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Designing The Atomic Age: How Science And History Shaped “Manhattan”

As the WWII drama begins its second season, we visit the Santa Fe set to see how science and history influenced the creative process.

“Please don’t shoot the bomb!”

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An eerily accurate replica of the first atomic bomb sits at the base of a 100-foot wooden tower in the middle of a Santa Fe ranch standing in for the 1945 Trinity test site. A short trek up a hill reveals a dusty collection of tents and makeshift structures comprising more of the expansive set of WGN America’s Manhattan. The World War II drama, about the race to build the first atomic bomb, launches its second season on October 13.

Cellphone cameras are ordered down. “We don’t want pictures of the bomb leaked too soon!” a publicist tells the group of visiting reporters. It’s like a science-geek version of revealing the bridal dress before the wedding.

The warhead—known as the Gadget and used in the first nuclear detonation test, codenamed Trinity—has taken months to replicate from a handful of available nonclassified pictures, but, belying creative license, like the protruding cylinders that are actually spray-painted cat-food cans.

“It was a whole detective thing to find out which wires plugged into what and how big things were,” explains prop master John Harrington. “I like the whole history of objects, and this is an object that has changed all of our lives, really.”

Even though scientists detonated the Gadget 100 feet off the ground, it turned the surrounding sand into green glass. Asked about any government calls after his Internet research, Harrington laughs, “No, but I’m sure that will happen.”

Ashley Zukerman, who plays physicist Charlie Isaacs, takes in the Gadget.

Such meticulously designed period surroundings and their grounding in scientific and historical research has significantly shaped the production—from writing structure and direction, to acting choices. But the process becomes an ongoing loop between these points, as each fuels the other with new ideas.

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Production designer Ruth AmmonPhoto: Susan Karlin

“There’s always a push and pull between the writing and the research,” says creator and executive producer Sam Shaw. “The story dictates what we research, which, in turn, affects the story. It’s a constant feedback loop. The production design helps it take on a life of its own and become this organic thing. The world that [production designer] Ruth Ammon built helps inform the storytelling. I walk around this place and think, What an amazing space that is over there, I’d like to write a scene there. The world that existed for me in my head is now a physical world with reality and dimension in ways I couldn’t have imagined. That’s how I think about the characters. Architecture affects how people interact with the physical space.”

“Once that happens, it’s just evolution,” adds EP/director Thomas Schlamme. “The room feels different when there are two characters in it. As they start to live and breathe, the show takes on a different dimension, because they’ll bring something new to it.”

Director Thomas Schlamme poses with a replica of the Gadget, designed by prop master John Harrington.
The real deal with an unidentified man.Photo: U.S. Dept. of Energy

At the same time, production design can also reiterate a story note. Ammon remembers coming across a photo of a Trinity site camera bunker that visually suggested movement toward modern times, and suggested incorporating its structure into the set.

“It was another removal from the world as we know it—from Los Alamos, where everything was single-gable structures, to moving out to Trinity, where there were hard-wall tents made out of wood with fabric canopies, where we’re preparing for the test,” says Ammon. “This was a board form concrete bunker that looks like something Marcel Breuer would have designed. It’s modern and chic in a way, and represents the transition between seasons.

“The story influences everything—costumes, production design, props,” she adds. “But sometimes, through your research or finding something that moves you, you can suggest something other than what was written.”

From a performance standpoint, such a remote and immersive set enabled the actors to find additional emotional tone and character nuance the way they might by donning a costume. A short drive across the ranch is a rolling landscape dotted with quaint family homes, children’s toys, and laundry lines, serving as Los Alamos, the New Mexico military compound where the scientists and their families lived and worked. It feels like the middle of nowhere.

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Olivia Williams as Liza Winter

“The isolation of Los Alamos, I think, affected the way the scientists thought—they didn’t feel that they were down on Earth anymore,” says Olivia Williams, who plays Liza Winter, a botanist who follows her physicist husband to Los Alamos only to find herself languishing. “It was this kind of heightened intellectual fantasyland. I think it made the people who weren’t there to build the bomb feel incredibly isolated and terrifyingly alone. That’s how the place here affected me.”

“It’s like putting on a different kind of costume,” says Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Abby Isaacs. “With all of this realism that we get to play with, it feels like we’re cheating. We have to pretend so much less. We walk onto the set and we’re in the 1940s. You can read about it in books all you want, but to be able to walk into our on-set kitchen and handle the different tools that we’ve never seen before is so informative.”

