The Art to Crafting a Historically Accurate Drama with Manhunt’s Creatives

On the fateful day of April 14, 1865, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was shot while attending a play with his wife, just five days after the Union’s victory at the Battle of Appomattox Court House, and died the following day. This kicked off a dogged search for his assassin and swirled into an investigation involving a wider conspiracy, traitors and double-dealers.

While many know the broad story of Lincoln’s assassination and the arrest of John Wilkes Booth, the intricate details of the event have rarely been portrayed, especially regarding the actual investigation. Now, it is brought to life in Apple TV+’s Manhunt, a new seven-part series that dropped its first two episodes on March 15.

Creator, showrunner, writer and executive producer Monica Beletsky had the idea for a series about Lincoln’s assassination told through the point of view of Edwin Stanton, his Secretary of War, who took charge of the hunt for the assassin and tried to uphold Lincoln’s legacy of reconstruction. Using James L. Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer as a jumping-off point, Beletsky delved into various sources to craft the story in a historically accurate way and portray the characters as close as possible to their real-life counterparts.

Among the chief sources she consulted was the transcript of the conspirators’ trial, a document that is around 1,000 pages long. She found many of her main characters from the pages of the trial. “I knew that I wanted to arc the show to the trial,” she explains. “It was about working myself backward because I knew I wanted certain emotional payoffs with those characters, so it was a question of how to set those figures up early and show their journey so that when we get there, it’s meaningful to the audience.”

There were other primary sources available as well, such as an autobiography from Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln’s gown designer. In the book, she writes about her time in the White House, “and apparently some of the scenes that she writes about the Lincolns, we would not know about had she not documented it,” Beletsky says. “It was important for me to find a way to show her in the story as well.”

Hamish Linklater stars as Lincoln in the series, and while much of the research was done for him during the scriptwriting process, he did a bit of his own to accurately portray the historical character, who is depicted not as the larger-than-life icon everyone knows him as but as a heartfelt father, husband and overall human being. “I certainly read a lot of the big authoritative books,” Linklater says. “When I was on set, I’d be reading George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo book, which is so heartbreaking. It’s just unbelievable, about him and his son [and his son’s death], and I think he just carried that [grief] with him every day. God, he carried so much mortality inside him during the presidency.” This, to Linklater, makes his assassination even more tragic.

Aside from providing characterizations of historical figures that are not often seen on screen, the series also brings to light parts of the assassination story that are not as widely known. For example, Lincoln’s assassination was part of a wider conspiracy to eliminate the three top officials of the Union: Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward and VP Andrew Johnson. “It’s a story we think we know, but we—or at least I—had no idea,” Linklater says. “This was actually an attempt to reverse the results of the Civil War. And it almost happened.”

This is exactly what Beletsky wanted to accomplish with her story—reveal the unknown characters and parts of an iconic historical event. And that includes being accurate to more than just the narrative. The sets and costumes were meticulously crafted to be true to the time period, she explains, though in a way that most people may not expect. Often on screen, colors in period pieces may seem more subdued, but that is not the case in Manhunt.

The production designer, Chloe Arbiture, “designed over 200 sets for the show,” Beletsky says. “When we were doing our research and coming up with our palettes for different locations, what we realized, as well as with Katie Irish, the costume designer, is that this was pre-electronics, pre-cinema, pre-color photography, and we were amazed at the patterns and the colors of the gowns, of the wallpaper, of the drapes, of the rugs. I mean, almost everything I would describe as gaudy.”

“We couldn’t believe there were actually fluorescent colors at the time,” she continues. “How I came to understand it was that they had theater, they had music and painting, but they didn’t have a lot of visual stimulation in the arts like we have now with screens. So, their clothing, their homes, that’s where they could express that stuff and have visual excitement. All of our wallpapers are period-correct. I decided to have the women in colorful gowns because that was period-correct. In the depictions of it, we’re so used to seeing it in black-and-white that it’s not necessarily known.”

Though there were many set pieces constructed specifically for the show, they were able to film in a few real locations, as well. While scouting in Savannah, Georgia, where filming was set to take place, Beletsky and the team stumbled upon General William T. Sherman’s headquarters, where he and Stanton agreed to Field Order 15, which would allot plots of land in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to formerly enslaved families.

While out on a scouting trip, “I looked in the park, and there was one of those blue [historical marker] signs, and it said, ‘Here is where Edwin Stanton made the contract with Sherman for Field Order 15,’ which is the 40 acres and a mule reconstruction deal,” she explains. “I just got chills. I couldn’t believe it was right there. Almost no one’s ever even heard of Stanton and that it happened right there. I was happy to get that scene into the show because it’s not directly part of the investigation, but it’s so important to me to show the audience what was at stake and what was lost when we lost Lincoln. That was very moving, and it was very moving on the day to be in that space.”

With all this dedication to the accurate portrayal of the pivotal historical event, the hope is that viewers will lean more into President Lincoln and that era to discover things they didn’t know before. And, of course, enjoy “what a good edge-of-your-seat thriller it is,” Linklater says.

The first two episodes of Manhunt are now available on Apple TV+, with the remaining five to drop weekly on Fridays.