Page last updated at 08:50 GMT, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Oscar hopeful made film in radioactive zone

The Door
The opening sequence was shot inside the "ghost city" near Chernobyl

By Tim Masters
Entertainment correspondent, BBC News

One of the films up for an Oscar this year was shot in one of the most radioactive places on Earth.

Dublin director Juanita Wilson took a small team into Pripyat, a deserted city in Ukraine next to Chernobyl, to make the story of one family's experience of the 1986 nuclear disaster.

Juanita Wilson
Everything had to be shot within three hours, so I was saying 'Action! Okay! Next shot...' and then we'd run to the next location
Juanita Wilson

Her film, The Door, has been nominated for best short film (live action) at Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony.

Pripyat, which housed the Chernobyl workers and their families, has been a ghost city since it was abandoned in 1986.

In the centre is a playground dominated by an enormous ferris wheel which is clearly visible on satellite maps of the exclusion zone.

"It was very complicated to get permission to film there," recalls Wilson, who began filming in January 2008.

"Everything had to be shot within three hours, so I was saying 'Action! Okay! Next shot...' and then we'd run to the next location," she says.

"You wear special clothing and discard it all afterwards. You can't touch anything. We took a motorbike in but we had to leave it there. They test you afterwards with a Geiger counter."

'Strong symbol'

The motorbike in the snow - with a door strapped to the back - is one of the most striking images in the film.

Pripyat's ferris wheel
Pictures of the abandoned ferris wheel inspired Wilson to shoot on location

Wilson says she was inspired by a story in a book called Voices From Chernobyl.

"One short piece described a man going back and stealing his front door from his apartment and driving it through a forest on the back of a motorbike.

"That image just stayed in my mind. It seemed like a really interesting opening to a story."

As directorial debuts go, Wilson's decision to shoot in a radioactive zone in a foreign country with Russian-speaking actors might appear over-ambitious.

"At the time you're just so excited and naive it doesn't seem like a challenge," she laughs.

"Some people were hoping I'd be able to shoot it where I live - there's a big forest there. When the Irish Film Board came on board, we weren't sure whether they would be able to support something set outside Ireland."

The production was originally going to shoot in and around Minsk, the capital of Belarussia. But Wilson changed her plans after looking at photos of Pripyat on the internet.

"As soon as I saw that abandoned playground it was such a strong symbol for what that film is about," she says.

"The photos we saw were taken with the snow. They were so beautiful, so we postponed everything for six months so we could shoot in Ukraine in the winter."

A clip from Oscar-nominated film The Door

The Door has already gathered awards at film festivals around the world, and in 2009 Wilson was busy making her debut feature film.

The film is based on a book As If I Am Not There by Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic, and follows one young woman's experience of the Bosnian War.

"It's a harrowing story but at the end of the day it's a story that leaves you with a message that love is more powerful than hate," says Wilson.

Filming took place in Bosnia, Macedonia and Sweden, and Wilson is now busy on the edit ahead of the Oscars ceremony on 7 March.

'Energetic city'

She did however take a few days out of the edit suite to attend the Oscar nominees' luncheon in Los Angeles, where she rubbed shoulders with the likes of George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Carey Mulligan, Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron.

"Los Angeles was fantastic. I went there thinking I wouldn't like it. All I'd heard is that you have to drive everywhere which I'm not a fan of.

"But it felt like an incredibly energetic city. There's something about walking down Sunset Boulevard in the sunshine, and thinking 'this place actually exists.'"

Wilson studied fine art and journalism and worked in the independent TV sector before she began making movies.

"I've ended up combining a lot of those elements by being able to shine a spotlight on certain things in life," she says.

"It's a lovely way to learn about the world, it's such a privilege to be able to do what I do."

Juanita Wilson will be writing an Oscars diary for the BBC News website.

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