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Meet Erik Carlson, The Designer Behind ‘Manhunt: Unabomber’

Production designer Erik Carlson created sets from Wisteria Lane and worked with Christopher Nolan. His most recent project had him working alongside Greg Yaitanes to create the famous cabin of Ted Kaczynski, the man better known as the Unabomber. From recreating the letters on the Smith Corona typewriter to building the bombs, Carlson combed over details with a fine tooth comb to bring the story to life.

Manhunt: Unabomber tells the true story of the hunt for the deadliest serial bomber in American history. The Discovery Channel delves into scripted TV series to tell the story as the FBI hunts down, identifies, and eventually captures Ted Kaczynski, played by Paul Bettany.

Erik Carlson is the production designer responsible for bringing the visuals and intricate details of Kacznyski’s cabin to life again, recreating everything from the typewriter to the FBI rooms. Carlson explains how creator Greg Yaitanes was adamant fine attention to the smallest of details with no errors for the sharp-eyed viewer.

What was it about this story that attracted you to the project?

I’d say there were so many factors. Many of the shows I’ve worked on in the past haven’t dealt with reality. I found the timeframe and character really interesting. It was a combination of the writer, the director and content that drew me to the project. I didn’t know who the actors were or where it was going to be shot, but I really liked the subject matter. director and content that drew me to the project. I didn’t know who the actors were or where it was going to be shot, but I really liked the subject matter.

I was given the other episodes and interview, I was given the script to the pilot and those first three pages draw you in, the intrigue, the voiceover talking about how vulnerable society is. The fact that Ted Kaczynski’s story seems like it’s more of a lesson to be learned today more than then about how much we rely on technology.

I’ve been scouting these last few days with the director of my latest project and his phone isn’t working so we’ve realized how dependent we are on those sources of technology for everything. Whether it’s prepping for a TV show or film, it’s incredible how reliant we’ve become on this medium. It definitely goes into play in Kaczynski’s story and how you can somewhat be sympathetic for his message, but also understand that his method was so messed up. He didn’t care who opened up the package, he just wanted to get that message across as forcibly as possible which is sad because his message was very good and it makes sense in today’s society, but he did a bad bad job of giving that message out.

It’s so interesting you say that because who thought we would be saying that in 2017.

If you read the manifesto or any of the letters out of context without knowing what he did to get the message out, it’s all totally rational and totally makes sense.

During the series, our theme throughout is somewhat of control and those ways of control. We showed how college was meant to liberate us so that we were free to travel whenever and wherever as far as we could imagine, but the whole system of vehicles has chained us to the car, especially in LA, there’s nothing you can do without a car. So, we took that idea and started playing with that through color and red lights and green lights.

Whether it’s in prison or meeting Ted for the first time, it’s a whole series of interchanges. He has to wait at a red light before he’s allowed to go through the jail bars before the light turns green. We did it in the Harvard lab in episode six, we played with the red light when the movie is played back to the young Ted to reflect his emotions.

You’ll see the control of red light and green light throughout and that was Greg’s idea which I thought was really interesting.

You talk about the manifesto and the letters, what was the most valuable resource for you?

It was the writer’s assistant who found every piece of documentation that Ted had ever written. The letters, the manifesto, and photos. There were photos of Ted and his brother from when he was a kid. Every letter that they know of that was written by Ted to his mother or to his brother was something useful. We took those and recreated them letter for letter.

Our team took Paul Bettany’s writing sample, created the font from his handwriting and recreated every letter that Ted wrote in Paul’s handwriting. All the close-ups were Paul’s handwriting.

The collections library had all the FBI photos after they stormed the cabin so all those evidence photos were there for us to take and recreate every single piece of evidence that was there. Everything was accurate right down to the quarter of an inch. They took photos with rulers and so the set dresser had the task to recreate everything.

That cabin was going to play a major character, it is so iconic and it’s one of those things that you can Google and know where we messed up or was lazy. We were as close as we could get to the real thing based on the photos.

We dressed and redressed that cabin dozens of times depending on which version we were working with. We built three different versions. One was in the woods, one could be lifted and transported, and one was on stage without walls and easy for us to film in.

We had to document everything and for such a small place, it’s amazing how many individual pieces of material ended up in that tiny cabin.

It is a huge part of who he was. You also have the grittiness and grime of it down. How did you create those textures?

What helped us the most for those, Greg when he was prepping met with the real James Fitzgerald in Washington D.C who took him to the museum where the cabin his held. He probably took 120-150 photos of the real cabin. He took every angle possible so we knew exactly what the roofing material was, we knew about his desk and why it was covered in soot and wax. His bed area we knew from the letters and the photos, that the dirt was mainly from Winters in Montana. He had to cut a hole in the cabin floor to go to the bathroom and he was trapped in there for months at a time. He’d spend weeks at a time against the wall reading books so getting that grit and grime from 25-years of living in the cabin alone.

We knew we wanted to get those textures and contracts to help motivate Paul when he was in there so he could immerse himself further into the character.

A lot of it is so meticulous and the typewriter was just as important.

Our biggest source for compiling a lot of the stuff came from eBay and Craigslist. It was amazing what we were able to find. I don’t know how we were able to do the show without Ebay.

There were several typewriters in Ted’s attic, but the one they were able to tie the letters to was a Smith-Corona typewriter and we bought two of them and manufactured the third one.

Greg really wanted to emphasize the scale when we did wide shots. Our main focus was that we wanted to delve into the absolute macro minutia of all those pieces. As each key was being struck, Greg wanted to make you feel like you were inside it.

The same with the bombs, Greg wanted the cameras inside the bombs, as much detail as we put into the cabin, we did with the bombs, putting as much detail into that as we could.

How did you find the right location?

We were able to find this incredible property about 30 miles north of downtown Atlanta. This one property served a ton of our needs. We felt it captured this spot so well. We could use some of the cabins on the property that served as the FBI command posts right before they stormed the cabin.

The woods were able to serve as a starting point for the hikes and we’d go further north when you see Ted in the river spotting the bear and the SWAT team approach.

Our other main location was south of Atlanta at a former military base. One building we were able to use was the Pentagon of the South during the Iraq War. There was a massive war room in the basement and over 1000 sq ft of office space. We were able to use a lot of that for our FBI offices. There was an upper area for the people in charge of the operation, we had a bullpen, and a maze of basement hallways which we could adapt and create our federal prisons. We used that facility as our stage. All of the elements of the San Francisco office took place in this building just outside of Atlanta.

How many sets did you build?

For all eight episodes, we had a total of 208 sets and locations that we had to adapt for the series. For the 75 days of filming, it averages out to about three or four locations a day. The crew were going from one part of the building up to the third floor or outside, there was certainly a lot of moving around on the show.

Given this was on the Discovery Channel. What was it like making this and was there any pressure because of that?

I would say there was some pressure. I like the fact that these channels that don’t traditionally scripted content are starting to delve into that. The series I’m doing now is on the History Channel. For both of these shows, accuracy is a premium. I very much working on Desperate Housewives, it’s not based on reality but it has a forced dystopia.

On Unabomber, Greg stressed from the first day that nothing on set had to be created and any books we had on shelves had to be copywritten pre-1995. He didn’t want to be caught with anything that didn’t belong there. With James Fitzgerald as a producer and consultant, we were able to get his version of the manifesto with every note and every sticky note marked up. We could recreate his version line for line and it helped us with accuracy. Any questions we had, he could help answer.