Manhattan creator Sam Shaw (@shawsam) discusses his journey to the television industry and the genesis of his critically-acclaimed WWII era drama.
Manhattan, a historical fiction drama chronicling the work of the Manhattan Project at what is now Los Alamos National Lab, just concluded its first season on WGN America. The show chronicles the lives of fictional characters working on the project, depicting the toll of both creating the world’s greatest weapon and that of working on one of the most secretive projects in American history.
Creator and executive producer Sam Shaw discusses his journey from novelist to television writer and chronicles how he became ‘obsessed’ with this particular moment in American history.
WGN America will show a marathon of the entire first season of Manhattan from 11 a.m. to midnight on Sunday. The show is also streaming on Hulu and can be purchased on iTunes or Amazon.
Austin Johnson: You attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, did you go there with intention of writing for television?
Sam Shaw: Oh no. I wanted to write novels — leading the very peculiar life a fiction writer leads. One where you can barely keep a roof over your head but you’re kind of compensated by being in a great community of writers and writing which I loved.
So how do you end up going from aspiring novelist to TV writer?
I was a TV junkie as a kid. I loved great TV. Part of it was I think my parents were very strict on what TV I could watch when — up until I was about 10 years old and they got divorced, then the floodgates opened. I basically free based all the television I could possibly watch. There were a handful of shows that meant a great deal to me. Twin Peaks was one of them that kind of changed the way I thought about TV.
I loved television, I loved movies… but I had no idea how anybody winds up working for television. It seems like another planet at least writing fiction — it’s back-breaking hard and lonely but ultimately it’s just you and the computer, but it made more sense to me.
About a year after I finished at Iowa, I got a call from Dusty Thomason — a very good friend of mine from college. He’s a novelist who actually co-wrote this mega-bestselling thriller called The Rule of Four in the vein of The Da Vinci Code — it broke all sorts of debut novel bestseller records. He wrote this novel and wound up working in LA in TV along with a buddy from his from college and they created this very short-lived TV show on ABC called The Evidence. I knew very little about TV, very little about the medium — I’d been off in Iowa without a TV. I had to take sort of a crash course to get reacclimated.
And that stuck, it seems.
I loved it. It felt like an antidote to a lot of the things that made fiction writing kind of crushing. If you can make it work, even at a modest level, it’s possible to make a living writing for TV. Even if you aren’t a J.J. Abrams there are lots of people who live comfortable lives working for television — you can send your kids to college. That’s less and less true for fictions writers in this country and it’s a sad thing. Most of my friends are fiction writers; they teach and they find other gigs to make ends meet. That maybe the process of making art but it’s a really tough life.
Beyond that, I liked working with other people. It’s a collaborative medium — people knock it sometimes because it’s the work of the collective and not the work of the individual. And that’s true to a certain extent. A lot of people bitch about too many cooks in the kitchen and having to field notes and creative input from studios and financiers. But I actually really love it — I guess I’m just a social creature. I like working with other people and especially other writers. There’s something cool and moving that all these hundreds of people — most of them really smart and incredibly talented — are investing their time and energy trying to make this thing you love be as good as it could possibly be. That’s really gratifying.
That’s true of a lot of mediums — even in business. Some people just work better and create better work when they can collaborate.
Yeah there’s this great myth of the novelist that’s so romantic but the reality is incredibly, defiantly unromantic. I was living in New York and my wife had this great job working for the New Yorker magazine — she was basically working in the most intellectually stimulating office on the planet. And I was sitting in our apartment in my pajamas typing, talking to my cat. At a certain point you are just in your own vacuum of solace — in space no one can hear you scream.
Even when it’s annoying, I love having someone else to resent other than yourself.
Moving forward to Manhattan, I’ve read that you wrote the initial script five or six years ago and it started out as a more modern day idea about the war on terror.
Well, that’s about 75% right. I actually didn’t write a first draft of this other project — for me in writing there’s this process of speed dating a lot of ideas and then you go on second and third dates. This is one where I spent a couple of months developing a story and characters that was going to be set in the present day. It was going to be about in some ways this very Kafkaesque thicket of moral and legal problems that define the war on terror.
