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How ‘Manhunt’ Turned the Hunt for Lincoln’s Killer Into a Pre-Forensics Detective Drama

[This story contains spoilers from the two-part season premiere of Manhunt.]

In an era of TV police and crime series like CSI and The Killing, using the forensic investigation of a crime scene, including DNA and fingerprints, to help find a killer and solve a murder is commonplace.

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So Monica Beletsky, the creator of Apple TV+’s Manhunt miniseries, had a challenge when adapting the pursuit of Abraham Lincoln’s killer as a true-crime detective thriller, because Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, and the 12-day hunt for John Wilkes Booth that followed, took place well before real-life forensic science and the gathering of evidence at crime scenes had been established.

“I love the idea of, how do you find this needle in a haystack, this man who could be anywhere in North America, when you don’t have a phone, you don’t have cars or video cameras? There’s no 24-hour news,” Beletsky explains to the The Hollywood Reporter.

Leading the chase for Lincoln’s killer in the period drama is Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, played by Emmy Award winner Tobias Menzies. Lincoln hired Stanton to run the War Department during the Civil War. That changed when Stanton, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, took charge of the country for around 12 hours until Vice President Andrew Johnson was sworn in as Lincoln’s successor.

In Manhunt, Stanton is clearly without crime scene investigation protocol, as at one point he picks up Wilkes Booth’s gun without a glove on his hand. That’s just the start. Beletsky’s limited series is based on the book Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by writer James L. Swanson.

Known for her work in The Leftovers, Friday Night Lights and Fargo’s third season, Beletsky talked to THR about structuring a very public and political murder in 1865 as a detective procedural, and going well beyond getting the bad guy to portray an American tragedy about a divided nation in the wake of the U.S. Civil War. The seven-part true crime drama, which launched with the first two episodes, also stars Anthony Boyle, Lovie Simone, Will Harrison, Brandon Flynn, Patton Oswalt, Matt Walsh and Hamish Linklater. Read on for the chat, below.

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Can you talk about framing a key American historical event as a true-crime drama with neo noir touches?

Noir and detective stories are my favorite genre. I love those films from the 1940s. I love the ’70s neo noir films. I love the ’90s’ [Quentin] Tarantino neo noir. And I saw in this structure of this story the opportunity to do a cat-and-mouse thriller that happened to also be a true story.

You also created a thriller about a politician as detective going after the bad guy well before today’s police procedurals have forensic experts with a wealth of tools and knowledge to solve crimes.  

Yes, I was excited by the fact that this is a crime show taking place before forensics. We’ve seen hundreds of episodes of procedurals where it’s about clues and it’s about cat-verse-mouse, who’s going outsmart each other? This story has that, and I really enjoy all that. But I’m also really interested in the psychology and stories of the people surrounding an investigation, maybe even more than I am in the actual plot and clues. And what was fascinating about this is because it’s pre-forensics, there’s lots of scenes that are tropes in these kinds of shows, like an interrogation or evidence. And at this time, there’s no fingerprinting. So Stanton just picks up the gun without a glove on. That was all fun to play with in a way where I could invert scenes that we know and have seen a hundred times, but it’s going to be have to be different.

This manhunt focus on Stanton takes the focus away from Lincoln directly and puts the spotlight on a little-known politician willing to risk all to find the assassin and help heal America. Was that deliberate?

That was really my way into the story, because I learned we really didn’t have a conscious President between the moment Booth shot Lincoln and the next day when [Andrew] Johnson was sworn in. So the question is, who’s running the country? And it was Stanton. And, who’s starting the investigation to hunt for Booth? It’s Stanton. And, who’s trying to keep alive the mandate that Lincoln had winning the Civil War, and the plans that they had? It was Stanton. I’d never heard of him before and I thought that was a really compelling dramatic situation for a character to be dealing with, the guilt of not protecting the president, who also happens to be the man he’s been working with around the clock for the last couple years and who’s become his friend.

Stanton becomes the emotional lynchpin for the series. Talk about casting Tobias Menzies to play this steady hand while an embattled and divided nation endures the murder of its leader.

Stanton experienced a lot of trauma in his life. He lost his father when he was 12. He lost his first wife and daughter in quick succession. And he lost a toddler, a son shortly around the time he was hired by Lincoln. I know of my own life, when there’s sudden loss and trauma, you often can be extremely calm during a chaotic event, because your nervous system is sort of always ready for the next shoe to drop, for something bad to happen. So when something bad happens, you’re actually more prepared than others, because you’re already expecting something to go wrong. So that part of his psychology interested me. But I also show Tobias is very moved and very, very disturbed when he realizes what’s happened to Lincoln. There’s a scene where he’s starting to put it together that this was a multiple attack. So he’s not all calm, but I do think that he was the right leader at the time, partly because of what he had been through in his life. And that was part of what I wanted to show.

In 1865, Lincoln and then Stanton worked to reunify a divided nation with the Reconstruction. Many people see the U.S. today battling its greatest divisions and conflicts since the Civil War. What does Manhunt have to say about today’s partisan times?

I think it’s hard to understand the present without knowing what happened in the past. And there’s been strands of connection between the events in my show and what’s happening now that have been sort of put in the shadows of our understanding. And so my interest partly was just in bringing to light some of these unsung heroes and some events that were not really taught, so that I could better understand our democracy and I can better understand how we got here and how our culture has certain relationships to violence and division. And I think a lot of it has seeds in this story.

What might those seeds be?

I’m drawn to the story because I think it’s a true-crime story that’s very relevant. When we lost Reconstruction in the way that it was planned, it stalled things that would have given our society more equality earlier. For example, they were planning on integrating schools during Reconstruction. We didn’t see that happen. They wanted black and white children to go to school together. And after the assassination, that didn’t happen for a hundred years. The show has a window into a period after the Civil War we don’t see a lot where we see how things could have really changed with another term of Lincoln, but we only got a few months of his second term. So all that interested me and hopefully will be part of the conversation.

It took 12 days to catch Booth. As Stanton’s game of cat and mouse evolves, his investigation reveals a web of intrigue involving traitors and double-dealers. Can you talk about this element of conspiracy?

A lot of people don’t think of the Lincoln assassination as an unsolved crime. But in many ways it is, because we we know that there are other circles of conspiracy around Booth. But we don’t know exactly what or who or how. So the show asks those questions. And we’ve seen a lot of things about, for example, a conspiracy around the JFK assassination. But I was surprised to learn how much conspiracy surrounded the Lincoln assassination. So I think that’s one thing.

Manhunt released on Apple TV+ with two episodes, followed by new episodes weekly on Fridays.

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