Exclusive interview with Mihály Korom, producer of Chernobyl: Abyss
This new Russian-directed film “Chernobyl: Abyss” was a top-ranked film on Hungarian Netflix for a long time. However few people know that the underwater scenes of this movie were shot in Hungary.
One of the key scenes of the “Chernobyl: Abyss” film, the almost 20-minute underwater part, was shot in Hungary, in the pool of Origo Studio. The Hungarian producer of the film, Mihály Korom, who has produced several productions to his name, was happy to answer our questions about his filmmaking background and the film.
Budapest Reporter: You have been working in the film industry since 2005. You have worked in the transportation department and now you’re a producer on several Hungarian productions. How did this change come about?
Mihály Korom: I was a unit driver in 2005 for the film “Eragon”, which was shot here, in Hungary. I was driving 4×4 trucks, that’s where I started all this. For the film, they needed large vehicles that my company had. I went to see what it was like and I was stuck there. So that’s how it started, through the transportation part of it, and it’s still a side thing in my life to this day.
I started making films in 2014 when I produced my first music video. We made a music video for a Russian pop star here in Budapest, that was my first independent production, then there was another music video in Moscow, and then my first service production that I did at Origo Studio.
BpR.: What do you think is the most difficult task a producer has to do in a film? Personally, what is something you can add extra to a film?
M.K.: It depends on what you have to produce. Both service production and self-production have their difficulties and ease. For sure, the hardest work is always with the people. Reconciling the different interests of so many people is not an easy task, and in fact, this is not only true for the film business but in general, for any project you get involved in. The task is to bring together different people with different ideas for a common goal, and that’s practically the producer’s job.
As well as the costs, the artistic values, and interests, it is also the task of making the production, and turning the discussion into a finished product at the end. Inevitably, if you have eight or ten people in a room, they will start arguing and that’s where the problem arises. I like to persuade people in a very specific way.
The hierarchical power means very little in this business. Of course, there is a hierarchy, but there isn’t really one, so you have to persuade people one by one if you have to, and then in groups. A lot of times you have to help people overcome their fears that they will get the job done, they will get it done on time. So it’s really more of a politician’s job to get that team of 8 or 10 people to work together. If you can’t get it right, you’re not going to get anywhere.
BpR: As a producer, do you have any qualities that you would say are your strengths?
M.K.: I always manage to meet deadlines under shooting conditions. That’s the main stress factor in the business, what to do with deadlines and how much human or financial resources to put in place to meet the schedule or whether it’s worth meeting at all or maybe pushing it back.
If we don’t meet the schedule and we get behind, then that’s also a contractual problem, but it’s also in the client’s interest to have good production. Sometimes it’s the client who causes the schedule to slip because they don’t get the materials they need on time but it’s usually resolved with a conversation or negotiation.
BpR: Of your past productions, definetly there is one that has grown on you…
M.K.: Back in my transportation days, I was working with the crew of “Going Postal”. It was a 2010 sci-fi series and I have very fond memories of it. That’s where I first saw that if you get the right mood from the crew, you end up with a completely different product. The whole shoot was short and tight and very hard work, but you could tell from the finished product that everyone had a good time.
It turned out as a short TV series, not one of those gigantic series that are on nowadays, but that’s where I understood, in 2011, when I watched it, how important that general good mood is.
Then „Attraction 2” is the one I’d mention. It was the first major Russian film here in Hungary in years. We had to build a set in the big pool at MAFILM‘s Fót site, which was a roof part of a tower block. It was essentially an eighty-ton steel frame structure with outside decoration that later had to be pushed by a wave machine, with eighty to a hundred extras around it – the zenith of the film – and I’m very proud that we managed to do it on time, because it was a difficult task, both architecturally and technically, and in other ways.
BpR: A few months ago, “Chernobyl: Abyss” was released, which was filmed in Hungary, and for which you happened to be the producer. Can you tell us a little bit about the process? What were the preparations like?
M.K.: I was approached in early 2019 about making a feature film about the Chernobyl disaster. I was approached by Danila Kozlovsky’s, – who is the director and the main character – production company, and another producer, with whom we have made several films, both here in Hungary and in other countries as well. They knew that we had the professional background to shoot the most difficult water scenes in Hungary and asked for our help.
Many professionals in Hungary have experience in this, and they also wanted to know how to do it, because no one in Russia has a practice in this. So the set construction crew the underwater cameramen, and technicians were all Hungarian, and it was shot here in Budapest, at Origo Studios.
BpR: As far as I know, the crew spent two weeks in Hungary and they specifically asked for help to shoot the underwater scenes. What happened in the scenes shot here? Did you encounter any difficulties?
