Hiatus Helper: Manhattan’s Production Designer Ruth Ammon Talks Season 1 and Previews Season 2 [Exclusive]
Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead for Season 2
Meek was revealed as the mole in the season 1 finale, but after Frank’s “confession” it looks like he’s the one who will be punished for it. And while Frank is guilty of a lot of things, he’s no spy. Even with his hands bound and a hood over his head, there’s a got to be a way for Frank to get out of this. It helps that we know he’ll be back as a series regular in season 2 — and quite frankly I can’t imagine this show without him.
How long will Charlie’s reign as the head of Implosion last? Is there any way for him to regain Abby’s trust and save their marriage? It looks like she might be pregnant, so that’s probably mute anyway. Perhaps more importantly (as far as the government is concerned), is there a way to get all these scientists to work together and produce a working gadget before their enemies do?
I had the chance to speak exclusively with production designer Ruth Ammon. We talked about how she got into the business, when she became interested in this project, the challenge of recreating a place from scratch that the government denied even existed and what she’s been working on for season 2.
TV GOODNESS: For those who donâ€™t know, what exactly does a production designer do?
Ruth Ammon: “I would say basically the overall look of the show is the one-line version that we use. It starts with interpreting the script, something we do with the showrunner or director. You start with an idea of what the showâ€™s gonna look like, but it tends to evolve over time as you find locations and work within budgets. So, itâ€™s the overall visual blueprint. Itâ€™s a palette, construction, the architectural building, textures and surfaces. From that blueprint, costumes works off that and lighting and camera.”
TV GOODNESS: How did you get into this line of work and was it something you always thought youâ€™d want to do?
Ruth: “It was completely accidental. [Laughs.] It was an incredibly serendipitous moment for me. I was an art major in school, art and art history, and I spent a lot of time traveling abroad and just experiencing all these cultures and museums, but also city and urban life. In between college, during the summers, I worked was a waitress on an island in New Jersey and a small movie came to town. Somebody saw me waiting tables with a lot of enthusiasm and said, â€˜You should be in the art department.â€™ To me it was a dream come true, because I went straight to the art department and I assisted three people who are now very good designers and work all the time. They were my mentors. After that show they took me to New York and Iâ€™ve been building from that.”
TV GOODNESS: Great.
Ruth: “I know. Itâ€™s crazy. I thought I was going to New York to work in a gallery and do this on the side. It was perfect because Iâ€™m very physical in what I do. I like the travel, I like movement, I like being out of the office. So film and television design provided that opportunity for me where itâ€™s very creative. You can be in your office and draw for a while and do your research and build on this idea, but then you get to go out into the field and realize it — or build it from scratch.”
TV GOODNESS: How did you hear about Manhattan and what made you want to become involved?
Ruth: “My agent keeps a list of all the projects coming up and Iâ€™d seen it on the list. I tried really, really hard to get involved in it but in the early stages there was someone else attached. That person left to do another project, so I came in in the very early stages of prep. I guess because I had built some towns for Their Eyes Were Watching God. I built a couple of small towns for that movie. Tommy [Schlamme] was interested in that. He liked some of the other directors I worked with. I donâ€™t know how he saw my work. But it was a very fast process once we met. I was hired the next day and in Santa Fe within the week.”
TV GOODNESS: It seems like Manhattan would be a pretty big challenge just because The Manhattan Project was top-secret and Los Alamos â€œnever really existed.â€ Can you talk about the research process and how you decided what to make it look like?
Ruth: “There were obstacles. You canâ€™t build a city of that size from scratch with a television budget. We had money to start with, but we had to find a location that suited the basic format of military buildings. Los Alamos, in the past ten years, a lot of photographs have been declassified so thereâ€™s probably 50 to 100 photographs. You get your magnifying glass out and you just start looking at the details.
The thing that makes this set more difficult than most is because of itâ€™s simplicity. The army built it in such a fast time. It went from, I want to say, 300 to 6,000 in a year. It was like early blueprints for Levittown in that theyâ€™re these simple bungalow structures. Theyâ€™re all single gable houses. Theyâ€™re all about 28 feet wide by so many feet long. So thereâ€™s a repetition of the same architecture. And itâ€™s simple architecture because it was almost like an adult camp for the scientists to work.
Part of the challenge is to keep it interesting within the same architectureÂ There is a museum here, the Los Alamos Museum, which was fantastic. When you first come to Los Alamos, just getting to 7,300 feet changes how you breath. It changes your head, everything because the air is so thin. There was only one way to get to this road and when you got to Los Alamos, you feel that same thing right now, this isolation and remoteness that the army was going for.
Then I based some of my research on a Japanese photographer who documented Manzanar, the internment camp. His name is Toyo Miyatake. He did a whole series on these very simple bungalow structures and we used some of that as reference for the structures because we felt like they were interned as well. As much as these young scientists were pioneers, a lot of people felt they were interned here, like the wives and kids, so we used a little bit of the internment camp as a little bit of a visual metaphor.”
TV GOODNESS: Does the fact that itâ€™s a period show make it more fun to work on? Is it a little more challenging? What does that add to it?
Ruth: “Thatâ€™s fantastic. Part of it is itâ€™s the â€˜40s. I wasnâ€™t around then, but thereâ€™s a certain nostalgia for me and a lot of the crew members because our parents lived through that as children. We all feel a little bit of a connection to it and the stories of our parents.
