Atomic Bombs & Emmy Noms: A Chat With Manhattan Creator Sam Shaw

By: Keith Nelson Jr (@JusAire)

“History only has room for a couple of protagonists.”-Sam Shaw

Sam Shaw created a textbook with teeth.

Stories about scientists fighting over ideas with more calculations than bullets peppered with complicated physics seems more SATs than WGN. But, the WGN America drama series Manhattan, a fictional retelling of The Manhattan Project, explores the society manufactured in Los Alamos around the creation of the atomic bomb and makes it abundantly clear that the show, and in some respects the history it is loosely based upon, was more predicated on the delicate and usually catastrophic balance of human morality. Frank Winter, the show's focal point summed the series up perfectly in season one: "in this war, the scientists are the soldiers." 

The soldiers do not carry guns, but pencils. The battlefield fields are not lands soaked in the blood of wartime casualties, but blackboards full of disparate scientific equations that, when congealed, form the blueprint for the world's first weapon of mass destruction. In Season 1, the show explored how a society can be formed on secrecy. In season two, they explore what happens when humans come to terms with the morality of that secret.

I spoke with the show's creator, Sam Shaw last year, midway through the second season of the show and a year after our first interview about the politics of winning awards, capturing human morality on film and even breaks down the genius of one of his favorite scenes from Breaking Bad and more.

Frank Winter trying to figure out why the fuck he's in prison.

Congratulations on the EMMY Nomination and win for Outstanding Main Title Design. How was that experience for the show, after being in its first year?

It was very cool. It was very exciting for a new show, especially on a new show on a network that most people never heard of, to get an Emmy. I was there, it was the first Emmy given out, Creative Arts Emmy. hanging out there in my tuxedo with my wife, a few seats away from this team, Imaginary Forces, the company that designed our title. They’re so great, so smart, they did such a beautiful. job. It was a very surreal moment when we’re sitting down and two minutes later Mel Brook is giving these guys the award.

What I’ve learned more is that these nominations are about who in the academy gets their eyes on the shows and how many eyeballs are getting on the shows. Do you campaign or push for Emmy nominations for the show?

You’re absolutely right. The hardest thing about working in TV right now is that there is so much great TV that is talked about a lot. John Landgraf, the president of FX, sort of introduced this idea of “peak TV”  and critics have been wringing their hands and talking about it ever since. But, it’s true. I’m sure you feel it. I feel it. There’s so much great TV that it’s hard to know what to turn to first on my DVR. Especially for a new show, a period drama, which is sort of more challenging to market than a lot of other kinds of shows on a network that is new to original programming. It’s very challenging to find an audience. That’s something we’re still struggling with, no question. So, look the Emmy win is a helpful vote of confidence. But, the other thing is we don’t have the resources to go out and launch an Emmy campaign that a lot of of shows may have. So when it comes to the marketing the show, all we can do is play Moneyball and be smart and creative. The group of people at WGN [America] who work on that stuff, especially in the PR department are really great at their jobs.

You start the season with a flashback sequence, but that’s something you never did in season 1 and then brought it back for episode five. Why start the season that way?

We knew from the beginning, this season, in a fundamental way, was going to be all about the Trinity Test. First test of the atomic bomb. One thing that was interesting to all of us is to figure out how, right out of the gate, in the first moment of the season to plant a flag in the ground and sort of make a statement to the audience about what the dramatic terrain of this season was going to be. I think by the time you get to the end of the season you’ll find the whole of the season is kind of encapsulated in those first five minutes. There’s a lot of storytelling hiding in plain sight.

Frank Winter is the main character of Manhattan but is not this superhero, figures everything out type of hero and adheres so blindly to his own convictions that he is unlikable, almost by design, at times. How do you write for a main character that is not likeable?

We have this tremendous asset, which is John Hickey, who is a brilliant actor. He’s so human, even when Frank behaves in ways that are counterintuitive, or he can be prickly, difficult and at times self-defeating and destructive to those around him, there’s something powerfully human about John. There’s no one more changed this season than Frank, in a way. If Frank were a superhero, I think his superpower, at least in the first season of our show, would be his ability to compartmentalize and to repress any kind of doubt or moral question. Moral question about what this project is doing to the people he loves, what it’s doing ot him and even what the morality is of building a weapon, you hope is going to be a force of good, but design to kill civilians. The atomic bomb kills indiscriminately. 

The overarching theme of season 1 was the power of secrets. In a place where the world has no idea what’s going on, even the people on the hill, Manhattan’s season 1 was run on secrets. Now that the secrets are a bit more known, season two’s big secret is that they are building an atomic bomb under false pretenses. That the government has lied to them to spur progress. How much creative license are you taking from what really happened?

