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Manhunt: Unabomber exclusive interview on Ted Kaczynski’s path from prodigy to killer

Paul Bettany as Ted Kaczynski peering out a wooden cabin's door in Manhunt: Unabomber
Paul Bettany as Ted Kaczynski in Discovery’s eight-episode series Manhunt: Unabomber

One of America’s biggest serial murder mysteries for many years was that of the Unabomber — a shadowy figure who terrorized people, killing three, with lethal packages sent in the mail, all painstakingly prepared to detonate upon opening.

New series Manhunt: Unabomber comes to Discovery tonight from executive producer Andrew Sodroski and director Greg Yaitanes, who dramatized the story of Ted Kaczynski through the published recollections of an unusual and brilliant FBI profiler, Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald.

Notably, it is Fitzgerald’s pioneering use of forensic linguistics which eventually helped crack the whereabouts of the Unabomber, as Kaczynski was known. Federal agents arrested Kaczynski on April 3, 1996, at his remote cabin in Lincoln, Montana.

He killed three people, and maimed and injured 23 with a total of 16 bombs detonated over a 17-year-period. He took a six-year break but came back with a vengeance in June 1993.

The Discovery series is a tight focus of what the FBI went through as they investigated Kaczynski, a former mathematical prodigy who turned inward and outwardly raged.

The series looks at the circumstances which may have led in some way to Kaczynski doing what he did; from childhood experiences to subsequent feelings of powerlessness which an emotionally stunted man, gifted with frightening levels of intelligence, was left ill-equipped to process and manage.

Anger and rage over his perceived obsolescence from the burgeoning computer and technology era seemingly drove him mad. His self-imposed isolation further exacerbated the machinations of his bad deeds.

There are many moving pieces to the Unabomber story, and the Discovery series deftly takes us through the stages of Kaczynski’s life as we see a puzzle come together and start to explain why someone could lash out as he did.

It is also a reveal and story of profiler Jim Fitzgerald’s relationship with the FBI, his life’s work, and his unraveling of the cryptic clues that Kaczynski teased the bureau with for 17 years.

The story captured producer Yaitanes, whose creative CV is a rich portfolio of complicated narratives and stories about tortured souls such as the excellent Banshee and Quarry, along with other complex ensemble efforts like House MD.

Manhunt: Unabomber takes us from the beginning of the story in 1978, when we see the first criminal stirrings of a child prodigy, Harvard grad and anti-tech chaotician, to the present day.

Kaczynski is still alive and in prison, where he continues to write and enthrall a cultish coterie fascinated by his intelligence and crimes.

The teleplay pits Sam Worthington’s intense Jim Fitzgerald against Paul Bettany’s methodical Kaczynski in a most engaging drama.

Sam Worthington as Jim Fitzgerald, sitting across a table from Paul Bettany's Kaczynski
Sam Worthington as Jim Fitzgerald and Paul Bettany as Kaczynski

At the Television Critics Association (TCA) summer press tour, we spoke to Mark Duplass, who is cast as Ted’s brother David Kaczynski, and executive produce Sodroski, and then separately to director and producer Yaitanes about the new series.

We first asked Duplass and Sodroski about the unusual role of David, who was instrumental in his brother’s capture and even fired him in an earlier job.

Based on his research and speaking about the way Kaczynski and David interacted, Sodrowski said: “Ted was very, very careful and very smart. So he didn’t target anybody that could be connected with him in any way.

“He displaced all of his rage and feelings of betrayal that he felt towards his family and towards Professor Murray [a psychology professor who conducted an experiment on Kaczynski at Harvard] and other people in his life in a very intellectual way.

“I know their relationship was very, very testy. I think David really loved his brother, and Ted really loved David, but Ted also felt unworthy of love in general and lashed out against the people he loved and who loved him.

“David felt really tormented. He really wanted to save his brother. He didn’t know how, and he felt an obligation to the world to turn Ted in, but also an obligation to Ted to try to save his brother’s life.”

Duplass told how he drew on his relationship with his own brother when playing David. He said: “For me, the great story was there. I just had to find the right color for it.

“I work very closely with my brother and have done so for the last 20 years. We are best friends, and we are soulmates. We make movies together, and we see each other all the time. I love him so much…and I want to beat the s*** out of him all the time.

“And when Greg called me and was, like, ‘Would you have any connection to playing the brother of the Unabomber?’ I was, like, ‘Yeah. My brother and I, we spiritually and emotionally unabomb each other all the time. So I think I can get into this.”

Yaitanes became involved after Sodroski, who has the same agent, penned the script for the pilot and sent it to him.

