Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson on HBO’s “CHERNOBYL”

In April 1986 the most catastrophic man-made incident the planet had ever seen occurred when reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded during what should have been a safety test. The effects of the accident still wreak havoc over the landscape and containing the fallout has become an industry unto itself. It’s a job which will require centuries of human support. Tonight on HBO, Craig Mazin’s five-part miniseries, CHERNOBYL, dives deep into the the accident as it happened and the human cost and bravery it required to ensure that this tragedy did not engulf still millions more.

This past week at the Tribeca Film Festival, Mazin and his talented cast debuted the first two episodes of the series on the accident’s 33rd anniversary. The premiere episode was nothing short of a nightmare as the series delves into, in brutal detail, the accident and the shocking mishandling of both the initial fire and the surrounding population in those crucial first hours and days of fallout. It was a tense first hour and a brilliant setup into the second which saw the introduction of the scientists and politicians who then had to set about handling what was to come. The second episode in particular sees a stellar performance from Stellan Skarsgard as he plays a man coming to grips with his own mortality and entreating fellow countrymen to show selflessness so that millions can be saved. I spoke with Skarsgard, who also offered brief comments on his upcoming work in DUNE, as well as co-star Emily Watson on the red carpet about their own knowledge of the accident as it happened and the timely message this series has to offer in regards to listening to scientists.

Emily Watson plays Ulana Khomyuk, a character created for the show as an entry-point into the role of a collection of European scientists in the fallout of Chernobyl.

Lauren Damon: Your character isn’t one specific person, but represents a collection of people involved with the accident, did you speak to people who experienced this?

Emily Watson: No. It’s sort of in tribute to many of the scientists who worked on the discovery of what happened. So I kind of had a bit of a blank sheet really to make up what I wanted to do. But Craig had written the character as coming from Belarus, which is a place that suffered terribly in the second world war. And she would have been a young child at that time, so that gave me a sense of just finding someone who was very very tough. It made her the perfect person really to go after the truth and find out what happened.

Do you remember when you were first aware of the Chernobyl accident in your life?

Watson: Yeah, I was a student at university and I remember there were students at my college who were on a year out, away in Kiev, and they all had to come home pretty quickly, it was very scary.

Did you have any misconceptions about the event going into this project that the script changed for you?

Watson: Oh my god, when I started reading the script, I had no idea that sort of within a few days–sort of 48 hours after the first explosion–there could have been one that was ten times worse. That would have taken out half of Europe.

In theory you could have been in range of those effects?

Watson: Definitely in range of radiation fallout…But yeah, it could have been much much worse. It was due to the heroism of the people on the ground who contained it and prevented it from being much worse.

What’s the biggest take away you’d like viewers to get from this series?

Watson: I think it’s a parable for our times. I think you ignore the truth and scientists at your peril.

Stellan Skarsgard plays Boris Shcherbina, the Deputy Head of the Soviet Government at the time.

What did you find surprising from hearing about Chernobyl originally in 1986 and then from working on this project?

Stellan Skarsgard: What I knew from ’86 was what you got from news media, which gave you a sort of superficial idea of what actually happened. What we learned through working with this material is I know now what technically went wrong, how the reactor works and what the mistakes they made were.

You also learn about it [was] more grave, the sort of the political system–the impact that had on the accident. When you have a system that is supposed to be perfect, you cannot allow any dissent in terms of somebody criticizing anything you do or any flaws cannot be accepted. And that then means that the truth was suppressed. It was all over the Soviet Union at the time. I mean truth is suppressed also for other reasons in the west now. I mean when you talk about Fukushima that was money that suppressed truth and created disaster there. In Boeing, you sent planes that are not fit for flying because you want to make money. So another way of suppressing truth and science. I think it’s important, an important film because it–not only because it talks about what we’re doing to this planet, the environment, which is really scary, but it also talks about how important it is that we listen to people who know what they’re talking about.

Facts are facts. They are not just individual ideas. Some facts you have to deal with and you have to accept and we have to listen to scientists. I mean 98% of the scientists in the world say that we are heading for a catastrophe in terms of global warming. We cannot ignore that. Do not ignore that.

Tell us about your character

Skarsgard: My character I’m playing Boris Shcherbina who was a minister in the government and who got the responsibility for cleaning up the mess. And he’s a man who spent his entire life working within the system and defending the system and he ends up realizing that this accident is a result of the system. And he has to question the system and he also has to decide whether he should keep on defending the system that is flawed. Or if he should start defending the truth.

