The career path of Johan Renck is truly something to behold. After finding early success as the Swedish pop star Stakka Bo, he slowly transitioned into directing music videos. Fast forward to now and he is an Emmy Award-winning director. Prominently known for last year’s breakout miniseries Chernobyl, Renck has also directed episodes in television staples such as Breaking Bad, Bates Motel, and Vikings. His resume in music videos is nothing short of epic, featuring collaborations with icons such David Bowie, Beyoncé, and Madonna.
HBO’s Chernobyl operates as a historical dramatization of the 1986 Soviet nuclear catastrophe of the same name. The five-part miniseries won 3 of the 6 awards nominated at the 71st Prime Time Emmy Awards: Best Writing and Directing for a Limited Series and Best Limited Series. The accolade train has not stopped yet for Chernobyl was also recently nominated for 14 BAFTAs, including yet another directorial recognition for Renck.
We were fortunate to catch up with Johan Renck for an exclusive interview. Even in quarantine, his creative process sees no end. Aside from reeling in the successes of Chernobyl, Renck has been hard at work in the pre-production of HBO’s upcoming live-action adaption of The Last of Us. The post-apocalyptic video game series has since taken the world by storm, and we made sure to get an update from Renck amidst our reflection of Chernobyl.
To begin, how have you been coping with working remotely during the pandemic?
JR: On my end, I would say that I was in no way in immediate production of anything. There were a few things brewing on my end that were not happening until later this year. So, I didn’t get affected and I was thinking very solipsistically you know? This is only about me, not about the broader aspects of it. The things I’m dealing with are in development, all of them. My days have not changed dramatically – I mean, there’s a lot of Zoom calls. Also what happened is that people, because of the fact that production has grinded to a halt, that leaves more time for developments and so on. On one hand, I’ve been dealing with existing projects and on the other hand, there’s been a lot of new things popping up. Lots of people are like, “Hey, we’ve got some time on our hands”! So I’ve been doing that and then also I’m writing. I spent a lot of time with that, which again is only sort of not affected in any negative way by what’s going on.
Have you found your creative process affected by not being able to go outside as much? Have you seen any massive differences there?
JR: I mean only in a good way. Actually, I think my dreams have been very strange lately and quite overwhelming almost. A lot of my thinking processes have changed dramatically also from being shacked up in the house with four small kids being here. I’m sort of homeschooling here in New York in lockdown as their schools have been closed. So I’ve been homeschooling kids and in general, I actually find myself more contemplative and my thoughts have a bigger part of my day in some sense. Which I think is interesting and speaking to my wife the other day here, we’ve been doing this for almost three months now.
It has been pretty interesting. I think there’s something quite rewarding with this sort of forced contemplative-ness, if that is a word, that this renders. A lot of thought processes: I’ve been reading more, I’ve been watching more films, I’ve been listening to more music, and all those kinds of things. It’s been an interesting, necessary shift in that aspect.
Like a creative boot camp almost?
JR: Yeah… I mean there’s no agenda to it, you know? A “creative boot camp” would have a trajectory that’s driven towards some kind of result-oriented nature. This is the opposite. It’s an introverted intermission of introversion that I think has been very interesting to be honest. Apart from the fact that it’s an international pandemic and people are ill and dying – it’s a f*cking catastrophe on all levels, at least in how it’s been handled politically. All those things disregarded, being solipsistic here about it – I find it very stimulating.
Moving into your career, you started off as a Swedish pop star under the name Stakka Bo, then moved into a music video background, which is now followed by directing dramas and award-winning miniseries. How has that career path shaped your directorial style?
JR: Well, I wouldn’t know any other way. I don’t know what to compare it to. Very early on, this is the basic gist of it – I started out in music because I love music probably more than anything else and my ambition was to be a brilliant songwriter. Even though I had some success, I never really agreed with the outcome of my creation, so to speak. What happened was that at some point there was some music video that was going to be done, and I was like, “Oh, we gotta get [Jean-Baptiste] Mondino or Michel Gondry to do this”. Then the company boss says, “Sure, here’s a thousand pounds, do what you want”. I realized that I had to do it myself and that wasn’t a super foreign idea to me because I have been dealing with photography my entire life.
