Chernobyl cheer

Chernobyl cheer

By Michael Pickard
July 20, 2020

Editor's note

Though the ceremony might have been taken place online, there was still plenty to celebrate at 2020’s Bafta Television Craft Awards, especially for the makers of Chernobyl. DQ spoke to some of this year’s winners.

A remarkable year for TV drama and comedy, 2019 will be remembered for a host of standout shows. Succession, Sex Education, His Dark Materials, Game of Thrones, Fleabag, Top Boy, The Virtues, Killing Eve, Giri/Haji, The Trial of Christine Keeler, Peaky Blinders, Killing Eve, The Crown, Good Omens and The End of the F***ing World all combined to keep audiences glued to their screens.

But one series stood out above the rest, if the winners of this year’s Bafta Television Craft Awards are anything to go by. At a digital event celebrating the work of those behind the scenes, the runaway winner was Chernobyl, Sky and HBO’s five-part miniseries that dramatised the harrowing true events of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in April 1986. It won seven awards: director – fiction, costume design, production design, editing – fiction, original music, sound – fiction and photography & lighting – fiction.

The Chernobyl production design team line up on set

Other scripted winners on the night included BBC and HBO fantasy drama His Dark Materials, which claimed the awards for title & graphic identity and special, visual & graphic effects.

Succession creator Jesse Armstrong scooped the award for best fiction writer, while actor and comedian Aisling Bea won the breakthrough talent prize for writing This Way Up. Liz Schiavo was presented with the award for make-up & hair design for her work on Peaky Blinders, while Des Hamilton accepted the first Bafta casting award for Top Boy.

Following the online ceremony last Friday, which included an array of eye-catching pre-recorded acceptance speeches, DQ spoke to some of the winners fresh from their awards success.

Director – Fiction: Johan Renck (Chernobyl)
Swedish director Renck helmed all five episodes of the Sister Pictures and The Mighty Mint production, which was written by Craig Mazin (The Hangover parts 2 and 3).

“For me, the visual aspect of what we do is tremendously important. I really believe in embracing something that is emotional on a different level from the more pragmatic side of it. It’s all about what the images can do, combined with everything that’s going on, to convey a feeling. It’s about trying to put people in an emotional place that coincides with the emotional place I feel it should be, and creating a photographic language as well as everything that’s on paper.

“The great thing here is you have such a phenomenal script, you don’t have to solve anything. You only have to add to what’s already there, so that was one of the great blessings of this project. My job in adapting these pages into imagery was a lot easier because there were no problems to solve, only stuff to add and perhaps deepen the feelings I felt were important.

“Craig and I are very different. He’s very American, I’m very European in all senses. We became a very good combination because we both fed each other stuff and became something special. We have a great relationship. We gave each other all sorts of freedoms and ideas that went back and forth between us. I really enjoyed our process, and he and I will most likely do things onwards again.”

Costume Design: Odile Dicks-Mireaux (Chernobyl)
Dicks-Mireaux, who previously won a Bafta for 1999 film Great Expectations, was in charge of dressing lead actors Jared Harris (Valery Legasov), Stellan Skarsgård (Boris Shcherbina), Emily Watson (Ulana Khomyuk) and Jessie Buckley (Lyudmilla Ignatenko), as well as dozens more cast members and extras.

“The big thing was to try to do the Russian look better than anyone else had done it – even better than the Russians and Ukrainians, because they had done a [dramatisation of] Chernobyl. I was very lucky with my assistant Daiva Petrulyte in Lithuania because she really wanted to do that as well. Then you meet Johan and Craig and they want to do it as well, so you know straightaway the direction you are going.

“What’s really important is to understand what it was like to live in Russia at the time and what access you had to clothes. It’s hard to get your head around the fact they didn’t have any of the access we had in Europe. It was all factories within the [Soviet] bloc, so that’s what they had.

“Their creativity to get around that was to make their own clothes. Then you discover the fabrics they could get hold of were polyester. Normally I’d go for natural silks, but suddenly here we were in the world of polyester, which was quite a new adventure. We went round all the costume houses we could in the East, in Prague, Belarus and Ukraine, so we got to look at the real things they were buying.