Particularly, it was fun to be involved in work that’s fundamentally secret. My dad was a criminal defense lawyer and when he retired he took on some pro bono cases of detainees at Guantanamo. That was particularly fascinating for me because of all the aspects of secrecy that surrounded that work. He would take his notes but then had to surrender them and they would get taken to this fortress-like building in DC. If he wanted to visit his notes he’d have to go to DC and go through metal detectors and get patted down just to read his notes.
It raised all kinds of very thorny questions. It’s scary as a citizen to be assured that your elected representatives — and those that are appointed not elected — are working on your behalf to keep you safe in the world, but that for your own safety you can’t be told what they are doing or how or why.
Sam Shaw (left) and Tommy Schlamme (right)
But at some point I got, scared, I guess. For me it’s so hard to feel secure or confident about any opinion — these issues are so tangled. It would be hard to tell a story in that context without by necessity, accidentally or deliberately, taking out some sort of position. That’s why it’s really hard for storytellers to tell stories that feel true or engage an audience. They’re accidentally or otherwise simplifying or adjudicating these issues that are so complicated.
So when I started reading about the history of military security and sort of the history of government secrecy in America, I found myself increasingly running into anecdotes dating back to the creation of the [atomic] bomb. It just felt increasingly like this story seemed bigger and more complicated and more contemporary than I ever really thought it was — I took a left turn and I’ve been obsessing over that story ever since.
So how long had you been shopping Manhattan around? Was working for Masters of Sex (on Showtime) a big help in getting the show made?
I wrote a first draft, and a couple of people read it. Thomason, who is now an executive producer on our show, was the second person after my wife — who’s also a writer on our show — who read it. My agent read it and he had advice about it. It was a process of refining ideas and characters and getting to a point where I really knew what the story was that I wanted to tell.
Once we got there — and there were a lot of drafts over a handful of years — that script got me my job at Masters. It was on the basis of reading that script that Michelle Ashford hired me to write for the show. In a way it was this great accident in realizing retrospectively that I probably couldn’t have in a laboratory invented a writing sample that would have been more appropriate for Masters of Sex.
I went to work on Masters and had an incredible year there and learned a huge amount. I do think it was incredibly helpful in getting the show made. By that point I had already partnered with Tommy Schlamme and we were in the process of getting ready to shop it. It doesn’t hurt to have a credential like Masters under your belt. I’m not sure how meaningful it was for the network when the picked the show up but just for me, it gave me a huge amount of confidence because I had a front row seat at getting a show as complicated as Masters made. If we could have made it at all, it would have been a very different experience for me if I didn’t have the experience on Masters of Sex.
You mentioned partnering with Tommy Schlamme (who won three Emmys for his work on West Wing among many other credentials), how important was that partnership just as far as learning how to run a show day to day and leaning on his experience?
That’s been a huge get, that relationship with Tommy, on a whole lot of levels. I was just a big fan of his — I think he’s one of the greatest voices of television. But even above and beyond that he has a clear vision for how to produce this show.
Truthfully, this is kind of an impossible show to produce. It’s a total fallacy to try to make this show on a basic cable budget and with such a punishing schedule — what I didn’t appreciate until I worked in this industry is how quickly the train moves once it gets going. You have seven days to produce an episode, you’re shooting seven or eight teams a day. What it requires for the work to be any good at all is such incredible effort on the part of hundreds of people, from your cast to your production designer to costuming everybody.
This was such a big, big show. Tommy had this incredibly brilliant idea for how the show should work and the heart of it was that we should do what the Army did — build a town basically. Not shoot this thing on stages but find a way to make this three dimensional world. We used a lot of natural light to light the scenes; all of that was fundamental to the feeling of the show on top of the fact that it allowed us to make it on the kind of budget and schedule we needed.
Season one ended Sunday — do you get a break? When do you have to start seriously plotting out what next season is going to look like?
My hope would be that there would be a little bit of a breather — my wife and I have a 20-month old son so it would be nice to hang out with him during the daytime. But I suspect we’ll have to go into our own little bomb shelter and resume writing the show very soon.