Tag Archives: Jared Harris

Going nuclear

The cast and crew of Chernobyl, a five-part miniseries from HBO and Sky, reveal how they told the story of the infamous Ukrainian nuclear disaster that continues to affect thousands of lives more than three decades on.

Thirty-three years ago to this day, a routine safety test at a power plant in what was then Soviet Ukraine sparked the deadliest nuclear accident in history.

Beginning with an explosion in a nuclear reactor in the early hours of April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl disaster officially claimed 28 lives directly and led to a further 15 indirect deaths – although other estimates put the actual death toll from the accident and its ongoing impact in the tens of thousands.

Whichever end of the scale is more accurate, one thing is beyond doubt: as bad as Chernobyl was, had the spread of radiation not been contained, things could have become much, much worse. That they did not was down to the bravery and brilliance of a number of people in the days and weeks following that first explosion – and it’s these individuals who take centre stage in Sky Atlantic and HBO’s miniseries about the tragedy.

The five-part drama, simply titled Chernobyl, debuts in the US on May 6 and then in the UK on May 7. Made by Sister Pictures and Mighty Mint Production, the HBO and Sky copro is directed by Johan Renck (Breaking Bad) and distributed by HBO International. It covers the dramatic events of the disaster itself and the repercussions on both a global level and for the people of the nearby town of Pripyat, combining disaster movie elements with political intrigue and personal trauma.

Chernobyl stars Jared Harris as real-life nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, who died in 1988

It has been created by Craig Mazin, a writer best known for his work on comedy movies such as Identity Thief and the latter two instalments of The Hangover trilogy. So what drew someone with a track record in humour to such a serious and historically significant project?

Mazin, who also wrote and exec produced the show, explains that the lure came more from what he didn’t know about Chernobyl than what he did. “I kind of knew something about Chernobyl but I didn’t know much. I knew that it exploded. I often say to people, if you ask someone what happened to the Titanic, they will tell you it sank; and if you ask how it sank, they will tell you it hit an iceberg. That only works halfway for Chernobyl – if you ask someone what happened at Chernobyl, they’ll say it blew up. But ask them how it blew up…”

Reading up on the subject to fill this “surprising gap” in his knowledge, Mazin found himself increasingly fascinated by the full extent of the disaster, becoming “obsessed” with Chernobyl. “The more I read, the more shocked I was that the explosion is not at all the story,” he says. “The story is, in fact, about how it came to happen and the remarkable acts of courage, bravery and sacrifice that were required because of it. It’s about a system that’s corrupt; it’s about the worst that humans can do but it’s also about the best that humans can do individually.”

Mazin acknowledges he had to consider the massively varying estimates of the tragedy’s true human cost, scoffing at the improbably low death toll arrived at by the Soviet government. “The best estimates put the numbers somewhere in the many tens of thousands. There are estimates of up to a million,” he says. “But if I have a choice between going for something that sounds more dramatic or something that sounds less dramatic, I actually try to opt for less. Because what is dramatic about Chernobyl doesn’t need anything extra.

“Believe it or not, this is the restrained version of what actually happened there, because there are some accounts where it gets even worse. But there’s no question it took an enormous number of lives, and it also shortened an enormous number of lives – particularly children.”

Stellan Skarsgård plays soviet deputy prime minister Boris Shcherbina

The individuals highlighted in the drama are a mixture of real-life figures and fictional characters created as an amalgamation of multiple real people. Among those playing historical figures are Jared Harris (The Terror, Mad Men) as Valery Legasov, a leading nuclear physicist who was tasked with steering the immediate response to the disaster. Prolific movie actor Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), meanwhile, is Soviet deputy prime minister Boris Shcherbina, who leads the government commission investigating the accident.

Paul Ritter, best known for his comedic work in series including Friday Night Dinner and No Offence, portrays Anatoly Dyatlov, the deputy chief engineer at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the man who would ultimately take the blame for the disaster.

Among the great many other actors in the accomplished cast – Chernobyl features a whopping 102 speaking roles, according to Mazin – are Harris’s The Terror co-star Adam Nagaitis and Oscar nominee Emily Watson. Nagaitis plays a fireman who is one of the first responders to the explosion, while Watson is a nuclear physicist battling to impress the gravity of the situation upon a range of politicians with their heads firmly in the sand.

