'Manhattan' strives for intimate view of the Project

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Television > Fictional drama will air on WGN on July 27

By Arin McKenna

When “Manhattan” premieres on WGN on July 27, Los Alamos residents should bear in mind that it is a fiction based on the Manhattan Project, not a history of that event.
“It’s been very important to us writers and to the directors and cast, too, to really steep themselves in the history. And at the same time, this is a work of fiction,” said Creator/Writer/Executive Producer Sam Shaw. “The project has never involved being forensically accurate about every aspect of the daily life of this place, but to capture an emotional truth.”
Overall, Shaw and Director/Executive Producer Thomas Schlamme succeed in that objective. Shaw was a writer for the critically acclaimed “Masters of Sex” on Showtime and Schlamme won an Emmy Award as director for “The West Wing.”
The period details of the sets, the well-researched scenes depicting everyday life on The Hill and a company of highly skilled actors all coalesce to immerse the audience in the world of the Manhattan Project.
However, some of the production choices will jar Los Alamos residents in particular out of that carefully created world.
The town setting been recreated at the abandoned Bruns Army Hospital, nestled within the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. Set designers researched everything from the furniture to paint colors the army used when it constructed laboratories, offices, barracks and homes for the project. The crews’ efforts included constructing 1940s-style matching desks and searching eBay to buy authentic Flexo lamps one at a time.
But an army-style commissary is substituted for Fuller Lodge. With the exception of a key figure like J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientists are all fictionalized. The “gatekeeper” of Los Alamos, Dorothy McKibben, is missing.
Panoramic views of the Cerrillos Hills south of Santa Fe are substituted for those of the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A dusty road through the Santa Fe County scrublands replaces the Hill Road.
These glaringly wrong locations will mean nothing to the broader viewing audience, but they are likely to jar Northern New Mexico viewers —as well as those who have visited Los Alamos —out of that carefully created environment.
According to Shaw, “practicality” dictated the decision to do no filming on location.
“There was a huge question in everyone’s mind about whether it would be practically feasible for us ever to make this show on any kind of a budget that would work on basic cable,” Shaw said. The hospital location could be refurbished much more economically than trying to construct a set in Los Alamos.
“What we had to do was create the finite world that we had, and then hope that the finite world had some semblance. There will be people, historians, from Los Alamos, who will simply go, this is not Los Alamos. This is another place,” Schlamme said.
“But for me it was, this is a place that was fenced in, and you couldn’t leave once you came in. and it was a place that was in transition. And if I can sort of recreate that in some ways, I believe people will start to understand what it must have felt like to be a scientist with his wife and his kid, who’s living in an Ivy League school’s beautiful row house and gets picked up and stuck into the desert and told, now you’re living here for a while. And we don’t know when you’re ever going to leave.”
The elaborate set design aids the actors in their roles.
“It’s such a blessing to walk into this world that’s already detailed and real, this immersive sort of experience: coming to a place where you don’t know what you’re getting into with people you don’t know,” said Christopher Denham, who plays scientist Jim Meeks.
“I feel it more in a play, where the world seals around you. If you’re in a theater piece and those lights go down, you’re in that world and you just stay in that,” said Daniel Stern, who plays scientist Glen Babbit.
“This is, in terms of immersion, the most I’ve ever felt that complete immersion, where everywhere I turn, it’s real. The costumes are real, everything feels real. And it really has taken hold…And it’s a fantastic gift as an actor to have them just seal the world around us, because I love when that world is sealed and we get to play inside it. and this is a pretty amazing place that way.”
The actors also had a field trip to Los Alamos, where they learned some of the history from Heather McClenahan, executive director of the Los Alamos Historical Museum and stocked up on books about the Manhattan Project.
“Some of those accounts from the women, of what they experienced, was so specific and so interesting, that it really helped three-dimensionalize the world and pull it out of the abstract,” said Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Abby Isaacs, the wife of scientist Charlie Isaacs. “Even little details, like the vegetables were mostly rotted by the time they arrived here. It just made it so much more real.”
Actors also relied on accounts by Ellen Bradbury-Reid, Claire Weiner and Julie Fisher, who visited the set to share childhood memories. A retired Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear scientist who knew many of the Manhattan Project scientists is technical advisor for the show.
“He’s brought us not only the science, but he was a link to the old guys in the 40s, and knew people who worked then. So he’s been an incredible resource,” Stern said.
Overall, the efforts of the producers, cast and crew achieve Schlamme’s goal for the production.
“What I hope throughout the series of the show is there is some sort of emotional resonance that you will feel, and the idea of what it must have been like for those men and women to be in this place at that time,” Schlamme said.
“Manhattan” airs on WGN at 7 p.m. Mountain time July 27.