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‘Manhunt’ Creator Answers Burning Questions: Why Lincoln’s Onscreen Assassination Had to Be Gory, How Much Is Historically Accurate and More

SPOILER ALERT: This article discusses plot twists from the premiere episode of “Manhunt.”

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was one of the biggest turning points in American history, and the new Apple TV+ series “Manhunt” examines the behind-the-scenes drama of a wartime government thrown into further chaos. Edwin Stanton (Tobias Menzies) leads the series as Lincoln’s close confidant and secretary of war, who goes on a mission to track down John Wilkes Booth (Anthony Boyle) after he shoots President Lincoln (Hamish Linklater). The seven-episode series is based on executive producer James L. Swanson’s nonfiction book “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer,” and episodes will be released weekly after the first two debuted on March 15.

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Variety spoke with “Manhunt” creator, executive producer and writer Monica Beletsky about striving for accuracy while still telling a thrilling story, the importance of showing Lincoln’s violent death and bringing period-appropriate hygiene to television.

What was your initial research process for “Manhunt”? 

First, I stumbled upon the figure of Edwin Stanton, and that was my way in. I thought it was such a fascinating dramatic situation for a lead character to essentially fill in for the president between the assassination and Andrew Johnson the next day. For those 12 hours, we had no conscious president, so it fell upon his shoulders. When I learned he also was this close colleague of Lincoln, that they shared the loss of children, and he had asthma at a time before medicine, I just thought this is just such a rich figure for a lead role. So my idea was to tell the story through him as a cat-and-mouse thriller with Booth.

The book is nonfiction, and Mr. Swanson documents the assassination night and Booth’s escape in great detail, as well as the soldiers surrounding Booth. I used pretty much all that research in the show. I was lucky enough that the book was available when I had this idea to tell the story through Stanton.

But it was a jumping-off point for me to do this cat-and-mouse structure with it and to bring in more of the conspiracy theories around the Lincoln assassination, as we’ve seen with the JFK assassination. I didn’t realize how many circles of conspiracy there were, so bringing that in was important. Also the unsung African American heroes of the story and the women, that was important to me to show as well.

Which of the conspiracy theories was the wildest that you encountered?

There’s a theory called the Dahlgren Affair, this theory that Lincoln, possibly, Stanton, or both approved an attempt to assassinate Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President. Because he was the mastermind of the Confederacy — and the war was going on for so long, and was so brutal — they wanted a quick end. It’s possible that the failed attempt at assassinating Davis gave Booth or the conspirators around Booth the idea to do the same thing to Lincoln.

Monica Beletsky
Monica Beletsky

In the first episode, we see Lincoln get shot, and there’s a ton of blood. It’s very visceral. What was your process when considering how graphic you wanted this pivotal scene to be?

I’m very sensitive to violence and horror, but I felt it was really important to show how gruesome this murder was, and how cowardly it was to shoot someone in the back where they can’t defend themselves. Also, to learn that it was a time before we understood bacteria and viruses, before doctors even washed their hands, was fascinating to me. The fact that essentially Lincoln bled out, that’s really how he died. They didn’t really do surgery on him, even though there were three surgeons brought in. So I wanted to hit people viscerally with what Stanton was facing, and I do remember a moment in the mix where I asked to turn up the bloody towel just a little bit, because I think it was just a horrific way to die. It was important so you could understand why Stanton would want to avenge his death so much, to the point of sacrificing so much of his own life.

Compared to a lot of historical dramas, the world of “Manhunt” feels period-accurate in terms of the hygiene, the sets and costumes that feel lived-in and gritty, not pristine and elegant. What was behind the choice to take this approach?

There are very few photographs — photography was just getting going — but there is a photo of the bed where Lincoln died. You can see blood on the pillow and it struck me: because so few photos at that time were domestic, or criminal. It was mostly portraits of important people. So the fact that they took the time to do that struck me.

It was interesting to learn that people only really had a couple of pairs of clothing and they would wear them in rotation. Also, at the time, beards were modern and fashionable because of Lincoln, but also because razors hadn’t evolved that much. A man could become ill and die if they nicked themselves with their razor, so it was a very vulnerable time in terms of cleanliness and hygiene. There’s a rawness to what people were living through.

What was the most challenging part of shooting this sweeping historical drama? 

It was a very ambitious project, and so many things were challenging — but also really exciting, because it’s such an opportunity, especially as a woman, to do something period at this scale, and be able to get into the characters over this many hours. It’s a huge cast, because Booth is on the run, so in every episode, I would have to cast new roles because he’s bumping into new people along the road. So that was a challenge. And the weather in Savannah — we were there for hurricane season, so we had a lot of weather delays.

But I think making sure, with so many characters, that emotionally it was going to pay off. That the audience would be invested and care about so many people, and that I could pay off the journey for such different walks of life.

Would you want to tackle another historical thriller in the future?

It depends on the story. I’m drawn to stuff where, when I know the central relationship or idea, it moves me. It feels relevant. That’s where I start, and if it happens to take place during the Depression or another time, then maybe. But if it’s contemporary, I might be into it, too. It’s really about the character and then it would go from there. But I don’t want to pigeonhole myself and just be The History Girl.

What was an interesting fact you learned about Lincoln that didn’t make it into the show?

He had slippers he wore in the house that had little goats on them: Hamish and I will joke all the time about goat slippers. Our costume designer, Katie Irish, actually got us copies of them. I don’t think we ever have a shot that goes down to his feet, but I thought that was charming.

Also, just how witty and folksy he was, and how the arts sustained him through such a hard time. One of the times Stanton got mad at him was because they were supposed to have an important war meeting, and Lincoln insisted on reading Shakespeare or something to them in the meeting. Stanton was like, “Come on already!” — so I think that there was something very charming about his whimsy.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Watch the trailer for “Manhunt” below.

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