Unabomber’ Showrunner Greg Yaitanes on Genius Porn, True Crime and Season 2

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Fifteen years after helming an episode of America’s Most Wanted: America Fights Back
— yes, that long-running docuseries hosted by John Walsh — director Greg
Yaitanes is back in the true crime world that marked his transition from
directing C-list shows, like Pamela Anderson’s syndicated V.I.P., to prestige TV, including House, Grey’s Anatomy, Lost and Cinemax’s Banshee. Now, he’s the showrunner of Discovery Channel’s
anticipated new anthology series, Manhunt,
which debuts its first season, Unabomber,
on Tuesday, Aug. 1.

The first season follows FBI agent and criminal profiler James
“Fitz” Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington) as he pioneers new forensic linguistics to
find and ultimately capture Ted Kaczynski (Paul Bettany), the nation’s deadliest serial bomber
in history. The 8-episode series written by Andrew Sodroski (scribe of Holland, Michigan, which topped
Hollywood’s 2013 Black List) offers a perspective of the FBI’s hunt not often
seen. 

MORE: Jane Lynch Transforms Into Janet Reno on Discovery’s ‘Manhunt: Unabomber’

“I had no idea Jim Fitzgerald was a real person,” Yaitanes
says during a conversation with ET at the London Hotel in New York City. After
reading Sodroski’s script, he found himself googling the FBI agent, who is now
an author and has appeared as an expert on The
Case of: JonBenet Ramsey
and served as a technical advisor for Criminal Minds. “I found that Jim was
real and very much at the center of this case and I had never heard of him. I
thought it would be a good challenge to see how I could, with all this
anticipation of telling the story of the Unabomber, tell it through another character.”

In a conversation with ET, the director opens up about making
linguistics sexy, TV’s true crime fascination and what’s in store for the
anthology series. 

ET: Fitz’s story is
not one I’d heard before, even going back to research the Unabomber while
watching the first couple of episodes. Was that part of the interest a show
about the Unabomber, like, “Let’s give the audience a side of this story that’s
never been told before?”

Greg Yaitanes: Nobody’s
been able to really crack the story of the Unabomber because it’s only half a
story, and even the things you do remember — you know, Kaczynski’s brother
coming forward and the cabin — they were all connected by this missing piece,
which is Fitzgerald. Everybody was taking credit for his discoveries and his
forensic linguistics, which he created for this case. So we went with an
approach that immediately diffused if the FBI was going to catch him. It’s not
a question if he’s caught. That’s only a Google search away to find the answer
to that. Instead we decided to construct it where it’s about the how. And the
how is so interesting because it was invented for this, and in the telling of
the how you get to see all the systems that are in place in society and our
relationship to technology and also when you have a voice and you’re trying to
be heard, how people react to change (and they don’t react well).

What surprised me the
most about the show is how interesting you were able to make the linguistics
investigation. In some ways it reminded me of Zodiac and the intrigue of solving a puzzle and putting all the
pieces together.

That was very important. Andrew and I, we called it genius
porn, where movies stop for a second and explain some big concept — anything from
people working on whiteboards to Back to
the Future,
where they have a whole model of how it’s going to work. It was
important that in things like episode three, where Fitz and Natalie [Lynn
Collins] talk about the Slavic homeland, that that was a tangible, physical
example by using the nachos to tell the story and to walk everybody through it.
My first and foremost priority was that everybody was able to understand the
concept being talked about because I wanted everybody to be included in the
ride.

MORE: Watch the First Trailer for Discovery’s ‘Manhunt: Unabomber’

Episode six is
largely a flashback to Kaczynski’s upbringing and journey leading up to his
life as the Unabomber. Why was it important to have that episode and was there
any discussion about how it would humanize his story?

When Andrew and I got together, the first thing we talked
about was that we have an opportunity to tell a standalone episode and how
should we approach that, what should be included, because that was a very fine
clock on our hour of TV. So we decided to frame it around the day of
publication of the manifesto. That’s how it was born: We wanted to show you
what his present life was like because we don’t get to see that — because audiences
first meet him in prison [in episode one]. Then we picked Doug, [his childhood
friend] who he talks about in his journal. We would have loved if we had more
time to, like, explore his life as professor of Berkeley. That would have been
the chapter we would have included in there, but there just wasn’t the room.

In addition to
serving as showrunner and executive producer, you directed all eight episodes.
Why was that important for you to do?

This is the third time I had done it. I did it when I did Children of Dune. I did it on Quarry. And for me, the amount of
research and work and immersion into the world – [it] would be unfair to
parachute a guest director in and expect them to do this all at once. I was
interested in seeing what another director could do with episode six. Discovery
and Lionsgate were used to a more traditional structure of episodic directors,
but that just didn’t feel like it would be cohesive. Also, I’ve transitioned a
lot of actors out of film into TV, and the thing that I had found that rattled
them the most was the changing directors. That applies to Paul Bettany and Sam
Worthington. I thought, given the newness of television for the both of them,
keeping consistency with one person and one voice, they could figure out the
rhythm. It could have derailed the whole thing. We had a very tight schedule to
get Paul out for The Avengers, so
that was also in consideration. 


