Interview: Emmy Nominee P. Erik Carlson on Designing ‘Manhunt: Unabomber’

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The modern TV landscape has certainly opened up opportunities for unique visions to come to the small screen. Discovery’s “Manhunt: Unabomber” was one of those singular visions that can come to fruition due to the TV boom. The series was strong over its first few episodes but really developed a groove as the series progressed. The last few episodes are some of the best of 2017. Both “Ted” and “USA vs. Theodore J. Kaczynski” helped the show end on a strong note, and should help the series and Paul Bettany find their way into the Emmy conversation in 2018.

Perhaps the most brilliant work in the series comes from P. Erik Carlson, the production designer of the series. Not only were thousands of pages of Manifesto recreated and compiled, but Erik’s team had far more to design. Erik and I sat down a few weeks ago to discuss his work on the show. We talk about building the iconic cabin of the Unabomber, recreating the thousands of letters Ted had sent with a “Paul Bettany font,” and how to build replica bombs for TV. Read our original Review of “Manhunt: Unabomber” here.

AF: So how did you get into production design?

EC: I was in architectural school in Colorado and I took a film class just to basically fill credits. The instructor there basically had me look into shooting a building, and sort of explained how it works with building sets. Before that I had no idea how that worked, I had always assumed they went to a place, like a building and shot the thing as it stood. It was the first time I found out that production design existed at all. By the time I got to my senior year I was worried about sizing air conditioning and HVAC systems and memorizing zoning codes, and I hated everything aspect of architecture like that. It seemed so limiting.

Then this guy I was talking to let me know that in film, every project is different. I learned that it could be a fantasy feature or a time period feature, and nothing felt limiting. So production design really spoke to the part of architecture and design that I like the best. The research, the study. What’s great about production design is you can go from making something typical, like a psychologist’s office, but on your next show, you can be studying a Boko Haram village. There are no restrictions.

AF: Now you’ve obviously worked on “Manhunt: Unabomber” which is more of a limited series, versus working on an ongoing series like “Desperate Housewives.” What is the difference between working on a fast-paced TV show like “Housewives” versus something that shorter in length like “Unabomber,” which has only 8 episodes?

EC: On both shows, you’re constantly busy but in different ways. When I was working on Desperate Housewives, we had a huge commitment. We were basically running production from June and July until May. We were shooting on 7 soundstages, with at least 3 sets and episode, and the 13 to 15 houses that made up Wisteria Lane. There was a lot more building for that show. On the limited series, we worked for about 6 months on “Manhunt,” and it was great.

We block shot the entire thing, so we would spend 4-5 days in the same location. So we would shoot out of order and have to redress the set depending on where we were shooting chronologically.  For example, we had to track what we actually had on the boards at given times, and pin-up or break down the boards based on that.

What I liked so much about “Manhunt” was that it was an actual historical event. There was pressure about. The Cabin is so iconic, and that added its own challenges. Historians and enthusiasts would put it off as too Hollywood or fake. The other problem was that people under 30 might not get it. To everyone else, it matters. We wanted to have it perfect, down to the Tide he used and or the paperwork Jim nailed to the walls. That was exceedingly difficult at times.

AF: I imagine one of the toughest things to get right was the Montana Cabin. How did you go about constructing that?

EC: We built 3 versions of the Cabin and we used them in various locations. We built one for Paul to act in out in the woods. That’s the same cabin we used for the robot scenes. It was a fully dressed set and had all the items we could add to it so that Paul could feel like Ted. We also had one on a stage that was about 10% larger than the actual cabin. We could pull that one apart and use it for interior shots of the cabin. The actual cabin has stains from where Ted would lean his back against the walls, which created a black, almost oily substance on the wall over 30 years.

Finally, there was the one we used for exterior shots of the cabin. That was the one we picked up with a helicopter and flew from the site. We also drove it across the country, so we had to make it 10% smaller to fit under bridges and tunnels.

AF: How did you fill out the Cabin? Were any of them fully dressed?

EC: Yeah, the one that Paul would act in was completely dressed. We could match it up because of the pictures we were able to obtain, and the FBI was very thorough. There were stains from oil and grease throughout the cabin. The table where Ted made the bomb was covered in oil, soder, and rebar. He had Tide on the shelf, and saltpeter was present for the bomb-making. One of the most interesting things Ted had made was a shoe that could disguise his footprints. He put a woman’s shoe on the bottom of his actual shoes so that he could steal items from nearby campers without the crime being tied back to him. We recreated the shoes and they’re in the Cabin as well.

AF: Were you able to visit the actual Cabin?