Skarsgard’s next film role is in the highly anticipated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic, DUNE, where he’ll play the villainous Baron Harkonnen

Lauren Damon: Have you begun work on DUNE as Baron Harkonnen?

Skarsgard:I haven’t started shooting yet, we’re still doing prosthetics work

That’s what I was wondering! Because the Baron is such a grotesque character but when you were cast I remember looking at a shot of you as Bootstrap Bill [Skarsgard’s heavily barnacled Pirates of the Caribbean role] and thinking ‘This man can handle anything they put on him!’

Skarsgard: [Laughs] That’s very nice of you! Thank you. I will probably spend probably six to eight hours a day in makeup and it will look fantastic.

What are you most excited about in doing that project?

Skarsgard: It’s a great story. It’s a fantastic world and Denis Villeneuve is a director that I’ve always wanted to work with. So I’m really happy, he’s a wonderful man and a great director. So I think–except for the eight hours in makeup–I think I’ll have a fun time.

Chernobyl airs tonight at 9pm on HBO

Blu-ray Review “Chernobyl Diaries”

Actors: Jonathan Sadowski, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Philips
Directors: Brad Parker
Rated: R (Restricted)
Studio: Warner Home Video
Release Date: October 16, 2012
Run Time: 86 minutes

Film: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Extras: 3 out of 5 stars

When I first heard about “Chernobyl Diaries”, I thought it was just another Summer horror movie.  Then I saw that it came out of Oren Peli, the man behind “Paranormal Activity”, I became immediately interested. He serves as both co-writer and producer and this film. and the man known how to do reality-horror right! “Chernobyl Diaries” is not another found-footage film though and takes a different (and cool) route from the “Paranormal” series.  There are a few good jumps here and thought harshly criticized during its theatrical release is not as bad as everyone says.  Good watch for Halloween season.

Another cool aspect of this film is where it was shot, this they were unable to film in the real Pripyat since there is still-present nuclear dust from the Chernobyl disaster, they shot in  abandoned an Soviet Air Force Base and in underground tunnels used as Nazi headquarters in World War II under Belgrade, Serbia.  We also had the chance to chat interview quite a few people from this film including the director Brad Parker, co-writer/producer Oren Peli and star Jonathan Sadowski.  Click on their respective names, if you want to hear the inside scoop about the film.

Warner Bros’ delivers a really nice release, within its Blu-ray/DVD/UltraViolet Digital Copy combo pack.  The film looks sharp in its 1080p transfer in its 1.85:1 original aspect ratio.  This works really well with the film’s locations as well.  The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track works well with the score and the suspense. The special features on the disc are decent overall.  The main extra here is the alternate ending, which is pushed as a big deal on the cover of the box.  It is decent but I still prefer the theatrical ending…yes I do.  There is one deleted scene included, also nothing special.  The last two features are neat though, including a informerical for “Uri’s Extreme Tours” and a viral video for “Chernobyl Conspiracy”.

Official synopsis: The film follows a group of six young tourists who, looking to go off the beaten path, hire an ‘extreme tour’ guide. Ignoring warnings, [their guide] takes them into the city of Pripyat, the former home to the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, but a deserted town since the disaster more than twenty-five years ago. After a brief exploration of the abandoned city, however, the group soon…[realizes] that they are not alone.

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Jonathan Sadowski talks about “Chernobyl Diaries”

© Winston Burris / PR Photos

Jonathan Sadowski is the star of the recent Oren Peli produced “Chernobyl Diaries”. Jonathan also star last year in TV’s short-lived “Bleep My Dad Says”. Media Mikes had a chance to chat with Jonathan about his new film and what we can expect.

Mike Gencarelli: What drew you to the “Chernobyl Diaries”?
Jonathan Sadowski: Starting from the audition process the project had a mystique about it. I didn’t really know anything about it as everyone was being very secretive. I did however figure Oren Peli was behind everything. The script was very improv based and we just let our characters run during the audition process.  Bit by bit we told more about the project and by the time screen testing started I knew what the film was about. Brad Parker is an actor’s director. He is very open to working with you. I had no idea the movie was going to be what it turned into.

MG: What did you like most about your character in the film?
JS: My character is the black sheep of the family. Everything that happens in this film is because my character decides to take these people on a tour of this abandoned city.

