‘Manhattan’ Creator Sam Shaw on the Show’s Stellar First Season

Over the course of a season, the new television show Manhattan has established itself as assured, confident storytelling, showing the utter surreality of moving to the moon — Los Alamos, New Mexico — establishing a brand-new community in place by the American government, all for the purpose of the Manhattan Project and the race to build the atomic bomb.

Bringing the sacrifice and genius involved in one of the most important epochs in American history to life, Manhattan may mention the historical likes of Robert Oppenheimer (who appears, occasionally, solemn and enigmatic) and Richard Feynman, but it focuses on an ensemble of fictional characters, led by John Benjamin Hickey as Frank Winter, the leader of the ragtag team of scientists working on bomb prototypes. Over the course of the season, loyalties shift, science is sabotaged by spies, and the real world creeps into this alien getaway. The results are captivating, making great use of the endless skies of New Mexico and the grime and dirt, utilizing a game, mostly unknown cast (Rachel Brosnahan, as young new-to-town wife Abby, is a particular standout), and deserving of every piece of critical acclaim that it has received.

Frankly, it should be your new obsession, and with the good news that it’s renewed for a season two, you have time to catch up, whether through its showings on the baby cable channel WGN America, On Demand, and on Hulu. With the Season Finale airing on Sunday, October 19th, I had the chance to talk to the show’s creator Sam Shaw recently, and we went deep into the ideas and the themes behind the show, and how to write well about a bunch of geniuses in the desert. (Rule number one: no gratuitous science!)

Flavorwire: How much research did you do to kind of get into the idea, what books were you reading, and things of that ilk?

Sam Shaw: I did sickening amounts of research. We all did. The writers on our show, we’re all research junkies, and fell in love with the subject matter. That was a prerequisite.

For me, I wrote the first draft of the very first episode of this show maybe five or six years ago. In those intervening years I read and devoured and listened to and watched everything that I possibly could about the time period, about life in Los Alamos, the Manhattan Project, about nuclear physics, about the gender politics of the 1940s, about the birth of the suburbs. All of these ancillary subjects that butt up against the world of our show.

By the time it came time to opening up the writers’ room and mapping out the storytelling, I was already very, very steeped in the particulars of the subject matter. There were specific stories in certain episodes that required us to learn more and more about a particular dimension of science. We would do a lot of reading, a lot of talking to our science consultants who helped translate really abstruse, scientific concepts into terms that are comprehensible to English majors like myself.

The short answer is, huge, sickening amounts of research.

Are there a couple of things that come to mind?

There are a lot of books and movies that I can recommend. The King James Bible of atomic history is the incredible book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. It’s a doorstop, and it’s riveting and fascinating. It’s both a kind of science thriller story and it’s incredibly detailed and full of information about the technical specifics of the project.

There’s a great book by a woman named Jennet Conant called 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos. There’s a documentary by a filmmaker named Jon Else called The Day After Trinity, an incredible picture of what life was like for physicists working on the project. A great book called Inventing Los Alamos: The Growth of the Atomic Community by Jon Hunner, a historian, and it’s more of a sociological picture of life at Los Alamos than it is about the science. And a book by Peter Hales called Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project. He actually died this year, it’s tragic, he was riding his bike and was hit by a car. He was really young. That’s a really fascinating picture of all of the different sites that were involved in the Manhattan Project, and sociology of what it was to be involved in this incredible undertaking that was also totally secret.

The Age of Radiance was a good nonfiction book about the history of radiation that came out earlier this year. These scientists were discovering things that would change the world, but in the very beginning of dealing with radiation, there’d be whole horror-film stories about people’s hands melting off. 

It’s amazing, isn’t it? Part of it why it’s so crazy and so hard to try to retrospectively imagine what life was like in that moment is that it truly, in the moment, was science fiction.

If you think about it in its simplest terms, it’s the story of the discovery of some mysterious and really unpredictable new elements and the discovery that they have these properties and that in sufficient quantities, if they’re purified to a sufficiently high level, they can create this out-of-control chain reaction that could potentially incinerate the planet. Leaving aside the idea that there’s this secret town and some people are plucked up from their lives and moved to a prison camp to build this weapon and their families don’t know about it. It’s a real life Twilight Zone. That was part of the subject matter that to me was so incredibly appealing is that it’s really fucking weird. I never was aware of just the fundamental weirdness of that moment in time. And that was what was really exciting and strange to me on a human level.