Paul Bettany as Ted Kaczynski in an episode of Manhunt: Unabomber. Photo: Discovery Channel


Paul very much looks
like Ted, especially those shots of him in the hoodie and sunglasses. And even
Jane Lynch channels Janet Reno quite well onscreen. How important was it for
the actors to have the right look in addition to whatever they were able to
bring to the role?

With Ted, the only thing I wanted to really recreate was his
iconic images — that if you were to do a Google search, that is what you would
see. Beyond that, we took our cues off of evidence found in the cabin as to what
he wore and how people described him.

I didn’t want to make a wax museum version of the show. It
was very important that these were inhabited with the intention of these
characters, so we had excellent hair and makeup that really felt real without
losing the performance. If you really look, we pulled back on a few elements of
Ted because it felt it could fall into caricature. You have two characters that
Will Ferrell has played on Saturday Night
Live
. And it was just important that nothing would ever fall into satire or
being distracting. It was all intended to be very nuanced. It was important
that everything was of a tone.

Jane really got the walk down for Janet Reno. You know, Ted had blue eyes, but Paul’s eyes
are so piercing. He and I just talked and we felt that would just become
distracting. Paul was on a diet that was very similar to Ted’s. He lived in a
way very similar to Ted during production, but it was more just to come from an
informed place.

True crime continues
to be a popular genre on television with shows like American Crime Story and the upcoming Law
& Order: True Crime
about the Menendez Brothers, as well as all the documentaries.
Was there any hesitation about where Manhunt
would fit or how it would stand out?

No. That’s the quick answer. I think that any time I’ve ever
taken on anything on television, I always try to find some cinematic touchstone
that we can talk about. All the
President’s Men
, The Insider, Silence of the Lambs — these were films
that we talked about. Those were the things that we reached for. We felt this
was a dramatic thriller. You know, when I saw The Insider, they turned a story of 60 Minutes into a hot, tense thriller. I want to do the same thing
with language and tell the same thing with this story.

And I think there’s room for all of it because it’s
fascinating. You have to remember all these things have been dramatized once before.
There’s already been a Menendez movie and a Unabomber movie. You know back in
the day they would rip from the headlines and rush to make some TV movie about
stuff. They would be almost comical to look back on now, 20 years later, when
you see them. So it was nice the material attracted our cast. It really helped
to elevate it. But Manhunt is more of
a commentary on what’s happening now around us. If you can separate the bomber
from the message he was sending, the message was prophetic; it was a look at
our relationship and addiction to technology. He called it all 20 years ago. He
could see it coming.

Considering this has
been promoted as a potential anthology series, have you thought about a second
season and if you would do it?

We were originally a limited series that was going to be
contained, and then Discovery saw an opportunity to continue it as an anthology,
which I think is exciting. We put forth a couple of areas which could be
interesting, but whether that all comes together and when it wants to come
together is too early to tell. I’m very open to the idea, especially if there
was more opportunity to cross over some with the world and characters from Unabomber.

MORE: Amanda Knox, O.J. Simpson and Our Fascination With True Crime

It’s funny you
mention crossing over with the current season, because there’s a moment when
the camera pans over Janet Reno’s desk and you see all these case files for
crimes as the time, like Waco, Oklahoma City and World Trade Center. And I
thought it would be great if Janet Reno is the connective thread for potential
new seasons.

It is amazing how much was on her desk at any given time. I
think about the work I do for one TV show and I was looking at that desk, which
is an exact recreation of Reno’s desk, and I think the detail of the show is
something that immerses you into the ‘90s. But Janet’s desk — I couldn’t
imagine if I was doing a show about all that stuff — but there was tons of
stuff on her desk. And yes, there are maybe some future seasons on that desk.

The show hasn’t aired
yet on TV, but has any of the real-life people involved reacted to the news or
making of the series?

Not yet. I expect people will come out of the woodwork that
have very shamelessly taken credit for Jim’s work, that had built their own
narratives on that. We had to change a lot of names of the people who are not
considered public figures and we conflated people to make individual characters.
I know it’s on Ted’s radar because Jim reached out to Ted prior to [making the
series]. We were instructed not to, but we know Ted knows there’s a show being
made about him.

My hope is that David Kaczynski [played by Mark Duplass]
sees this and would feel that it was accurate. My hope is that Ted would see
and feel that we represented his story fairly. I know Jim feels this tells the
story of how this investigation went. We don’t do this to disparage anything or
anybody.

Even when I was mounting production, people were coming out
of the woodwork like, “I’m the guy who caught the Unabomber.” I was like, “OK,
but I’m doing a show about the guy who caught the Unabomber.” And they’re like,
“Well I was there. I was the SWAT guy in the fifth tree to the right who had
him in my sights.” And it’s like, “OK.” It was obviously an enormous sprawling
effort, but I think Andrew telling the story through the lens of Fitz and how
Fitz went deep into the case and became obsessed with the case and how it
affected his world is unique. I think we move away from any of the kind of tired
tropes of the detective investigation but try to embrace what really happened
and use that to propel the story.

Manhunt: Unabomber’s
two-hour premiere airs Tuesday, Aug. 1 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the Discovery
Channel.



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