With “Chernobyl,” his first TV series, screenwriter Craig Mazin — perhaps best known for his two sequels to “The Hangover” — made the leap from popcorn entertainment to serious historical drama.
The gamble paid off: The HBO/Sky Atlantic miniseries, which dramatizes the 1986 nuclear accident and its aftermath, emerged as an unlikely hit, with more than 9 million viewers, plus 6.5 million downloads or views of its companion podcast.
We asked Mazin, 48, why he thinks audiences are responding to “Chernobyl” and what prompted him to interrogate his own work on “The Chernobyl Podcast.”
Are you surprised by the way “Chernobyl” has taken off?
I think if you predict something like this, you’re probably a sociopath. I always presume the worst. That’s just the way I’m built. We thought that we were really proud of the show we made. We thought that some people would see it, and we hoped that those people would appreciate it too. But we also felt that a lot of people would see it and think, “This is too much,” or “It’s just not something that I’m interested in.” We have been overwhelmed with the response.
Why do you think people are connecting with it?
I think people are connecting with it the way I connected with it. The most you can hope for, as someone who makes a film or a television show like this, is that the very things that excite you and thrill you and scare you and move you and break your heart will do those things to other people. The question is how many. When we talk about broad audiences, we’re usually talking about art that has a fairly wide target — generally speaking, everybody can agree that this sort of thing might be exciting or fun or sad. [“Chernobyl”] is not a broad audience kind of show, at least in my mind, but it turns out that there’s a much wider interest in this kind of storytelling than everybody expected. I don’t want to come off as sounding like I expected that the audience would not like it. Not at all. It’s just that I didn’t think it was going to hold this level of appeal for many people.
It’s been suggested that viewers’ interest stems from the series’ depiction of an environmental catastrophe, its political relevance, or its reflection of a new Cold War sensibility. What do you make of those interpretations?
You can’t invalidate anyone’s interpretation of something — well, I mean, you can. Look, some people can get things wrong. But I don’t think any of those people are getting anything wrong. One of the reasons to tell any kind of historical event, to re-present it for people, is because it is relevant now. There are historical events that are interesting, they’re just not that relevant. I think this one is interesting and relevant, and it does have greater implications for how we move through our lives and how we relate to our own government and how we relate to the truth... My greatest worry was that people would see the show and say, “Those people did something. Those people had a problem. That was about that.” So now we’re just sort of gawking at history. Far from it: There was nothing that happened in the Soviet Union that couldn’t happen anywhere else, because the last time I checked, the Soviet Union was made up of people, and these are human problems.
“Chernobyl” reminds me of “American Crime Story,” drawing on some genre elements that might be unexpected in a historical drama. Did you think consciously of ways to bring a reluctant viewer into the story?
When you’re making historical drama, you do need to be aware of the audience. If I wanted to just educate people, I suppose I’d write a book — and there are some terrific books that are being written about Chernobyl — or I’d teach a class. I want to educate people but I also want them to feel something. This is about connecting to other human beings, and feeling empathy for human beings that aren’t even with us anymore. That requires drama, and that’s a different practice.
To me, one of the most fascinating parts of watching “Chernobyl” was listening to the companion podcast. Can you tell me about how that came about?
It was something that I had been asking for since the beginning.... I said, “By the way, full disclosure, I want to be able to offer full disclosure, so when we do the show, I want there to be a companion piece” — at that point, I had been podcasting for a bit myself — “where we talk about the changes that had to be made.” Because so much of what this is about is truth and narrative and needing to be accountable to truth, and I don’t think that talking openly about what needed to change so that we could tell the story is going to diminish the story. I think the opposite. ... HBO had this big teleconference meeting: “What will this be about?” And I’m sitting there giggling, like, “I’m pretty sure what it’s about is, we’re going to talk about the show, and I’m going to talk about the show and I’m going to talk about what’s accurate and what changed and why. That’s it. There’s nothing complicated about this one.” Again, I have to tell you, I was pretty sure that no one was going to listen to it. I just thought this was something that I was doing because it was the right thing to do. And I don’t think anybody at HBO felt like this was a huge promotional opportunity. Theoretically, one ad on the side of one bus in New York will do more to promote the show than this thing.
Why do you think people gravitated toward the podcast? It seems like it could be because they want to pull back the curtain on Hollywood magic, or because it gives them an outlet for the kinds of conversations about TV that are happening on Twitter.
I thought that if people listened to the podcast, it would perhaps make the conversations a little easier. Because sometimes conversations on Twitter can turn around questions, which become arguments. Some people say, “Why did they do this?” And someone will say, “I think they did it because of this.” And someone else will say, “Well, I think they did it because of this.” And they begin to fight, because it’s Twitter. Meanwhile, they’re both wrong. … There is a little bit of a danger in the demystification, but I think that’s a bigger issue with fiction, which is entirely a magic trick. This is not entirely a magic trick. In fact, clinging to the magic of it is somewhat disrespectful to the truth of it.
Were you at all worried about interrogating the truth content of your own show? Was there ever a moment where you thought, “Is this is just going to open me up to more criticism?”
Anything that we felt we would be embarrassed to defend or squirming in our seats explaining why we did it the way we did, we just wouldn’t do. We thought, “Look, we’re telling this the best way we can, and therefore we can be open and honest about the changes that we made, and we can give the reasons.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that people can’t disagree that our reasoning was good. But, by and large, people have felt that. … It’s hard to accuse people of trying to pull a fast one when they’re showing you how they’re doing it.
There are no pure dramatists of history. It’s not possible. I think sometimes, writers and directors want to present themselves as these perfect purveyors of historical truth, and if you start to question them, they roll their eyes at you and say you’ve missed the point. ... What I’m advocating here is a dramatic retelling of history, but to do so with some kind of responsibility and accountability. And if you have the answers, if you have the decent explanation, you should share that with people.