In this first companion episode to the HBO mini-series Chernobyl, show creator Craig Mazin and Peter Sagal of NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” discuss the moments leading up to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
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(BUTTON CLICKS) VALERY LEGASOV:
What is the cost of lies? It's not that we'll
mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that
if we hear enough lies… then we no longer recognize
the truth at all. What can we do then? ♪ (TENSE MUSIC PLAYS) ♪ -Hi, this is Peter Sagal.
-And I'm Craig Mazin. PETER SAGAL: And I'm sitting
with Craig to record the first episode
of The Chernobyl Podcast, a podcast about
the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, which was written and created
by Craig Mazin. The intent here is to talk
with Craig about where the show came from,
why he created it, the experience of making it,
and how closely the docudrama– -would you call it a docu-drama?
-CRAIG MAZIN: I guess so, a dramatic retelling
of history. PETER: Right– how closely
it tracks real history, where it differs and why,
and ultimately, why it was made
at this time and place? CRAIG: Yeah, and of those… many wonderful reasons
to do this, the one that was most important
to me from the jump was a chance
to set the record straight about what we do that is
very accurate to history, what we do that is
a little bit sideways to it, and what we do to compress
or change, in no small part
because the show is essentially -about the cost of lies.
-PETER: Right. CRAIG: The danger of narrative
and I didn't want us to… I guess, miss a chance
for transparency if we had one. CRAIG:
So I'd never actually heard this kind of thing before in relation to dramatic
re-tellings of history. So, I'm kind of curious
to see how it all works, if people are horrified by this,
or enlightened, I don't know. PETER: I think they'll
definitely be horrified, speaking as someone who just
recently saw the miniseries. What else happens,
I think, is up to them. This episode
of The Chernobyl Podcast concerns episode one
of the Chernobyl miniseries, titled "1:23:45,"
which of course was the reading on the clock when the explosion
at Chernobyl happened. Let's start, then,
with the beginning. You were, I'm guessing,
around 20 or so in 1986 when this all happened? -Maybe a little younger?
-CRAIG: I was younger. -I was 15.
-PETER: Fifteen? CRAIG: Yeah. I was 15 years old.
I remember it. I don't remember it quite
as starkly as I remember the incident that occurred
about three months earlier, which was
the Challenger disaster. -PETER: Right.
-CRAIG: But I definitely remember that it happened,
I remember that the entire world seemed concerned.
It wasn't simply a local thing. And beyond that, it sort of
devolved fairly quickly into a very simple notion: Chernobyl
was a nuclear power plant, and it blew up. -That's it.
-PETER: Right. I was a little older then,
and what do I remember? I remember
that Chernobyl blew up. It was bad,
but it ended up being okay, and the Soviets lied about it. CRAIG: That's exactly right.
And it's a bit of a shame that so much of the takeaway
from that is that the Soviets lied
and the Soviets created this system
that would have led to that– All which is true,
and all of which is a large part -of the story that we tell.
-PETER: Right. CRAIG:
Because it's an important part. What we did not get on our side of the news
was how… I like to say, only– this could've only happened
in the Soviet Union. Only the Soviet Union
could've solved this problem. What the Soviet citizenry did
to sacrifice and solve was nothing short of remarkable. And we in the West,
I don't think, had any sense
of how multi-layered this disaster was
and how, in many ways, the explosion was really just the beginning
of a series of events that are increasingly
hard to believe. PETER: Well, yes. A lot of this podcast–
just as a spoiler alert– is going to be me saying
to Craig, "Really?" And he'll say, "Yes! And it was
even weirder presumably." -CRAIG: In a number of cases.
-PETER: But let's start here. So, this is what we knew
about Chernobyl, it's what you know,
it happened in your childhood, it happened
in my young adulthood, we remember this, it happened,
it went away, then the Soviet Union fell
a few years later, and we just forgot about it. If you had asked me, before I started watching
this series, what I knew about Chernobyl,
I'd say, "Yeah, okay. That happened, and I know that there's a big
concrete sarcophagus over it, and nobody can go near it. And it's kind of cool,"
I might've said, "because people have been
removed from the area around it, so there's been this weird kind
of renaissance of nature, which is kind of nifty." And I've seen, you know, film
of, like, deer leaping about. It's kind of nice.
So, I would've– Before this began, I would've
said that was a problem that happened 30 years ago,
and it's all over, and there's really no problem when we kind of have this cool
abandoned city, which is fun. -CRAIG: Yeah.
-PETER: Assuming that that's where you were before you started your
exploration of the project, what started you
on this exploration? CRAIG: I knew
that Chernobyl exploded, but I didn't know why! And it struck me
as such an odd lapse because if you say to people, "What happened to the Titanic?"
They'll tell you it sank. And if you say, "How?"
They'll tell you, "Iceberg." Everybody knows
it hit an iceberg. Nobody seemed to know offhand
why and how Chernobyl blew up. So I just began to read.
You know, one of those lovely evenings at home where you just start interneting
yourself into a coma. And I started reading,
and two things jumped out. And both of those things emerge
in episode one, one of which
emerges immediately. The first thing is that
the night of the explosion, they were running a safety test. That's the kind of fact that any writer will stop
and say, "Oh." Okay. That is deeply ironic. -In the most disturbing of ways.
-PETER: Why? CRAIG: Well… if you're running a safety test, and the result
of the safety test is the least safe thing that could've ever
possibly happened, you start to wonder what gap between intention and result
existed here? How is that even possible? I can understand if you're,
you know… In every submarine movie, there's the hull crush depth
scene, you know? The whole point
is to take this thing down and see how much it can take. All right, well, if it collapses
in that scene, I get it. But if you're trying
to just see– Like, if you're taking your car
out for a spin and you've gotten to the section
where it's not acceleration, it's braking distance, how does that
make the car explode? What is going on there?
