Manhattan creator-writer-executive producer Sam Shaw

Sam Shaw on set with actors Michael Chernus and Christopher Denham

WGN America

John Benjamin Hickey as Frank Winter in Manhattan

WGN America

Ashley Zuckerman as Charlie Isaacs in Manhattan

Greg Peters/WGN America

"The Hill" in Manhattan

Greg Peters/WGN America
Fill 1
Fill 1
December 09, 2015
Online Originals

The Sam Shaw Project

Manhattan creator Sam Shaw rebuilds a world in the New Mexico desert.

Sam Shaw is running late for the interview.

When he finally makes it to the telephone, he apologizes, explaining, “Sorry to be a few minutes late; we were setting off an atomic bomb. We’re just finishing post on our season finale, so we just pushed the button.”

As excuses for lateness go, that does rank among the top five.

Such is the life of executive producer and creator of WGN’s Manhattan, the show about scientists working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, NM during WWII. The show depicts real events, but through the eyes of fictional characters.

As Shaw explains, “I always take great pains to be sure that people understand that our show is a drama, not a docudrama. The characters are all fictional, but there are some historical milestones that we don’t fudge. So, for example, the Trinity test – it worked in real life, and it works on our show.”

In a real world rife with conflict and war, what led Shaw to WWII-era New Mexico?

“In probably the most backwards creative process ever undertaken by a writer, I started thinking about Manhattan about six or seven years ago.

"Now and in its earlier stages it was a totally different animal. First of all, I thought it was going to be a feature and not a TV series, and it was a piece of writing about the war on terror in the present.

"In almost every respect, I got it wrong – wrong genre, wrong decade, wrong war.”

The idea was planted during a conversation with Shaw’s father, a retired criminal defense lawyer, who had taken on a few post-retirement pro bono cases, including defending three Yemeni detainees who had been held at Guantanamo Bay. Shaw was fascinated by the idea.

"The thing that was most confounding, but also really interesting to me dramatically was that he couldn’t answer almost any of my questions because he was butting up against issues of national security. So he was sort of constrained by secrecy.

"And that was so interesting to me as a dramatic question. What was it for him to have embarked on this really profound professional journey at the end of his career, but at the same time, what is it when the work you’re doing is secret work, and you can’t share it with the people who are closest to you, when all of your support mechanisms emotionally and ethically are removed?

"So that’s what I thought this piece was going to be. I thought it was going to be about lawyers who were representing detainees at Guantanamo.”

As he delved into the idea, however, he realized that writing about such a contemporary issue was problematic, at best.

“It became clear really quickly that it was going to be hard to tell that story with any kind of objectivity or clarity, because the story is ongoing, for one thing.

"I think it’s so hard to write about history before the ink is dry, and then also because it’s so raw, given that we’re talking about politically charged events that are taking place right now in real time, that I felt it would be really hard to write about them without taking out a very clear moral position that in some way would simplify a really complicated conversation.”

Shaw found himself getting buried in research, finally landing on the story of the genesis of the atomic bomb.

“What was increasingly clear to me was that the story of the birth of the atomic bomb really was much more than a story about atomic physics.

"It was really the story of the birth of this giant juggernaut military secrecy complex that we’re reckoning with now, 70 years later and in some ways the birthplace of a whole lot of social and political and military questions that have come to sort of define life right now.”

All the research led to a small town in New Mexico, with which Shaw and company have become very familiar, despite shooting in another part of the state.

“When I started thinking about this project and researching and reading, I’d never been to the state of New Mexico. Now, I’ve actually fallen in love with New Mexico. It’s been this incredible home to us in producing the show.

"I will say that one thing that I know is that it’s sometimes  frustrating to people who lived in or grew up in Los Alamos who watch our show is that we shoot in Santa Fe and just outside of Santa Fe, and so the topography is a little bit different. There’s not that same sort of Alpine look that you see up at Los Alamos.

"But it really is a sort of mystical place.”

“You understand that part of Oppenheimer’s genius was choosing this kind of remote world to bring all these physicists to that did have a kind of – you know, it’s sort of like Magic Mountain – it did have this sort of mystical quality to it.

"So, at the same time that these physicists are inventing the most devastating weapon anybody has ever conceived of, they also were sort of having the time of their lives.

"It was this kind of incredibly beautiful, austere landscape, this sort of summer camp for geniuses, in a way, the front line of the war taking place a thousand miles away.”

