EXCLUSIVE: 'Manhunt: Unabomber' Showrunner Greg Yaitanes on Genius Porn, True Crime and Season 2

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Over 20 years after helming an episode of America’s Most Wanted -- yes, that long-running docuseries hosted by John Walsh -- director Greg Yaitanes is back in the true crime world following his transition into prestige TV with House, Grey’s Anatomy, Lost and most recently, Cinemax’s Banshee and Quarry. Now, he’s the showrunner of Discovery Channel’s anticipated new anthology series, Manhunt, which debuts its first season, Unabomber, on Tuesday, Aug. 1.

The first season follows FBI agent and criminal profiler James “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington) as he pioneers new forensic linguistics to find and ultimately capture Ted Kaczynski (Paul Bettany), the nation’s deadliest serial bomber in history. The 8-episode series written by Andrew Sodroski (scribe of Holland, Michigan, which topped Hollywood’s 2013 Black List) offers a perspective of the FBI’s hunt not often seen. 

MORE: Jane Lynch Transforms Into Janet Reno on Discovery's 'Manhunt: Unabomber'

“I had no idea Jim Fitzgerald was a real person,” Yaitanes says during a conversation with ET at the London Hotel in New York City. After reading Sodroski’s script, he found himself googling the FBI agent, who is now an author and has appeared as an expert on The Case of: JonBenet Ramsey and served as a technical advisor for Criminal Minds. “I found that Jim was real and very much at the center of this case and I had never heard of him. I thought it would be a good challenge to see how I could, with all this anticipation of telling the story of the Unabomber, tell it through another character.”

In a conversation with ET, the director opens up about making linguistics sexy, TV’s true crime fascination and what’s in store for the anthology series. 

ET: Fitz’s story is not one I’d heard before, even going back to research the Unabomber while watching the first couple of episodes. Was that part of the interest a show about the Unabomber, like, “Let’s give the audience a side of this story that’s never been told before?”

Greg Yaitanes: Nobody’s been able to really crack the story of the Unabomber because it’s only half a story, and even the things you do remember -- you know, Kaczynski’s brother coming forward and the cabin -- they were all connected by this missing piece, which is Fitzgerald. Everybody was taking credit for his discoveries and his forensic linguistics, which he created for this case. So we went with an approach that immediately diffused if the FBI was going to catch him. It's not a question if he's caught. That's only a Google search away to find the answer to that. Instead we decided to construct it where it's about the how. And the how is so interesting because it was invented for this, and in the telling of the how you get to see all the systems that are in place in society and our relationship to technology and also when you have a voice and you're trying to be heard, how people react to change (and they don't react well).

What surprised me the most about the show is how interesting you were able to make the linguistics investigation. In some ways it reminded me of Zodiac and the intrigue of solving a puzzle and putting all the pieces together.

That was very important. Andrew and I, we called it genius porn, where movies stop for a second and explain some big concept -- anything from people working on whiteboards to Back to the Future, where they have a whole model of how it's going to work. It was important that in things like episode three, where Fitz and Natalie [Lynn Collins] talk about the Slavic homeland, that that was a tangible, physical example by using the nachos to tell the story and to walk everybody through it. My first and foremost priority was that everybody was able to understand the concept being talked about because I wanted everybody to be included in the ride.

MORE: Watch the First Trailer for Discovery's 'Manhunt: Unabomber'

Episode six is largely a flashback to Kaczynski’s upbringing and journey leading up to his life as the Unabomber. Why was it important to have that episode and was there any discussion about how it would humanize his story?

When Andrew and I got together, the first thing we talked about was that we have an opportunity to tell a standalone episode and how should we approach that, what should be included, because that was a very fine clock on our hour of TV. So we decided to frame it around the day of publication of the manifesto. That’s how it was born: We wanted to show you what his present life was like because we don’t get to see that -- because audiences first meet him in prison [in episode one]. Then we picked Doug, [his childhood friend] who he talks about in his journal. We would have loved if we had more time to, like, explore his life as professor of Berkeley. That would have been the chapter we would have included in there, but there just wasn't the room.

In addition to serving as showrunner and executive producer, you directed all eight episodes. Why was that important for you to do?

This is the third time I had done it. I did it when I did Children of Dune. I did it on Quarry. And for me, the amount of research and work and immersion into the world – [it] would be unfair to parachute a guest director in and expect them to do this all at once. I was interested in seeing what another director could do with episode six. Discovery and Lionsgate were used to a more traditional structure of episodic directors, but that just didn't feel like it would be cohesive. Also, I’ve transitioned a lot of actors out of film into TV, and the thing that I had found that rattled them the most was the changing directors. That applies to Paul Bettany and Sam Worthington. I thought, given the newness of television for the both of them, keeping consistency with one person and one voice, they could figure out the rhythm. It could have derailed the whole thing. We had a very tight schedule to get Paul out for The Avengers, so that was also in consideration. 