So I found that shocking. And the second fact
that grabbed me was that the man that was, in many respects,
put in charge of the clean up
and the general– I call it a war against
the atom– post-explosion, was an Academician
named Valery Legasov. And Valery Legasov
commits suicide two years to the day
after the explosion. PETER: Right. CRAIG: And that, of course,
immediately gets me wondering… why? PETER: So, when you were
pitching this idea to HBO and Sky, how were you presenting it
as something that people would want to–
and even need to– watch? CRAIG: The way I like
to think of it is, what is the relevance
to everyone? -PETER: Right.
-CRAIG: I mean, ultimately, we can tell
any particular story, but there needs to be
some sort of universal relevance or it just becomes a story
in and of itself about the event,
which… At that point, I refer
to those things as homework. I'm not interested
in making homework for people. The reason that I was compelled
to write about Chernobyl was… I mean, in part
because it was filling in these large gaps of a story that we all knew
and yet didn't know, but primarily… it's because it is a story
about the cost of lies. This is the first line
of the whole show, and this is the theme that we
are going to continue with as people watch
these episodes: that when people choose to lie, and when people
choose to believe the lie and when everyone engages
in a very… kind of passive conspiracy to promote the lie
over the truth, we can get away with it
for a very long time, but the truth just doesn't care. And it will get you in the end. And the people that suffer,
ultimately, are not the people
that are telling the lie. -PETER: Right.
-CRAIG: It's everyone else. And that is where
we start to see real truth:
in the behavior of human beings who are motivated to save
their fellow men, their fellow women,
their loved ones, that's where truth is. And so, for me– and this, by the way,
was before our entire planet seemed to become engulfed
in a war on truth– for me, this was an important
kind of story to tell about the value
of truth versus narrative. -PETER: Right.
-CRAIG: Which because we are, I think… as humans, we are
so susceptible to storytelling. It's why we tell stories.
We like them. Stories are sometimes
very good ways of conveying interesting truths and facts… but, just as simply, stories can be
weaponized against us to teach us
and tell us anything. So, of course,
I choose narrative to tell an anti-narrative story, but that's why
I think this is relevant now. Maybe more relevant now–
In fact, yes. Definitely more relevant now
than it was -when I started writing it.
-PETER: Which was– and I think we should just
point this out– before the 2016 elections. CRAIG: Yes, it was. I think I started in 2015
on the writing, yeah. PETER: Yeah, because I will say,
speaking for myself, it's impossible to watch
this miniseries with its tale
of government malfeasance and lies and bureaucratic…
let's just say, incentives…. -CRAIG: Mm-hmm.
-PETER: …taking the place of, shall we say, other motives
without thinking about what's going on in America
and across the world today. Let's talk a little
about production, which covers the whole series, but comes into play
quite vividly in this episode,
both in terms of its realism and its departures from realism.
First thing: -no Russian accents.
-CRAIG: Right, yeah. Big decision
that we made early on. PETER: And what propelled
that decision and when did you make it
and what was the thinking? CRAIG: Well, we had
an initial thought that maybe what we would do– We didn't wanna do the,
you know, the Boris and Natasha. The Russian accent
can turn comic with very little effort. So, at first we thought maybe
we would just have people do these sort of vaguely
Eastern European sort of– (WITH ACCENT) you know so
if I'm talking like this, it's– I'm not really doing a strong
accent but it's a little– (IN NORMAL VOICE)
And what we found very quickly was that actors, uh, -will act accents.
-PETER: Yes. CRAIG: They will not act.
They will act accents, and… we were losing everything
about these people that we kind of loved, honestly. I think maybe
after one or two auditions, we just said,
"Okay, new rule, we're not doing that anymore."
And I remembered there's a– I don't know if
you ever saw this movie. It was an HBO film, actually,
called Citizen X. This was many years ago, Steven Rea
and Donald Sutherland. True story of a serial killer
in Soviet Ukraine. And I recalled that there were accents
all over the place. They had a South African accent,
they had an English accent, they had American accent,
some people were sort of trying,
some people weren't, Max von Sydow shows up and just talks
like his Swedish self, and it works perfectly fine. Because they're not
speaking Russian. So I get it.
Now, that meant no Americans. PETER: Right. CRAIG: Because I think,
for an American audience, the one thing
that will pull you out of that is an American accent.
That just sounds silly. But, beyond that, yeah.
We just– We occasionally asked people to maybe take the edge off
a little bit, you know, like in Game of Thrones,
anyone from Manchester will be asked
to push that a bit. PETER: Right. So that they're–
they're the Northerners. CRAIG: They're clearly
the Northerners. We would sort of say like…
take the edge off a little bit, but, here and there, we would
just let somebody be Irish or Scottish
because they sounded great -and their character was good.
-PETER: Right. And of course, as people
are speaking to each other, there's no consciousness
that they're speaking in Russian, they're just
talking to each other. -CRAIG: Correct.
-PETER: And so, we're hearing them as they
would've heard themselves. CRAIG: Precise– And that's
really what we went for, and my hope is that the accent thing
just fades away within seconds. You just stop caring about it
because that's ultimately completely irrelevant
to what was going on, which is essentially
what goes on in all situations, regardless of language:
panic, fear, love, excitement, you know, worry,
all these just emotions. PETER: Right. One thing
that struck me, as a guy who grew up
with Boris and Natasha cartoons is that they all call each other
"comrade" all the time. That almost struck me
as like, you know, a parody of the Soviet Union. CRAIG: Yeah, it struck me as a parody
of the Soviet Union as well, to the extent
that I didn't really include that frequently
in the initial drafts, but I did have some people who had grown up
in the Soviet Union– in Soviet Ukraine–
look through the scripts. One woman in particular
went through everything. And one of the things
she told me– there were a couple of
interesting things I remember. For instance,
in the beginning of episode one, when Legasov puts food out
for his cat, I just, you know, had him
pouring cat food into the bowl. She's like,
"We didn't have pet food. There's no pet food
in the Soviet Union. You gave them the food
you didn't want." So, that was fascinating.
