Production designers Luke Hull and Mark Ricker were the real heroes of “Chernobyl” and “Escape at Dannemora.” They were responsible for authentically recreating the Soviet nuclear plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, and the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York. These served as the pivotal backdrops for the two acclaimed historical dramas about the nuclear explosion in April 27, 1986, and the prison escape in 2015.
Indeed, the monstrous-looking plant, with its creepy concrete corridors and piping, and the castle-like prison, with its signature cell block structure, served as major characters. But it was no easy task replicating the precise details in the location shooting and set building to help convey the physical magnitude of the two structures.
Hull described “Chernobyl, ” the HBO miniseries created by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, as going down a rabbit hole. First, Hull and his team researched a decommissioned nuclear plant in Kursk, which had a similar design to the Chernobyl plant, and made a 3D computer model. Most important, though, they were able to shoot both the exterior and interior of the decommissioned Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Visaginas, Lithuania (thanks to a very generous tax credit), which closely resembled the Chernobyl plant and the design of its reactor.
“It’s strangely simple when you break it down,” said Hull. “A lot of reinforced concrete and piping with everything repeating the same structure. When we went inside Ignalina, we realized it was just endless corridors and stairwells. there’s no real science to it. It’s like walking into an old Victorian pumping station. Instead of pumps you’ve got a fission reactor. So once you understood how it was built, you could work out what everything should look like.”
The actual sets were built in an unfinished studio in Lithuania — a virtual shell that turned out to be very convenient. They used Ignalina mostly for its sense of scale for the exterior and for recreating the reactor core. “On the outside, we did the destroyed reactor site set that we tied up with our location in Visaginas, and the exterior set went straight into our interior set, literally, geographically,” Hull said.
“We ignored the stages and built through the infrastructure to create our corridors and stairwells, so you could have these continuous shots connecting up to actual rooms. There were different areas of the plant: equipment rooms, pipe rooms, the control room. Coming toward the core it gets more heavyweight, sturdy-looking, and then beneath the core, the pipe world was like the vascular system of the power plant, a linear logic where you’re always walking and never seeing daylight.”
They retained one more stage for the tank set to depict the flooding. “It was serendipitous how the exterior fit the shape of the destroyed reactor and the rest of it fell into shape,” Hull said. “It was like building a maze to channel people around.”
Likewise, the Clinton Facility in Dannemora was also a mix and match maze to channel people around. Director Ben Stiller was adamant that production designer Ricker build as much as possible at the Kaufman Astoria Studio in Queens to remain true to the facility rather than finding a prison location as a stand-in. However, just getting to shoot around the perimeter of Clinton Correctional took some doing. First, Stiller was able to get permission from Governor Andrew Cuomo to shoot inside the prison manhole, where Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano) made their escape, and that led to the crucial exterior shoot, just inside the north yard of the Clinton Facility.
“That was the most incredible place,” Ricker said. “I was in the final stages of figuring out how to build it as a set when we got the permission to go inside and we shot for two days, once in the summer and once in the winter. But that was all. The rest of the stuff was stage sets [including the tailor shop].” That is, except for a few exterior shots of a decommissioned prison in Pittsburgh and tunnels inside the Yonkers Water Treatment Plant. “The details are unbelievable and Ben was exacting and we just wanted to get it right for the story,” he added.
Ricker described the north yard as a Roman coliseum, with a large gravel area that approached the size of a football field at the base. “It was all prison-built and there were these these terraces so that when you stood at the bottom and looked up, it was like you were a gladiator,” he said. Mixing and matching the actual location with the sets resulted in capturing the right marriage of the physical with the spirit of the look.
“We built the entire prison block, which they called the Honor Block,” Ricker said. “It was three stories tall and about 150 feet long, with 60 cells, and the catwalk behind it. Every detail about what that physical building was had to match what really happened in terms of how they were able to communicate with each other through adjoining cells with bars all the way across, and pass things back and forth. Or the fact that they cut through the walls of cells made of steel.”
For the final moments of the escape, where the two prisoners are cutting in and then cutting back out of the steam pipes, the art department pulled in the walls to manipulate the space. “We stitched it all together and created the entire mouse trap of a run,” Ricker said.