I had been working as a production assistant in my spare time at a production company. It wasn’t completely out of the blue. So I did this first video and in that very instance, all the misgivings I felt with regarding to music – I never was able to decode music writing so that I would be completely liberated within it. It was always a very hard thought process to me. I could write a decent song, but it didn’t come by itself. But on that first shoot of that music video, that very day it was a massive epiphany because everything came very natural to me. I really understood how it all behaved. From there on, I started to continue doing music videos for myself and then from friends and then friends of friends and so on.
During that process, I realized, “Okay, this is where I belong”. This is what I want to do. This is something that I understand. Translating psychologies into these types of behaviors is something that I fully understand. It became very natural to me. It was with regret and sadness that I decided to abandon the music because I will never be brilliant in it. Film is something that I fully grasp and understand all aspects of – naturally for some reason. I decided to venture over, and even there on those very early days of music videos, I was very clear to myself about the fact that this is just a means to an end. This is my education. I want to do drama. But because of the fact that I never went to film school or anything like that, I realized that this would be my route.
This will be my education. I’m going to learn the tricks of the trade by doing music videos. But to which extent it has affected my style? I don’t know. The music videos that I’ve done, I’m proud of. They don’t really feel like a music video, there’s something else. They would be like a short film or something like that. For me, I was never into that conventional idea of what a video was supposed to do. It was more about opening certain types of emotions and blah, blah, blah. So the only thing I would say in my process of creating drama is that music is very important to me, and is still a part of the experience.
We wanted to say congratulations on Chernobyl‘s recent 14 BAFTA nominations. The series has even already won big at the Emmys. How have you found this response to Chernobyl?
JR: I mean, it’s funny to some extent. I remember when we were in Lithuania and Ukraine doing this, I was feeling that this is going to be quite good. It sounds coherent and it came together. We were allowed to work uninterrupted by the powers that be. It sounded like we could do it the way we wanted to do it. The thing I was saying was like, “Yeah, I think it’s going to be quite good, but nobody’s going to watch it. Nobody’s going to want to watch it”. That was my conviction. I think we all felt the same. It didn’t really matter – it was a friendship. I think we looked upon it as a fringe venture. Sure, there will be some people who would be interested in it, but overall it’s quite dark to an extent that I guess we didn’t see any real commercial appeal to that extent?
But again, that was not why we were doing it. We were doing it because we believed in it. We thought we were all doing our jobs, so to speak. So the response once this thing came out and actually caught on pretty quickly, I remember it well. A year ago, when we started to understand that people were actually watching and responding to it, and that critics were loving it, I was completely discombobulated. I just couldn’t understand it. Then also, I felt guilty. I felt like there was almost a sense of shame – something that was just this little thing we were doing and all of a sudden we’re on everybody’s eyes and lips to some extent. I don’t know, it’s the Swede in me. You know it’s very hard for Swedish people to give yourself any kind of gratification or affirmation as a society.
I sound weird! I couldn’t really handle it almost to be honest. I was like, “I don’t need this at all”. I just want to make films. With all of these things, whether you make music, write books, or take photographs – there are two very distinctly different experiences. One is the making of, the creation of it, and your processes in doing that, which is completely isolated from whatever the response would be. Once you set the beast free, you can’t control that – you have no governance over it. You have no ability to have any impact on that. You just stand on the sidelines and watch mayhem ensue. It’s tough. It’s difficult. For me personally, it is.
You’ve said you didn’t know a huge amount about the Chernobyl disaster coming into this project. What was your biggest takeaway from your research and sort of how to portray it best?