But the other thing she said was "comrade" was essentially the thing you would use
to refer to people. It was
the all-purpose reference. You wouldn't call people
by their last names only, generally, if you wanted
to be somewhat formal in a business-like manner,
you would call them, perhaps, by their first name
and their middle name, which is a patronymic,
which is a whole complicated– -PETER: Whole other thing.
-It's a whole other thing. -PETER: It's a whole megillah.
-CRAIG: It is a whole megillah, as some people say. (CHUCKLES) And I didn't wanna get into it,
because the truth is, while that probably
is the most accurate and authentic way to do it,
it is unwieldy for English listeners. But comrade, or tovarisch, was a very common
just reference, and people
would use it all the time. And so she would occasionally
flag things and say, "No, that should be
Comrade Shcherbina, -not Shcherbina."
-PETER: Right. CRAIG: And so I started
putting them in. PETER: Right. Second question is,
production design and realism. I've now seen some photographs,
after seeing it, and it is pretty accurate,
what you've presented, in terms of both the exterior,
the interior of the power plant, and Pripyat itself,
the city around it. I'm assuming
you didn't actually film -at Chernobyl and Pripyat.
-CRAIG: Nope. PETER: So, how did– Briefly,
how did the production crew go about re-creating all this? CRAIG: Well, first of all,
I would've. I would've shot
at Chernobyl and Pripyat, except the problem is,
Chernobyl and Pripyat do not at all
look like they did in 1986. They look like the result
of 30 years of… of neglect and exclusion zone. It was an obsession for us,
honestly. Our production designer,
Luke Hull, worked very closely with our costume designer,
Odile Dicks-Mireaux. We just became obsessed with
showing things as the were. I think for me, for Johan Renck,
our Director, the Sovietness of things and the Soviet specificity
of things was half of what is fascinating
about this. I mean, we're seeing an event that as we say, you know,
on the show at some point, has never occurred
on this planet before, but we're also seeing it
in a place that most of us
have never been to before, which is this inside, behind
the Iron Curtain in 1986, not from an American perspective
but actually as it was. We were shooting
primarily in Lithuania, a little bit in Ukraine,
so our crews, they were alive when Lithuania
was part of the Soviet Union, and Ukraine was part
of the Soviet Union. Many of the places that we shot
in were constructed– most of them were constructed
during the Soviet era. It's real! And we were able
to get the real clothing. And the firefighters,
these are the outfits that we put together–
were down to the rivet. Odile did an incredible job
of making them realistic, exactly correct. We were helped sometimes
by the fact that in the Soviet Union, if they made, for instance,
a miner helmet… PETER: Yeah. CRAIG: There was one
miner helmet. (LAUGHS) So you didn't have to figure out like, okay, which miners wore
this brand or that brand. -BOTH: There was one!
-CRAIG: It was called
miner helmet! -And that's the one.
-PETER: The advantage of poor
consumer choices. CRAIG: Correct.
But Luke and I and Johan spent a long,
long time poring over as many photographs as we could,
blueprints. In terms of Pripyat, we found a neighborhood
in Vilnius, Lithuania, that had been constructed
in a similar time, in a similar fashion. Again, one of the upsides of a former Soviet Republic
is that they were building things there
very similar to the way they were building them,
you know, 1,000 miles away. -PETER: One blueprint.
-CRAIG: Pretty much. I mean, it was these Brutalist,
you know, block towers. So, we found a neighborhood
that was very close and basically made our Pripyat
out of that, and then of course, with the help of some, you know,
pretty remarkable visual effects from DNEG–
fantastic company that's been doing
all of our effects– we were able
to properly bring that to life. But, again, all of it based
on extensive research. PETER: Why? I mean,
it's not gonna be dramatically important
to a viewer if the control room
looks exactly like the control room
of reactor number four. -CRAIG: Which it does. (LAUGHS)
-PETER: I'm sure it does! -CRAIG: Down to the button.
-PETER: So what was driving you? CRAIG: I was always aware
that I was telling a story that meant an enormous amount to the people
that lived through it. There are people alive today– thousands, tens of thousands
people alive today– who have lost people they love
because of Chernobyl, whose lives have been shortened because of Chernobyl,
there are people walking– a lot of people walking around
without a thyroid because of Chernobyl. And it was important for me
to tell that story accurately. I think about the stories that we have routinely told
in the West– stories about The Holocaust,
stories about World War II– where we try very hard
to be accurate because it's a sign of respect. And for me, I wanted people
who lived through that, including some people
in that control room that night who are still alive,
to watch this and say, "They cared."
They cared, they got it right. PETER: All right, let's focus
on episode one, which is dramatically
challenging. We meet Legasov, -he immediately kills himself.
-CRAIG: Right. PETER:
And we won't see him again, until the very end
of the episode. -CRAIG: That is correct.
-PETER: So, as we all know, screenwriting 101:
introduce your hero, kill him, -and ignore him.
-CRAIG: (LAUGHING) Exactly. You can tell
that I've grown weary of writing normal narrative. PETER: We need him,
he's recording those tapes. (BUTTON CLICKS) (RECORDING TAPE WHIRS) LEGASOV:
What is the cost of lies? PETER: And that's not a device that you use to get his voice
in the film, -he actually recorded tapes.
-CRAIG: He did. So, there's a number
of things here that are absolutely
accurate to history, and then some things
that I fiddled with a little bit just to be able
to tell the story, so here's a good–
Right off the bat, let's talk about what's real
and what's not. Legasov does, in fact,
hang himself two years to the day
after the explosion. Does he hang himself
at exactly that time? Which, we'll come to understand
why that time is so important. No one can say.
