John Benjamin Hickey

Ashley Zukerman and Rachel Brosnahan

John Benjamin Hickey

John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams

The cast of Manhattan

Fill 1
Fill 1
May 14, 2015

Destiny in the Desert

...So these scientists are secluded in Nowheresville, New Mexico, and — with chalkboards, not computers — they're trying to build an atomic bomb....

Tatiana Siegel

On an early afternoon in his office at Hollywood Centerstudios, Manhattan creator Sam Shaw jokes that he's "deep in the salt mines," banging out the season-two premiere of his 1940S-set series.

But he might as well be burrowed in a Los Alamos military bunker from yesteryear.

"I feel like I'm in a catacomb of old out-of-print books about nuclear physics and the history of the Second World War and the geography of New Mexico," Shaw says of his immersion into the once-clandestine Manhattan Project and the race to build the first atomic bomb.

"I've embarked on a research voyage into the past, and our show is steeped in period details. But oddly, we find ourselves telling stories that seem to speak as much to the present moment as they do to the past."

Perhaps that all-too-relevant theme of government secrecy in the name of protecting its populace explains the appeal of the drama that has become a tent-pole success for the WGN America network.

Last July's premiere — which marked just the second original series for WGN — drew 2.4 million total viewers. Even more impressive for the recently overhauled network, the 10 p.m. telecast marked a 312 percent increase in the time period from the previous year, averaging 1.3 million total viewers.

Critics also embraced the effort., a website that culls top reviewers, gave Manhattan a score of 78 out of 100, higher than the first season marks for Mad Men, Breaking Bad and House of Cards.

"I was thrilled with the ratings," says Matt Cherniss, president and general manager of WGN America and Tribune Studios. "Those were really big numbers for us. But honestly, the ratings are secondary to me. What's more important is that we build our brand. And anytime you have a show that people consider one of the best new dramas on television, given all the competition out there, I think that's a huge win."

Nearly six years ago, then-journalist Shaw began working on a project about a different war: America's war on terror.

But while exploring the theme of the cost of secrecy, he began to obsess about the moment in the '40s that laid the groundwork for the birth of the atomic bomb. From that nugget of an idea, he penned a first draft of the Manhattan pilot but set it aside and began pursuing a TV staff writer job. He eventually landed a gig on season one of Show- time's Masters of Sex.

With newfound confidence, he sent a revised version of his Manhattan script to Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing, Parenthood) toward the end of 2013 as a writing sample. Schlamme was riveted by Shaw's take on the material, which he saw as pulsating with human intrigue and heightened by the prospect of nuclear annihilation. He quickly set up a meeting.

"When we met, I realized that he didn't just write a really wonderful first hour of a show," Schlamme recalls. "He had thought about a much bigger palette of how to tell this story over three, four, five years. He was so clear about his vision and yet so open to collaboration, and it was just one of those perfect meetings that you went, 'Okay, this is going to work out great.'"

At the time, David Ellison was looking for the right project to launch the television division of his Skydance Productions. The Silicon Valley scion was already a major player in the film industry, having backed such movies as Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and Star Trek Into Darkness. Skydance became the first company to sign on to Manhattan.

"When we got in the room with Sam," Ellison recalls, "I could not have been more impressed by how articulate and intelligent he was and how the show was really about secrets and lies and the way they affect families."

Lionsgate Television, the company behind Mad Men and Orange Is the New Black, then boarded the project. By March 2014 Manhattan was in production, with a straight-to-series order from WGN and an impressive roster of executive producers: Shaw (who would write three episodes and cowrite a fourth), Schlamme (who would direct three episodes), Dustin Thomas (who would write one episode and cowrite another two) and Ellison and his Skydance colleagues Dana Goldberg and Marcy Ross.

"I've been in this business a really long time, so I've seen so many pilots," says Ross, Skydance Television president and a former Fox executive who shepherded such series as Glee and New Girl. "And you know pretty instantaneously if you have lightning in a bottle, and Manhattan was that."

But finding the right lead actor initially proved vexing. John Benjamin Hickey, who anchors the ensemble cast as fictitious Manhattan Project leader Frank Winter, passed on the role without reading the script. Coming off a series of heavy roles — including his Tony Award-winning turn in Broadway's The Normal Heart and Emmy-nominated role on Showtime's The Big C — Hickey was looking for a frothy half-hour sitcom rather than a serious period drama.

But Schlamme persisted, and months later Hickey acquiesced. "I am so happy that my laziness about not reading it the first time didn't come back and bite me in the ass," Hickey says, "because once I read the first two scripts, I was completely bowled over by the character of Frank Winter — how complicated, screwed up and brilliant he was."