The desert location is very much a part of the design. “Many of the elements we complain about [as actors] are conducive to the work, the things that the guys at the time were going through—the heat, wool suits in the middle of the desert, and, on a very granular level, when you come home at night and there’s dust caked into your teeth,” says Chris Denham, who plays Jim Meeks. “This is the stuff that those guys were dealing with. That helps get you into the spirit of the thing. And being in Santa Fe, where so many people here have ancillary connections to the project—’Oh, my uncle used to work there . . . ’— feeling that history just adds a level of authenticity than shooting on a California soundstage.”

The gate surrounding the set’s Los Alamos compound.Photo: Susan Karlin

Staying Present In The Past

The creative team had to constantly check present-day mannerisms and thinking at the door, and write, direct, or play to specific moments in the realities of each character.

“It was a big moment in history, but it wasn’t a big moment for these characters. So I’d be thinking, Should the camera move in at that moment?“ says Schlamme. “The audience is saying, ‘Oh, this was the moment where they made a decision to do ‘x.’” But the characters don’t know that yet. So you have to constantly be aware of what they are aware of. Just like secrecy and being trapped here. They didn’t know that FDR was crippled, for example. It’s so hard for a contemporary audience to believe that’s what everyone accepted. You didn’t question it. There’s a whole thing of bugging in our show. During the Watergate scandals, we were going, `What? The White House was bugged?’ So this was in 1945 and they were bugging people. They couldn’t have the same sort of reaction in today’s terms.”

Writing presents similar challenges. “It’s easy to fall into a place where there are historical dramatic ironies in our storytelling,” adds Shaw. “While it’s occasionally an effect, it’s much more interesting to try to imagine my way into the experience of someone who’s in that place, and their point of view circumscribed by the time and place.”

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As actors, “there are pieces of the period that we needed to understand, like how scientists dealt with each other in a way that’s consistent,” says Ashley Zukerman, who plays Charlie Isaacs. “But socially, the questions are contemporary: How do you deal with the relationship when you have to keep something from each other? How do we live with our decisions? That’s something we can understand now.”

But Williams found the larger backdrop of uncertainty—the war’s outcome, how the bomb would behave—could also inform performance choices. “We have to keep ourselves pure and vault back over what we know, to that moment where they didn’t know,” she says. “As this second season smashes towards this day of Trinity, some people thought this chain reaction wouldn’t stop and it might be the end of the Earth. Others thought it would be a small explosion with no consequences. But they didn’t know. And it’s in that not knowing that you find that lack of certainty, that ignorance.”

The production closely consulted science adviser David Saltzberg and science historian Alex Wellerstein to maintain the integrity of the physics and historical events. On occasion, their adjustments altered creative direction for both accuracy and dramatic flourish.

Science historian Alex Wallerstein and science advisor David SaltzbergPhoto: Susan Karlin

For example, not everyone at that time was gung-ho about an atomic bomb. “There were people worried about killing cities,” says Wallerstein. “The secretary of war in 1945 told President Truman that if we bomb indiscriminately in Japan, people will think the U.S. has outdone Hitler in atrocities. I give them these things that sometimes seem out of place. But the people then were just as smart and as concerned about the world as now, and there was as wide a spectrum of political opinions as today.”

John Benjamin Hickey as physicist Frank Winter

Season one had a science-heavy episode where two Los Alamos scientists visit a nuclear reactor. “Reactor physics is very complicated, and the real-life scientists were just figuring it out at the time; there were some real puzzles that stumped them when they first turned on the reactors. We had to rearrange some of the plot points in order to match the physics and how it would happen, but also to be a little bit of a reference to what happened in Chernobyl. You hear a few words in the script that anticipate that being a possible problem with the reactor.”

Ultimately, what gets funneled onscreen is the passion. “What an exciting time this was for these scientists—the most exciting time of their lives,” says John Benjamin Hickey, who plays physicist Frank Winter. “They were being called to do their life’s work and, in doing so, maybe saving the planet. In this season, some of us start to see that maybe it’s not just the end of a war, but the beginning of something that’s equally terrifying—the industrial military complex and weaponry, and what does it mean if this proliferates?”

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About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio

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