That was really my way of just imparting
that I believe this must've been intentional. The date couldn't have been
an accident. He did record his memoirs
on audio tapes. They were not quite
as flowery and thematic as the dialogue I've given here. PETER: Well, the reason
that people like you were put on this earth
is to make other people sound better in retrospect,
Craig. CRAIG: (CHUCKLING)
I hope I did him proudly. LEGASOV: In these stories, it doesn't matter
who the heroes are. All we want to know is
who is to blame? (BUTTON CLICKS) CRAIG: He did spell out
a lot of his concerns about the Soviet
nuclear industry and the way things had gone. And in terms of how those tapes
got disseminated, I couldn't really find
any good answers, so I just sort of went with… some confederate picked them up and took them
and spread them about. One thing that I've left out
of Legasov's story and it's left out right off
the bat, is his family. He had a wife,
he had children. Um, and I made
a choice early on to not include them in the story
mostly because… so much of this story was going
to be about his efforts in Chernobyl
and his relationships with the people that he
was fighting this war with and I just didn't wanna have
those scenes of… to come home, you know,
because the family that's left behind
in these sort of wartime movies inevitably descends
into a kind of whininess and I didn't wanna do that
to them but I do wanna acknowledge of course
that they existed. PETER: We then go to Chernobyl
on the day of the accident and I thought this was
interesting and we will revisit this moment
again and the series but we see the accident
not from the perspective of their– it's not a huge
special effect shot. CRAIG: Right. PETER: It is in the distance
and it is silent, from the window
of another character, who doesn't even notice it. CRAIG: Precisely. I wanted people to know,
first of all, this is not going
to be told the way you would expect it to be told. If something says to me look, I'm making a series
about Chernobyl, I think, "Okay, we're gonna start
with the day and then there's gonna be things
and it's gonna explode and there's gonna be calls
and people are gonna get–" And I just didn't wanna do it
like that at all. I waned to just start
with the explosion. I wanted to start and I also
didn't wanna hide the fact that Legasov commits suicide. Anybody who watches this show, who then googles it ten minutes
after watching will go, "Okay, he's gonna
commit suicide, well, now I have to wait
four episodes–" No, no. I'm just, here it is.
Yup, that's it. And the explosion which you know
is gonna happen, you're not gonna wait
for that either. There it is. What's fascinating to me is, not that Chernobyl exploded
it's how close people were and how unaware they were
and how that night just unfolds in a way that I had no idea
it would unfold and would've never predicted
in a million years. PETER: I should ask
because this happened in the Soviet Union
because of the secrecy and the cover up which begins
almost immediately. -How do we know what happened?
-CRAIG: Great question. PETER: How do you know
what happened? CRAIG: Great question. And the answer to it is,
we sort of know a lot. We definitely know a little. There are a ton of
competing narratives out there and I encountered this
as I did my research. A lot of times the name
of the game was, "Which One of the Accounts
do I Believe?" And I tried as best as I could
to actually opt for… the less dramatic accounts. We got a lot of information
out of the Soviet Union– or what was
the former Soviet Union, once it collapsed. A lot of information came out, a lot of scientists
who had been with Legasov were able to then tell
their stories, the wrote books, and then a lot of
Western researchers and authors were able to go
and talk to the people who had been there and collect
their narratives. There's an incredible book called Voices of Chernobyl
by Svetlana Alexievich which is a– It's essentially a collection
of first person accounts. So, a lot of information
did come out, and in fact in that first scene
in the control room, a number of the things
that are said were said. For instance, Akimov says… AKIMOV: Don't worry, we did
everything right. Something– something strange has happened. CRAIG: He said that. Little lines like that
are quite– They make me feel something
when they happen in the show because I know we are essentially
reproducing truth there. -PETER: Right.
-CRAIG: That's– And some of those things I don't think I would've
ever thought to write. In fact, I'm not sure I would
believe it necessarily… without knowing
that it happened. PETER: Right. Long ago,
when I taught play writing, I used to tell my students, the worst reason
to put something onstage -is that it really happened.
-CRAIG: Right! PETER: Because I don't care
if I'm watching it. I don't care if your mother
really said that to you. Show me how and why
it was relevant. Make it relevant to me. I'm guessing,
that this was something that you had to grapple with
a lot. Things happened
in this first episode that are almost impossible
to believe. CRAIG: Correct. Uh… Very challenging and it really
came out the most through the character,
the real person Anatoly Dyatlov. PETER: Dyatlov is the guy
in charge. CRAIG: Yes. He's played
by Paul Ridder, he's got the grey hair
and sort of grayish mustache. He's in charge and he was
in charge of the room that night and Anatoly Dyatlov makes
a series of– Well, when we eventually do see
all the events leading up to this explo– Which we will. I won't tell people when
but we will. We will see a number of
borderline inexplicable choices by him but with a hint
of motivation. In this episode,
where we're watching aftermath, what we're seeing repeatedly
from Dyatlov is denial. -PETER: Right.
-CRAIG: That denial is real. It happened. It went down exactly like that
within seconds. So, just so people understand, 'cause the geography
of the plant is a little bit of a question mark
for a lot of people. This is a very large facility
and it's very long, it takes maybe,
20-30 minutes to walk from one end to the other. And the general structure
of the power plant was that there were
four nuclear reactors, each one was
in this large square building. And then in between
those big squares, were these long corridors
where you had things like, control rooms and so on
and so forth. When Chernobyl reactor four
blows up, it's at all the way
at one end of the plant, the guys in the control room, they hear and feel a succession
of thuds. One thud and then
a really big thud. Most of the force
of this explosion was vertical. So, right of the bat, I– when I was researching,
one of my questions was, "How is anybody
even alive there?" Well, this is how, I mean,
the explosion ejects materials, almost straight up,
almost a mile into the air. But these guys
in the control room, what they hear and feel is,
something blew up. And almost immediately, Dyatlov concludes
that what's happened is… there is a tank,
a control system tank, that has collected hydrogen
and ignited and exploded. PETER: Like a little Hindenburg.
