'Chernobyl': Director Johan Renck Talks About His Harrowing HBO Mini-Series [Interview]

Series or films about real tragedies will always be working with the difficulties of balancing the need to honor the real-life victims of said events while simultaneously. Johan Renck, the director of HBO’s latest mini-series “Chernobyl” tackles the subject matter along with screenwriter Craig Mazin with grace and curiosity, fearless in presenting the true to life horrific atrocities that took place while never falling into exploitative territory.

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With a history of television under his belt from “Bloodline” to “The Last Panthers,” Renck had an understanding going into the project about how best to work within a limited series as well as a natural intrigue in the story itself. We got to speak with him about his experience working on the show and what drew him to the project.

How did you first get involved with the series?
It basically started with a script showing up on my desk one day. The title alone interested me a lot because this kind of tragically dark, eerie and dramatic story tends to suit my taste. It’s the stuff I respond to. I’m from Sweden originally and lived in Stockholm in 1986 when the catastrophe occurred, so I remember it vividly because while Sweden wasn’t hit by it they were also the first ones to understand something had happened outside of the Soviet since they’d put a lid on it. I had just come back from a year in Eastern Europe working on another limited series so I saw this project and felt like ‘I can’t take the family back to Eastern Europe right now.” I have a big family and at the time I had three kids, now up to four with one being born during the shoot in Lithuania so to some extent, there was an apprehension on my side that had nothing to do with the material but just life.

Were most of the challenges those outlier forces, such as family and location, that didn’t stem from the shoot itself?
People always ask what the biggest challenge on a film shoot is and I find it very weird to approach that question because everything is a massive challenge on a film shoot, and if it isn’t you’re doing it wrong. The whole idea of making something good is to make it as difficult as you possibly can and when you reach that point you make it even more difficult to make something better than you thought possible. Filmmaking is a big, cumbersome beast that you have to wrangle and the way to do that is not through the path of least resistance but to raise the stakes and the bar at all turns. We had 100 days on this project and every day was about really focusing on making it as complex and profound as possible.

That’s the nature of this job and in this particular case the series isn’t just two people talking in a cafe, there are some big ventures to deal with and I just love that. I love when it’s difficult and when I don’t really know what I’m doing when it’s new territory. For me it’s all about new experiences that’s what interesting to me. You just need to take the plunge and dive and embrace it from that point of view.

What’s interesting is that along with the biggest set pieces there are still those moments like what you mentioned where it’s simply people sitting and talking in a boardroom. Does that mix make it more interesting for you as well?
Of course. It’s a very dynamic story that’s being told and has been a perfect venture for me. Satisfaction has been had on all levels in terms of what I need to get out of my job and what I’m doing. When push comes to shove this is the reason one does what one does which.

It’s shot almost like a horror film, which is fitting based on the story but it never felt gratuitous which it easily could’ve leaned into. Was that a deliberate choice?
To some extent, it comes down to not what you do but how you do it, you know? For me, from the director’s point of view, I wanted it to be experimental more than anything else. I wanted it to definitely not feel gratuitous or speculative or anything like that. I underplay everything whether it’s performances or bigger movements because I don’t like film. I don’t like the language of traditional film because it refers to itself. I want to refer to my own feelings and perception of reality rather than trying to sort of work within the realm of film and have to use those traditional tools.

That being said, yes there are some pretty horrifying things going on here and there’s a version of this that could have gone in a completely different way, but then you lose the whole emotional investment and journey because then it becomes being subjected to things you’re supposed to respond to in some extreme way.

I found it all very beautiful in some ways as well, even with the horrifying events going on.
That is the key. To me, beauty is one of the keywords. Beauty is not the same as pretty. Beauty has a dark edge to it. The difference between beautiful and pretty to some extent is that beauty harbors melancholy or some other kind of shades – it’s a broader spectrum. For me, beauty is a very important thing and also visually I come from originally, 25 years ago, from photography and music videos and in those kinds of things the images are very important. Every director is different but for me, the image creation is a massive part of what I do because I like visual storytelling and the initial emotions that the images bring from you.

There are pictures of the area now that people find really beautiful and haunting that relates to your comment on what beauty is.
The pictures are so beautiful because we know what happened. If we’re just seeing images of an eclipsed city, sure we would find some visual pleasure but it’s from the well that is the event that colors everything we see and the idea of knowing what happened and that those echoes are there.

Is it a double-edged sword wanting people who were touched by the tragedy to see the series? It has to add pressure since it was based on events that are still affecting people.
It’s massive pressure. One of the purposes of this was to make those voices heard and tell this story as concisely as possible with the perspective of those were there. It’s about honoring those people. It becomes very important to be truthful, real and not in any way move away from reality. Some sort of tricks have to be used because you can’t tell two years of history in five hours unless some choices are done – that’s just the nature of it.

I’ve never done anything that’s been based strictly on history before, I’ve just done fiction and it’s interesting how I became obsessed with the truth and authenticity and really wanted to be as close to that and not create drama for the sake of drama.

There seems to be such a need these days to push shows past their natural shelf life. Did you always know you wanted to shoot an abbreviated series or was that how it came to you?
I have no interest in running in long-running TV series because as a director you want to see things from start to end. What I do is basically limited series or similar to that. I know that when Craig Mazin wrote this HBO first asked for six episodes but he ended up deciding it should be five. Every story has the length it deserves. He decided to keep it tight and urgent. To me, that’s very telling. One of my biggest gripes with television is forced content and the extension of things just for the sake of keeping it going. I’m not a fan of it and in many cases a few episodes in, no matter how good it is, I start immediately feeling like we’re moving into the territory of new characters being invented and new plots being invented that don’t have anything to do with anything but to prolong and keep it going. That’s not for me.

“Chernobyl” airs Wednesday nights on HBO.