Yaitanes said: “When I read it I couldn’t believe if this was a real person…I immediately flew to DC to meet the real Fitz [James Fitzgerald]. He really…the way he walked us through the story, it was just very clear.

“Andrew and I got together and just mapped out the season…the twist and turns of the case were even better than you could imagine, like this was real. If you wrote this, someone would be like, ‘Come on’. But it is how it happened.”

Both Yaitanes and Sodlowski were given insight from the FBI about the meticulously made bomb packages that Kaczynski sent people.

Yaitanes said: “The bombs themselves were, the methodology of them, they were tightly packed — they were very accurately shown in the show.

“We are not giving people tutorials on bomb making, but the actual…even what is inside, everything is exactly like how it was put together.

“We had access to the case file. We talked to some of the people that were involved in the case, specifically on the bomb unit.

“So, getting that accurate was good. If you notice they were like these wood containers, tightly packed, everything is of opportunity and everything was neatly sent. Nothing to tip off that there was anything weird inside.

“It was all about just getting you to obey, obey, obey.”

When Yaitanes was further researching Fitzgerald, he realized how much Ted was abused in the educational system.  This backgrounder information is explored further in the series.

Yaitanes said: “Episode 6 is entirely about Ted and Ted’s origins and exactly what happened. The episode is book-ended by the day [Kaczynski’s] manifesto [titled Industrial Society and Its Future] was published, and we really hit the major points of his life.

“The day-to-day life in the woods [Kaczynski moved to a remote cabin in Lincoln, Montana, in 1971]…when you watch you will have a sense of what those 25 years were like to him.

“He skipped two grades and was a sixth grader in an eighth-grade class. He was a total math prodigy and always being…he had a hard time connecting to people.

“So when you add a further divide of being the shortest, skinniest, youngest kid in your class and then he gets a full scholarship to Harvard at 16…

“He’s recruited by MKUltra, which is a CIA mind control experiment program at Harvard, and is weaponized effectively over the next three years by the government and becomes the Unabomber and takes all of that rage and anger of betrayal and begins to find representational targets to get his revenge on.”

“We explore all of the abuses and the conflicts and the betrayals within the show, so that you can paint your own picture of if killers are born or made.

“You don’t have to agree with what he did or how he did it, but you will understand, and that is the goal.”

Many things upset Kaczynski over the years.  Yaitanes elaborated: “He was very troubled by the planes flying over his cabin, interrupting his nature and existence, so he went after the airlines.

“He was upset about what happened at Harvard, so he went after universities. He was angry at technology, so he went to computer stores.”

When asked why he thought Kaczynski was motivated to do what he did, Yaitanes suggested that he may have been driven by a feeling of obsolescence.

Yaitaines said: “His first real exposure to a computer was of it taking what he did and diminishing it. He was a mathematician in a time when you needed a mathematician.

“You have seen [the feature film] Hidden Figures…everybody is writing on boards and coming up with equations, because computers aren’t around yet.

“But then a computer comes along and does what you can do in a day in five minutes. So, that made him feel a certain way and he talks about that in the manifesto, the emotional effect of what technology does.”

The entire fast-paced nature of technology and how it forces changes in various work environments was a core issue for Kaczynski.

Yaitanes added: “Think…even in an elevator, there used to be a guy there whose job was to take you up and down, then he gets replaced by a push button.

“I think he saw and was troubled by the exponential and alarming rate in which it was happening.

“I was a very early adopter of texting…I worked in Europe, where texting was more prominent than it was here and so I would send them. I was using them on set.

“I was using very early cell phones where you would click each button three times to get the letter you want. I was like, ‘Oh wow this is speeding it up,’ and all of a sudden it is like you cannot work without it, because everybody has come to expect it.

“So [Kaczynski’s message] was, ‘and this is what it is doing to our hearts, this is what it is doing to us as a society, and it is not a good thing’.

“It is like it is happening and it is inevitable and it is going to get worse, but he sounds the bell, because this is happening, so…if you can separate the message from the way he messaged it.”

Regarding how viewers will be left feeling about Kaczynski, Yaitanes was philosophical.

He said: “I am interested to see if people come out of the woodwork, because I think it is gray. I don’t think there are clear-cut good guys and bad guys.

“You cannot just put Ted Kaczynski in the monster box. You cannot put Fitz in the hero box. It was a perfect storm in a lot of circumstances.”

Manhunt: Unabomber airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on Discovery

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April is an accredited entertainment writer, interviewer and television critic. She is a current member of the Television Critics Association (TCA), Gay and Lesbian Entertainment... read more
April Neale
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