Hydrogen… CRAIG: A little mini-Hindenburg. And so,
what he's contemplating here is essentially
a serious industrial accident, but by no means
a nuclear holocaust. And, for the longest time
I wrestled with this. Just as I think,
Dyatlov must have internally been wrestling
somewhat. I think that what I forget
and have to remind myself all the time is,
the word Chernobyl means a million things to us all
in an instant. But right before it blew up,
it meant nothing. That nuclear reactor, and in fact,
no nuclear reactor had ever been
thought to be capable -of exploding.
-PETER: Yes. CRAIG: And so, I tried to integrate that
into my understanding -of the denial.
PETER: There's another moment, and I–
I can't remember right now if it's a bit of dialogue
or a stage reaction where a– a character,
and we're gonna get into these people running around
the control room, trying to find
what happened out. Where it's like, he's been told
to go over and look down -into the reactor.
-CRAIG: Yeah. PETER: Which he knows,
if you look down into an open nuclear reactor,
you're dead. -CRAIG: Yeah.
-PETER: But there's a– there's a moment, and I think
you're describing his– his thought processes.
He says, well, he's gonna go over
and look over it. And if he doesn't see
what he thinks he's gonna see, the open reactor,
then he needs to know that. And if he is going to see
what he thinks he's gonna see, it doesn't matter
because he's already dead. -CRAIG: Correct.
-PETER: And so, there does seem
to be this aspect of these guys saying, the reason we can't believe
the worst happened is because if the worst
happened, we're all dead now. And so that seems to be
just as a human thing. I'm not going to believe
that I'm already dead. There must be
some other explanation. CRAIG: And there were gradations
of that across the various people
depending on where they were and what they saw. All– So all the people in the–
in the control room that we depict were there,
those are their names. There were few other people
that we left out. They weren't quite as relevant
to the story that we're telling. So, they were a bit insulated. -But two men immediately run in.
-PETER: Right. CRAIG: The first is the guy
named Brazhnik who's working
in the turbine hall and he says,
the turbine hall is on fire. It's exactly what happened.
He did run in, he did say that, which you could say
could be a result of a control system,
tank explosion. The second guy who runs in
is a guy named Perevozchenko. Perevozchenko,
we will see later on where he was working. -Perevozchenko saw way more.
-PETER: Right. CRAIG: And when Perevozchenko
arrives in that control room, he tells them, and this is true, that essentially
the core exploded and they basically say to him,
"No." (CHUCKLES) -PETER: Right.
-CRAIG: That's not correct. He proceeds on.
Everything he does from that point forward,
this is the real man and– and we reflect it somewhat
in what we show. He did
with the full understanding that he was likely
a dead man walking. There were a number of people who did things like that
that night. We couldn't tell
all the stories. But they were remarkable. One of the workers at the plant,
who became aware of the full scope
of the accident fairly early on, did what he could
to make things better. He went home, he took a nap, he woke up,
and then he went back. There was this sense that… if you had broken through
the denial and gotten on the other side
of it, which was an understanding
of reality, -you had an obligation…
-PETER: Right. CRAIG: …to do what you could
to prevent it from getting worse. Conversely, you have guys like
Akimov and Tutunov, who were the two guys that are working
the control board that night. They're the ones who,
towards the end of this episode, are opening the valves by hand. PETER: Right. -PETER: Even though….
-CRAIG: Yeah. -PETER: …they know…
-CRAIG: On some level. PETER:
…that it is utterly pointless. -CRAIG: On some level.
-PETER: They are basically spraying water into the air
because… -CRAIG: Yeah.
-PETER: That– that is such an extraordinary moment
when… Dyatlov says
"You need to go do this." -CRAIG: Yeah.
-PETER: And they know, it's pointless
because Dyatlov's whole picture of the situation,
i.e. they need to get water in the core is ridiculous
'cause there is no core. It's gone. It's blown up. -CRAIG: Right.
-PETER: It's a huge atomic pile. -But they go.
-CRAIG: Yeah. PETER: Years ago, I read
John Keegan's book -about World War One.
-CRAIG: Mm-hmm. And he writes about
trench warfare. And he writes about
how these guys in the trenches, British soldiers,
went over the top and were immediately killed. And, he writes about
why they did that. And I– I met him once.
I– He did a book reading and I said, "Okay, you explain
why the first guys went over?" CRAIG: (CHUCKLES)
What about those second guys? -PETER: What about
the second guys?
-CRAIG: Right. Right. PETER: They just saw
everybody they knew follow their orders,
do it according to the book and immediately be killed
by machine gunfire -and then they went.
-CRAIG: Mm-hmm. PETER: I thought of that,
very vividly and specifically, thinking about
those specific two characters. -CRAIG: Yeah.
-PETER: They knew this was pointless.
They knew if they went out there,
they were dead and they were right about that. How much did you have
to think about those men, their minds,
at that moment? CRAIG: A lot. So much of writing a moment
like that is asking, "What do I want people
to feel here?" What is the emotional truth
that I want them to believe? And I have to make
certain choices. I have to decide in some ways, states of mind,
that I don't have access to. But behind all of this… is this almost heartbreaking
social circumstance that these people grew up
in the Soviet Union where community and communism, these words have
connected roots. It was understood
that you were part of a collective. And that you were there
to support your fellow man and your fellow woman. These kind of pro-social
messages were promoted by people
that I don't think were very pro-social at all, uh, the leadership
of the Soviet Union. But the people often did
believe it and feel it. And you can see this
in all of the history of 20th century Russia
and the surrounding areas that the Soviet Union
encompassed. So, I think some of this
was a sense of… I don't know
what else to call it, but… Soviet civic duty. It is– it is very noble
and admirable and beautiful. And then of course,
profoundly sad underneath it. But it's why I say,
if this had happened in the United States, I think– For instance
if Three Mile Island had exploded in this regard,
I think, what would happen is that we would have evacuated
the area very quickly and then just, I don't know,
put a rope around a large section
of the Middle Atlantic and said,
"No one can go there anymore." And– and we're–
'Cause we can't send people in, -because they'll die.
