Director Thomas Schlamme on ‘Manhattan’ Season 3 and The Novelistic Experience of Great TV

Director Thomas Schlamme on 'Manhattan' Season 3 and The Novelistic Experience of Great TV
Director Thomas Schlamme on 'Manhattan' Season 3 and The Novelistic Experience of Great TV

If it weren’t for an unsuccessful Mike Myers rom-com, director Thomas Schlamme might not have won so many Emmys.

READ MORE: Watch: Something Stinks with These Tax Forms in Exclusive ‘Manhattan’ Clip

After the 1993 film “So I Married an Ax Murderer” failed to take off at the box office, Schlamme found himself in “movie jail,” which meant directing television. But being a television director in the ’90s meant that Schlamme had the opportunity to become a part of the medium’s incredible ascension to greatness. Thanks in part to his signature walk-and-talk style, shows like “Sports Night” and “The West Wing” became iconic favorites, and since then Schlamme has maintained his reputation as one of the most interesting directors working on an episodic basis.

Currently serving as the executive producer of WGN America’s “Manhattan,” Schlamme spoke with Indiewire via phone to reveal what draws him to certain material, what the game plan might be for future seasons of “Manhattan” and what makes the show so very different from “The West Wing.”

Congratulations on “Manhattan’s” second season. How are you feeling about it?

I feel really excited about it. I’m very happy. I had an incredible time doing it, I’m really proud of the show. And I’m anxious for people to see it. I feel great.

I’m curious what it’s like coming to a show as a producer/director versus being just a director? Is there a specific difference in that for you?

Well, it’s hugely different because to be both producer/director, or in this case executive producer and cutting up the show after Sam has written four years of drafts — we worked on it together and then sold it. The sense of that show and what it means to you is emotionally different than when you walk on a set and you’re an episodic director. The act of directing — when I’m actually doing it — there’s no difference. But the aggregate of the whole is everything involved.

In looking at your IMDB listing, you pretty much have stuck to television. I’m curious, is there something specific behind that?

Well, I would say the reason that it first started was I was put a little bit into movie jail after “[So I Married an] Ax Murderer,” and it was probably the best thing that’s happened because I had loved television, I was doing television. I grew up with the fantasy of being what was perceived as a filmmaker. So I am a filmmaker, I just happen to work in a different medium now in my mind.

At that time, when I went to school, there was a thing of being a movie snob. But what happened after “Ax Murderer” was that I realized, with some of the work that I had done, television had the ability to do the kinds of stories that I was interested in. And having the ability to at least get those, where in movies I wasn’t [able], I became committed to television. But as I continued to work in it I realized that who I am and how I tell stories — some of the things that people worry about with television, the pace and how much less time you have than movies — is the very thing that I’m most attracted to. I like that pace. I like the fact that you’re making something, and it was just the summer and now all 10 of them are going to be on the air very soon. It’s not a year and a half later after doing it that you reap the benefit of somebody seeing it. Now I think I was lucky enough to be working in television when, in fact, I think some of our best storytelling is done on television.

It’s not a stretch to say that you’ve been a really influential part of that shift, too.

Thank you very much. [laughs] I would never say that, but I have at least been on the journey while it’s happened. So it feels great to be part of that. And it feels great for me to celebrate television and to see so many other people celebrating television in this way. The other thing I find with television is the intimacy of it, and how you can tell stories and how intimate the audience is with the characters that you’re creating. And that is a very rewarding process. I’m very happy I do what I do.

I want to nerd-out on television with you for a bit. Is there something that exemplifies that for you — the intimacy of television?

Yeah, actually this show “Manhattan.” Characters become much closer to you in television. Somebody once said, “If a movie star and a television star are driving in a car together, people will point at the movie star, and then they’ll run over to the television star and want to talk to them.” And it’s because they feel, “I know you. You’re somebody I know.” So in some ways just doing “Manhattan” and thinking about the personal crisis that these people are going under, and how that evolves in a season or two or hopefully three and four, it gives us the benefit of having an audience connect much more emotionally to what it must have been like for people to be in that environment. You’re getting to tell novelistic stories.

I think that’s why so many brilliant writers are gravitating towards television, especially now. It’s not necessarily that you have to do 100 episodes in order to be financially solvent on a television show. That was the old adage, and that put a lot of pressure on how to tell stories. But people are realizing “Hey, if 35 episodes tells your story, then do 35 episodes. If eight episodes tells your story, do eight episodes. If 100 episodes tells your story, do that.” You get to write these novels and shoot these novels and it’s a better way than, “I’ve got to keep repeating these stories because I need 100 episodes.” I think that changed a lot.

It’s interesting, too, because of the binge-viewing model, where it even changes the experience of watching a TV show into a novelistic experience. You’re checking with your friends: “How far have you gotten into this? Okay, we can talk about it this far.”

Right, and the good news is that you can watch eight hours, much like a great book that you just don’t want to put down. “I’m sorry, I know I can read another hour of it next week, but it’s got me and I want to keep watching it.” The thing that’s not great about that is the uniqueness of television and waiting and getting to talk to people who are watching it also. But as you just said, you’re in a room… This just happened the other day, people were talking about something and I said, “I have to walk away. I can’t engage in this because you’re way ahead of me in the viewing process than I am.”

And the communal element after you watch it privately– The communal element is a little bit lost, but that’s the trade-off and I like the idea that we get to tell these very long serialized stories. And people have the ability to consume that in a certain moment and not if they missed the show the first season, you can’t get them the second or third or fourth season because they’re not going to sit and watch all those shows. They will sit and watch it, and that’s great.