M.K.: The fifteen days we spent shooting were all in the underwater set. If you look at the fact that it was sixty-five days of shooting for the complete movie, and fifteen of those days were for the water block, which is fifteen minutes in the film, that’s a lot of material. I would say the difficulty is that it was filmed in a pool of almost 400 m2, which was completely built-in with tight sete lements and we had to close its top as well. You can imagine what it must have been like in 40-50 degrees water.
That’s the temperature of a thermal bath, but the actors were in Soviet-style wetsuits in the enormous humidity. And the humidity and the heat were hard on those above the water as well. The lights and electrical equipment are not very good friends with the water, so we had to be careful about that from a safety point of view, space was tight and we had to move fast.
In Hungary you can spend 12 hours shooting, the actors spent in the water ten of these hours. Special medical preparations had to be made so that if anything happened to anyone, someone would be there immediately to deal with it, and escape routes had to be provided. There were one or two rescue divers with each actor.
We were also helped by a Hungarian diving team of 10-12 people, and I would like to mention my colleague Róbert Nagy, who is an underwater cameraman. He’s a unique talent. He designed the underwater scenes with the Russian cameraman and it was thanks to their work that we managed to create the visuals so uniquely well.
BpR: We have seen Danila Kozlovsky in many films and he has taken on many other roles off camera. He was also the director of the film, for example. What was it like working together?
M.K.: Danila is an extremely cheerful and emotional man who loves it all. There are good and bad sides to that. There were times when his emotions got the better of him, but it helped us to go towards our goal. There is a big difference between Hungarian and Russian filmmaking. One of them is assisting the director. They work differently with the assistant director, they manage the crew differently than we do.
Danila was both a director and the protagonist, which is difficult to do even above the water. He plays his role then gets out of the water, takes the mask off his head, looks at the camera to see if it’s right, puts the mask back on, and then tells us to record the scene again. So it inevitably leads to more work and responsibility for the assistant director.
Here in Hungary, we are used to the Anglo-American system, the assistant director does much more than in Russia. They have the director communicating more with the crew, but that was not necessarily the case here.
There are differences in almost all co-productions because of such differences the so called way of working, but the assistant director is better able to gauge the readiness of the crew. We cannot expect this from the director.
Their assistant director also found it difficult to cope with such role in the beginning, but once he did, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. As I said, Danila is a kind, emotional and cheerful person. He’s an impulsive and intuitive character, he energizes her whole environment, so he’s a pleasure to work with.
BpR.: Was there a major problem that came up during these underwater shootings but was successfully solved?
M.K.: Underwater communication. Fortunately, we had a colleague here, the Russian interpreter – my wife – who was a kind of the second assistant throughout the film because of the issues above, and by the end, they trusted her so much that she directed one of the key element of the movie while Danila was doing another important part parallel. By the third day, a kind of work order had been established, where our crew put a loudspeaker under the water and above the water, and the crew could hear what was to be done. Eighteen people were under the water, they wouldn’t have known what to do, so the speakers made it easier to communicate and we didn’t have to call them every time we gave an instruction. So by coordinating the two speakers, we managed to come up with a crew management model that started as a field idea in itself, but in the meantime, it worked very well.
BpR: What do you think about the US-British co-production of the Chernobyl series? Which do you think is more real?
M.K.: It is impossible to say which is better. They are two completely different concepts. I think what people are most concerned about in this whole Chernobyl issue is what we are not getting answers to. Why are people so interested in this subject? We are not getting answers as to why the accident happened. In the American series, this subject is discussed in-depth, over a long playtime. One defense system is switched off after another by the engineers.
Many people expected the Russians, from their point of view, will finally tell us what happened and why. Because that is the most important question. Because there was an explanation at Fukushima or Long Island.
The nuclear power plant that was destroyed by a tsunami, or the transformer station that was damaged by the storm, were all the result of natural disasters. Here, however,the people running the plant in a specific order, one after the other, have shut down all existing safety systems.
In the American version, it is shown that systemic human failures led to this, but it is difficult to understand why it is happened so. It is like someone getting into their car, cutting the brakes, not buckling up, and driving off at speed. An accident is inevitable. That’s why it’s so absurd. And I think that’s what people are looking for.
A lot of people expected these heroes, these divers, to show thru their story what happened and how. What I personally missed in the Russian version is that the divers lived for a long time after the incident and their deaths were not linked to the disaster.
I would have used this fact a bit more. I think it would have been good for many viewers to know that these people, despite working in radioactive water for practically eighteen hours, lived happily ever after and lived well beyond the average age.
So, going back tot he question, the Americans have presented the immediate aftermath of the accident, they have given a tableau of the whole sequence of events, relatively authentically, and in the Russian version, we see the events through the filter of one family and group of experts the firefighters.
BpR: Can we know anything about your future projects? What are your plans?
M.K.: I have several Russian co-productions and service productions in the pipeline. Right now there are two Russian-German co-production that will be made between the two countries, here in Hungary, but more on those later because they are still in the planning phase.