Stephen Armstrong meets the Swedish director who defied expectations to make what is now regarded as the greatest TV drama of all time.
If you heard the pitch for Chernobyl, the Sky/HBO retelling of the catastrophic 1986 explosion at the Soviet reactor, you'd be forgiven for expressing doubts. It's the worst nuclear disaster in history, hundreds die, the good guys lie, the screenwriter's CV includes The Hangover Part III and the director is better known for pop videos and fashion ads.
Yet a few days after the final episode went out this month, the show jumped to the No 1 spot on IMDb's all-time best TV rankings, with an average rating then of 9.7/10. As there are no rival charts, this makes it officially the greatest TV drama of all time. What went so right?
Craig Mazin's script was taut and well-researched. The cast were peerless: Jared Harris impeccably cynical as a nuclear physicist; Stellan Skarsgard wry and weary as the Soviet deputy prime minister, Boris Shcherbina; Emily Watson crisp and committed as a nuclear physicist trying to discover what caused the explosion; Jessie Buckley moving as the wife of a fireman. But it was the director, Johan Renck, who fused all this into something remarkable.
The show's power came from Renck toying with all manner of genres, then upending them. As the firefighters fruitlessly tackle the blaze, the show seems like science fiction, with its unearthly white light and alien deaths that our technology can't defend against. As the citizens of nearby Pripyat gather on a bridge to watch the blaze, tiny specks of dust falling softly while their children play, it feels like a dark Scandinavian horror drama. With the impossibly political show trials, Renck uses Orwell to retell Kafka.
We see tropes from love stories, detective thrillers, war films and buddy movies, shot with the slow, epic beauty of the arthouse masters Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman. Helicopters fly into the sickening glare and billowing smoke to dump sand and boron on to the blaze, before tumbling from the sky; an engineer opens the door to the neutron-Medusa core of the reactor, gasping with wonder even as radiation rots his flesh. All of this is framed by a fanatically detailed recreation of daily life in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. It's an astonishing piece of work.
Yet the 52-year-old Swede still half-regrets becoming a director. After a childhood wandering the world with his eternally curious doctor father, he'd settled on being a pop star. "We moved around mainly for him to explore the world while the family tagged along," Renck recalls. "I don't have any real roots anywhere, and that's a beautiful gift to be given early on."
When he was 18, he returned to Sweden to do military service. "I was in some kind of field-hospital security detail. Boot camp included sleeping out in the snow, where you're not allowed a fire for two weeks. You realise you are capable of more than you imagined. In my discharge papers it says I have extreme field stamina, which is pretty good in showbusiness, to be honest, because shooting Chernobyl was almost as hard as doing military service."
This is not something the cast agree on. "This was one of those rare projects where you finish on time, if not a little early, every single day," Watson says. "Nothing ever got muddy or unclear. It was — and I know this sounds strange — immense fun." Skarsgard agrees: "Johan shot the whole thing like a five-hour movie and never once lost his temper."
After demob, Renck performed as the rapper Stakka Bo and peaked at No 13 in the UK charts in 1993 with a Stereo MC's-style track, Here We Go. Because of a lack of funds, he directed the video himself and realised he had a fundamental problem. "The minute I was behind the camera, it felt like home in some weird way. It was a tragic moment when I realised that, no matter how much I love music, I was not talented or gifted enough. But with film, I had something."
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He started shooting music videos and fashion commercials, working for H&M, Valentino, Givenchy, Cartier — unusual films such as an H&M Christmas ad about a child in a parallel dimension battling an evil Santa Claus. His pop videos were equally dark. In 1998, he directed Madonna's Nothing Really Matters, the year the Spice Girls charmed children as animated fairies in Viva Forever and Will Smith bounced under disco lights for Gettin' Jiggy Wit It. Renck showed Maddy dressed as a gothic geisha, jerking like a marionette as zombie-like dancers push through dark corridors. Hired by David Bowie for the Lazarus video, he shot the dying star blindfolded and writhing fearfully in a hospital bed.
As for his debut feature, 2008's Downloading Nancy, about an unhappy housewife searching for someone to torture her to death? "Someone reviewed it as the darkest, most nihilistic film of all time," he says cheerfully. "Darkness has always been my realm, because beauty is so tremendously important to me, and by beauty I don't mean pretty. Beauty is dark. There's no beauty without death."
Downloading Nancy did, however, prompt a call from Breaking Bad's creator, Vince Gilligan, and Renck's TV career began with three episodes of the show, followed by The Walking Dead and Bates Motel. It's odd that the splendour of Chernobyl's epic assault on the senses comes from someone who in all has directed just 20 TV episodes and one low-budget movie.
It's this lack of experience, Renck argues, that made the show distinctive. "Because I was untrained, I have only a few TV and film references," he says. "I don't have the official language of film. All I had was reality and authenticity — albeit allowing for a magical aspect. It's not a perfect version of reality, it's a more beautiful reflection."
He brings that blend of beauty and authenticity to both the most banal and the most distressing elements of the show. One reason it looks like the late-1980s USSR is that every item of clothing, every hairstyle, every vehicle used was from that time: the production team plundered flea markets, old film studio wardrobes, museums, anywhere they could find period clothes. When it came to depicting the harrowing death by radiation poisoning of the firefighter Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis), the raw, swollen flesh effects were informed by a video of a victim of the 1999 nuclear accident in Tokaimura, Japan.
"One guy was subject to an insane amount of radiation — more than anybody in Chernobyl, to be honest," Renck says. "They kept him alive for months while he was melting away. We tried to capture those horrendous images, recreating every stage of the process."
There is one crashing piece of inauthenticity: the accents. Most of the cast are British and deliver lines in their regional twangs; Emily Watson is the one exception. "We tried to shave off some of the colloquial edges from our British cast, and had a voice coach helping out, but we had 104 speaking roles and three weeks of rehearsal, so we could only get so far," Renck says with a shrug. He made the cast and crew watch "the best depiction of Soviet Russia": the Second World War film Come and See, by Elem Klimov.
"After that, Emily, because she's a genius, decided she would speak perfect English as if it's not her first language. I like the result. There would have been very different accents from all over the USSR. Some have said, why wasn't it in Russian? But Hamlet wasn't in Danish. If that's an issue, mate, that's your problem. I can't help you."
With his show officially the best in the history of television, what does Renck plan to do next?
"Well, first of all I would still argue that Brideshead Revisited is the best TV drama ever made," he insists. "But as for the next thing... I'm getting scripts, but they all bore me. It's a blend of inertia, fatigue and some kind of inner peace. I'm so proud of Chernobyl that I'm not in any way interested in jumping on to something else."
He pauses. "I mean, I'll have to. I've got kids. This is my job. But I'd like to stay in this moment for just a little bit longer."
Written by: Stephen Armstrong
© The Times of London