Have you heard any anecdotal evidence of people binge-viewing “Manhattan”?

Yeah, I think that this summer, in us being very early and sending out the Emmy tapes. WGN was really great about that. We all get bombarded by these tapes during Emmy time and the fact that they sent it out first and then people got it and it was really well designed, you could just put it on your desk or at home, family room. And I found a number of people who really didn’t know about the show, then watched the show and said, “We watched the first couple and then we started to watch more and then once we were three or four in we just couldn’t stop.” It seems the engine really went fast for them to get to the end of the season. Those are people I run into. I’m always like “People love our show because six of my friends told me they really like it.” [laughs] I don’t know how much you can use that as evidence of people binge-watching “Manhattan,” but I got more response, in truth, during the summer once people had the whole series, than I had during the season last year.

It’s such an interesting show because the expectation you have when you first sit down to watch it is, “This is going to be something similar to ‘The West Wing,'” in terms of ra-ra patriotism, and it’s a very different show in many respects.

It’s very different, and that was one of the things that dramatically attracted me to the show. I loved being part of “West Wing,” I mean, really loved it. I also believed that at that moment in my life and the moment of where we were as a country, a Valentine to public service was overdue, certainly a smart one. So I was very happy to do that. I also do believe, personally with my own particular politics, I feel very much a patriot, but I also think real patriots are the people who question the things we do and not assuming our government is doing all the virtuous and right things. There was room for that in “West Wing,” but you still wanted at the end of the day for them to have done the right thing, and that was the point of the show.

This show I think has a different point of view, which is definitely about this darker secret element of our government. Which is there, I don’t think they’re always doing that, but I think we would be children if we just believed they were always virtuous. It’s simply not. I think this show highlights that moral ambiguity and hopefully puts into light that no one is in any way trying to be evil, they’re making decisions that they believe from their point of view and their world point is the right decision to be made, and maybe not the most virtuous one.

But at the same time we understand as an audience that it’s all in the common good, so how does that affect us as viewers?

That’s the point. At the end of the day, no matter what happens, they were trying to end a war. A war against a rather very dark presence in Europe and in Japan, so that’s the thing that was so interesting to me that you start with an element, you are doing something that is good. But in the process of that, which is the being certainly of the second season. How much evil do you need to do in order to do good? I find that certainly as I get older in life and look at my own life, and I think it’s really a wonderful thing for all of us to look at ourselves about the choices we make in our lives.

You talked about what personally connected you to the show, but what else really draws you to the material?

First and foremost, really smart writing. That is for me the key to getting deeply involved. I am not a writer, I have I hope an ability to take really good writing and translate it and become a collaborator, one of many that begins the journey of making any sort of film. But that’s the key to it.

Then at this point I have to say, it does have to have some sort of relevance to the world today. I want it first and foremost to be entertaining, that’s all I really care about. But I don’t want to entertain on what I believe is a piece of information that is not completely necessary, that the world is just filled with. That’s not censorship, that’s just my own internal censorship. Anybody can tell any story they want, but I just want to find things that really fascinate me, provoke me, and make me not only question how to do the story, but “How does it affect me? Does it make me grow? Is there something I can work on?”

The process is so important in my life at this point, so the genre for what it is is infinite. Somebody gave me a great piece of science fiction, and I would love to do a Western, but genre means very little to me right now. It’s just really great writing and what do you want to tell stories about, and fascinating characters. Which is what clearly made me very excited about “Manhattan.” And the other thing is it was really a challenge and that’s very exciting at this point in my life. “How in the world are we going to put this show together? How do you create a world that the military went in and created?” They made a whole city out of something. The first four or five months of working on this show once we got a green light were really frightening and exhilarating.

What I love about the set is that they built it just so you could do walk-and-talks.

When we did find it I have to say I was like, “Holy…” and at that point it hadn’t been cut out, every one of those buildings were interconnected by hallways. I went, “I promise you guys I didn’t find this…that’s actually not even the visual concept I have for the show necessarily.” But it was pretty amazing. I found a 12-acre piece of property that was all interconnected and I didn’t have to cut in there if I didn’t want to.

How much do you know about what a potential Season 3 would be?

The truth is [creator Sam Shaw] and I and the other writers, we certainly talked a lot about what Season 3 is. We certainly know thematically what Season 3 is, which is the aftermath of what happened to the place, that was the most secret place in the whole world, becoming one of the most exposed places in the world. When all of those secrets get exposed what happens? As well as who are the new enemies? And I think we’re setting that up in Season 2, where it’s the birth of the Cold War. That’s why this show always was never about the end of World War II, but always about the new world order that World War II ushered in, and the birth of the Atomic Age. For us always, these two seasons are Act 1 in a three-act series. By dropping the bomb, now they’ve opened Pandora’s box, and that begins the next chapter of our storytelling.

And how many more chapters do you see happening?

What was amazing was when I first read the script, I had the same feeling that a lot of the executives had when we went to pitch the script. What the hell do you do after you’ve dropped the bomb? That was always Sam’s secret, which was that he was far more interested in years after the bomb was dropped than in the years coming to dropping the bomb. When we went to pitch, he had six or seven seasons pretty well mapped out as to how the progression of this. Obviously, the other benefit of television is evolution, it’s the best thing of television. If you allow it to live, it’s what I call writer’s Darwinism: one character is going to do that and then the characters just take on a life of their own. And they begin to write what the pictures are informing them on, and I think that was true of the season. But it’s very easy to show progress.

“Manhattan” airs Tuesdays at 9pm on WGN America. 

READ MORE: ‘Manhattan’ Creator Sam Shaw Understands Why You Didn’t Watch Season One

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