Harris’s Legasov finds himself in a similar position, with the actor describing his character as the “Cassandra of the story,” referring to the Ancient Greek mythological figure who was cursed to deliver prophecies that were true but were believed by no one. “He understands what the dangers are and how bad it can go if they don’t get on top of it quickly,” he says. “He’s also responsible for trying to figure out how you contain this event where it’s known that it could happen but no one’s planned for what to do if it does happen.”

While the miniseries’ Legasov “suffers the same fate” as the real scientist – taking his own life on the second anniversary of the disaster while suffering from the effects of radiation exposure – Harris says the drama’s version is “more structured towards our narrative and our story.”

Emily Watson’s character is an amalgamation of scientists who worked to mitigate the disaster

He continues: “He sort of plays off Stellan’s character. They have this frosty, antagonistic relationship in the beginning but they learn to rely on one another and trust one another, and their friendship becomes one of the spines of the whole story.”

The visible impact of Legasov’s radiation poisoning was achieved by the make-up department, led by Daniel Parker. In this respect, however, Harris got off lightly, with other actors displaying the full extent of radiation’s horrific effect on the human body throughout the drama.

“Adam Nagaitis had it worst of all,” Harris asserts. “The process they put his character through was really, really gruelling.”

“Daniel had to become almost a physician,” says Mazin, “because it wasn’t enough to say, ‘Well, someone is experiencing the effect of radiation.’ There are levels to it. He came up with these stages and sub-stages, and then stages inside of stages.”

The make-up team’s efforts extended to the creation of a spreadsheet to keep track of the different levels of radiation poisoning even before Parker’s “artistry was put into place.”

This attention to detail was replicated across every element of the production, with Mazin saying he and the rest of the team shared an “obsession with historical accuracy” that went down to “the chandeliers and the tyres on the cars.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the show’s costuming, overseen by Odile Dicks-Mireaux, whose enthusiasm for accuracy sometimes went further than the drama could follow. From the lead cast to the most minor of background roles, everyone on screen is dressed in authentic garb from the era.

Adam Nagaitis as a fireman who suffers the terrible effects of radiation poisoning

“We had to occasionally negotiate with her because she was so ferocious about accuracy,” Mazin notes. “She and her staff gathered up actual period clothing from all over Eastern Europe. She clothed thousands of people – it was mind-blowing.”

But how do you ensure accuracy when recreating the particularities and scale of a nuclear power plant? It turns out nothing beats the real thing, with the production gaining access to Chernobyl’s ‘twin’ station, the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania.

“It was difficult,” Mazin says of filming in the station. “For Lithuania to gain entry into the EU, they had to agree to decommission that plant. So they are currently in the process of decommissioning it. They mentioned at some point they had already decommissioned it, yet we couldn’t shoot one day because they were removing stuff out of it.

“It’s not a normal shoot day when you show up at work and hand your passport over, and they keep it. It was pretty intense and very eerie.”

Renck, whose direction has given the series a distinctly cinematic feel, echoes the writer’s view: “The building is massive, it’s eerie, it’s windowless. Every time we went back, I felt the same. Everything is preserved. It’s the sister plant to Chernobyl and everything was built around the same time, so everything in there puts you quite close to what would have been [in Chernobyl].”

“The size of it is astonishing,” adds Mazin, who also visited the real Chernobyl site as part of his research. “These buildings were enormous. The thought that something inside could turn on you just seems beyond the pale.”

Chernobyl launches on HBO and Sky Atlantic next month

One area in which the show does abandon its pursuit of total accuracy, however, is language. The actors speak entirely in English and without accents, wisely avoiding evoking audience memories of any number of dodgy attempts at Russian accents by Hollywood actors down the years.

Of the decision to film in English, Mazin says: “It’s a little tricky when you’re thinking about making a show in a language that isn’t local to you, in part because you then have to ask about performance. If we are to make it in another language, we are narrowing ourselves to people who speak that language, and we don’t. So right off the bat there’s a disconnect. Not only did we feel we wanted to get performances and performers we could connect with, we didn’t want to mess around with accents either.”

Actors were told to “speak in a way that felt natural to you, because in the end the language should disappear.”

This miniseries is not the first time Chernobyl has been examined on screen, with numerous documentaries being made on the subject. There was even 2012’s risible horror film Chernobyl Diaries, in which American tourists visiting the exclusion zone around the plant find themselves pursued by mutants. However, it is the first time the true story has been dramatised on this scale, with a significant budget evident from the off.

“I’m shocked that we were able to do it at all,” Mazin says of bringing the financing together. “Given what we had to face, it was remarkable. We started with HBO, but then it became clear that this was bigger than any one network. So we reached out to Sky and they rescued us, they really did.”