Sam Shaw

The central thrust of the show is that the guys are going to do something terrible — amazing, great, terrible, something complicated. It’s kind of brilliant, it gives your show a real pull. I’m dying to know what happens next, even though history’s the biggest spoiler.

That’s something that we talked about and thought about a lot, the writers of this show. I mean, the moral questions associated with the development of the bomb are so complicated. It was never our intention to tell a story that was didactic or that attempted to sort of adjudicate or make a point about the ethics in this moment in history. It was just to dramatize its complexity.

In that documentary, The Day After, a lot of scientists talk about the experience they had of being caught in the trap of science. They arrived at this place and they were aware that there was this great moral and human context to the work they were doing. They were going to shepherd this thing into the world and humankind would be burdened with it forever. But at some point in doing the work of problem solving and trying to find footholds in the complicated science of engineering a weapon, they sort of began to lose sight of those questions. It became work. It became this alluring kind of mathematical and scientific challenge to be overcome. And that was really fascinating to me.

Part of the thrust of the narrative, in sort of a sly way, that we’re interested in constructing this season is the story that, in its way, reproduces that experience for the audience. So we get caught up in Frank’s sense of mission. We get caught up in Frank and Charlie’s work together, and the stakes of what they’re involved with, personally and professionally, and hazards and the sense of competition between the groups almost to the extent that you can forget the end of this story, which we all know is this moment of horrific destruction. So that kind of irony is something that we spent a lot of time talking about.

Marriage is a big theme in the first season, and I was curious about the lives of women in this town and how they went on when they’re just completely taken away from what’s normal. I’m just curious as to how you guys worked that out and how you decided what to do with it, as the result was a lot of really complex, interesting female characters.

One thing people ask sometimes is why is the show not about [J. Robert] Oppenheimer or Richard Feynman or the more famous physicists who are part of this story and part of the history. Even though they’re incredibly fascinating, those stories have already been told.

I’m much more interested in the experience of some of the people whose stories haven’t been represented from this period in time. I was fascinated by what it was to be a woman in this place. I think I came to the subject matter of the lives of the Los Alamos spouses with the preconceived idea that those marriages were going to look a lot like the sort of prototypical marriage in the 1950s, really rigidly defined gender roles or these kind of retrograde marriages of yesteryear.

What I found instead is that there were so many incredibly brilliant and accomplished women in this place who had real kind of partnerships with their husbands where they were on equal intellectual footing and shared in their husbands’ work. A lot of these women had careers.

So the question was, what if you were to get involved in a marriage like that and had your own independent life and then you came to this place where all of those things were sort of foreclosed upon? These sort of walls of silence were put up in your marriage and you were cut off from the work that was important to you.

It’s really interesting for me to get to write for Katja Herbers who plays Helen, the one female member of Frank’s group [of scientists] just in that what is it to be an outsider because of your gender in this boys’ club of science — a really weird sort of boys’ club, because physicists are a sort of oddball crew — but also, what is it to work in this moment during the war where this incredibly destructive thing happens halfway around the world; that actually creates this kind of golden moment of opportunity? The war kind of created a vacuum where women were able to take on all sorts of responsibility that they were previously unable to have. Helen is this person that recognizes that this may be the great professional moment that she gets, and she might not be able to hold onto it once the war is over.

How do you write about smart people but also make it accessible?

I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and I had a teacher there, Elizabeth McCracken, one of the coolest human beings on the planet. At one point she read a story of mine — I don’t think this is blanket advice for everyone — and she said “I think you might think about writing characters who are smarter than you are.”

It’s not like everybody that I’ve written since is in MENSA by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think two things. One, I try to fall in love with everybody that I write and look for what is remarkable about that person. The truth is, I do love writing this group of geniuses.

It’s challenging, in part because I’m not a scientist and so there’s a lot of research involved in making them credible as characters and try to make them talk to each other in ways that scientists would talk to other scientists, and not having to explain to the audience. That was something that Tommy Schlamme, our executive producer and director, who is my partner in crime on this show, stressed. He worked on the West Wing for a few years, and he talks a lot about how important it was on that show that the politicos talk like politicos, and not teaching to the bottom of the class or condescending to the audience.

One casualty of that is that there will always be time when the dialogue kind of flies over the audience’s head. For me as a viewer, and I hope our audience feels the same way, I hope the emotional framework of the story and and the characters feel credible, that’s sort of the crucial thing.

