HBO’s “Chernobyl,” a five-part miniseries that debuted May 6, dramatizes the true story of the 1986 nuclear accident that was one of the worst human-made disasters of all time. Though the event is no secret, press coverage in the months and years that followed painted broad strokes and sweeping statements. The miniseries offers viewers a tighter focus, examining the women and men who were caught in the middle of the catastrophe. Minute by minute, it recounts the events that occurred in late April and shows how much of Europe was at risk — and ultimately saved — from a radioactive debacle.
The high level of detail in the series makes this story that much more suspenseful. To find locations that appeared authentic, filmmakers looked east at countries with a Soviet history, says producer Sanne Wohlenberg (“Black Mirror,” “Vikings”). “We needed a tax credit and a place that has enough crew base to facilitate a show of our size,” she says. “We thought about Ukraine, where the disaster occurred — and we did shoot for a couple weeks in Kiev — but they were in their infancy of film-production tax, and we thought it would be a risk to be the guinea pigs.”
So Wohlenberg looked to Lithuania, a former Soviet Republic just northwest of Ukraine that’s now an independent nation, which offered a 20% tax break. Most important, though, was the country’s nuclear power plant, which was partly decommissioned. The facility — the same age as the one in Chernobyl — had only two reactors, not four, but inside, the reactors themselves were more or less identical.
“With one of [the reactors] being entirely decommissioned, the possibility of going to shoot there and open up our world with some real locations gave us a unique opportunity [to take advantage of the huge] scale that a power plant brings without having to re-create it completely,” Wohlenberg notes. The production also built some sets and added visual-effects extensions to re-create the feeling of the disaster.
Although Lithuania had been the main shooting location for BBC 2016 miniseries “War & Peace,” production designer Luke Hull (“Fortitude”) still ran into complications. Because “Chernobyl” was by far the country’s biggest production to date, the number of personnel available wasn’t quite sufficient, especially for the production design department.
“They had wonderful young prop makers and dressmakers and such,” Hull says, “but they lacked middle management in that area, so we had to bring a lot of people over. And also, when you think you’re going to get ex-Soviet-looking locations, it was clear that [Lithuania] wanted to forget that period. A lot of those old Soviet buildings have been left to rot.”
Wohlenberg allows that Lithuania is a small country with a small production industry, but among the other former Soviet satellites that regularly host productions — the Czech Republic or Hungary, for example — she feels Lithuania is among the most hospitable.
“If you are one of the main productions there — which can be tricky timing-wise — you will have full access to their key facilities,” she says. “Our base was a disused factory called Audejas outside of Vilnius, the capital. And nearby we had an unfinished film studio, Martynas Studio, which was perfect for us to build the massive, destroyed reactor sets.”