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Manhunt: Unabomber Director/Showrunner Greg Yaitanes Talks Humanizing Ted Kaczynski, ‘Genuis Porn’ and More [Exclusive] 

Manhunt: Unabomber Director/Showrunner Greg Yaitanes Talks Humanizing Ted Kaczynski, ‘Genuis Porn’ and More [Exclusive]

What is it about the Unabomber that people found so fascinating during the height of his popularity? And what makes his story so compelling and terrifying to this very day? Was it that he stumped local and federal law enforcement for so long? Was it that people worried they might become the target of a man who could send a bomb through the mail to anyone at any time? Was it that they wondered what he was really after and if this was the best way to go about it?

Whatever it was, the Unabomber became a cultural phenomenon. Even if you think you know this story, there’s so much more to discover.

I had the chance to talk exclusively with director/showrunner/EP Greg Yaitanes about the start of his career, how he and his partners went about developing this project, his decision to direct all 8 episodes of the series, the importance of humanizing a person like Ted Kaczynski and so much more.

TV GOODNESS: I was looking at your bio and it seems like you knew you wanted to be a director from a young age. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Greg Yaitanes: “It was one of these things where a hobby became a career.

I was a camcorder kid at 14 making short videos and that escalated to going to work for public access, if anybody can remember a time when cable had to come to your town and be set up. I got involved in public access all through high school and directing multi-camera shoots in Wellesley, Mass. The extent of the excitement was recording a sports game or town hall meeting — our town was a very lively town. [Laughs.] I tried to do that just to get around the lingo and the experience and have an outlet all through high school.

I remember it very distinctly, it was a Rolling Stone magazine that had a special report about film school and that’s where I first learned about the idea that you could go to school for this. And I was good at it. So I went to USC. It brought me to California and that’s how it all began.

I was very fortunate. I worked pretty much right out of film school and had the whole splashy story of a multi-picture deal at Warner Bros. very early in my career. My early realization that the film industry was broken then in terms of it’s system — I wanted to work. I didn’t want to be sitting in a room talking about and developing scripts, I wanted to be on the floor.

I started to shadow and observe on TV shows and I liked the urgency and I liked the pace. There’s no time to argue about it, you just have to be in a state of doing and working from your gut. So twenty years of that has been very exciting. I’ve found it a very exhilarating medium to be working in. I’ve gravitated towards it.

It’s nice to see now it’s getting its due and seeing TV getting the respect as a medium that I’ve always had for it. It’s nice to see the rest of the industry catching up to that.”

TV GOODNESS: Switching gears, when did you hear about Manhunt and what made you want to work on it?

Yaitanes: “I was wrapping up Quarry for Cinemax, which was an enormously satisfying creative experience. I [like] producing unproduced writers and being their guiding hand and mentor as they go on to do their own shows, like with Jonathan Tropper on Banshee, with [Graham] Gordy and [Michael D.] Fuller with Quarry and now with Andrew [Sodroski] on Unabomber.

My agent also represents Andrew; he sent this to me. I got it on a Friday and I couldn’t reach anybody over the weekend. I thought it was a fictionalized story when I first read it. I’ve long been fascinated by the Unabomber case.

My first job in television was directing America’s Most Wanted in the mid 1990s right when the Oklahoma bombing happened, so I was in DC and working with law enforcement during this, from 1995 to 1997 actually, the exact time period of our story. So I was intimately familiar with the media details of the case.

Photo Credit: Discovery

When I read the script I was so surprised I had never heard of Jim Fitzgerald. I didn’t even know he was a real person till I started Googling him. It was like the missing link because everybody simply zeroed in on the story of the case and that his brother turned him in, but nobody really understands how all those dots got connected.

I was fascinated to see this very quiet story about a man who solved the biggest manhunt in US history from being what would seemingly be a minor b player in the investigation, really rose up with the key to success. With that, of course, have come years and years of people who have taken credit for Jim’s work or felt like that they were also responsible for it. But in truth the investigation was just going in circles until somebody thought outside the box, which is where Jim came in.”

Photo Credit: Discovery

TV GOODNESS: I know you were the Showrunner/EP/Director on this. How did those different hats influence you when you were developing this and then when you were shooting it?

Yaitanes: “While I’m carrying all those titles, I’m very much under the umbrella of a John Goldwyn Production. It was really fantastic to have an actual producer on my team. This is probably the third time in a 25-year career I’ve had an actual producer really there in the trenches and there day-to-day with me. That was enormously rewarding in that regard because so often all of that responsibility has fallen on me and to just have a partner in that process — the things that John’s good at, he’s exceptional at. And the things I’m good at are very different than the things he’s good at, so we really complement each other quite nicely in that whole space.

