Nine-time Emmy winner Thomas Schlamme admits that creating a new world for the WGN show “Manhattan” was very ambitious. In a video chat with Gold Derby (watch below), he says, “The studio was nervous at the beginning” as it required building a small town in New Mexico for filming.
He explains that “you mostly would want to do a show where you have cover, which means a place to go when it becomes bad weather. We were sort of saying we don’t need a stage, we’re going to shoot this all practically, and therefore the challenge was adapting to the conditions that were in front of us.” However, this was important to Schlamme and series creator Sam Shaw as it “became part of the excitement of the show and one of the reasons the show feels the way it feels.”
The period piece is about a group of scientists in 1943 looking to develop a bomb to bring an end to World War II. Schlamme believes the subject is as relevant today, calling it “an incredibly contemporary show to me. I think about the deal that just happened today with Iran and that whole deal is about how to stop somebody from building a bomb. And so where did that start? That started in the desert. So we’re that origin story, not the story about the end of World War 2.”
The show aired its first season late last summer, and production on the second season begins this month. Tony winner John Benjamin Hickey stars as the mysterious and secretive genius Frank Winter. The ensemble also includes Rachel Brosnahan, Daniel Stern, Olivia Williams, Mark Moses, and Richard Schiff.
Schlamme was shooting a scene outside with Brosnahan when the weather took center stage. He recalls, “The way it does in New Mexico, it was beautiful and gorgeous, and about 15 minutes later it was about 30 mph winds and that dust was blowing everywhere. I could tell as an actress she was spitting out dust she was trying to squint her eyes. She wouldn’t think this is the most attractive way to meet this character. And I came running up to her saying, ‘This is sensational! This is exactly what I was hoping for!’ We just went with it, and when it rained we went with it. Those problems became the solutions to what I believe is a visual look to the show that isn’t easily duplicated.”
During his lengthy career, Schlamme has worked as a director in variety, comedy, and drama. He won his first Emmy for “Tracey Takes On” as Best Variety Series (1997). Two years later, he won another for directing the pilot episode of “Sports Night.” He then prevailed four times as an executive producer of “The West Wing” when it won as Best Drama Series (2000-2003). And he won for helming the pilot (2000) and the episode “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” (2001). His other trophy came for a “West Wing” documentary special in 2002.
How will “Manhattan” fare with Emmy voters? It has already started picking up support from the crafts guilds, winning for John Lindley this year with the American Society of Cinematographers.
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