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“I have 25 years of starving for praise. Just give me my week. That’s all I ask. Just give me my week. I’ll be back to self-loathing before you know it.”
Craig Mazin (joking about his writing success on the miniseries Chernobyl)
Scriptnotes podcast, “Live at the Ace Hotel”

I set out to tell the truth. And sometimes the truth is shocking.”
Tony & Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennessee Williams
The Paris Review interview with Dotson Radar

Screenwriter Craig Mazin once joked on the Scriptnotes podcasts that films he works on never get nominated for major awards. But that all changed with the HBO/SKY production of Chernobylwhich Mazin wrote and executive produced as it earned 19 Emmy nominations including these categories:

Outstanding Limited Series
Chernobyl

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or a Movie
Jared Harris, Chernobyl

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie
Emily Watson, Chernobyl

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or a Movie
Stellan Skarsgard, Chernobyl

Chernobyl helped HBO set a record of 137 Emmy nominations.

I’ve listen to enough Scriptnotes podcasts (that Mazin co-hosts)  to think that Mazin had a North Exposure-like TV show in him at least once in his career, but I would never guessed he would reach down and create something like Chernobyl.

While Mazin’s career has been lucrative including box office hits (Hangover 2Identity Thief), his critical success is below par. And according to IMDB his only previous award nomination is the Stinker Award, Worst Screenplay for a Film Grossing More than $100 Million Using Hollywood Math, Scary Movie 3 (2003).

But with Chernobyl his swing was as pure as baseball great Ken Griffey Jr’s. Or to use a football metaphor it’s like watching Kurt Warner go from backup NFL quarterback to Super Bowl and League MVP in one season. (Warner had been an All Conference player of the year at the University of Northern Iowa and an arena football star, but I think he’s the only one that would have predicated his success at the highest level of pro football.)

Chernobyl is a little Shakespeare, a little Chekhov, and a little Battleship Potemkin. Mazin as the show’s creator has earned the right to being singing the county song, How Do You Like Me Now?! 

What writer Mazin and director Johan Renck  (and their cast and crew) pulled off with the mini-series  Chernobyl is remarkable. It’s a haunting version of the nuclear disaster that occurred in the former Soviet Union in 1986.

It’s not only  my favorite narrative film or TV show so far in 2019, but it reminds me of what I consider TV at its best. Personally the viewing experience was up there with watching Roots (1977), Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman (1985), Seinfeld (1989-1999), Temple Grandin (2010) and most recently Breaking Bad.

Here’s just a few thoughts on Mazin’s writing process and what I think makes the mini series work so well.

THEME/ UNIVERSAL RELEVANCE 

“The way I think of it is what is the relevance to everyone? 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 in part because it was filling in these large gaps of a story we all knew yet didn’t know. But primarily it’s because it’s a story about the cost of lies. This is the first line of the whole show and this is the theme we are going to continue with as people watch these episodes. That when people chose to lie, and when people chose 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 from it for a very long time, but the truth just doesn’t care. And it will get you in the end.” 
Craig Mazin
The Chernobyl Podcast, episode 1:12:45

CONFLICT & STAKES 

The largest nuclear meltdown in history qualifies as conflict where the stakes are high. The actual number of people who died as as result of the accident are unknown, but it’s thought that tens of thousands of people died as the result of radiation poisoning. And if the meltdown had not been stopped some estimate that it would have impacted 100 million people.

THE WAY INTO THE STORY

Mazin didn’t start his script with a big Hollywood explosion, but with the theme stated (truth/lies) and a suicide. Great hook.

MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION
How did this accident happen and who is responsible?

CHARACTERS/ACTING

The arrogant scientist, the Russian bureaucrats, the conscience, the fixers, the whistleblower, the miners, the innocents, the heroes, the firefighter and his wife. It’s just a well orchestrated cast of characters that Mazin uses to tell the story. t

EMOTIONAL
The cement burial scene is just one of many emotionally charged scenes in Chernobyl.

DIRECTION
What’s perhaps as crazy as Mazin’s comedy background in writing a serious drama, is Swedish born Johan Renck’s early background in music videos, and that his degree is not in film but economics.  I would be surprised if his directing his style wasn’t influenced by Ingmar Bergman and Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski.

CINEMATOGRAPHY/EDITING
The camera lingers in places in the style of European filmmakers in what’s often called slow cinema. It greatly helps the gravity and emotional impact of the situation.

PRODUCTION DESIGN
Chernobyl is a visual feast and that was part cinematography but also a part production design, set design, art direction, and costume design. 

MUSIC & SOUND DESIGN
Where would this roof scene be without sound design?

PLACE
The Soviet Union/Russia has been linked to the United States in my mind since I was a child in the 60s and aware of the space race. From Olympic games to the Cold War to current politics the United States and the USSR/Russia seem to be forever in an awkward dance.

I’ve been to Russia twice (Moscow and Samara) and found the people there very friendly, but the country’s history with hardness and abusive leadership can’t be denied.  From Ivan the Terrible to Stalin are many stories of hardship and death.