Photo: Discovery Channel

Paul very much looks like Ted, especially those shots of him in the hoodie and sunglasses. And even Jane Lynch channels Janet Reno quite well onscreen. How important was it for the actors to have the right look in addition to whatever they were able to bring to the role?

With Ted, the only thing I wanted to really recreate was his iconic images -- that if you were to do a Google search, that is what you would see. Beyond that, we took our cues off of evidence found in the cabin as to what he wore and how people described him.

I didn't want to make a wax museum version of the show. It was very important that these were inhabited with the intention of these characters, so we had excellent hair and makeup that really felt real without losing the performance. If you really look, we pulled back on a few elements of Ted because it felt it could fall into caricature. You have two characters that Will Ferrell has played on Saturday Night Live. And it was just important that nothing would ever fall into satire or being distracting. It was all intended to be very nuanced. It was important that everything was of a tone.

Jane really got the walk down for Janet Reno. You know, Ted had blue eyes, but Paul's eyes are so piercing. He and I just talked and we felt that would just become distracting. Paul was on a diet that was very similar to Ted’s. He lived in a way very similar to Ted during production, but it was more just to come from an informed place.

True crime continues to be a popular genre on television with shows like American Crime Story and the upcoming Law & Order: True Crime about the Menendez Brothers, as well as all the documentaries. Was there any hesitation about where Manhunt would fit or how it would stand out?

No. That's the quick answer. I think that any time I've ever taken on anything on television, I always try to find some cinematic touchstone that we can talk about. All the President's Men, The Insider, Silence of the Lambs -- these were films that we talked about. Those were the things that we reached for. We felt this was a dramatic thriller. You know, when I saw The Insider, they turned a story of 60 Minutes into a hot, tense thriller. I want to do the same thing with language and tell the same thing with this story.

And I think there's room for all of it because it's fascinating. You have to remember all these things have been dramatized once before. There's already been a Menendez movie and a Unabomber movie. You know back in the day they would rip from the headlines and rush to make some TV movie about stuff. They would be almost comical to look back on now, 20 years later, when you see them. So it was nice the material attracted our cast. It really helped to elevate it. But Manhunt is more of a commentary on what’s happening now around us. If you can separate the bomber from the message he was sending, the message was prophetic; it was a look at our relationship and addiction to technology. He called it all 20 years ago. He could see it coming.

Considering this has been promoted as a potential anthology series, have you thought about a second season and if you would do it?

We were originally a limited series that was going to be contained, and then Discovery saw an opportunity to continue it as an anthology, which I think is exciting. We put forth a couple of areas which could be interesting, but whether that all comes together and when it wants to come together is too early to tell. I’m very open to the idea, especially if there was more opportunity to cross over some with the world and characters from Unabomber.

MORE: Amanda Knox, O.J. Simpson and Our Fascination With True Crime

It’s funny you mention crossing over with the current season, because there’s a moment when the camera pans over Janet Reno’s desk and you see all these case files for crimes as the time, like Waco, Oklahoma City and World Trade Center. And I thought it would be great if Janet Reno is the connective thread for potential new seasons.

It is amazing how much was on her desk at any given time. I think about the work I do for one TV show and I was looking at that desk, which is an exact recreation of Reno's desk, and I think the detail of the show is something that immerses you into the ‘90s. But Janet's desk -- I couldn't imagine if I was doing a show about all that stuff -- but there was tons of stuff on her desk. And yes, there are maybe some future seasons on that desk.

The show hasn’t aired yet on TV, but has any of the real-life people involved reacted to the news or making of the series?

Not yet. I expect people will come out of the woodwork that have very shamelessly taken credit for Jim's work, that had built their own narratives on that. We had to change a lot of names of the people who are not considered public figures and we conflated people to make individual characters. I know it's on Ted’s radar because Jim reached out to Ted prior to [making the series]. We were instructed not to, but we know Ted knows there’s a show being made about him.

My hope is that David Kaczynski [played by Mark Duplass] sees this and would feel that it was accurate. My hope is that Ted would see and feel that we represented his story fairly. I know Jim feels this tells the story of how this investigation went. We don't do this to disparage anything or anybody.

Even when I was mounting production, people were coming out of the woodwork like, “I’m the guy who caught the Unabomber.” I was like, “OK, but I’m doing a show about the guy who caught the Unabomber.” And they're like, “Well I was there. I was the SWAT guy in the fifth tree to the right who had him in my sights.” And it’s like, “OK.” It was obviously an enormous sprawling effort, but I think Andrew telling the story through the lens of Fitz and how Fitz went deep into the case and became obsessed with the case and how it affected his world is unique. I think we move away from any of the kind of tired tropes of the detective investigation but try to embrace what really happened and use that to propel the story.

Manhunt: Unabomber’s two-hour premiere airs Tuesday, Aug. 1 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the Discovery Channel.