All these scientists who signed on to build this weapon, believed, fundamentally, if Hitler would win the war it would be the end of western civilization as we know it. The irony, they traded away a lot of their personal freedoms in this town to build a weapon. What seems so difficult for me to understand is eventually they all learned that the Nazi’s didn’t have a weapon. In fact, they barely got their own atomic program off the ground. Nobody left. Actually, one did leave. Joseph Rotblat, he’s the one guy, who realized ‘oh it’s not a race at all. We’re the only guys running this race and maybe the world is better off without an atomic bomb. Everybody else stayed and kept going to work even though the meaning of this thing that they’ve been involved with had just changed underneath them. Then of course, Germany surrendered and they still didn’t go home. Our focus is turned to Japan. Japan had never had an atomic program and it became increasingly clear that Japan would be a target of those atomic bombs and they still didn’t go home.

Charlie Issacs trying to build man-made death.

I think this is clear to audiences. There is a history of historical fiction on TV from Boardwalk Empire all the way down to Mad Men, a great tradition of historical dramas. Our show is absolutely and unequivocally a work of fiction. Almost none of the characters are real historical figures but metabolized and processed the story lots and lots of physicists and their families. The context and the science in the history is very very carefully research. The case of Magpie and the specific story is a work of fiction but it is the case that this season takes place during the time period when the government is beginning to learn how advanced the Nazi project was and that there was no Nazi bomb. They were faced with a question which is, “what is a utility of telling all these physicits there is no Nazi bomb and they’re in a race of one when the objective of the army is to get those bombs delivered more quickly.”

In your research of the history behind The Manhattan Project, are there any little known tidbits about that time which is still shrouded in much mystery?

Our historical consultant Alex Wellerstein told us something that was so fascinating. One of the great characters of The Manhattan Project, the real Manhattan Project, a Hungarian physicist named Leo Szilard. He is the guy who sounded He is the guy who sounded the alarm of the threat of an atomic bomb back in the 1930s. He is the guy who actually went to Einstein to get him write a letter to the President that we had to launch the Manhattan Project. He also eventually became conflicted about the bomb and thought he let a terrible genie out of the bottle and he wanted to find a way to put it back in. 

Sam Shaw and Manhattan's atomic bomb.

Leslie Grove, senior military official at Manhattan Project who worked out the Pentagon, was preparing, quietly, to have Szilard secretly imprisoned and detained indefinitely with no constitutional protection to keep him quiet because he was dangerous.  We have this idea those types of dark corners of wartime were invented a lot later. That they were invented during Vietnam or they were a problem of our modern era but they existed before.

What is identity on The Manhattan Project? Oppenheimer tells Charlie he could him because he’s lied to be him the whole time. Helen, Head of the Gun project, was told that title meant nothing. It seems as if identity is fluid in Manhattan. How does identity work in Manhattan for season 2?

I think there’s two things. One is, writing stories against the backdrop of this history that has become a kind of objective mythology. It’s like part of our American mythology. The story of the atomic bomb. Depending on who you ask, some people see it as this story of American can-do-it ingenuity. Not just American. This coming together of the greatest minds around the world to defeat tyranny and fascism. There’s another way of looking at the story. It’s a story of the greatest act of violence in human history. A tragedy that was repeated. We didn’t just watch one of them, we dropped two of them. Of course, for the last 70 years, we’ve been trying to decide, as a culture, whether we needed to drop the bomb. Whether more lives were saved when we dropped them or more lives were taken. When you’re writing about a moment that has been so endlessly debated and has taken on its own life in the culture, inevitably, to me at least, as a writer, what gets lost when you construct those bigger, grander narratives. A lot of things get lost. The texture of day-to-day life gets lost. But there are also a lot of people who get lost.

Theodore Sinclair (far left) with Hellen Pirin (center) and Charlie issacs (far right)

There are a lot of voices that get silenced. One of the criticisms we get and people take pop shots occasionally about in comment sections where people think we took some revisionist, 20th century piece of license by inserting Theodore Sinclair into a first season and saying this is an African American physicist. Of course, he’s not specifically based on one person, but a handful of guys. People think the same thing about there being a female physicist on our show. Of course, women were minorities at the Manhattan Project, but there were a lot of women who contributed to this project in a lot of meaningful ways. That’s not the case. we’re really really interested, all of the writers, in what happens when events become mythologized. There were political reasons why they were mythologized. It’s not deliberately an act of revisionist history or correcting the historical record by restoring the place of some people and some voices that have been lost in the storytelling.

Manhattan, as a period piece, doesn’t really depend on the minute-by-minute barrage of salacious affairs like certain popular dramas. But in one episode, a Russian spy gives a scientist that has been turned into a traitor, Jim Meeks, a blowjob and then is shown spitting out the remains. That may have been the most graphic scene ever in Manhattan’s history. Why include it and did WGN have any quarrels with you guys showing that? What was the reason for that?

It definitely didn’t come from WGN at all. What it was was a moment that was human, to me. It wasn’t there to be salacious or shocking. But as far as the human experience, oral sex existed in 1944 and so this moment may seem shocking and something you don’t see on TV a lot, but to me that moment of seeing someone spit after a blowjob, I feel the same way about someone flossing their teeth. It’s a really intimate thing and a part of the texture of human life for some reason. I’m interested in moments that feel human.

