Q/A w/ Manhattan

After a successful first season of WGA’s “Manhattan” TV series, the film team is back on the Santa Fe University of Art and Design campus ready to shoot season two with lessons of last season and ambitions for this season on deck.

During a Q/A at the Screen on April 1, SFUAD students were free to ask questions of “Manhattan’s” executive team, which included Tommy Schlamme, executive producer; Jerry Kupfer, producer; Ruth Ammon, production designer; Richard Rutkowski, director of photography and Alonzo Wilson, costume designer.

Manhattan executive team shares the in's and out's of the TV series Manhattan. Photo by: Cydnie Smith-McCarthy

Manhattan executive team shares the ins and outs of the TV series “Manhattan.” Photo by Cydnie Smith-McCarthy

Audience Question: What did you learn from last season’s shoots that you’re applying to this season’s shoots?

Tommy Schlamme: I will say, we were incredibly proud of what we were able to do last year. One thing I’ve [asked] going into this year is, how are we going maintain what we were able to do last year? I think we [also] learned a little about storytelling and how much story we can hold. Sam Shaw, [creator of “Manhattan”], learned, especially as we progressed in the series, how to understand the characters better. Somehow the stories got less dense rather than more dense. There was so much to set up at the beginning of the year so it was about how much we can shoot and what we can accomplish while still maintaining the quality.

Q: How do you go about mixing the history of Los Alamos in the TV series?

Tommy Schlamme: One of the great things about shooting here, and what was more important than the state incentive, was Los Alamos. Oppenheimer was onto something when he decided to build [his bomb] here. We could make our television show here [as well] and it was uplifting for all of us because as we were meeting people, [either around or] while we were working on the set, we’d hear ‘my grandfather built this” or ‘I had a relative in Los Alamos.’ It is so much part of the culture here and therefore seeped into the way we were looking at our work and how important we knew the work was. As far as balancing what’s real and what’s fiction in our television show, it was always decided from the very beginning that it was about both those things.

Q: What was your biggest challenge shooting on set?

Richard Rutkowski, director of photography: It’s unique for myself because I came into the show during the middle of the fourth episode so it already had much of the infrastructure established. Challenges? I wouldn’t say I found challenges; I would say I found opportunity, not only in the natural light and the scenery but from the people. I feel very fortunate to be here filming. I feel incredibly fortunate to be sitting here with these people and working with people who are doing something original, something of quality, something that certainly resonates to the immediate situation of our nation right now. 

Q: How is it deciding on directors for each episode?

Tommy Schlamme: As a director you don’t really get to see others direct. It’s almost like internet pornography, because you’re thinking, does everyone do it this way? The first year the way I did it was I chose directors with whom I’d worked with before. I understood how they saw the world, what their point of view was, where their strengths was in storytelling and what their ability was in bring[ing] something unique to it. The first six directors of this series hadn’t seen any footage…instead, we were all stealing ideas from each other. 

Students of SFUAD gather at The Screen to participate in the Manhattan Q&A. Photo by: Cydnie Smith-McCarthy

Students of SFUAD gather at The Screen to participate in the Manhattan Q&A. Photo by: Cydnie Smith-McCarthy

Q: “Scientists who challenge the norm,” does this concept apply to how you approach the series?

Ruth Ammon, production designer: I think our approach [to filming] is a metaphor of Los Alamos up on the hill. All of us who are away from our homes, from our families, we’re at camp together so we’re like the [scientists] in that we’re on your campus, which really looks like Los Alamos. We’re out in the weather, away from everything we know so I think that’s part of this experiment in that they were isolated, they had to reinvent their world, and their relationships, and friendships, and how they operated. I think the same thing happens with our creative process and how we operate here.  

Alonzo Wilson, costuming: My approach is I think about character. They’re scientists and I think scientists don’t care if they’re looking like GQ. It is a world of scientists and we don’t really fixate on whether or not everyone understands what the scientists are saying, but what I wanted to make sure is that the story is told with scientists that are being scientists and not fashion people. So I have a whole different thing to bring visually to this show, but I do think about the story that’s being told and who the characters are, so you could say there’s a scientific approach for me.

Tommy Schlamme: We were going to put T-shirts together that said, ‘They built an atomic bomb, we can make a television show.’ And part of that was that I wanted us to feel very practical, to shoot in practical environments and not have the luxury of sets and stages, we really charged into this. As we do this more and more, I’m really interested in stripping away some of the stuff that was always part of the pretense of making movies. It goes back to, in some sense, what scientists do. ‘How do I solve the problem? It doesn’t matter if I have chalk all over me, it doesn’t matter if I’ve stayed up all night, I just have to solve the problem and not look like I’m solving the problem.’ A lot of the times filmmaking looks like you’re making a movie. I’ve done a few things where you just put a few things in a truck and you go to a neighborhood and they don’t feel like they’re invaded. We’ve sort of stripped away a lot which is sort of what science has to do also. 

Richard Rutkowski: I think this show is very experimental. The show sits on a strong back bone of historical fact, and sits on a very strong situational aspect of filming in the correct place, which lends a lot to it, and it sits on a strong narrative of good scripts and some good decisions in thematic content. But if you look at how the story is being told, I’m feeling very experimental about it all. I will say that I’ve never worked in lower light levels and it’s a big thing for a camera person. You grow up as a camera person afraid of one thing and that’s getting fired because you underexpose the negative, here I am afraid of doing something too normal. Every day I say, ‘don’t do it normal.’