EC: I never visited the actual Cabin, it’s currently in Washington D.C. in a museum. That said, our showrunner and director Greg Yaitanes visited it during pre-production, and went on the field trip with the actual James Fitzgerald. The Cabin in the museum is empty, but we his pictures helped us hone in on the small details, like the oil and grease stains on the walls and floor.

AF: Did you ever meet Jim Fitzgerald when prepping the show?

EC: We did. We saw his comparisons and analysis. We were able to get our hands on his original copy of the Manifesto. It was compelling, to say the least. He visited the set a couple of times during production, even once with his wife. They went into the cabin and took pictures because he never could during the trial. It was all evidence during the trial.

AF: How about the Manifesto itself? How many did you have to make?

EC: We made a ton, easily over 15 or 20. Some of them were used as Jim’s, so they had to be in various states of being marked up. This also helped us with the block shooting. We could swap out which manifesto that Sam was on depending on the scene, and we could expedite the shoot along.

It also allowed us to do more research ourselves. As part of the prep, we picked it apart ourselves. We looked for the phrases that Jim looked for, and we marked them up as we went. It gave us more insight into Jim’s process, which ended up being a lot of fun. Our team could really dive into the minutia of the manifesto and Ted’s letters, especially those to his Mom and Brother. We actually had questions for Jim, questions that even Jim couldn’t always answer. I’m not going to lie, it made our team proud that they could stump even Jim.

AF: What was the process of recreating the bombs like? What about the other evidence?

EC: Well it was intense. We had to recreate 17 bombs, all down to every little detail. We obviously didn’t make any of them with explosive, but we made sure they had the same trigger mechanics. The other stuff was also really interesting to build. To type out all the letters, we had to make a special typewriter so we could get extreme close up shots of the writing itself.

We also got a lot of pictures of the evidence from the University of Michigan. We were able to recreate all the photos that we had on loan, and we built the evidence ourselves. I think my favorite thing we crafted were the letters from Ted to his brother.

AF: Really? How did you manage that?

EC: Well it was an interesting process but extremely rewarding. We had Paul (Bettany) write a handful of the letters in his own handwriting. From there, we created our own “Bettany” font, so that we could make all the letter match up. So all the handwritten notes on the show are Paul’s actual handwriting. Our team typed out all the letters and aged them so it was like we had the actual letters on hand.

AF: How about the sketch? How did you go about that?

EC: Well remember we recreated the original sketch and the iconic one that was on time. The one that was plastered on newspapers and on magazines was the 2nd one. It was discovered afterward that it was more of a composite of the original sketch artist, a man named Clarence. However, for the scene in which Jim reveals that to Ted’s brother, we did recreate the original sketch as well.

AF: That’s really interesting. Now did you have a favorite episode of the series?

EC: That is easy. The “Ted” episode as we all called it was one of my favorite episodes I’ve ever worked on. It was great to have an episode that had a period setting but also inter-spliced in more modern times as well. Our writer head writer, Andrew (Sodroski) had read more about this case than anyone we’d ever met. He had found evidence that Ted had some relationships with people in town, including a woman who worked at a library. There wasn’t any romantic component, but they seemed close. That’s where we see Ted start to waver, and he even makes the piano toy for her son’s birthday, only to watch him get an electric keyboard. It was the intersection of his frustration, where his handmade piano can’t compete with the modern marvel. We found that powerful.

AF: How did you reconstruct the Murray lab at Harvard?

EC: Well we were filming in Georgia, so we weren’t shooting on location. However, we found a campus nearby, at Clark Atlanta University, that had similar aesthetics to Harvard’s brick buildings. As for the lab itself, we didn’t actually have any photographic evidence of the lab itself. So we began by researching the MKUltra program that was being run by the CIA. We also looked into the EKG testing of the time in other labs. From that base in research, we were able to have some idea of what Murray’s lab could have looked like, but we also took some artistic license to bring the scene to life.

AF: So what’s up next for you now that “Manhunt: Unabomber” has concluded?

EC: Well as soon as I finished work on “Manhunt” I began production on season two of “Six” for History Channel. I got to go home for 3 days but then went straight to Vancouver. I actually haven’t seen the post-production episodes for most of “Unabomber” because it hasn’t aired up here. When I saw them, we only had the rough cuts ready. It was interesting to watch “Ted” because it didn’t even have music when I watched it.

AF: That’s crazy. Well, I want to let you know it was a great little series with some great work from you!

EC: Thanks, I really appreciate that!

What do you think? What did you find most interesting about crafting “Manhunt: Unabomber?” Let us know in the comments below! 

Read our original Review of “Manhunt: Unabomber” here.

Manhunt: Unabomber” is currently streaming on Netflix.