JR: I didn’t know a huge amount, but I thought I knew a lot because in 1986, I was living in Sweden. I was 20 years old. I remember it vividly. I read about it and as a young man, I was quite politically involved on the left side of things. I was anti-nuclear power and my engagement was pretty vivid back then. So it was not that I was in any way uninformed about it, but obviously as getting into it, I understood that there was so much more to know than I ever had an idea of. It was a pretty big leap from thinking that you sort of understand and know something to really getting to grasp with regards to the magnitude and everything around it. But I guess that goes with a lot of things. I started with a script on my table that said Chernobyl, and I thought, “Oh yeah, that sounds like something to me”.
I tend to be drawn to darker stuff and to things that have some human beauty within. I felt like this was going to be interesting for me. But then on the other side of diving into it, I realized that I’m a novice. I know nothing and, wow, this is pretty remarkable to be able to partake in for my own sake. To understand the machinations of it all: the psychology, human drama, and tragedy of it. My initial response to why I wanted to make this piece had nothing to do with, “Let’s tell the world about Chernobyl”! Instead it was just like – this suits me. This suits my emotional processes in my creation. This suits my instincts. It suits my sensibilities and so on.
Then as you go into it, you realize that you’re part of something purposeful and meaningful actually. It was very pivotal to me. It was a drastic thing. I’ve never done anything based on reality to that extent before. It was very humbling actually to go from being like, “Oh yeah, we can make some cool images here and some interesting performances there” to like, “F*ck we’re actually rubbing shoulders with something pretty relevant”.
How did you decide which specific areas to keep 100% historically accurate? With certain characters and events, you must have made a couple of dramatic liberties.
JR: Most of those decisions were based on the scripts. Craig Mazin, who wrote this amazing script, he’s worried about authenticity and having some form of reality is profoundly important to him. I remember actually asking him, again slightly closer to my own sensibilities than to anything else on that very early stage of discussions, how much of this is true? How much can we sort of alter, and not for dramatic purposes, but only for the sake of filmmaking and art making? He said, “Oh, everything’s f*cking true.” There were one or two characters who were an amalgamation, so several characters in order to fit it in. There were also some shortcuts made because we’re telling a story that covers several years in 5 hours.
So we had to abbreviate it. But other than that, it’s truthful. That was incredible to me the least, for not even knowing the extent of what this catastrophe was. But for me, I’m always for authenticity. I want emotional authenticity and I want depiction of authenticity. Possibly because I never went to film school, for me filmmaking is always about never referring to film. A lot of filmmaking to me is sort of referring in its process of creation to 300 other films.
For me, it’s much more important to use reality as your springboard in terms of how you want it. A lot of research went into trying to sort of, as an outsider, grasp the authenticity of human psychology. All the way from human psychology down to textures, colors, makeup, and all that. Then, you know, it’s not the first time the Soviet Union has been described. Very often we tend to fall into stereotypes there. You have to avoid that and find that these humans are as human as anybody else.
Real people, some young, with hopes, dreams, and inspirations. But also, kids want to be cool, you know? For me, it was very important that Lyudmilla, who’s one of the main characters, that she had highlights in her hair. She was not some f*cking Soviet babushka, she is a young woman who listens to music and looks forward to going out on a Friday night with friends! I could talk about this for a very long time, but maybe it makes some sense in relaying the idea of what you try to make as authentic as you can? And of course we didn’t land with 100% certainty: a) because we couldn’t, it’s difficult; b) because you can always trace it back to the participators. I’m a filmmaker, a lot of choices would be made for my sensibilities, instincts, and my tastes levels. That might not 100% coincide with reality, but it’s more like, I prefer this color, I prefer this aspect of a shot or something like that.
I remember I was in some kind of a panel discussion. People were arguing about authenticity and reality, some aspects of it. I said: Look, this is not a documentary, it’s still a film. It’s still about people with artistic ambitions, as well as anything else executing their sensitivities. That’s just the way it’s going to be. So if you want to perfect authenticity, you have to go there or experience it through documentaries.
Can you tell us a bit more about the collaborative process between yourself and Craig Mazin for Chernobyl?