Chernobyl is “so much a European production,” the American writer continues. “We’re based here in London and we did all of our post-production in London; we did all of our prep in Lithuania; and we shot in Lithuania and Latvia and a little bit in Ukraine. It’s a story about Europe that takes place in Europe.

“As the foreigner, I must say that I’m in love with the way television is made in the UK. I’m in love with the actors. I just love the way they are trained and the skills they bring to things.”

With the debate around the environment and climate change reaching fever pitch in London this week with mass protests organised by Extinction Rebellion activists, Chernobyl feels particularly timely, highlighting one of the worst cases of the man-made destruction of our surroundings.

But for Mazin, the most important thing about the show is that it tells the stories of those who sacrificed themselves to save others. “I hope that people will understand how just a handful of human beings, and then hundreds of thousands of human beings, gave up themselves for all of us,” he says. “Telling their stories is one of the great joys of this.”

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Horrible history

Jared Harris and Tobias Menzies lead a perilous journey into the frozen unknown in historical horror The Terror. The actors, director Edward Berger and co-showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh tell DQ about making the 10-part event series.

No one survived the Arctic expedition led by HMS Terror and HMS Erebus to chart the Northwest Passage, that much is certain. More than 100 men – officers and crew – died when their ships became ice-locked in the frozen waters, leaving them to fend for themselves in the inhospitable and unforgiving environment.

Inspired by this true story, and Dan Simmons’ book on the doomed exploratory voyage, US cable network AMC imagines those aboard the ships fighting for survival against the treacherous conditions, their fellow sailors and a mysterious predator in 10-part event series The Terror.

The drama stars Jared Harris (Mad Men) as Francis Crozier, captain of HMS Terror and second in command of the expedition behind Sir John Franklin (Game of Thrones’ Ciarán Hinds).

Tobias Menzies (Outlander) also stars as Captain James Fitzjames, with Paul Ready (Cuffs) as Dr Harry Goodsir, Adam Nagaitis (Suffragette) as Cornelius Hickey, Nive Nielsen (The New World) as Lady Silence, Ian Hart (Neverland) as Thomas Blanky and Trystan Gravelle (Mr Selfridge) as Henry Collins.

Jared Harris in as Captain Francis Crozier in The Terror

Filmed in Budapest, The Terror comes from co-showrunners David Kajganich (True Story, A Bigger Splash) and Soo Hugh (The Whispers, The Killing), who executive produce with Ridley Scott, David W Zucker, Alexandra Milchan, Scott Lambert and Guymon Casady. The series is produced by Scott Free, Emjag Productions and Entertainment 360. AMC Studios is the distributor.

Kajganich had been “obsessed” by the real events behind the story and scored an advance copy of Simmons’ book, hoping to adapt it as a feature film. Looking back now, though, he admits it would have been “drastic” to cut so much from the story to ensure it fitted a two-hour running time.

“It’s such an amazing combination of character drama and genre, and you don’t get those projects very often,” he says. “Even in Hollywood, it’s rare a book this good and this spooky and wonderful and a weird mix of genres comes along. There are certainly things in the book that were unfilmmable but what we found is where there’s a will, there’s a way. Everything we wanted to shoot we found a way to do it. People came to this knowing it would exhaust them but it would be fun in the most enjoyable, aggressively creative way.”

But when the project crossed over to television, Kajganich knew he couldn’t do it on his own. “When I met Soo, I knew in 25 seconds this was the best I could hope for,” he says. Hugh jokes: “We got married knowing very little about one another but it worked. We missed the courtship.”

Working with four others in the writers room, they broke stories together and split up the episodes. But as present-day excavations uncovered more secrets about the fates of the Erebus and Terror, the scripts continued to evolve right up until they were committed to film. That meant the showrunners found themselves doing a lot of rewriting, long after the other writers had moved on to other projects.

The AMC drama was shot in Budapest

Kajganich says: “We talked a lot about every character and when is the moment that they realised they’d stepped from a high adventure story into a horror movie. It’s different for every character and some characters never cross that line, either because they never see the world that way or they refuse to. And that speaks to the warmth of these people. They thought they were going to live, most of them until the very end. They brought with them their ingenuity, their humour, their humanity. We wanted those things to be more important than any plot demands of a horror show, so we wanted to make sure the characters were driving the genre elements of the show, that it didn’t get out of hand and start leading the characters around.