-PETER: Right. CRAIG:
And that would've been it. PETER: Yeah. And this will
come up again in later episodes. Exactly how this,
either insane self-sacrifice, this brainwashing,
this extraordinary nobility, there are a hundred ways
of looking at it, played an extraordinarily
important role. Let's turn right now though
to the opposite, which are the–
the managers of the plant. -CRAIG: Sure.
-PETER: Bryukhanov. -CRAIG: Bryukhanov.
-PETER: Bryukhanov and Fomin. -CRAIG: And Fam– Yeah, Fomin.
-PETER: Fomin. CRAIG: I mean, I had to learn
all these pronunciations. PETER: Yes,
and we'll work on it. Now, these guys, unlike
some of the other characters you've been talking about
so far, these seem familiar. -The– the Soviet Apparatchik.
-CRAIG: Mm-hmm. Yeah. PETER: The guys who care nothing
about anything, except their stature. The fear of what's coming
from above, and their contempt
for the people who are below them. CRAIG: Yeah.
There's a little bit of that going on for sure. I suppose there's a lot
of it going on. I mean a little background
on those guys. Some things
that I did not include, but are interesting facts,
nonetheless. Viktor Bryukhanov, did not really come
from a nuclear power background. He was in the power industry. Of course, who was put in charge
of these things wasn't generally a–
a question of merit. And, just so that people
don't think that I get into, kind of,
unnecessary Soviet bashing, -we had this problem everywhere.
-PETER: Yeah. CRAIG: Victor Bryukhanov was–
was certainly a kind of a classic
Soviet bureaucrat. Fomin was a more interesting
character in many ways. Fomin was there working
as essentially the head nuclear physicist, uh,
supervising the entire thing. And then you had individual
deputies like, um, Dyatlov or this guy Sitnikov
who shows up later. But Fomin is essentially
is kind of the head scientist of Chernobyl. Fomin got his degree
in nuclear physics through essentially
a mail order school. (PETER CHUCKLES) CRAIG: So Fomin was not trained
as a nuclear physicist at all. He got that mail order degree
essentially to check a box, so that he could get this job. Once again,
a certain kind of patronage and loyalty system in place. Fomin was a very sad character. He had been in a car accident
that had really, uh, I guess
it'd affected him deeply. He had gone through, uh,
like a long-depressed state. He had finally come out of it
and I think he saw… an opportunity to perhaps
do better for himself at Chernobyl, which again, did not have the connotation
that it does now. -It's just a place.
-PETER: Yeah, just a place. CRAIG: But, one thing
that is true and we'll get a little bit more
into Bryukhanov in particular who I also think in many ways
was in a very difficult spot -'cause they try and understand.
-PETER: Yeah. CRAIG: We'll get more
into those guys in a– in a later episode.
But in this episode, I think the important thing to understand
about those two guys is, they were told something
by Dyatlov. -PETER: Right.
-CRAIG: They were told… that this was not a nuclear core
explosion, that the core was fine. They were also told
that radiation was three points -in roentgen per hour.
-PETER: Right. CRAIG: I think
they probably knew -that that number was weird.
-PETER: Yeah. -CRAIG: Because it was–
-PETER: Strangely specific. CRAIG: Strangely specific.
It turns out… (CHUCKLES) it's the maximum reading
on those low limit decimeters. And they chose immediately
to believe it. And I think,
in a very Soviet way, once they bought into that
and reported that up the chain, the inherent cost to reversing and saying, "I'm sorry,
we got that wrong," was massive. Almost unthinkable. PETER: And there's a moment
where Bryukhanov says, "Uh, I've gotta call -and tell my boss about this."
-CRAIG: Right. PETER: "Can– I'm not gonna–
I don't wanna do that." And there is that moment
of almost relief when Dyatlov says to them,
"Oh no, it's fine." And they're like, "Well,
if you're saying it's fine, then I can report
that it's fine… -…and it will be on you."
-CRAIG: Correct. Correct. PETER: Which is interesting
and terrifying, because at no point
do they ever seem concerned with the actual truth.
They just want to know that they're not going to be
in trouble. CRAIG: Yes, I think
once they had a sense that it was not the impossible, but rather the possible
and the mundane. -It's very bad, by the way.
-Yeah. CRAIG: At that point, everything
becomes about managing -the outcomes for yourself.
-PETER: Yeah. CRAIG: There's no concern
about the outcome for the world. So, Dyatlov
has to call his superior. They have to call
their superiors and you know, that point
where Bryukhanov explains to the local executive committee
the chain of phone calls that has occurred, that's real. -PETER: Yes.
-CRAIG: So that's what happened. There was a series
of phone calls over the course of the night that eventually make their way
to Gorbachev. -PETER: Really?
-CRAIG: Yeah. That's how it worked.
I call you, you call him,
he calls him, he calls him, -and he calls Gorbachev.
-PETER: Right. CRAIG: One by one by one, they– Each one of them decides
how can I kick this upstairs? And each one of them
repeats a lie that they do not yet know
is a lie. That essentially was conceived
seconds after the explosion by a desperate man
who was incapable, in a very human way, -of entertaining the thought…
-PETER: Right. CRAIG: …that the impossible
had occurred. PETER: Right.
There's a scene in the episode where the local committee,
as you say, -comes into the plant–
-CRAIG: Yes. PETER:
They're in the plant, in fact, you'll be safe here guys,
don't worry. PETER:
And, there's almost a moment where a younger member
of the committee says, -"Wait a minute…
-CRAIG: Right. …I've seen things outside.
I've seen the fires, I've seen the rubble. There's been a major explosion.
You're lying." All right, first question.
Did that really happen? CRAIG: Sort of. So, the executive committee
does come to that bunker. -PETER: Right.
