June 7, 2019

How Do You Write a Nuclear Disaster (In a Good Way)?

Chernobyl is the hottest show on television. Learn how its creator, Craig Mazin, approaches research, writing, and selling his story to HBO.

Chernobyl, HBO’s new miniseries, is taking the world by storm. We’ve covered interviews with the actors and the director, but now we get a chance to hear the voice of the sole writer and executive producer of the show, Craig Mazin. We've seen how Craig likes to break down feature films, but it's interesting to get his perspective on television as well. 

Mazin is also the one of the hosts of the podcast “ScriptNotes” with John August. He’s been giving free advice away to screenwriters for years, so it’s exciting to hear how he came up with this idea and how he created the summer’s biggest hit. Check out this interview with writer and creator Craig Mazin from BAFTA Guru, where he talks about his process, his philosophy, and why the events from 1986 still resonate strongly today.

You can read and download all the Chernobyl screenplays here. 

There’s a lot we can learn about screenwriting from Craig, so let’s dive right in:

The video is short, but there’s a lot to unpack. Here are 8 screenwriting lessons we can take away from Craig Mazin’s experience writing Chernobyl:

1. Do Your Research

“I was fascinated by a simple question – ‘why did Chernobyl happen?’”

1986 was only 33 years ago, but it was a whole different era. It was pre-internet, pre-9/11 and pre-Putin. Craig’s approach started with written accounts like encyclopedias, news articles, and books like “Voices From Chernobyl,” but he eventually went to primary sources for firsthand accounts. His attention to detail is evident from the very first frames: a montage of 80s-era tchotchkes like chintzy couch covers, clocks, and calculators.

If you’re writing a screenplay, even if it’s not based on real events, you can still include realistic elements. In my work as an acquisition exec, I’ve read so many scripts that didn’t have a basic foundation of realism. Trust me: it matters.

What if you don’t have the resources to take on such a big project? Then maybe you need a little help.

2. Build Your Team

Craig Mazin is a talented writer, but he didn’t make Chernobyl all by himself. Even before HBO bought it, Craig was working with Carolyn Strauss (one of the producers on a tiny show called Game of Thrones) and Jane Featherstone (EP on Broadchurch) to capture the story and bring it to life.

Making a five-episode miniseries is a logistical mountain that requires hundreds, if not thousands of people to complete. There’s nothing wrong with getting help on your project from people who can make it better. After all, film is a collaboration, not a competition. It’s also important to bring people onboard who can help sell the project. Carolyn’s relationship with HBO and Jane’s relationship with the BBC played a role in getting Chernobyl off the ground.

3. Historical Challenges

Craig talks about two major obstacles to overcome: a) The Soviet Union wasn’t exactly forthcoming with information; and b) the information he did obtain was often in conflict with other information. Craig had to be his own fact-checker to ensure that he wasn’t doing a disservice to the subject he was writing about.

Your screenplay can take creative license, of course, but if you’re writing about something that really happened, you owe it to your subjects, your audience, and yourself to be as accurate as you can without sacrificing quality. Put on your journalism hat and check those sources!

4. Respect the Reality & Don’t Force the Drama

One of Craig’s guiding principles was that he never wanted to feel like he was “helping the drama.” He fully understood that Chernobyl was an incredibly dramatic incident all by itself, and he didn’t need to push that on the audience. “The tragedy is tragic enough.” When he started perusing first-person accounts of the incident, he understood that being truthful was more important than amping up the drama. The drama was already there.

In a recent interview with Slate, Craig talks about how much he wants to respect the reality of what happened by doing a podcast about the things he changed in the show.

“I said to HBO and Sky well before we started shooting that I wanted to do a podcast that would go along with the show in which I would hold myself accountable for the things we change. You can’t present everything perfectly through narrative, but you can acknowledge it, and talk about it.”

Craig is an experienced writer, so he knows how to walk the line. It might take a little more practice for you to understand how much drama is “too much.” Make sure your screenplays don’t try too hard – your premise should already include all the drama you need to get people interested and keep them engaged.

5. Peer Review

Craig didn’t just crank out a first draft, send it in to HBO, and show up on set the next day. Multiple people looked over his work, carefully considering what to toss out, what to keep, and what to add. Now obviously, HBO’s executive team has a track record of excellence, but it bears repeating that film is a collaboration. Just because you wrote the script by yourself doesn’t mean you do the project alone.

You can (and should) surround yourself with a vibrant, insightful creative community. It’s important to feel safe sharing your work-in-progress with your peers. People from different backgrounds with different points of view can offer you constructive criticism that might push you in a new and interesting direction. They can also inform you if you’ve accidentally written something insensitive, unrealistic, or derivative.

6. Have a Point of View

“If you lie, or are part of a system of lying… there is a cost attached.”

“Eventually the truth catches up. The truth does not care. It will get you.”

When writing Chernobyl, Craig knew what he wanted to say and in the show he doesn’t shy away from saying it. The opening voiceover discusses the nature of truth and lies, heavily implying a straight line between the events of 1986 and today’s “Fake News” culture.

Whether you agree with Craig’s assessment of the modern state of discourse and truth, it’s clear that he believes something and infuses Chernobyl with that belief. Although it’s framed as a cautionary historical drama, Chernobyl offers a lesson to writers of any genre: say what you think, and let the audience decide how to feel about it.

7. People, Not Events

Movies are an emotional experience. People connect with people, not events. Craig knew going into the project that he wanted to highlight the human stories from people instead of centering the story around the explosion. That gives the audience an opportunity to become emotionally invested in the characters.

As a screenwriter, your job is to take the audience on an emotional roller coaster. It’s hard to do that without creating empathy for at least one of your characters. Think back to your favorite movie – it probably has at least one memorable role. When writing your script, you should focus on more than just plot; ask yourself who your characters are, what they want, what they’re scared of, and what their secrets are. Build your story from the inside out.

8. Put In The Work

“An enormous bulk of research that took years to put together.”

Craig talks about the amount of background information he compiled, but he also hints at something else: an intensive writing process. Writing is rewriting, and HBO is known for its high standards. Put those two things together and you end up with a lot of rewritten drafts of scripts. What Craig is telling us is that it’s not enough just to have the receipts. You have to present them in an interesting, visual, and dramatic way.

One of the things that separate pro screenwriters from amateurs is the amount of work they’re willing to put in. As a script consultant, I’ve read plenty of first drafts from writers who thought they were ready for representation. When they received constructive criticism, however, a surprisingly small percentage of them actually wrote a second draft – let alone a third. If you want to be a writer, then you have to write. Sometimes that means pounding out pages again and again until you get it just right.

Takeaways from Craig’s Interview about Chernobyl:

If you’ve ever heard Craig talk on the ScriptNotes podcast he does with John August, then you know he’s a smart, thoughtful writer. But even if you haven’t, this interview makes clear that his writing process is careful and thorough. In addition to his obvious talent, Craig puts in tons of work and surrounds himself with good people. If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, you should do the same. Create a positive writing environment and set yourself up for success. Maybe you’ll write the next Chernobyl.

What’s Next? Find Out What an Acquisitions Exec Thinks of Your Script!

If you’ve been grinding away at your keyboard wondering if your script is any good, take a look at these tips from a guy who reads scripts for a living, and evaluates projects for the independent presales market. Here’s a link to five ways you can punch up your work on the page and stand out from the crowd!

Click the link to learn more!      

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