In terms of writing about science, there’s this sort of rule for us was to try to find ways that science doesn’t exist in the story just for science’s sake. Because we really delved into the science it became a kind of context in which we could tell character stories or reveal something about who these people are or what motivates them. And how they make their halting way towards accomplishing what they want to accomplish.

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That makes sense. That’s the complaint you get a lot with sex scenes in art. For example, “Some of these are just gratuitous!” But I watched The Affair the other week, and there was a lot of sex. But every time, it was a part of the story or it was telling a part of the story. I felt like understood these characters more because I understood what their sex lives were like, or in the case of your show, what their science is like.

That’s exactly the analogy I use when we talk about it in the writers’ room. I worked on Masters of Sex last year for Michelle Ashford. One thing that Michelle staked out as a guiding philosophy for the show was that the show doesn’t exist to titillate the viewer. The sex is there to reveal character. That’s the way we think about sex as well in our show. It’s not there to keep somebody from flipping the channel. And that’s very much the case with the science, too. The science can’t be gratuitous.

No gratuitous science! How did the show develop its spooky vibe? Was some of that due to Mr. Schlamme’s input? The soundtrack is wonderfully strange, too.

It felt really important to me from the beginning when I first started thinking about this show. What initially hooked me was just how much stranger, how much kind of a waking dream this moment in American history was. There have been some movies and stories about the Manhattan Project, but they tend to kind of trade in sort of the same narrative tropes and visual tropes that we associate with sort WWII stories. You know, the Greatest Generation, sort of righteous march against Nazism and Hitler, and I get that. Some of those stories are incredible. But that wasn’t really the aesthetic I was interested in.

When I was a kid, the show that made me want to be a screenwriter, or write for television, was Twin Peaks, it just blew the doors off my understanding of what television could be or could do. We’re a far cry from Lynchian strangeness, but it felt important to preserve a sense of unease in our world.

To a certain extent that was something that existed on the page. Our DPs and Tommy had an intuitive sense of the oddity of this world. Tommy’s feeling, reading the script, was that it would never be possible to be tell the story that existed if we were shooting in the confines of a soundstage. What we did was basically the exact same thing that the Army did — we built a three-dimensional town. It was an incredible 11-acre set in Santa Fe. A defunct army hospital from the 1940s, all these buildings that were kind of condemned and had no electricity and were full of trash. We cleaned them out and built this world.

Part of the result of that, although I think the world of our show is often beautiful — New Mexico is this kind of weird, almost extraterrestrial place. One minute you feel like you’re in a Western and then the next you look around and it’s like you’re in a 1950s sci-fi movie because of the sunset and its crazy topography. So, we get that austere beauty in the show, but it also feels like a really dusty, dirty, grainy place, and that’s in part because we’re on a dusty, dirty, grainy set. Dust blows in the windows in the sets. The actors go home at night and they have a teaspoon of dust collected in their scalps or their ears. That’s the reality of how we shoot the show.

It’s almost like a western in a way.

That’s not accidental either. It is a frontier story. One visual touchstone for Tommy was the movie McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which takes place in this kind of boomtown where it’s muddy and everything is in a state of being half-built. There was a kind of boomtown feeling to Los Alamos, too, it was transforming in front of everyone’s eyes and always growing. And I love that we’re invoking a certain kind of American frontier trope of filmmaking in a story about a different kind of frontier. We’re on this kind of crazy atomic frontier where we’re on the verge of acquiring the ability of wiping the life off the face of the planet.

It’s crazy. And holding the ideas together is that this is an incredible achievement for America and it could destroy the world. Those two feelings coinciding.

It’s incredible. That’s what’s at the heart of this story. There’s so many angles and so many places where it refracts in different ways for different characters and we try to access it different ways. We see it as a show that is full of ironies and complexities, and that makes it, particularly in the early episode, not the easiest show to access. There are so many characters and so much you need to come to understand about the world of the show and how it’s set up, but as a storyteller those are the stories that I’m most interested in, that I love best.

At the heart of it is the greatest irony of all, which is how do you reconcile the fact that this is like the greatest feat of ingenuity and human intellectual effort, the work of hundreds of people to produce this thing, and with a really noble purpose of trying to end this war — and the darkness and horror of this thing they invented. To me, that’s America right there. It’s both those things at once.