Exclusive Interviews

MANHATTAN: Sam Shaw Talks Building The World of the Atomic Bomb

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While Sam Shaw is known to many for his contributions to the hit Showtime series Masters of Sex, his new series, Manhattan, has been quietly gaining steam and critical acclaim on WGN America.

It’s not surprising, considering the elements – a perfect storm of history, drama and a tight-knit cast help make Manhattan the show to watch. We spoke exclusively with Shaw about the journey of bringing Manhattan to the small screen, what we can expect for future episodes, and more.

Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to tell a story about this, or more specifically, how it came to fruition?

“The origin story of this show is kind of an odd one. About six years ago, I started working on a project – it actually started as a feature project, not a TV project, and it was a piece of writing that had nothing to do with the atomic bomb or World War II. It was actually set in the present day, and it was about the war on terror. It was about people who were involved in a secret word, and what the costs of secrecy are in their personal lives. For a whole bunch of reasons, as that idea evolved, I decided not to write about the present, in particular because I think it’s really hard to write about history before the ink is dry with the kind of moral clarity that you’d like to have. And so I did a huge amount of research about the history of military secrecy and the United States and the birth of the military industrial complex.”

What I love about the show is that it deals with a very specific point in time and a very specific event, but there are elements of the show that make it relatable to us in the present day.

“At heart of this project, for me, is just a set of questions about secrets and what secrets do to people, to families, to countries. That’s sort of a big conversation we’re having as a country right now – how much secrecy is acceptable. How much transparency we are going to demand of our government. And we’re also trying to figure out a lot of questions having to deal with military force and how we exercise it around the world. In the course of doing military research, I just felt more and more like the story of the birth of the atomic bomb was really the story of the birth of the America that we’re living in now. And so I sort of fell down a rabbit hole of reading and research and spent years immersed in the subject matter, and totally fell in love with it. It’s a piece of writing about 1943, but from the beginning, it’s been a piece of writing about who we are right now and how we got here.”

It really is a great time for television right now. Character dramas that are also historically set dramas, like The Americans and Vikings, are very prominent, and WGN is really adding to that with shows like this one, and also Salem.

“It’s exciting for me. I feel the same way as a viewer and lover of TV, and I certainly feel that way as a writer. It’s just that there’s incredible opportunity to tell stories on a really big canvas. Part of what I love about period TV right now, especially on cable, is that it really allows you to spend time getting to know characters in a deep and complicated way that only novels allow. You can’t do it in the time span of a feature film, and you certainly can’t in the time of movies that are getting financed and made in the world right now. The cool thing is, the history is really fascinating, but this is a character show. It’s a series about the relationships between these characters and their lives, and that’s something that just gets more and more complicated and fraught as the season goes on.”

And speaking of relationships, you assembled kind of an amazing cast. I imagine shooting in New Mexico and being a little cut off and therefore being forced to bond helps strengthening that rapport between the actors. 

“Oh there’s no question. We shot in this world that was convinced by Tommy Schlamme, our director, and built by our incredible production designer, ?, and it’s unlike any other film experience I’ve seen before. We’re not sequestered away in these sound stages, we’re in this real three-dimensional world of 1943 Los Alamos that we built, and I think that’s been incredible for the actors. But as you said, we’re not in LA or NY, we’re in this place where they’re cut off from everything they knew, and for a lot of them that’s a hard thing. Olivia Williams has a family in London, and it was a huge leap of faith for her to move across an ocean to a place she didn’t know very well and band together with this cast and crew. But we got incredibly lucky because not only is this cast extraordinary in every way, but they’re also really fantastic people and they have great energy and spirit. We flew out to Santa Fe and spent a week and a half with this forced bonding – it was a little bit like freshman orientation of college. We ate together and spent time together, we almost replicated the experiemece that the people in Los Alamos had, which is that we were plucked from our lives and put into this foreign place, and had to figure out how to make life work under new and really odd circumstances. And I think in some way, that was probably helpful for the actors. I know it was helpful for me in the writing.”

How do you tackle balancing history and fiction – obviously, in any show, people are looking for drama, but you want to be true to the real events that happened.

“The short answer is it’s a balancing act. The good news for us is that the stakes of the storytelling couldn’t have been higher. This is literally a place where conversation that would happen around kitchen tables at one in the morning had the potential to redraw maps of the world and affect the outcome of world wars. So the subject matter felt, to begin with, like a story of personal experiences of a bunch of people who are living in a Twilight Zone experience. The stakes and the drama were so intense historically that we didn’t have to drum up a bunch of fictitious stuff. It’s not as if there’s going to be a serial killer in Los Alamos, or zombies in season four.

But at the same time, our show is about the interior lives of fictitious characters, and that was a choice I made from the outset. And part of that is that there have been stories about the Manhattan Project that have been told by movies or TV before, and usually they focus on the kind of big and bold faced names in the history books – Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves, who was the senior military officer involved in the project. What we wanted to do is write about the 7,000 people who lived in this place. So the rules that we set for ourselves as writers and directors, too, is that we did a huge amount of research, and we tried to be as accurate as we could possibly be in the context of the world, in the science, and within that, we tell stories. The history is all accurate and it’s sort of a framework or stage for character storytelling.”

What do you hope that fans take away from this series? For example, if they come into the show not knowing much about what they were watching, what would you want them to know after having watched?

“The biggest thing is, although we’re dealing with a really important and complicated moment – not just in American history but in world history, in science – our first instinct is to tell an emotionally engaging story about the lives of these characters. What I really hope is that people will be emotionally invested in the circumstances at the end of this piece. There’s a big ensemble cast, there’s a lot of players, and my hope is everyone will fall in love with the characters in the way that I have. Besides that, I guess the biggest thing that I would say about the subject matter and the way that we deal with it is so complicated. It’s a great existential question about what America is, about what we became when we got the bomb – we became a superpower, so there’s a big set of questions about what the cost and benefit of that power are and there are no easy answers. So that’s something we set out to do with the show – to ask a lot of questions and not provide any simple answers.”

Finally, anything you can tease about where the season will end up?

“It’s hard, because this show is a show about secrecy and what the effect of keeping secrets is on this show and the people who live in the town. And I think what people will see is that there’s a chain reaction of secrets that takes place in Los Alamos and within the world of our show, and that one secret leads to two more, which leads to four, which ultimately create some really complicated dilemmas to all of these characters. They get into these situations with the best of their intentions and their lives get more and more complicated and the network of relationships gets more emotionally fraught. So I guess you could sum it up as ‘complications ensue.'” [laughs]

Manhattan airs Sunday nights at 10/9c on WGN America.

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