The story of Ted Kaczynski, better known to many as the Unabomber, has played out on-screen several times since his 1996 arrest following the most expensive FBI manhunt in bureau history.
However, the former math prodigy-turned-terrorist’s years of isolation living in a small cabin in the Montana wilderness have never been tackled with the commitment to detail and accuracy on display in “Ted K,” a new feature from Tony Stone (“Peter and the Farm”), which stars Sharlto Copley (“District 9”) as Kaczynski.
Variety caught up with Stone ahead of the film’s debut in the Panorama section of this year’s Berlinale to talk about throwing conventional biopic tropes out the window, and his hopes for a potential theatrical release.
What compelled you to make a film about the Unabomber, about Ted Kaczynski?
We felt like there was a void of Ted’s reality. There’s so much about the manhunt, so much about the FBI, which is interesting, but that was all such a dead end. We felt like we were doing the actual, full-on Kaczynski chronicle. We wanted to answer the question of how was this person who was captured by the FBI covered in filth able to exist under the radar for 20 years and pull off getting his work published in the Washington Post?
I’ve heard that you re-built Kaczynski’s cabin to precise dimensions on the exact spot where it once stood. How did you achieve that and how did that serve the story?
We built the cabin out East in pre-production, then we loaded pieces into a truck, acquired the land, and used photos to try and figure out where exactly his cabin was. Some of the structures were still there, still with FBI fencing around them, but the cabin had been removed. We started digging and found this concrete footing marked 1971. That was the year that Ted and his brother David built the cabin all summer, so that was a powerful moment. We were able to build the cabin right on that concrete block just like they had. We had also gotten the exact stove that Ted had, but I was missing this one piece, and then as we were grading out the land, we found that exact piece on-site. We used a lot of artifacts from his world that ended up in production; there was this archaeological element to it that was really fascinating. It’s one man’s story, we needed every bit of energy and focus to bring it alive.
What does the film say about Kaczynski’s actions, his writings and his views on technology?
The interesting parts of Ted’s writings, when they’re not murderous rants, are about how technology only goes in one direction: we can never truly reverse it. The next 10 years will be this massive environmental challenge, and Ted wrote about the tendencies of technology to create more strife, more conflict and more polarization. We also wanted to produce a study of his actions. It’s not a vilification narrative, but there’s also nothing that is condoning any of his actions. It’s just setting out the story and allowing people to co-write everything in between. I hope that people connect with this wild story because each year it becomes more and more relevant.
Are you hoping for a theatrical release at some point?
I’ve actually never seen it on a big screen, we’ve just been sitting in quarantine watching it on a computer. Usually you put in all this work and then there’s the catharsis of seeing it on the big screen. I guess it seems almost right for this film about technology and the madness of Kaczynski to be put out in this unusual way. But I would love for there to be a theatrical release to put you in that place, in that land, in this existential story of man against machines.