MG: Were the shooting locations challenging at all?
JS: We shot in a few different locations.  We were in Serbia as well as a few different cities outside of Budapest. There was a big language barrier there so communicating was extremely difficult. Trying to eat in restaurants there was really tuff.

MG: What was it like working with Oren Peli and first time director Brad Parker?
JS: For Brad being a first time director he is a pro. I can’t say enough about what he did with the film. He gave us tremendous liberties. Oren was on set every day and was also there during the audition process. The script really came out during rehearsals as it was very improv based. They actually taped the rehearsals and turned it into a script format. Oren was the first person to speak up if something wasn’t perfect. He was really amazing.

MG: Do you enjoy working in a more open environment?
JS: I love it! There are really no rules so you can push the envelope. They can always pull it back but at least you have the liberties to go further with your character.

MG: How does your experiences on this film compare to yours from previous works?
JS: The thing that was interesting about shooting this film was the whole secrecy aspect of things. Even when we were shooting we didn’t know what was going to happen or what things were going to look like until we were ready to do them. They were constantly pulling pranks on us to get real reactions.

MG: Can you tell us about any of your other projects?
JS: There is one film that I am in talks to do but the script is still being finished. They are also trying to get me to direct the project as well.


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Paranormal Activity’s Oren Peli talks about his new film “Chernobyl Diaries”

Oren Peli is known best for his working on the “Paranormal Activity” series. Oren also produced last year’s amazing horror film “Insidious” and recent TV series “The River”. His latest project is being released on May 25th called “Chernobyl Diaries”, directed by Brad Parker (click here for our interview with Brad). Media Mikes had a chance to chat with Oren about not only producing this film but also co-writing.

Mike Gencarelli: Can you give us some of the films origin?
Oren Peli: I was killing time one day by browsing on the internet. While I was looking around I came across a link posted by someone who had gone to the city of Prypiat which is near the Chernobyl site. I guess in the last few years the town has been opened up as a tourist site. People can go there with a tour guide and walk around and take pictures. I had always known about the Chernobyl disaster but it never occurred to me that there was an abandoned town right next to it. The town was evacuated over night and left empty for 25 years. I thought it was sad but also fascinating. It was a great setting for a scary movie.

MG: How did this films writing differ from your previous work?
OP: In some aspects it was fairly similar. You start with a grain of an idea which you develop. You have to come up with the characters and the setting. Because it’s a horror movie you also have to think about what would be scary and how to put those scares into the movie. For me it was the whole idea that you are in an abandoned town where there is not supposed to be anyone or thing around. You become stranded in the middle of the night and you hear what you think could be a human scream from a distance. You now know that you are not alone. That is the core scare factor of the film.

MG: How did Brad Parker become attached to the project?
OP: After meeting with my producing partner we decided we were going to make the movie. We then joined forces will Phil Mason who financed the movie. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to direct the movie because my schedule would just not allow it. We met with a lot of directors that were very talented but some of them were not available and some we didn’t think were right for the genre. When we met Brad we were very impressed with his visual sense. We got along great and luckily he was the right guy for the job.

MG: What is your biggest challenge when working with a smaller budget?
OP: Low budget generally means you don’t have two months to shoot. You have to work in a smaller time frame. In this particular film one of the most important characters is the city. We had to make sure that we portrayed it accurately. We didn’t have an infinite budget for visuals and set building. We had to be very creative and smart in order to maximize our budget. It’s a challenge all around.

MG: Are you concerned at all about the film opening up against “Men in Black III”?
OP: I am sure “Men in Black III” will do very well but it’s a different audience. That film is more of a family film where ours is an R-rated hardcore horror film. The tradition of opening films on Memorial Day weekend has been very strong so I think all the films will do very well.

MG: What do you like most about producing films over directing?
OP: I think the main thing is directing islike a full time job. You are working on a film for a year at a time. When you are producing you are able to juggle several things at once. If I was directing “Chernobyl Diaries” I wouldn’t be able to do it because of all the other things I have going on. As a producer you are able to over think projects.

MG: What other projects are you working on next?
OP: I actually have a policy of not discussing any projects that I have in development. Sorry.

Brad Parker talks about directing “Chernobyl Diaries”

Brad Parker is making his directorial debut with the new film “Chernobyl Diaries”. The film is co-wrote and produced by Oren Peli, known for the “Paranormal Activity” series. Media Mikes had a chance to chat with Bradley about working on the film and what we can expect.

