As part of my job covering television, I get the opportunity talk to a lot of people behind the scenes, whether it’s showrunners, directors, producers or writers, who are responsible for bringing the programming we all watch, love and talk about to viewers. One of my favorite creatives to talk to, over the last few years, has been Greg Yaitanes, who has served as showrunner, executive producer, producing director and director for hire on various TV series, including House, Banshee, Quarry and, most recently, Manhunt: Unabomber. He always has great insight into the productions he’s involved with, and I think it makes the projects themselves that much more interesting.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Greg Yaitanes talked about how he came to Manhunt: Unabomber (which he directed all eight episodes of), what he’s most proud of having accomplished with the series, what most impressed him about the work that Paul Bettany (as Ted Kaczynski) and Sam Worthington (as Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald) did in their roles, how he prefers to approach a shooting schedule, his favorite moments in the series, the insight he got into the unabomber, and how the series could possibly continue. He also talked about what he’s doing next, how he wants to move forward with his career, why he’d consider doing a revival of House (not that anything has been seriously talked about), and why the job of producer/director is critical to TV shows.
Collider: How did this come your way, and how much did you get to read?
GREG YAITANES: There was a single pilot script. My agent also represents (creator) Andrew [Sodroski]. I explained what I was looking for next and he said, “You should take a look at this.” When I read it, I thought it was fantastic, but my first question was, “Is this real?” I thought I knew the case. I was directing America’s Most Wanted in 1995, and I thought I remembered the unabomb case really well, but I had never heard of Jim Fitzgerald or seen him on any documentary. I read and digested a lot of material on the unabomber because I was fascinated by society and the cultural fascination of it. I was in D.C. and working in law enforcement, at the time, so it was interesting. I thought this was a created character, like Mark Wahlberg’s character in Patriot’s Day. I thought Jim Fitzgerald was just a way to finally tell the unabomber story. And then, they sent me this 20-page chapter of a larger book that was individual profilers talking about a meaningful case of theirs, and there it was. The whole season was right there in front of me, in terms of how they used language and the big moves. Directing all eight of these, every episode was like a pilot because there was no road map for us to go on, in creating this. It was all of that colliding to be able to tell something where we can really hang our hat on how factual and accurate the story is.
Looking back on this series, as a whole, what are you most proud of having accomplished with it? What do you feel are your biggest personal achievements on this production?
YAITANES: This is the third time I’ve directed the entirety of a series, and I find that always a great physical accomplishment, as well as an artistic accomplishment. Within [Manhunt: Unabomber], particularly Episode 6 is probably the most meaningful to show that we’ve been talking about a character and created a character and bore witness to a character that is entirely human and goes through much of the same things that everybody else does and isn’t that different from everybody else. Seeing that reaction in that particular episode, Andrew’s writing, Paul’s work, and the work of the rest of the cast was really the most rewarding part of this. I’m pleased how we wrap up the show in an exciting way with a chapter that nobody knows about. Nobody knows how close he came to walking. John Hinckley is on supervised release right now, and he tried to assassinate the President. That could very well have been Ted Kaczynski today. There was no guarantee that they were going to put him behind bars.
Throughout the season, the storytelling jumped around in time. Why did you want to tell the story that way?
YAITANES: That was by design. There really isn’t going to be much mystery in if they caught the unabomber, so we wanted to pretty immediately diffuse what could just be a quick Google search to find out how the story ends. It wasn’t about that. It was really about the how. The most interesting hour of the O.J. documentary was after the trial. I had no idea there was a whole life that happened after the not guilty verdict, and that’s the case here. The arrest is really the beginning of the story. As exciting as it is to get the victory of how he was caught, it was very real that Ted Kaczynski almost walked. Bill Cosby was acquitted. John Hinckley is on supervised release, and he shot the president. O.J. walked. The Menendez brothers had a hung jury. It was very real that Ted was gonna walk, and Ted’s strategy was dead-on right. Had there not been some questionable ethics during the trial, it’s very possible that Ted could have gotten the search warrant thrown out and the Unabomber could have just walked out the front door. It was really crazy. Being able to tell those stories simultaneously was important.
There’s something so electrifying about watching Paul Bettany and Sam Worthington together.
YAITANES: It’s funny, when I saw Heat, I was always disappointed that Michael Mann hadn’t framed Pacino and De Niro in the same shot together. If you notice, the first time they meet, that two-shot was one of the first images I wanted to use. I just wanted you to be able to relish these two great actors in frame together. I had a still photo that a set photographer took of De Niro and Pacino talking, but it was never in the movie. I had that up in the writers’ room for inspiration. And I had a photo of Will Farrell as Ted Kaczynski, for what can happen if we don’t get this right. I was trying to thread the needle within that space.
How did you cast these two roles?
YAITANES: It’s interesting, it started with Discovery. Discovery was like, “We want big stars for this. We want a great cast. We want to go for it. We feel this is great material.” And I felt it was great material. When (casting director) John Papsidera came on, he recognized it was great material. We did not have any problem getting anybody to engage. It was really fantastic. When you hear Sam talk about what he was looking for, this was the perfect thing for him. And then, we were looking for Ted and looking for someone that could capture the empathy of Ted, and not just the oddness and otherness of Ted, and the second Paul came up, I was like, “That’s it!” Sometimes you feel fated to work with an actor, and Paul was definitely one of those people.
What did you think when you saw what Paul Bettany had put himself through for this role?
YAITANES: It was what you hope for. I’ve seen a lot of people that I’ve been excited to work with not take what they’re doing very seriously, and that disappoints me. Sam and Paul kept me on my game. I often feel like I’m the person working hardest on a show, and when I see people that are working as hard or harder, and we all have each other’s backs, that’s so invigorating and inspiring. Every day, you’re like, “How far can we take it? How much can we do?” And Paul was great. We would get together in the morning, before the crew even came in, and just talk about the day and what we hoped to achieve. Paul would give me things that I just didn’t imagine, and you have to be watching, as a director. You can’t just watch the monitor. You have to watch them. I also wanted to be sure to be a sounding board because they were new to the medium and the medium moves very quickly. Quickly and doing your best work don’t often go together, so the things was getting them and helping them to take their process and give them some efficiencies and short cuts to get to that good work. They quickly saw that this wasn’t something where anybody could indulge in a lot of talk about it. We just had to be in a stage of doing and working from your gut.
That’s how I chose to work on this. We had too short of prep to prep it at the level of detail that I have in the past, so I went for a much more instinctual set up for what was happening in each scene. It was an interesting way of working for me. I’ve done this for 25 years, so I feel like I can work, act and think quickly, and that’s what you’re seeing. We had an amazing make-up team. It was important that it was the spirit of the photos. I think if we had portrayed it as the photos, it would have been too much. It was about the degree with which you were portraying the accuracy and being okay with that. Where I land is, do you buy it? Do you believe this is the essence of Kaczynski? I looked at what Oliver Stone did on Nixon and how he took Anthony Hopkins and captured the inner life of Nixon. That’s what was important. We had unprecedented access to the case. We had an unpublished autobiography of Ted’s, we had access to the case files, and we had research to things the public has never seen because it was all pre-internet. The www.FBI.gov site was only two months old.