News & Politics

“Manhunt,” Apple TV+’s Limited Series About the Lincoln Assassination, Premieres Friday

We talked to DC writer James L. Swanson about the adaptation of his 2006 book.

Episode 1. Lili Taylor and Hamish Linklater in "Manhunt," premiering March 15, 2024 on Apple TV+.

The story of one of the most consequential murders in American history—the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln— is coming to Apple TV+ tonight. Manhunt, a limited series that dramatizes the shooting of Lincoln and the hunt for John Wilkes Booth, is based on DC writer/legal scholar James L’s Swanson’s 2006 book Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. We chatted with Swanson about the making of the show, the meticulous details of the set, and how he avoided turning Booth into a romantic antihero.

Washingtonian interviewed you in 2006, shortly after the release of your book, and you mentioned the possibility of a film adaptation. What does the limited series format allow that a film might not?

When I wrote the book I always had in mind that it could be a film, and there have been several attempts to make it into a film. But the entire story of the Lincoln assassination was always just too big to fit into a film, and there are so many complex characters involved. Lincoln’s Secretary of War and close friend Edwin M. Stanton, for example, is one of the great forgotten heroes in American history. His story alone was almost enough for a film. 

I imagine a film adaptation would have to focus more on Booth himself, rather than incorporating all these stories?

Yes, It would have been a quick, straight film depicting Booth assassinating Lincoln and going on the run. Ultimately, we decided this was too large to be contained in a motion picture like that. I’m very happy that it’s coming out now in the series, because I feel the story is now fully being told in a way it could not have been before.

You worked on the series as an executive producer. What did you do in that role?

The term “executive producer” can mean anything from doing nothing to getting very involved, and I very much wanted to be involved. So, I read all the scripts and left comments. I was also on set in Savannah, answering questions and providing some historical context.

Were there any particularly exciting days on set?

There was one fun day where Lili Taylor, who played Mary Lincoln, had to enter a room where Lincoln and Stanton were discussing the Civil War, and tell her husband that she didn’t want their son Robert to join the Union army. At one point, Lili asked the director “How do you think Mary Lincoln would enter this room?” And the director said “Well, James is standing right behind you. Let’s ask him.” I told her that Mary was an imperious, forceful woman who would not defer to others. I thought the real Mary Lincoln would walk into that room, and not knock on the door. She would just open the door, walk in and begin talking, no matter what her husband was talking about. So that’s how the scene was played. I was happy to contribute in small ways like that.

What kind of work went into creating the period setting?

I’ve seen a lot of these historical shows. I’m a fan of them, and in some shows, it looks like modern people have just been thrust into this artificial world. But the milieu of Manhunt is so real. We had a 60,000 square foot soundstage in Savannah, and it was decorated perfectly: the telegraph wires, the burnt cigars and ashtrays, the books on the shelves. If Lincoln or Stanton had walked into that War Department telegraph office, they would think they were back in the Civil War.

The Lincoln assassination happened almost 160 years ago. What do you think keeps people coming back to that day?

It’s a dramatic story. I wrote the book, really as a true crime thriller, and it draws people in that way. But, I also think it just comes back to Lincoln himself. Someone like Lincoln comes along maybe once in a century, and so we miss the persona of someone who’s as great as Abraham Lincoln. Even if he hadn’t been assassinated, Abraham Lincoln would have gone down in history as a fascinating and complex and important man, and still one of our greatest presidents. So I think Americans have a never ending fascination with him.

What was it like bringing John Wilkes Booth to the screen?

He’s a fascinating and compelling part of the story, and the actor Anthony Boyle does a wonderful job capturing his mania and passion. But ultimately, Booth was a murderer and a racist and we should not forget that. I remember once when I was at a book signing and a woman said “I’m mad at you.” And I said “Why is that?” And she said “You made me love John Wilkes Booth.” And I said “I didn’t make you do that. I just shared the facts of the story, and you fell in love with him.” So, I’ve always been aware of this idea that I don’t want to turn him into some kind of romantic antihero, and I was pleased that the showrunner Monica [Beletsky] shared that thought with me as we put together the series. I think the show shows you who the real heroes are.

The first two episodes of Manhunt will be available to stream on Apple TV+ at midnight tonight. 

Omega Ilijevich
Editorial Fellow