The first step is harnessing John’s experience. He ran Paramount. He’s a successful producer on his own, so he’s terrific with the material. He and Andrew and I would sit. We broke out the season very quickly. The case itself really almost falls episodically, which is fantastic. In that script phase, we decided we wanted to do a departure episode to really go into Ted Kaczynski’s origins.

So, you’re someone who’s coming in on the day-to-day, yes and no’s, but I always find that producing myself I like because I come into things with a certain efficiency. I want to put every dollar on screen, so I like being able to count on myself. I’m able to harness and move the budget around and really make the show look as rich as possible and fill it out.

Photo Credit: Discovery

Discovery’s MO from the beginning was to get names for this and get actors of note to come in because we all believed in the material and and Sam [Worthington] and Paul [Bettany] were very quick to respond when the script was sent.

I do wear a lot of hats. I directed all of Quarry. This is like the third time I’ve done this. Part of what goes into that decision is also the enormous amount of research that goes into this show. The understanding of that is very, very hard, speaking as an episodic director, to parachute in while trying to make your best episode, but also digest all this additional material. I often find it can be overwhelming for someone.

I love producing other directors, but it’s hard enough to come in and unload them with, ‘We need you to watch these 10 episodes of TV,’ let alone, ‘I need you to look at these books, read all these articles.’ When you can specialize it for people, like an actor, it’s great. But when you’re directing it can be a lot. I was just so immersed in it because I had been in it for 12 months before I started directing that was the move to make here.”

TV GOODNESS: Forensic linguistics isn’t easy to visualize, but you guys did a great job of making it visually compelling in the series. Can you talk about that?

Yaitanes:Zach Galler, my DP, and I, we wanted to be inclusive of the audience. We watched an enormous amount of what we called ‘genius porn,’ which was all the scenes in movies — we put together 60 scenes — where somebody stops what they’re doing and pulls out a model or goes to a blackboard or a whiteboard and explains some big concept.

That could be the whole model of the town in Back to the Future, how the flux capacitor would get the lightning bolt to The Theory of Everything, where they’re are boards explaining these big, big concepts. Actually, there’s a scene in the movie How to Be Single, that influenced us, I think, the most.

But you just look for when people have taken tangible examples of things and used them to illustrate a big idea because that’s just an effective visual way to get everybody to understand what it is you’re trying to say because these are all words. Linguistics is new for a lot of people, let alone forensic linguistics, so we just wanted to be inclusive.

So there was that side of things and then Zach and I started to explore the various probe lenses – these are lenses that can get incredibly close to things, even beyond a macro level, like just really allowing us to miniaturize the audience into the actual documents and bombs being talked about. That became the running visual texture of the show, that you would go from these big wides into like you were down on the paper, you were shrunk down and walking on the texture of the paper kind of photography. Getting physically inside the typewriter.

There’s no CGI with any of that work. That’s all practical. We looked for things that would get us into these places in a very low-fi way so that you felt like it was tactile and you could touch it and you could be inside of it and that was both for Ted’s world as well as Fitz’s world.”

TV GOODNESS: Any final thoughts on Manhunt? I have to say I’m really enjoying it and discovering so many things about this case that I never knew.

Yaitnanes: “That’s great. That’s the perfect reaction. It seems to be connecting that way.

I had a goal as a filmmaker going back and doing a period film within your career lifetime. I was working in the 1990s so I remember who I was, my 25, 26, 27-year-old self directing. It was nice to not only recreate the era, but it really did evoke a nice access to who I was as a younger filmmaker and I managed to bring some of that in. But most importantly, it was to make something very watchable and engaging.

I didn’t want this show to be homework to anybody so we were very, very mindful of how these concepts where presented and all the while the Unabomb case is a great thriller. It’s stranger than fiction.

It’s fascinating and I’m glad that people are watching it with the excitement that I felt while we were making it, but also this was a case that did rivet me. I did buy the manifesto. I did have a lot of these Times and Newsweeks, because I was curious how it just occupied everybody’s thinking. You couldn’t go to a Post Office without thinking about it. It was a very unique time. I remember it very, very well. I’m glad it’s landing that way, because that was the idea.”

Edited for space and content.

Don’t miss more of my exclusive interview with Greg, which I will publish in the coming weeks. We talked quite in-depth about Episodes 5 and 6 and I don’t want to give anything away (yet) about those excellent episodes.

Photo Credit: Discovery

“Publish or Perish” preview:

In 1995, the Unabomber offers to stop bombing if his Manifesto is published. Fitz puts everything on the line to push for publication, devising a massive operation to uncover the Unabomber’s identity.

In this sneak peek, Chris Noth‘s Don Ackerman must convince Jane Lynch‘s Janet Reno to not only publish the Unabomber’s manifesto, but to undertake the FBI’s largest surveillance operation ever.

Manhunt: Unabomber airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on Discovery.

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