In a former Sandy Springs State Farm building behind a Best Buy across from Perimeter Mall four months ago, an office was transformed into 1995 with chunky computer monitors and dated landline phones.
The producers tracked a fictional mailman delivering a package for an official running the California Forestry Association. Over the span of 45 minutes, an actor did take after take playing the recipient repeatedly struggling to open the box with a letter opener using varying degrees of difficulty. “I swear to God, this could be the Unabomber,” his character joked to his secretary, all too presciently. In post-production, the bomb exploded and the man died instantly.
Those scenes were ultimately used in the opening hour of “Manhunt,” a Discovery eight-hour series shot in metro Atlanta focused on the hunt for Ted Kaczynski, who was known in the public as the Unabomber. He mailed bombs nationwide over a span of 17 years, killing three and injuring many more before he was captured. The series starts on Tuesday, August 1 at 9 p.m.
At that time of that man’s death, nobody knew who the Unabomber was. It took FBI linguistics profiler Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald, played with stolid determination by Sam Worthington (“Avatar”), to help track down Kaczyinski, represented with creepy charm by Paul Bettany (“Avengers: Age of Ultron).
Newcomer Fitz faced an FBI obsessed with procedure, “obedience” and “no typos.” Yes, every time they asked Fitz to write a memo, the boss would bark “no typos.” The fact he noticed things nobody else did at first impressed nobody there. And when he arrived in 1995, most of the FBI still thought the Unabomber was a disgruntled airline mechanic, not the Harvard-educated math professor he actually was.
Writer Andrew Sodroski, on set that day, said the Unabomber was unusual because he was willing to maim and kill from afar, without actually ever viewing the damage. And Kaczynski got away with it for nearly two decades.
“It required an incredible degree of control,” Sodroski said. “Most serial bombers target people they hate, a boss or an ex wife. And they have to be present to see the explosion, to smell it, to be within earshot. Kaczynski was brilliant, so intellectual. He chose representational targets, targets that stood for things he was fighting against.” For instance, he hated the destruction of forests so he went after the forestry official.
Sodroski noted that “the bombs were all handcrafted. He made his own screws. He didn’t leave a single forensic trace of any bomb, not a single fingerprint or piece of hair. He was a man with an IQ of 168 who was seeking revenge on a world he thought had wronged him.”
Bettany, at a recent Television Critics Association panel about the show, said Kaczynski left plenty of material for him to gain insight into who he was and read books such as Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” and Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” that Kaczynski used himself as resources.
“They were all novels about the outsider — the man who feels like an alien in society and commits a crime that he can’t come back from,” Bettany said. Kaczynski for years lived in seclusion with no electricity or plumbing on about $300 a year while focused on making bombs of increasing sophistication and deadliness.
Sodroski said Kaczynski alone doesn’t provide enough dramatic tension to sustain eight hours of TV. But the writers found Kaczynski’s most compelling protagonist with the unheralded FBI agent Fitzgerald. Fitz, as he was known, was able to parse out the forensic linguistics of Kaczynski’s anti-technology manifesto in ways that pinned the Unabomber’s characteristics down far more accurately than previous profilers.
“He invented a whole new forensic science before our very eyes with no training,” Sodroski said.
Sodroski noted how the chase for the Unabomber transformed Fitz into a recluse himself, losing his job, his family and his connection to society. “Their psyches merge,” said executive producer John Goldwyn (“Dexter”).
For the opening 90 minutes of “Manhunt,” the focus is on Fitz, not Kaczynski, who first appears partway through the second hour as the story uses a dual timeline between the early days of Fitz’s effort to catch him and his later effort to convince Kacyzynski to plead guilty two years later.
“Most people take language for granted,” Kaczynski said admirably to Fitz after capture. “Not you.”
Fitz eventually rediscovered his connection to humanity through these negotiations.
While the chase is the primary driver, “Manhunt” sets aside the sixth episode to focus exclusively on how Kaczynski became who he was. “We’re not trying to generate sympathy for Ted but we’re certainly asking you to have some empathy for this child. What happened to this boy is very damaging,” Bettany said during a panel discussion before TV writers July 26.
The writers figured out that the concept would not work nearly as well as a two-hour feature film. “The only way to tell this story in a really interesting way was to sink down into it” over eight hours, Goldwyn said. “If you watch it straight through, it would feel like an eight-hour movie.”
The early reviews have been mostly solid. CNN’s Brian Lowry calls it “a taut, gripping account that touches upon aspects of the investigation many have doubtless forgotten or, more likely, never knew.” Dominic Patten of Deadline.com said he was hooked because “it takes the best of the procedural format and adds layer on layer with narrative characters and context.”
“Manhunt: Unabomber,” debuting 9 p.m. August 1, Discovery