La Cañada Flintridge resident Craig Mazin, the writer and executive producer of HBO’s upcoming “Chernobyl,” wants the historical drama’s viewers to think about what happens when truth is ignored because it doesn’t fit into a narrative.
The five-part miniseries about the 1986 Chernobyl event in Soviet Ukraine — believed to be the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history — is set to premiere Monday, May 6.
“I want them to think about what it means to live in a government where people at the highest level are lying to you all the time,” Mazin, who recently was honored for his service on behalf of LCF’s public schools, said in a recent phone interview. “I want them to think about what it means to live in a world where a lot of what is purported to be true is not.”
Mazin said that when he looks around the world he sees the climate is changing and that that is a fact that some people don’t like.
“People lie about that fact,” Mazin said. “That fact doesn’t care. A hurricane doesn’t care. Floods don’t care. It will keep coming. What I want them to take away is you can lie and lie and lie, but eventually a dangerous nuclear reaction, a reactor that is poorly designed, is going to kill people.”
Mazin said the issue of lying and not believing in facts is something the U.S. and other countries are struggling with now.
“When I was a kid, Chernobyl happened in the Soviet Union,” Mazin said. “The Soviet Union was very different from the U.S. They did not have a free press. Their government hyped propaganda directly into your home and that was your culture. We can look at Chernobyl and say, ‘That can’t happen here.’ But I look at what has happened to the U.S. and in the U.K. right now. I have to think there was nothing special in the water in the Soviet Union.
“What we saw there was an extension of a kind of human weakness. There is that same human weakness in all of us. We do have a government right now led by a man who is a liar… And I think we move back and forth between being shocked and laughing at him. But there is an enormous danger in the celebration of the lie.”
Mazin, who has also written the films “Identity Thief,” “The Hangover Part II” and “The Hangover Part III,” said he spent a lot of time writing the historical drama — whose stars include Stellan Skarsgard, Jared Harris and Emily Watson — in his LCF home and at his office in Old Town Pasadena.
A reviewer for Variety wrote that “Mazin and director Johan Renck build a steadily creeping unease, allowing the scale of the atrocity to sink in with terrible, fitting gravity.”
Mazin said the idea for the project began after he read an article about the construction of a new containment dome, or a half-dome, that was placed over Chernobyl to protect it. He said it used to have a concrete construction that was meant to last only a few years but survived for 30 years. The new dome was set to last for 100 years, he said.
“It occurred to me I knew Chernobyl exploded, but I didn’t know why,” Mazin said. “It seemed like a strange lapse.” He started reading more and became “fascinated and shocked” by what he was learning.
The filmmaker described his production as a dramatization of a historical event. “We had to make some changes to tell the story. We had to fit it into five hours,” he said, adding that he first began researching “Chernobyl” in 2014.
“Part of what makes ‘Chernobyl’ fascinating is the sense that time is squeezing down on you,” Mazin said. “I didn’t want to meander. I wanted people to feel like they were in it. I opted to be a little more compressive than expansive. With that said, the scope of the show is enormous. When people watch, they’ll be startled by just how cinematic it is in terms of visual impact.”
He said that he learned about “the kinds of acts of heroism and bravery and sacrifice that were displayed” from what he read, and that his job in writing the series was trying to determine what was important to everyone, from himself to the audience.
“That essentially is the job of either adapting something from existing work or adapting from history,” Mazin said. “You have to make these choices. You begin to do that immediately. Like what is important to me, what is important to the audience and what do I have to say a fond farewell to even though I love it and what do I protect at all costs? That is the art of this kind of work.”
Mazin said he received no pushback from pitching his idea to others. He said he went to Carolyn Strauss, one of the executive producers of “Game of Thrones,” and said he wanted to pursue “Chernobyl” but was looking for a partner.
“She said, ‘Yeah, I like it,’” Mazin said. “I went to HBO and they said, ‘Yeah, I like it.’” I wrote it and they said, ‘We’ll make it.’” It’s been that way the whole way through. I think every step of the way, once I showed people the story I wanted to tell, they were on board. Frankly, it’s more to do with the remarkable truth of what happened than anything else.”
To write the series, Mazin said he spoke to a lot of people who were there and others who lived in the Soviet Union and Ukraine at the time. During his research, he said, he learned how a nuclear reactor worked and the proper way to build one, and much more.
“I learned what kind of stupidity humans are capable of,” Mazin said. “I also learned what kind of nobility people are capable of. Maybe, above all, it became absurdly clear to me the people living in the Soviet Union who are described as our sworn enemy were just like us. Exactly like us.”
He felt he could portray the people involved in “Chernobyl” honestly, which will allow them to be relatable to American and British audiences.
“I think no one in the U.S. has presented the Soviet Union of the ‘80s in this kind of truly realistic light,” Mazin said. “I don’t think fiction like this has happened as true to fact as we have tried to be down to the shoelaces and the watches on their wrist. Every detail is as authentic as we could be. We tried hard to honor the stories we are telling.”
He said after each episode, there will be a podcast available and he explains what has been changed from real life in the episode and why it was changed.
“I do want to be accountable,” Mazin said. “I don’t want to be part of the problem I’m railing against. The elevation of narrative over truth.”
Mazin, this year’s La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation’s Spirit of Outstanding Service Award honoree with his wife, Melissa, is also passionate about the education system in LCF.
“Well, it’s the same thing that brought me here,” Mazin said. “When we moved to La Cañada in 2002 we came because we were looking for great public schools. We were looking for great sense of community and the kind of community Melissa and I grew up in: A smaller community near a large city. We were looking for a place where it was kind of family friendly without being … oppressive in any way. And La Cañada seemed like the perfect mix. And it was and it is. You know, it’s just been 17 years now. We just couldn’t be happier.”
The Mazins received the award at the LCFEF’s spring gala on March 16. Foundation President and gala co-chair Caroline Anderson noted that Craig, a previous LCFEF president and board member, was a trustee for the LCFEF Endowment Fund.
Anderson said Mazin, who currently has one child studying in the La Cañada Unified School District, understands funding local education is a serious subject and believes “this is something we should do.”
She said after his years on the board he signed up for another five years working as an endowment trustee and that shows his commitment.
That’s a characteristic that seems evident in his passion about “Chernobyl,” about which, he said, the element of disaster is the least interesting part.
“It’s the specificity of what happens in ‘Chernobyl’ in that society on that night in the months to follow,” Mazin said. “I don’t intend this show to be an anti-nuclear power polemic. I’m in favor of nuclear power. Nuclear power is much cleaner than burning coal, we know that. There is absolutely a way to generate nuclear power safely. … The reactor in Chernobyl is of terrible design and it didn’t have a containment building around it and personnel weren’t properly trained and being asked to compensate for inherent flaws in that reactor that they didn’t even know about.
“All of this is going to come out in the show.”