Mike Gencarelli: Can you tell us why you chose “Chernobyl Diaries” for your directorial debut?
Brad Parker: There were two things really. The idea of working with Oren Peli who is a great guy and sort of a master of suspense was very exciting. The other thing was the city itself. It was a place I had been aware of and had collected photos of the location thinking that someday I would shoot a film there. When we first met we hit it off and were instantly able to start talking about the city as a character. We got right into the nuts and bolts of production. The place and the man were the two main elements.

MG: So you had knowledge of the area prior to starting?
BP: Yes I did. I had sort of learned from my friend Mark Romanic that as I came across fascinating photos I should save them on my computer. I created an archive for when I needed a specific look for something. I was able to pull from the knowledge of the place through a photographic sense.

MG: What do you think was this projects biggest challenge?
BP: The biggest challenge I think was the amount of time we had to do the film. I met theproducers of the film about a year ago. I had a rough treatment of the film at that time and we were set to start shooting not too long after that meeting. We really got into production very quickly. We shot the film in about 20 days so that was probably the biggest challenge. It was a lot of fun but very hard at the same time. Some of the locations were challenging and there were a number of things going on in a few of the scenes.

MG: Your background is in visual effects. Did you get involved with any of that for this film?
BP: I did. I got involved by deciding where not to use visual effects. I have being doing visual effects work for so long that I have become aware of where effects work and where they do not. I had a limited budget so I had to figure out how to use that appropriately. I worked with my friend and former co-worker Mark Forker on the visual stuff. It was great to be out there with a friend and an ally. We are very like minded and I trust him. He and I see eye to eye when it comes to visual aesthetics.

MG: What do you think you were able to take from this shoot that you will be able to use in future projects?
BP: The experience of working with this group of actors. It’s kind of semi-improvisational which I really liked. I found it very liberating and it was a great way to work. Working on long takes was another thing I loved. That was a great way to shoot and get natural performances. I think I will be taking that with me for future shoots.

MG: Are you at all nervous about the film opening up against “Men in Black III”?
BP: It’s hard to say. I don’t know what to expect being this is my first film. I am a big fan of the “Men in Black” series. I hope people respond well to the film. I don’t know how we will do but I hope people like it.

MG: Do you know what your next project will be?
BP: I am in development right now with Bad Robot. My friend Matt Reeves is producing the film and it is being released by Paramount. I can’t really say too much about it just yet.

Film Review “Chernobyl Diaries”

Starring: Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski and Olivia Dudley
Directed by: Bradley Parker
Running time: 1 hour 30 mins
Warner Brothers

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Blame “The Blair Witch Project.” Since that film came out in 1999, a plethora of “found footage” films has invaded the multiplex. Some of them (“Cloverfield,” the “Paranormal Activity” series) have been downright scary. Others, like the recent “Apollo 18,” have been anything but. Now we have “Chernobyl Diaries” which, thankfully, is no “Apollo 18.”

On a trip to Europe three young friends visit all of the major cities on the continent. London. Prague. Frankfurt. The trio is made up of Chris (McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Dudley) and their friend Amanda (Devin Kelly). The group ends up in Kiev, where they plan to meet up with Chris’ brother, Paul (Sadowski). The plan is to take a trip to Moscow. But the plans change when Paul enlists Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), an “extreme tour” guide. Uri informs them that he can take the group to Pripyat, which is where the workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant and their families lived. They learn that, after the reactor meltdown a quarter century ago, the residents of the town were given less than five minutes to evacuate. It now stands as a town that time forgot, where because of the fallout, nothing can live. Almost nothing.

Best described as “I Am Legend” meets “Paranormal Activity,” “Chernobyl Diaries” is a pretty slick little film. The “Paranormal Activity” gene comes straight from the source as the film was co-written by Oren Peli, the writer/director of the original film. His script is solid here, with an unflinching look at what the effects of a nuclear disaster can be. In Pripyat giant bears and packs of dogs hunt in the woods while fish resembling the kind swimming near the nuclear plant on “The Simpsons” fill the lake. The city is also occupied by what appears to be a race of people that have mutated into night dwelling monsters.

Though some of the scares are telegraphed the majority of the film is pretty intense. Credit a strong cast, a keen eye by first time director Parker and a production designer who has managed to bring, excuse the pun, a dead town to life. The set pieces are impressive as are the visual effects. If you’re looking for a fright this holiday weekend you could do much worse then “Chernobyl Diaries.”