You say this season no character stays the same as they started the season. To me, it's pretty clear Rachel Brosnahan's character Abbie is taking the darkest turn with her listening in on private conversations between Oppenheimer and his mistress and then inserting herself into their love story by telling the mistress that Oppenheimer has a child, thus sending her into suicide. Why did you choose Abbie to go through this covert spy sort of deterioration from simply being a housewife?

You talk about that moment on the phone with Oppenheimer’s mistress, Jean Tattlock. I think for Abbie, now that she knows what it is the scientists are building in this place, in particular because we know she has a great feeling of connection to this family of hers in Europe. She sort of discovered it accidentally. This conscience around the Holocaust. Really got this moral lesson in how horrific the events in Europe are. She’s one of the few people in the show who thinks unequivocally the bomb is a force for good and has to be built. As cold hearted as she seems in that scene where she’s talking to Oppenheimer’s mistress, at the same time, she really believes in that moment what Charlie has told her. As twisted as it may seem, she’s doing something really evil in the service of something she thinks is a greater good. Without any idea that a woman is going to wind up dead on the other side of it.

What about the women at the switchboards and historically how much did they affect?

It's a strange fact that in this world of secrecy, there were these women who eavesdropped on every phone call. They’re supposed to observe sort of an attorney-client privilege. You know what I mean? Part of what is very fascinating about the switchboard, by and large, no one seems as worried about these women who are privied to these secrets on the phone. In this place of paranoid, Draconian security measures, there’s all of these native american women who worked as maids, as housekeepers, on the hill and they were a sort of invisible class on the hill. The army didn’t seem to perceive them as a threat, whatsoever. There’s this other kind of institutional racism where nobody seems to recognize that these were other women and men who were capable of passing secrets along as much as anyone else was. It’s a very powerful thing in this show to be the listener.

Hellen with Abbi Issacs

Frank Winter said scientists are the soldiers in season 1 and you don’t usually see shows with scientists being competitive like you do in Manhattan. Is the writer's room similarly competitive?

We’re competitive with ourselves and the show. We want the show to be better. We want it to be the best version of itself it can be. This season, there are a lot of episodes that were really experimental for us. We didn’t just want to recreate the season storytelling that we already put out in the world with season one. So every time we felt we were repeating a story structure or telling the same kinds of stories that we told before, we would challenge ourselves to go into unknown and scary territories. The second episode of the 2nd season, with Frank, 2/3rd of that episode is almost like a stage play. It takes place in this prison, in this contained world. It’s almost like a two man stage play. 

It’s not common that a network would let a relatively new show play around with its season one structure that brought the fans back in. What has WGN America’s involvement in the creative process been this season as opposed to last season?

Well, they’ve been incredible partners, creatively.They’re so supportive of the show and believe in what we’re trying to do. I think they were a little less hands-on in the second season than they were in season one. Mostly because when you’re launching a show, especially when you’re working on those first episodes, you’re setting the template of everything that is going to follow it. They also were new to working with us, so we were all feeling out that creative relationship. This second season, they redraft, they watch cuts and give us notes, share their thoughts which are always really smart and really constructive. But, they did the thing that almost no one really does in television which is they gave us license to go out and make these 10 episodes exactly the way we want to make them.

What are you learning about your audience after a year with the show?

One thing that I have found is once people find our show and watch a couple episodes, they seem to go down the rabbit hole and become really devoted to the show. That’s great and really gratifying. That’s a really cool thing. They’re not casual viewers. They’re really really engaged in the show and have really insightful things about to say about the show. I love reading people’s tweets. People are engaging with it in such a smart and engaging way. There are a lot of people, on Facbeook at least, who will talk about watching an episode of our show two or three times after it airs. That’s something that I do for shows that I love, because as a writer I love taking them apart and see how they were put together.

That’s an interesting factoid that you break down episodes you watch. Explain to me a show you enjoy that you have broken down.

I watch a lot of TV, I read a lot of TV too. For people who are in Los Angeles, there’s this incredible resource, which is the Writer’s Guild Library. It has thousands and thousands of episodes of TV that you can pick up and read in their reading room. I love to see how different shows are put together on the page. There’s a scene in the early episodes of Breaking Bad where Walter White has the kid locked in the basement and he’s dealing with this moral problem of if he’s going to kill him or not.

It sort of encapsulates the moral problem of the entire series, his journey and his character. Of course, Walt is this creature of conscience. He’s also very rational guy, so he picks up paper and writes a decision tree and try to list all the pro’s and con’s of killing this guy. You may remember, there’s an amazing piece of story where he brings this guy a sandwich on a plate and the plate breaks. Ultimately, he has this emotional connection with the kid and he was going to let him go.

This is an incredibly brilliant storytelling where he puts the plate on the table, like putting together pieces of a puzzle, and there’s that one shard missing from the middle of it. What he understands is the guy has hidden this shard of the plate and is going to try to kill him with it when he goes downstairs to let the guy go. That moment is such a brilliant piece of storytelling. It’s a visual medium, it’s cinematic, there’s storytelling that doesn’t require any fancy pants dialogue at all. That’s really hard to accomplish on TV, given schedules and how TV is produced. But that episode is a magic trick I could watch a thousand times and not know how the magician did it.