In the early 1940s, some of the greatest scientific minds of the era were secretly spirited to the New Mexico desert to work on a top-secret project: the atomic bomb that would end World War II. This rarefied milieu is the setting for the WGN America series "Manhattan," which employs fictional characters — "Father of the Atomic Bomb" J. Robert Oppenheimer aside — to tell the factual story of what came to be known as the Manhattan Project.
"It was an incredibly strange moment in American history in a way that, to me, seemed to lend itself toward longer‑form storytelling," says creator-writer-executive producer Sam Shaw. "But it also was a world full of guys who were test tube washers and women who censored letters and people whose stories haven't been told before. Part of the essential approach to this story was not for it to be a great-men-of-history piece. It is about the figures you read about in history books but [also] it tries to capture something of what life was like for the other 7,000 people living in this town."
Shaw previously worked on another period piece, Showtime's "Masters of Sex," another "somewhat fictionalized representation of the lives of real people." He acknowledges "a fine line between fact and fiction in the show, particularly when you're dealing with scientific discovery. Wherever possible we tried to be as faithful as we could." That extended to the settings, props and wardrobe.
"There was a choice that we made early on in terms of the production design," says Shaw. "We have this universe we created, which is so good for the actors, but we made a choice that it wasn't going to be an exact forensic recreation of Los Alamos as it existed in 1943, down to the drapes. That would have been possible — we have blueprints of the houses — but for us it became more about capturing the emotional truth and the feeling of the place. I can't say that every teapot and every saltshaker is the same, but we feel a great responsibility to be as honorable and truthful to the place as we can be."
Shaw came up with the idea for the series, which debuts on July 27, "when I started writing something about a very different war, the war on terror. I was interested in writing about people who are in involved in secret work right now and our relationship to secrecy, but the research led me back to this other moment when a lot of the issues we're grappling with were born."
Shaw's extensive research included reading everything he could find, including "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes and Jon Hunner's "Inventing Los Alamos." "I'd been working on this for six years and my wife was glad when I moved all the books from the house into an office," he says. But structurally, the template was E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime." "It's a story that captures the emotional truth and the texture of a time and place, although it's populated with fictional characters."
J. Robert Oppenheimer appears in the first and some other episodes, "and there may be other historical figures who wend their way through the story over the course of the season. There's sort of an Olympian godlike quality to Oppenheimer in the role that he plays in our storytelling, but he's not at the forefront of every story we tell."
Those stories focus on the characters' personal lives and the dilemmas posed by their work. "What did it feel like when they thought about the consequences of what they'd done? Was it a good idea that we built that bomb?" Shaw raises the complicated question. As director-executive producer Thomas Schlamme notes, "Manhattan" is "not only about science and the men and women who work there, but family and community, and big moral questions."
To recreate Los Alamos, the production serendipitously found an ideal location in New Mexico, "an old Army hospital that was days from being torn down. If we had gone location-scouting two weeks later, it might not have been there," reveals Schlamme. "It was filled with asbestos, but we were able to clean everything out. We took 10 acres and created a world that didn't feel like a soundstage, but felt like what it could have felt for the men and women who were transported from their homes and plopped into the desert."
John Benjamin Hickey as Frank Winter on the set of WGN America's new drama "Manhattan." (Photo: WGN America)
The verisimilitude helped the cast, as did the climate. "We shot outside — 60 percent of each episode is exterior, and as far as the eye can see, it looks like 1942 or earlier. It's so liberating for an actor to not be confined by lights and space," comments actor John Benjamin Hickey, who plays tortured genius Frank Winter. "The weather affects and dominates your performance. You don't like the weather in New Mexico? Wait five minutes. I've never seen weather more wacky in my life. You can't imagine what you get out of your ear with a Q‑tip at the end of the day — the dust, the dirt. It's about surviving the wind."
"Manhattan" will sometimes step out of the Los Alamos cocoon for "selected moments" in the story, says Shaw, "But what's unique about this is this contained world in the middle of nowhere, yet in another sense it's the center of the universe. What's taking place there will change the course of human history on this planet. From time to time we get a window into other parts of the world to gain a sense of the extent to which these stories here have ripples far away."
They're stories that have the potential to continue beyond the explosive climax of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Shaw didn't conceive of the show as "a finite story that ends with the end of a war. It's actually not a story about the end of World War II. It's a story about a birth of an era," he emphasizes. "What was really exciting to me as I began to immerse myself in the world of the history of Los Alamos in the 1940s, it was a situation that became more complicated and more interesting after the bombs were dropped."
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