“Johan wanted this chaotic, unorganised costume design, particularly in the military. We were going to have the shirts made in a factory, but suddenly we had to make them ourselves. I’d done a lot of research on what Russian shirts looked like and how badly made they were, and [ours] came out badly. They looked terrible, but Luckily Jared and Stellan didn’t mind. They were on our side.

Jared Harris as Valery Legasov in Chernobyl

“With the characters, you’re trying to get an essence of the [real] person and get it to work for that actor as well. The glasses were quite a tricky one to achieve on Jared because they’re so important to the look of Legasov. Stellan is an incredibly elegant man. We had to enlarge his jackets so he looked a bit more blocky and more ugly. There were times we were worried – it swayed in the wind because it was quite a bit wider than he is. Emily very much wants her clothes to help her be her character. Getting the right costume for the right scene was very important for her.

“We bought a lot of stuff on eBay – original Russian watches and original patterns for the medical wear. It was incredible.

Luke Hull and Claire Levinson-Gendler accept their award via video

Production Design: Luke Hull and Claire Levinson-Gendler (Chernobyl)
Production designer Hull and set decorator Levinson-Gendler recreated the scale and scope of the nuclear disaster on location in Lithuania.

Luke Hull: “I thought I knew what Chernobyl was but, when I read the scripts, it was something completely different. They were so well written and interesting. Off the back of that, we met with Sister Pictures, Craig and Johan. The biggest concern was how we would make it as ambitious as possible to realise the scope and scale of Craig’s writing.

“There was also the added pressure in realising this story was only 30 years ago. When we were making it in Lithuania with people who had lived through this, the added importance of doing justice to this story [became clear]. It was a hard project, but everyone on the team threw themselves into it because they knew it was quite special.”

Claire Levinson-Gendler: “When you do a period piece in the 1800s, you do your research and look deeply into it, but you know there’s no one walking around saying, ‘I didn’t live in a street like that.’ With Chernobyl, it’s a completely different thing. You know there are people who survived that and survived it with trauma, so there’s quite a lot of responsibility to get that right.

“We’re not trying to do a documentary, we’re trying to do a drama, we’re trying to make art. We want to make something people also want to look at, but Luke has a design vision for it and you have to respect people who experienced that time. There is a pressure to it, definitely.”

Hull: “There was a lot of location work, which I love. The sheer scale of creating the reactor and the destruction [was a challenge], and the task we set ourselves was making that very fluid, so we would have one huge composite set you could move within entirely. Although the [story-ending] trial looks simple, we were trying to get that down to something that felt authentic to the reference images but also conveyed this hot, sweaty, grungy, real atmosphere. They’d been in the trial for weeks. Those things we really obsessed over.”

Writer – Comedy: Jamie Demetriou (Stath Lets Flats)
Demetriou created and writes the Channel 4 comedy – and plays the title role – about an incompetent estate agent working for his father’s company. Season two aired in 2019.

“The writing process is very much character-driven – it’s about ensuring each character feels distinctive but primarily funny. It turned out that, to make something funny, you have to give it some kind of heart, which we tried to do. Season two was about ensuring the characters all felt like people the audience would be able to side with occasionally, despite their stereotypically deeply unlikeable profession.

“My producer, Seb Barwell, is such an essential fixture in the writing process, pitching and being a sounding board. Robert Popper, the genius behind Friday Night Dinner, is my script editor, and he wrote the first three episodes of season one with me, so he’s a crucial part of the process.

“Knowing the cast and the way they play the characters, and having faith in them to deliver the lines the way they do, is a huge part of the process. Knowing there are unbelievably capable performers at the other end of the script process makes it so much easier.

“I always thought that if I ever made a show, I would want to improvise the whole thing. But in reality, if you want to tell a story, you have to make sure the scripts are tight. Writing jokes that will be funny over and over again, it’s really just staying true to what you find funny. You can’t guess. There’s nothing I look at in the scripts and I go, ‘Yes, that will be funny forever.’ It seems funny to me while I’m going mad, sat on the floor facing the wall in the corner of my bedroom, so hopefully it will be to the masses.”