-CRAIG: They do assemble there. And, what we know
from the record, um, by the way,
there's an excellent, uh, book that just came out called Midnight in Chernobyl
by Adam Higginbotham, in which, I wish had been around
when I did– 'cause there are a lot
of interesting details from that, that kind of,
illuminate some of these things. What we know
about that executive committee, was that there were essentially
two competing thoughts. One of them was, being kind of, what I call the Soviet obsession
with alarmism. So anything that came close -to approaching bad news…
-PETER: Right. CRAIG: …was just dismissed
as alarmism. 'Cause literally put into it, it's like the Soviet version
of fake news. -PETER: Right.
-CRAIG: I don't want to believe what you just said.
Therefore I'm putting it in a category of philosophical, -uh, mistake.
-PETER: Right. CRAIG: Then there were people
within the executive committee who were very concerned
and believed that this was much worse
than it was. So what I essentially did
was personify those two positions
between a younger member of this group
and an older member. I thought it was important
to remind people, particularly in the West,
that in 1986, there were still members, functioning members
of the communist party who had been alive
during the revolution. They were believers. They knew Lennon.
They had seen him. PETER: Right. CRAIG: This was not some kind
of strange cult that had been separated
from its religious founder by thousands of years.
This was fresh. And I wanted to show
how that functioned because it was still very much -a part of their lives.
-PETER: Right. PETER: So there's
the character's archive the older com–
the oldest committee member -who's sitting in the corner.
-CRAIG: Yeah. PETER: Game of Thrones fans
may recognize him -from Winterfell.
-CRAIG: As– as Maester Luwin. PETER: And he gets up
and he makes a speech, he points out that the real name
of the Chernobyl power plant -is the Lenin power plant.
-CRAIG: Right. PETER: And he makes a speech
about the Soviet ideals and how this is how we do things
in the Soviet Union. But what was interesting
was the point of his speech was not, we will now fight
for the fatherland and we will not sacrifice
ourselves but the point of his speech is,
we're going to keep this secret. That is the correct
Soviet response. SENIOR COMMITTEE MEMBER:
We seal off the city. No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread
of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining
the fruits of their own labor. Yes, comrades. We will all be rewarded
for what we do here tonight. This is our moment to shine. (APPLAUSE) CRAIG: That is in fact
what they did. Um, and there were people
as in the– I guess what you'd call,
Pripyat leadership who felt strongly that the–
the first thing you do in any situation like this
is cut the phone lines. That was literally
their first move, cut the phone lines
and don't let anyone in or out. The most important thing was to avoid the spread
of a panic. -PETER: Right.
-CRAIG: So when I read that, it occurred to me
that on some level, if you are part
of a power structure that you understand
is suppressive in a way… -PETER: Right.
-CRAIG: And that you're limiting people's freedoms in a way, you must be aware
that there could be a spark that could lead
to the truth spreading and people realizing and finally shaking off
their shackles and saying, "We're not going to be a part
of this anymore." That is essentially
how the Berlin Wall came down. On some level,
they must have all been aware that the Soviet Union
was being glued together by certain kinds of magic
and they were not wrong because it was not long
for the world… and the Soviet Union
would be gone in five years. So when something
like this happened, they said, "Cut the phone lines
and– and no one comes and no one goes
because if this spreads, -who knows?"
-PETER: There was an– there's an interesting
contradiction which Orwell explained
really with doublethink in which they've decided
simultaneously that there's nothing wrong
and no reason to worry… and also no one is
ever going to know about this. -CRAIG: Correct.
-PETER: And they were capable of– of proceeding it seems
as if both were true -and that is extraordinary.
-CRAIG: Yeah. They, I think, had a sort of
a default position that anything that was counter
to the story they had told their own people
and the rest of the world, just simply could not be
publicized or– And no one could know–
Now, I think they knew, probably, that the rest
of the world laughed at them. -PETER: Mm-hm.
-CRAIG: I think that the Soviets had a deep insecurity… PETER: There– there is a great
line, uh, in the later episode which I'll give away now,
where somebody, uh, says, to somebody who wants to tell
the truth about Chernobyl, he says, "You want to humiliate
a nation that is obsessed -with not being humiliated."
-CRAIG: Yeah. PETER: And that, I thought,
captured this whole attitude -quite well.
-CRAIG: Well they– Inside the Soviet Union,
I think, uh, it was– There was probably more
of a sense that people needed to believe those things.
And, yes, there were the So– The citizens were not stupid.
They understood that there were great limitations
to the system. CRAIG: But many of them–
more of them, I think than people understand were,
kind of active believers. They believed that the West
was decadent. They believed that their system
was something worth saving. PETER: I want to go through a–
a couple of things, uh, for episode one,
before we leave it behind, and– and they're basically
all part of my -"Really?" list.
-CRAIG: Yeah. Let's do it. PETER: Really, the firefighters
walked right up to the burning pile and sprayed
an open nuclear reactor -with water?
-CRAIG: Really. And there are some–
even some details that I did not include.
Some of them didn't have their jackets
and so they were just there in a T-shirt. A couple of them
didn't have helmets. There are a number of stories
from that night that are shocking that–
We just didn't have time for, but that's exactly
what happened. They were told essentially,
"There is a roof fire." And in the first episode
you hear that little, you know, whatever the–
It's not a 911 call. -I don't know what the, uh–
-PETER: Yeah. -CRAIG: What 911 was–
-PETER: It's actual– CRAIG:
But that's the actual audio… -PETER: Yes.
-CRAIG: …from that night and you can hear them saying,
"Hey, you gotta get down there, the– There's roof–
The roof's on fire." That's it. They just thought
it was a roof fire. And they showed up
without any protection, which, by the way,
they didn't have anyway. -PETER: Right.
-CRAIG: And… they fought that fire all night. And they get incredibly close
and one of the firemen did pick up a piece of graphite
in his hand. This is graphite from the core
of a nuclear reactor. -PETER: Right.