Hugh adds: “A lot of the horror elements, aside from the creature, are fact. We knew there was scurvy aboard, we knew there was at least some blood poisoning, we knew there was botchalism, so in terms of the horror foundations, it was all there. We didn’t have to make that stuff up, it’s real.”

Directing three episodes is Edward Berger (Deutschland 83, Patrick Melrose), who says he was immediately fascinated by the script, which portrayed a world he knew nothing about.

“I read it and thought, ‘This is great. How in the hell do I do this?’” he admits. “I knew we would do everything in the studio and then to figure out how to make it was really difficult, challenging and scary.

“I remember in July 2016, we flew to Budapest and stood in this black-hole studio. This was where they were supposed to die and eat each other but there was nothing there. It’s just scary because you don’t know how it’s going to look.”

The historical horror also stars Game of Thrones duo Tobias Menzies (left) and Ciáran Hinds

Meetings followed between his DOP Florian Hoffmeister, production designer Jonathan McKinstry and costume designer Annie Symons, after which Berger retreated to spend two months designing storyboards. Then when he returned to Budapest, the world of The Terror was starting to take shape.

“Suddenly there’s a ship in the studio and there’s ice all around it,” he says. “There’s 100 people sewing costumes and you suddenly realise it’s becoming a reality.”

Budapest is well regarded among filmmakers for its good crews, support system and tax breaks, but the location also held a special significance on The Terror, as it was also where executive producer Scott directed The Martian.

“The Martian is basically the same idea [as The Terror] – a guy on Mars, all shot in a studio, and we said OK, it worked for Mars, let’s do it for the Arctic,” says Berger, who describes Scott as the “godfather” of the series.

“He was the inspiration for a lot of things, starting with [1979 sci-fi classic] Alien. It’s a similar story to Alien – a movie that very much inspired this down to quotes or certain scenes. There’s a scene in the beginning where one of the sailors spits blood and so it’s a homage to Alien. So he’s the spiritual godfather for Dave, Soo and I for this in terms of story and script. But he was very hands off in production. He left us to it.”

The slow-burn story unfolds across 10 episodes

The series, which airs outside the US in 28 territories on Amazon Prime Video, is presented with a desaturated, bluish look to heighten the sense of cold and loneliness felt by the sailors stranded in the Arctic. But early in filming during the Hungarian winter, relatively few effects were needed to portray the cold surroundings, owing to the frosty temperatures inside the studio.

“In the beginning it was freezing cold,” recalls Harris, who describes the crew as the “rock stars” of their day. “They saved themselves a lot of money because our breath was misting up as it would come out. Those ships looked amazing and each of the decks was its own separate set, on its own sound stage, and the ice stage looked amazing so it was exciting to be there. They would have shot in the Arctic if the cameras wouldn’t have frozen.

“We also had an understanding of the claustrophobia. You start to imagine they would have spent all this time in this one space, locked in the ice for a year-and-a-half but on board these ships for between five and seven years.

Menzies adds: “Often there was no acting needed because once you got a crew and all the actors in, it was absolutely jammed. And one of the things the creators of this show have done brilliantly is really evoking a lot of those details of what it was like to be close to each other, the physical realities. Imagine the smell! If we can take an audience some way into what that would have been like, it’s going to be a rich experience.”

That experience will be all the richer if viewers stick with the show through its entire run, with cast and crew highlighting the slow pace of the series, which focuses on the characters and their increasingly strained relationships as they come to terms with the perilous situation they find themselves in.

“The pacing of this show could not have existed five or 10 years ago, because we are standing on the shoulders of some great television that really has taught audiences to wait and you will be rewarded,” Hugh says. “The last three episodes, thankfully, AMC supported us so they’re longer than the traditional format and when you see them you’ll understand why. It’s a different experience. It almost feels like a standalone movie. It’s an epic.”

Menzies agrees. “I’m very excited by the slow-burn nature of what we’ve made,” he says. “It will reward attention and people staying in it – and I feel, story-wise, that reaches deeper places than if it’s too ‘surface’ and too quick and too cokey in its rhythms. But that’s the kind of storytelling I like so I tend to be drawn to those projects.”

Ultimately, Berger says The Terror is proof of what can happen when writers are allowed to dream. “What I learned from the American writing is almost anything you can imagine, anything you can write, you can also film,” he says. “Growing up in Germany, you’re limited in your resources. So these kinds of ideas you never dare to dream. You just shut them out of your mind. So that’s why when I read the first script I thought, ‘How am I going to do this? How do you shoot that?’ I’ve never read something like that in Germany. It’s not as liberated or free in terms of fantasy.”

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