Los Alamos was so interesting because we had a guideline of what furnishings we could bring into our compound. Everything had to be new. Even if they drove their cars there was very little they could actually bring. You couldnâ€™t bring a Victorian dresser. You couldnâ€™t bring anything ten years old. The army, through a subcontractor, brought all the furniture in.
For the residents there was a hierarchy to what housing each person would get and what furniture would go with that housing. So we tried to show that with our various housing units. With the scientists, they got the top notch everything, they had the best equipment. Finding thirty desks that match and thirty lamps that match, that was a big challenge. And then really simple things like seeing typewriters and the joy of a typewriter. Every crew member just instantly walks over and needs to touch it because itâ€™s such a beautiful thing.
Itâ€™s weird because here we are creating the bomb with the top physicists on the planet and yet thereâ€™s a sweetness and nostalgia to all this equipment because itâ€™s old.”
TV GOODNESS: Were there any surprises either during research or construction for season 1?
Ruth: “I guess I never thought of the residential aspect of it. When I think of Los Alamos it was just about the scientists, the little bits you heard in school. But for all of us, the residents and just how they had to continue on with their lives and what they would do during the day and what they would do during the night, the big canteen where they put on plays and they organized religion and a lot of drinking and partying.
One of the fun things was the amount of babies that were born. I guess because so many people were locked up. They had a lot of sex, so a lot of babies. The government was worried, there were so many goddamn babies here. [Laughs.] They were handing out prophylactics to keep the amount of babies down because thatâ€™s not what the government had in mind. They wanted a bomb, not babies.”
TV GOODNESS: I know youâ€™re working on season 2 now. What are you allowed to tell me? Are you working on new sets?
Ruth: “Yeah, we are. The interesting thing is we have one main location thatâ€™s about 8 acres of buildings that we continue to redevelop. The thing about this show is whatever set you think you know, it transitions because of the story. The story is always moving forward because youâ€™re dealing with scientists and urgency. So weâ€™re always transitioning.
Weâ€™re starting to build, and I think Iâ€™m allowed to say this, Trinity, where the first atomic bomb was tested. Thatâ€™s a whole new site for us. Trying to tell this story- they were 8 hours away in White Sands, which has a slightly different look. Trying to achieve that look within a cattle ranch that we built Frankâ€™s town in and the main gate in, we’re gonna try to build Trinity, this city of scientists who start moving towards testing the bomb.”
TV GOODNESS: Tell me about your process. How early do you see something like a script? Iâ€™m assuming things have to get built pretty quickly so they can start filming.
Ruth: “Unfortunately, itâ€™s very, very fast. This is probably one of the biggest shows Iâ€™ve done. Heroes was really big and had a lot more money. We were in LA on soundstages so you have that support. I had 2 art directors and a bigger staff. Here, we have a tiny staff and only 7 days to shoot these episodes, which is crazy short time. I virtually donâ€™t sleep. I get a script, I run a crew all day long and then at night I do my research.
Much of my work is from years of experience of what the right thing to do is quickly and just understanding the financial limitations we have. The first day a visiting director arrives, we walk around the set together. You try to work off each other and with the producer of what is actually possible to achieve in those 7 days.
I love research. Thatâ€™s the best part. This year we had a couple times where you go â€˜off the hill,â€™ as we call it and Iâ€™ve been able to build things that are historic America, like 1920s buildings. Last year we did Ellis Island. It was such a joy to get away from very simple military architecture.
I think research for all of us is the most important thing and how things were built. One thing with our show is all of our hand-painted signs. It gives the show- itâ€™s like a little bit of a personality almost within in the scenery. Ours is basically painted by one or two people as was in Los Alamos. These signs are meant to be threatening and warning, telling you what not to do and youâ€™re being watched and a little bit of security and a little bit of conspiracy and paranoia, but theyâ€™re actually kind of charming because theyâ€™re hand-painted. [Laughs.]”
TV GOODNESS: Iâ€™m excited for season 2 of the show. My final question for you is about your dream project. What kind of project would you love to work on?
Ruth: “I love period dramas. Iâ€™ve worked in comedy and sketch and Iâ€™ve kind of done it all. I like all of it, but usually I love shows that require all the crafts. It doesnâ€™t have to be built from scratch where you have a location that you can greatly modify because you get the outdoor and the indoor connected. Youâ€™re just using everything you have like fabric and paint and sign painting. I donâ€™t know. Itâ€™s really funny. Everyoneâ€™s talking about 1980s LA these days. I think the 80s would be fun for me because I grew up during that period, but I donâ€™t have anything in particular.”
TV GOODNESS: I imagine the research is fun so I can see how any period piece would be a lot of fun for you to work on.
Ruth: “Yes. And I love the art of it. For me, I try to think of it as a composition, with my art history background. This is the only show that I havenâ€™t really used art history as a reference. I use more photography on the show. Itâ€™s the painting compositions and artists are usually a starting point for us.
Iâ€™m trying to think of all the references I had. Iâ€™m so sorry. We work so hard, I can barely even â€” we just had 3 days off and Iâ€™m already tired. It is so hard. The thing is, we get so excited because the scripts are really good and the world keeps changing. The elements here â€” the sun, the snow, the wind, the sand everywhere â€” itâ€™s just such a huge part of every day here.”
Edited for space and content.
Season 2 of Manhattan premieres this fall on WGN America.
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