Another perk of shooting near the place where the Manhattan Project took place is having access to people who lived through that time. 

“Our crew is all New Mexican, and we do a lot of local casting, as well, and every day when we’re on set producing the show, we’ll have conversations with people who are involved in the making of the show who have a real personal stake in the story, whether it’s because the grandparent was a part of the Manhattan Project, or because there are cousins of theirs who lived downwind and have had health effects because of the Trinity tests.

"Everybody who works on the show is at most one or two degrees of separation removed from the story itself, which is kind of a profound thing for us making it.”

Shaw is not the only one who delved into research to recreate the time of the Project.

Production designer Ruth Ammon has recreated the interiors of the houses and labs down to the finest detail. Shaw recounts that the production had several people who had grown up in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project tour the set.

“There’s a woman who came in to one of these little pre-fab house sets, and walked into the kitchen and started to cry because the paint color on the wall was the exact paint color of this wall in the house she grew up in, and the cabinets were the same and she said it was just like being transported back to the time.

"She remembered so vividly what it was to live in this place at that moment. It was very cool, just a very cool thing.”

The casting of Manhattan was approached with the same kind of care and precision. Shaw credits his casting director, Jeanie Bacharach and co-executive producer Thomas Schlamme for putting together the stellar cast.

Of Schlamme, Shaw says, “He really had a vision for how to make the show work, but he also had great instincts about putting a cast together and about actors. He always talks about how to make sure that you’re sort of putting together a symphony when you cast an ensemble group of actors. And you want to be sure that everyone is playing a different instrument, and that they all complement each other in the right ways.”

The network was also on board with the casting. “The great gift to us, and this is a credit to our network, is that the mandate that we got from our network and the studio was to just go out and cast just the very best actors we could possibly find for these roles. Not to be sure to get this marquee name or that person who is going to appeal to such and such a demographic.

"It was really just about putting together the most incredible ensemble of brilliant, brilliant actors we could find.  So that’s what we did.”

The cast, led by John Benjamin Hickey as Frank Winter and Ashley Zukerman as Charlie Isaacs, are, in Shaw’s words, “not only incredibly great at their job and make my job as a writer  so much easier, such a gift to be able to write for them. I just hear their voices in my head while I’m writing, so clearly and it fleshes out who the characters are. And they also, to a person, are completely lovely and so hard-working.”

That work ethic came in handy when preparing for the series.

“When we put our cast together, we got everybody to fly up to Santa Fe a week and a half or so before we started shooting the show for this sort of boot camp,” Shaw says.

“And part of it was almost like forced bonding.  We wanted to get everybody together so that they’d have a chance to get to know each other and we could sort of build the social affect of building this show together.”

The science involved also presented a few challenges. 

“We also put them through physicists boot camp. We had physics class every day, and we all took a trip together to Los Alamos , and there was a syllabus with physics books and history texts and  there were playlists of period music for everybody to listen to.”

At the heart of the show, of course, are the relationships among the characters.  The scientists at Los Alamos moved there with their families, uprooting their lives to create this weapon for the war effort. 

Shaw says, “Part of it is that from the earliest stages there were a few ideas that I was trying to work out in the writing of this piece. On the one hand there were ideas about a marriage and what happens to a marriage, particularly between intellectual equals who share a lingua franca, in this case of science. 

“It was interesting to me to think about what might happen to two people when that intimacy is cut off because they can’t share their work anymore. So that sort of became in some way the marriage between Frank and Liza (played by Olivia Williams).

“And then, in terms of Frank and Charlie, to me one of the great moral questions associated with the bomb that has always seemed so provocative to me is, how is it that a whole lot of scientists who become scientists because they love the world, and they were fascinated by it, and they wanted to extend the radius of human knowledge, wound up in a place where their ultimate, lasting contribution to the world was this incredible weapon of violence and destruction.

"The history is so completely fascinating and the science is fascinating, and to me the biggest thing was, as I read more and more about what life was like in this place, I was just so riveted by the questions of what it is to be a person living in a town that’s dominated by a secret, and especially a sort of apocalyptic secret or an existential secret like this one.

"Just what is it to go home and lay down in bed at night next to somebody that you can’t talk to anymore about this profound thing that’s happening in your life.

"I have to say as a writer it’s a pretty great world to get to live in.”


Browser Requirements
The sites look and perform best when using a modern browser.

We suggest you use the latest version of any of these browsers:


Visiting the site with Internet Explorer or other browsers may not provide the best viewing experience.

Close Window