British actress Olivia Williams — best known to American audiences for her film work in The Sixth Sense and Rushmore — was cast as Winter's wife, Liza, an accomplished scientist in her own right who puts her career on hold to join her husband on his super-secret mission. Williams already enjoyed a head start on researching the era, having played Eleanor Roosevelt in the film Hyde Park on Hudson. But she had scant knowledge of the Manhattan Project.

"The more I read, the more I was astounded, fascinated and horrified in equal measure," she says. "I read a lot of the testimony from the Los Alamos Historical Society, and there were these fascinating anecdotes about what it was like to be a woman trying to establish a household when you couldn't tell anybody you were there. People had babies up there, fell in love and had affairs in this strange place that was a cross between a prisoner-of-war camp and this sort of summer camp."

The science also proved daunting for the cast and crew. Shaw admits he's no J. Robert Oppenheimer, but he keeps the series grounded in fact with the help of UCLA physicist David Saltzberg, whose Hollywood credits include consulting on The Big Bang Theory.

It doesn't hurt to have a cast willing to pore over Richard Rhodes's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Making of the Atom Bomb.

"We have a lot of very, very smart and curious people in our cast," Shaw boasts. "It was very cool to have actors on set who would occasionally bring their scripts over to me and say things like, 'Here the character says something about an esotropic medium, but I'm pretty sure it should be an isotropic medium.' And I would say, 'Honestly, I barely know what either of those words mean. Let me get [Saltzberg] on the phone."

Even more challenging than grasping nuclear physics was enduring the volatile weather of Santa Fe, a semi-arid mesa more than 7,000 feet above sea level that the cast and crew liken to the lunar surface.

While shooting the pilot, Schlamme remembered one particularly brutal day for actress Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards), who plays a wife of one of the new hotshot scientists (Ashley Zukerman of Terra Nova).

"The wind started blowing, and we're not talking a couple of miles an hour," he says.

"It was probably 30-mile-per-hour winds and dust blowing everywhere. You almost couldn't see, and Rachel has to stay in the scene. In many situations, we would have gone, 'Let's give it a break for a while and let this thing calm down.' But I was a kid in a candy store. This was exactly what I was hoping for."

Hickey, too, recalls being taken out to a 50,000-acre ranch somewhere between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, which doubled as a testing field for the atomic bomb, when a wicked dust storm suddenly bore down. "Forget about trying to act your part well," he says. "It's just about trying to get through the scene without choking, without being blown over."

Despite the discomfort, the grueling natural elements have helped contribute to Manhattan's authentic look.

Much to Cherniss's delight, the series notched its first significant honor in February at the America Society of Cinematographers Awards, where director of photography John Lindley won in the TV movie, miniseries or pilot category for the Manhattan pilot. Upon winning, Lindley thanked Schlamme, "who's not afraid of the wide shot." Indeed. One of Manhattan's most impressive feats has been its ability to re-create a massive landscape, but on a basic-cable budget.

"We covered anywhere between 13 and 20 acres of scenery, and that's pretty rare," says Manhattan production designer Ruth Ammon, whose previous credits include Heroes.

"There were miles and miles of cables to light all these places. On Heroes, we had seven stages at Sunset Gower [studio in Hollywood], And that was a huge network show. This is not a huge network show, and it's period. Every time you have that space, you have to fill it, which impacts wardrobe, vehicles, extras, the props that the extras are carrying...."

For Ammon's team, that meant building dozens of cramped houses like the ones that once stood in Los Alamos, complete with little backyards and clotheslines, as well as creating the ominous hand-painted signs that have become an important tone setter.

Ammon relied heavily on the Sears catalog "If someone says, 'Oh, that wasn't there in 1943,' we can go to the catalog," she explains. "It has everything those people would have." For inspiration, she drew from Life, Ladies'Home Journal and such period photographers as Jack Delano, Russell Lee, Bill Manbo and Toyo Miyatake, who chronicled the internment camps of the day.

"It was a massive world that we were trying to figure out a way to render within the framework of the finances that we had," Schlamme says. "We didn't want to shoot on a stage, but rather to put everybody into the environment that felt similar to what it must have felt like for the scientists."

As Shaw works furiously on season two, the cast and crew are preparing for production (which began in April). At press time, WGN had not yet announced when the second season would debut, but it is expected to bow in the fall.

"The big backdrop of this season is that we're moving from the abstraction of a theory in a math problem toward the reality of a very destructive weapon of war," Shaw notes. "So a lot of the storytelling will involve our characters being confronted with the reality of this thing that they're involved with, for better or worse."

Adds Schlamme: "The first season was a lot of setup. I think we'll probably see the Frankenstein monster — the first atomic bomb — by the end of this season."

Still, Schlamme can't help but look even further ahead. "We want to get to at least three seasons," he quips, "so we can actually drop the bomb."

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