-CRAIG: And, most of the deaths
that occurred directly because of the radiation
of that night were experienced by those men.
And I think, there is at least one report–
One firefighter who said– He reported saying,
"I said to everybody, it'll be amazing if any of us
were alive by morning." Sometimes it's hard to tell
if that's a little bit of a kind of revisionist history
on people's parts. But we do know that a number
of them reported tasting metal. PETER: Which is I'm assuming a real thing that happens
around intense radiation. CRAIG: It is a real thing
apparently that happens around intense– There's– There's not a lot of experience
with this. -PETER: Right.
-CRAIG: There have been a couple
of incidents, -this was the worst of them
-PETER: Right. CRAIG: Yeah, but that–
that really happened. PETER: And they really
didn't tell anybody? They didn't evacuate the town.
They didn't notify anybody. The episode ends with everybody
waking up for morning after the explosion and going
off to school and work. CRAIG: Yeah. Yeah. CRAIG: That's– That–
So, backing up for a second. Pripyat was about as close
to what the Soviets had promised people
as you could get. It was fairly Utopian.
These cities were called Atom cities.
They were constructed to support–
Obviously, to supply employment at the power plants,
but also to, you know, then support those people
around them. They were considered very,
very, um, desirable places to live, unlike other regions,
where you would have shortages of food and supplies.
The– the markets were stocked. The–
There was no waiting in line. It was a reward to live
in a place like this. So, the accidents occurs
at 1:23 in the morning. By sunrise, you begin this–
the day of April 26. Not only were they not told
throughout that entire day– There was a wedding, uh,
people were just walking around the streets.
It was a lovely day. One man–
These are stories that I– I didn't include just for time. One resident at Pripyat chose
to get on, uh, the roof of his building
to do some sunning. He got pretty sick
and there's– I don't know if he made it
or not. They didn't keep great records
as you might imagine but yes, that is a fact.
They were walking around, under a cloud of smoke billowing
from an open nuclear reactor, -all day long.
-PETER: Right. At the end of episode one,
does anybody know, how bad this is,
other than the people inside the plant who've actually seen
the open core? -CRAIG: No.
-PETER: Nobody knows? -CRAIG: No.
-PETER: And yet we know. We've seen the burns.
We've seen the core. We seen–
And maybe, the last thing I ask you about in episode one
is that beam of light heading upwards.
That's Cherenkov? -I'm terrible at Russian.
-CRAIG: Yeah. (CHUCKLES) -PETER: We found out–
-CRAIG: The Cherenkov Effect -actually, it turns out…
-PETER: Cherenkov. CRAIG: …it wasn't
the Cherenkov Effect. And that's another one
of those little moments where Dyatlov engages
in a strange kind of denial. -PETER: Yeah.
-CRAIG: Dyatlov I don't think specifically said that
that light was that, although that was something
that a lot of the scientists in the early hours were saying,
"Oh, that light is– Can happen with minimal
radiation." But what that light was–
That blue light which was described by a lot
of people and described as quite beautiful
was essentially the ionization of the air.
The radiation was so intense, it was breaking the uh,
the you know, the oxygen molecules apart
and creating this color. It was probably one
of the things that drew a lot of the–
the citizens of Pripyat to that bridge.
That really happened. -PETER: Yeah.
-CRAIG: They did that. PETER: They all stood there
on this bridge -and they all watched…
-CRAIG: Correct. -PETER: How far away were they?
-CRAIG: About a kilometer. -PETER: Mm-hmm.
-CRAIG: Uh, and, that goes directly
to another thing that I really struggled with.
Which was how little people knew about radiation.
They simply didn't know. If– if you or I were somewhere and someone said,
"Oh, there's a fire at a nuclear power plant–
It's not– But it's not the core.
It's just a fire. Do you wanna go see?"
We would say, "No." -PETER: No.
-CRAIG: Are– Are you insane? I'm gonna drive
in the other direction. But they didn't know. There is a building in Pripyat
that has a– a slogan on it that basically refers
to the friendly atom. And they also believed
that if there is anything that you–
I mean, one of the characters mentions this thing about vodka,
that's true. They believed that vodka
essentially would decontaminate you
of any kind of ill-effects -of radiation.
-PETER: If only. It is odd that the tone
of the episode weirdly, is almost
that of a horror movie. -CRAIG: Yeah.
-PETER: In that people are going about their business
in the way that people in horror movies do, and there
is a horrible monster… -CRAIG: Yeah.
-PETER: …that is hunting them, and killing them,
and they don't even know it. And it– it seems almost as if we as the viewers
are put in their place that there is something
terrible going on. You can't see it,
but it's getting you. PETER: And there
are so many moments in this episode
which are equivalent to watching a horror movie.
It's like, -"Don't go through that door."
-CRAIG: Right. PETER: And yet
they go through the door. CRAIG: Yeah, and those moments
are all true. PETER: And on that note…
(CHUCKLES) we'll find out
what happened both in terms of what lead to that accident
and what happened to the people who we've now just met.
In subsequent episodes, episode two of Chernobyl
airs next Monday, 9:00 p.m. eastern on HBO.
This is Peter Sagal, I've been talking
with Craig Mazin, the creator, producer and writer
of Chernobyl. You can always listen
to this podcast, review and rate it
via Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud, Stitcher,
wherever else you might choose to get your podcasts.
Hey! How about the NPR One app? They're out there.
You can also listen to it via YouTube or the HBO Go
and HBO Now apps. Once used for TV,
now used for podcasts. I think it's evolving.
Craig, thank you so much. This has been a fascinating
and not a little terrifying. CRAIG: Thank you, Peter,
I can assure you it gets worse. (BOTH LAUGHING) PETER: Tune in next week
for even more depressing stories of real-life disasters. ♪ ("CHERNOBYL"
THEME MUSIC PLAYING) ♪