Scripted Casting: Des Hamilton (Top Boy)
Crime drama Top Boy returned to Netflix for a third season in 2019, six years after the first two seasons aired on UK broadcaster Channel 4. The cast is headed by Ashley Walters (Dushane) and Kane Robinson (better known as British rapper Kano, who plays Sully).

“My first thought when [I found out Top Boy was returning] was that the core characters would be coming back, and it was all talent I rated very highly and was proud to have worked with. When I saw the scripts, I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to bring in new people who could hit that level alongside them.

“[Creator] Ronan Bennett had written incredible material and I felt a responsibility to try and populate it with talent as good as the writing. For this kind of material, you wake up in the morning and fly out of bed, desperate to go to work. You’ve got all these new faces coming in, new energy. People are really up for it. Going into it, it felt really good.

“I came into the world of casting in a very haphazard way, when director Lynne Ramsey asked me to help with some street casting on a [2002] film called Morvern Callar. I didn’t really get to read the script for a while; I had character descriptions. So I never had set ideas about characters as they were described, and I found that a useful tool along the way, trying to remain blank when you read the script so you remain open to more interesting casting.

Kano (left) and Ashley Walters in season three of Top Boy

“I knew Ashley Walters as I’d worked with him before and he’s a friend. I found it hard to shake him out of my head. I wanted him for Dushane, but that’s not my job. My job is to offer the director, the producers and Ronan a nice selection to hopefully give them a headache of choice.

“I really felt Ashley was very natural. He knows the world, he knows the language. He’s got an assuredness whereby he’s not railroaded by dialogue. He’ll bring his own stuff to it. He’ll bring his own experience to it, and very often that brings about a certain magic because he’s immersed in it. Then when we met Kano, you’re always looking for impact casting and I felt there was that potential incendiary spark between Ashley and Kano.”

Giri/Haji star Takehiro Hira

Scripted Casting nominee Yoko Narahashi (Giri/Haji)
Narahashi oversaw casting of the Japanese actors in this BBC/Netflix crime drama about a Tokyo detective who travels to London in search of his brother. Narahashi, Shaheen Baig and Layla Merrick-Wolf were all nominated for their work on casting the show, whose return for a second season is currently under discussion.

“When I started casting, we were trying to get specific and distinctive actors – that was very important. It was wonderful because I really value the quality of acting, whether the actors are famous or not. It didn’t matter. It was about whether they suited the role.

“Takehiro [Hira, who plays lead Kenzo Mori] is the son of very famous acting parents. Earlier in his life, he was rebelling against his legacy [by going to university in the US]. But when he came back and I met him, he wanted to study acting, so we worked together for a while. He started doing a lot of plays. Several years later, I saw him in a movie and I thought he had something very special, a certain dignity about him. His legacy was there – what his parents gave him was innate. He’s a wonderful guy. He auditioned several times. I just think he has this charisma. He’ll be an international actor.

“It’s amazing that Bafta has given an award for casting for the first time. I have many casting director friends in the US who have often complained about the fact there were no awards. However, I never cared about that, as I just like doing the work. I love it because I’m always looking for new talent. A role or a character is just something written on paper. No one tells you, ‘It’s supposed to be like this.’ You talk with the director and read the script, but it’s not as if it’s got to be someone specific. It’s an open field. When you have a great role and a great actor, the role is magnified and the actor’s qualities are also magnified. There’s a special quality when it’s a perfect match.”

Other scripted winners included:
Breakthrough Talent: Aisling Bea (writer, This Way Up)
Editing: Fiction: Simon Smith & Jinx Godfrey (Chernobyl)
Make Up & Hair Design: Loz Schiavo (Peaky Blinders)
Original Music: Hildur Gudnadóttir (Chernobyl)
Photography & Lighting – Fiction: Jakob Ihre (Chernobyl)
Sound – Fiction: Sound Team (Chernobyl)
Special, Visual & Graphic Effects: Framestore, Painting Practice, Real SFX & Russell Dodgson (His Dark Materials)
Titles & Graphic Identity: Elastic & Painting Practice (His Dark Materials)
Writer – Fiction: Jesse Armstrong (Succession)

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