They set that trial in Chernobyl town, which is not to be confused with Pripyat. The town is an old city that is located about 20 miles or so from the Chernobyl Power Plant. It was staged there because the state was clearly saying there’s nothing dangerous here and everything’s good, so we should have the trial right here.

Chernobyl, Episode 5 (Liam Daniel/HBO)
(Photo by Liam Daniel/HBO)

It’s filled with emotion and an intense scientific explanation of what caused the explosion. And that element of truth is what we’ve been driving towards this whole time. Not to mention, with the whole set-up and placement of the judges and jury, the whole thing is quite odd.

Renck: I love that court scene. I love shooting a lot of stuff. I love shooting dark harrowing stuff in the underbelly of the nuclear power plant, but I also love a good trial scene. And here we got to make a trial scene that does not in any way look like any trial scene we’ve seen before. Or feel like it. It has to feel like a different type of dynamic in which the witnesses and the juries are all scripted, to some extent. And everything that’s being said and done is just grandstanding no matter which way you look upon it. So we have to create a climax and a tonality in there that supports this. And that, I think, is mainly reflected through Khomyuk’s defiance, and then Legasov’s nervousness, because he doesn’t know… Should I go all the way here? Or should I not? Or should I tell the truth? All of that.

Chernobyl, Episode 2 (Liam Daniel/HBO)
(Photo by Liam Daniel/HBO)

Now that the reviews are in and people are talking, I’m curious what you are hoping people will take away from the show.

Renck: The one thing I kept thinking that I want is that somebody like Lyudmilla Ignatenko, who is still alive to this day, would see this and feel that her voice has been heard, that she’s been truthfully portrayed and that the sacrifice she and several hundred thousand other people went through, in order to sort of save the f–king planet, or almost, is something that everybody understands, realizes and embraces. I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but that’s completely what it is, for me. Those stories, those people, what they went through and experienced, and are suffering the consequences of to this day.

For instance, there is a hospital in Cuba, in which hundreds and hundreds of surviving children from Pripyat, and from the area around, were sent to because of the close ties between Cuba and the Soviet Union. That hospital is still up and running today and still dealing with the aftermath. This was not an overnight thing. This was not a catastrophe that happened and then ended. This is a story that will continue to spread and have ramifications. That is the main thing: to let those voices be heard and have those stories be shared and that, hopefully, everybody feels that.

Chernobyl is available to watch, in its entirety, on HBO and its streaming platforms, HBO GO and HBO Now.


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Thumbnail image by Liam Daniel/HBO

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