The fact that Pripyat was meant to be a Soviet utopia yet is now a ghost town of dark tourism in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster is one of the set pieces that Mazin and Renck took full advantage of.

Solzhenitsyn once said something to the effect that every writer secretly wanted to write something so powerful that they’d be sent to the Gulag. I’m not sure Mazin would agree with that, but I imagine he takes much delight in being a writer who’s work is not greeted with indifference—but with 19 Emmy nominations. And, perhaps even better, with reports that Russia’s own state backed TV channel is now making their own version of the ‘truth’ of what happened that day at Chernobyl. (Spoiler alert: they blame an American spy.)

Additional material:

Chernobyl Prayers  Svetlana Alexievich 

Chernobyl scripts by Craig Mazin.

 

Scott W. Smith

Kurosawa 101

“I really don’t feel like I’ve grasp the essence of cinema.”
Writer/director Akira Kurosawa
In 1990 upon receiving an honorary Oscar award after a 40+ year career

“One thing that distinguishes [Kurosawa] is that he didn’t make one masterpiece or two masterpieces. He made, you know, eight masterpieces.”
Writer/director Frances Ford Coppola

If you’ve never seen a Kurosawa film, here are four essentials films of his to watch (followed by some related links):

Rashomon (1950)

Ikiru (1952)

Seven Samurai (1954)

Yojimbo (1961)

“In the Sixties, each of the major Japanese studios—Toho, Shochiku, Toei and Nikkatsu—had their own theaters in Los Angeles, in which they played their films for Japanese audiences. An Autumn Afternoon was made in 1962 and Ozu died the following year, but the film played in 1969 at the Shochiku in Los Angeles. I saw it in the afternoon, and it took hold of me. It wouldn’t let go. I wasn’t sure why at the time.”
Writer/director Paul Schrader

This is how screenwriters Yasujirô Ozu  and  Kôgo Noda (according to Kogo’s widowed wife Shizu)  collaborated on scripts that became classic movies; Tokyo Story, Late Spring, An Autumn Afternoon and Late Autumn.  And while many of their most known work was made in 1950s and early ’60s, they first collaborated together on the 1927 lost silent film Sword of Penitence.

Their pre-writing routine seemed to daily include baths, naps, food, long walks, and a little bit of sake. They wrote scripts in about a month, after taking two months thinking through ideas. It appears that movies were Ozu’s life.

“You might also think that a director who made films with so much warmth, whose work is infused with such happiness and sorrow, must have had a contented life. The opposite was true. He was a chain-smoker, he was an alcoholic, he lived with his mother. His mother died about six months before he did. He never married, never had children. He lived for the cinema, and all he did was cinema. He didn’t really have any other life.”
Screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver)
Film Comment, On Yasujirô Ozu

Scott W. Smith

“If you polled the world’s film critics, asking them who was the most universal and beloved of all directors, Ozu would rank at or near the top of the list, along with Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock.”
Roger Ebert (in 1993)
Saluting a Master of the Cinema, Yasujiro Ozu

Over the weekend I watched Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story on the Criterion Channel.

It’s a simple story but a profound and emotional one that touches on universal truths. It made me think of two other great Japanese films that deal with death and dying, Kurosawa’s Ikiru and the more recent Departures (written by Kundô Koyama and directed by Yôjirô Takita)

If you you are unaware of Tokyo Story (or even Ozu) consider today’s post as a good primer for one of the greatest directors in cinematic history.

Suggested reading:
Transcendental Film Style: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer by Paul Schrader
Ozu: His Life and Films by Donald Richie

Scott W. Smith

This will be my last post from my recent trip out west. Yesterday I was reminded that July 2 is the anniversary of when Hemingway took his life in Ketchum, Idaho. A few days ago I wrote a post about his gravesite, but today I thought I’d show a couple of photos I took of the town that attracted Hemingway to live after he’d traveled the world.

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From what I can gather Hemingway first visited the area in 1939. While the small downtown has grown some since Hemingway died in 1961, there are a few establishments still in existence on the main drag that Hemingway used to frequent.

There’s Christiania (now Michael’s Christiania) restaurant where Hemingway’s had a regular table (table 5), the Casino Bar which until this year stayed in the same family for 82 years and said to be where Hemingway frequented.  The Pioneer Saloon has been a Ketchum fixture since the 1950s. 

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CDL-IMG_3727

One of my stops in my recent trip to the Northwest was in the beautiful city of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. While the lake there the gets more press I was captivated by the beautifully restored hand carved Coeur d’Alene Carousel.

Parts of the Sundance Film Festival winning movie Smoke Signals (1998 ) were shot in the area.

Scott W. Smith

 

WallaceIMG_4713

The biggest surprise on my recent trip out west was Wallace, Idaho—a old mining town east of Coeur d’Alene on the border of Northern Idaho and Montana. According to Wikipedia, the filmed part of Dante’s Peak (1997) in Wallace.

Scott W. Smith

 

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