JR: Craig is a brilliant writer and a very, very intelligent man. He is very much a writer and I’m very much a director. That was an agreement from the onset I direct. He writes in a good way, not in any kind – not like a truce, but that’s who we are. Our process was actually really good. We are quite different as humans. We are quite different when it comes to taste level, but he contributes with things that I could never contribute with. I think he feels the same about me and the fact that he’s American and very American and I’m European and very European also has some aspects of sensibilities that we were able to benefit from. There are pros and cons from both sides of a socio-cultural point of view.
Again, going back to sensibilities and tastes. We would find the perfect balance in that. He would understand my points of view in terms of how we need to execute or deal with some things as much as I completely understood it from his point of view. I would say that our journey was the perfect storm in terms of the relationship between a writer and director in a creative process. To quote Craig, “We always figured it out”. I mean, we always did and we both were open. We both allowed ourselves curiosity, to consider whatever aspects it was. We would always decide on an outcome that we both were happy with. There were never any compromises. So yeah, I would say it was very good.
Craig’s next series will be The Last of Us for HBO. Would you want to direct that series and collaborate with him again?
JR: I’m an executive producer on it and attached to it. It’s an ongoing TV series. So that’s not something that I will be able to take on to that extent, but I’m part of that series and I will be directing at least the pilot. Then we’ll see how it goes on further. I mean, both Craig and I, we are working with each other again and we will work with each other on other things because we like each other.
What do you make of the similarities and differences between adapting historical and pre-existing characters?
JR: That’s a very pertinent question on a lot of levels. You have for instance The Last of Us with Craig, in which you have a video game character who’s very much top of mind with anybody who’s ever played that game. More than that, they know exactly what he looks like, how he talks, how he acts, and so on and so forth. Another project that I’m in development with is based on the book The Magus by John Fowles and this is another sort of limited series. There you have a fictional character that everybody who has read the book will have their own impressionist idea on how he moves, behaves, looks, and all of that. On the other hand, he’s only ever been represented on pages in a book – meaning that there is no right or wrong. Except for an idea of who he is because it becomes more impressionist again.
So with the The Last of Us, this is something that we’re discussing. We’re having weekly calls, Craig and I and also Neil [Druckmann] who created the game, about various approaches and how to deal with that. How to deal with the fact that a video game character is way further than a character from a book. But also it’s more different to deal with than a real person. For instance, Valery Legasov from Chernobyl because nobody had ever seen or heard of him, it wasn’t pivotal to honor anything of that. I’m being brief because of course we wanted to portray him as true to reality as we could. On the other hand, there were no preconceived ideas of it. With something like The Last of Us, it’s going to be a very different story. This is something that we spent a lot of time talking about here and in the early development stages of this process. There are a lot of things to take into consideration and a lot of decisions and choices to be made in various ways without saying anything more about it.
To end our discussion, what advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers who might be struggling in quarantine?
JR: Yeah, it’s tricky though isn’t it? It’s tricky because on one hand, we’re all in quarantine and thus taking in art more than we ever do. I read more books, listened to more music, and watched more films than I ever do normally. Appreciating the importance of art. At the same time, most artists in various forms are freelancers or sort of living from pockets in general, in terms of being able to use their craft and passion for something to actually sustain their lives with. I hope something positive is going to come out from this, regardless of how the establishment and society will support art given in hardships like this. Like I spoke in the early bits of this conversation, you can only do what you can do.
For me, using this time to think, read, and write more is what you can do. As long as it’s difficult to produce anything, you have to find other ways. You have to find other ways on the one hand to express yourself and on the other end to make a living. I don’t have any real good advice other than I’ve used this time to create, but maybe primarily you should use this time for contemplation and being close to yourself, if you can. Because there will never be an opportunity for that again. I read something that Nick Cave had written about it, which I responded really great too, which was: Yeah, this could be the time when you write your novel. Or even paint your masterpiece. But maybe that’s not what we should use this time for. Maybe we should use this time for introspective thoughts. A different level of thought processes that don’t have to be so result-oriented. But that obviously has to be put in perspective with regards to yeah, but we also need to eat! And how do we do that when there’s no work?