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Inside the mind of a mail-bombing terrorist

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Still from the film "Ted K." PHOTO COURTESY OF HEATHEN FILMS

In the new film “Ted K,” a Montana-born producer and his crew revisit the Unabomber story and the town where it all happened.

By Erika Fredrickson MONTANA FREE PRESS

Matt Flanders clearly recalls the dramatic 1996 arrest of Ted Kaczynski — aka the Unabomber — in Lincoln, Montana, especially because it was an hour away from his hometown of Helena. The Unabomber saga was all the talk on national news, but being so close to the place the famous mail-bombing terrorist had been living for more than 20 years had an impact on Flanders. Two and half decades later, Flanders, who had moved from Montana to become a film producer in Los Angeles and New York, came across a script about Kaczynski’s time in Lincoln, and he was drawn to it.

“I was very excited to read a Montana script, but also intrigued by the themes,” he said. “I knew about Ted Kaczynski’s national reign of terror, and I knew about the bombings and manifesto. But I was always like, ‘Wait. He was in Lincoln for 20 years. What was he doing there?’”

Flanders was working for Plan B — Brad Pitt’s production company — which passed on the script, but Flanders wasn’t ready to let it go. Eventually, he agreed to produce it on his own.

The new film “Ted K” is the result. It’s co-produced by Flanders and directed by filmmaker Tony Stone. It stars Sharlto Copley, of “District 9” fame, as Ted Kaczynski in a role for which much of the acting takes place alone in a cabin or in one-sided phone conversations. 

“Ted K” is a hyper-focused view of Kaczynski, a former mathematics professor who became radicalized while in Lincoln, living as a recluse in a 10-by-12 room without electricity or water, surrounded by harsh elements and learning survival skills. His fight against industrialization entailed sending bombs in packages to people he believed were destroying the environment through modern technology. He killed three people and injured 23 others. His nature-centered anarchistic views were laid out in a social critique he called “Industrial Society and its Future,” which appeared in the Washington Post and led to his arrest in Lincoln after his brother recognized the writing. Kaczynski eventually pleaded guilty to numerous federal charges and will spend the remainder of his life in federal prison.

Flanders says having access to Kaczynski’s 25,000 pages of journals was key to developing the story. The journals get into Kaczynski’s head with lines like, “People will begin to let machines make decisions for them. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off.” But the entries also depict his acts of vandalism and local terrorism in Lincoln, which were unknown to many outside of Montana.

“It feels like a documentary because of that I think,” Flanders says. “All the words he speaks [in the film] are either inspired by or taken directly from journal entries. It was important to the director to tell the authentic tale and put as much out there factually. Here’s the facts. This is what happened. You make the decision about how you feel about all this.”

Unlike a lot of Unabomber projects, “Ted K” was filmed in Lincoln. The small crew, with the help of the Montana Film Office, was able to contact the owners of the land where Kaczynski’s cabin was located and got permission to film there.

When they arrived at the location, it was still surrounded by fencing and barbed wire. The owners had been planning to bulldoze part of the land to build a family cabin but had so far only felled a couple of trees. The moviemakers were in luck.

“There was still his root cellar, still structures he had built on the land, including a shelter for his bicycle,” Flanders says. “His shower was still set up.”

It also turned out the owner went to high school with Flanders’ sister — another bit of small-town luck.

“That made them feel more comfortable that it wasn’t a complete Hollywood or New York production coming in,” Flanders says. “There was a local element involved.”

Flanders and the crew also met and interviewed residents to add authenticity to the script. In the months and years after Kaczynski was arrested and prosecuted, Lincoln struggled with its new identity as home of the Unabomber. A lot of residents hated being in the national spotlight for anything — and especially for being associated with a domestic terrorist — but some people and businesses embraced the infamy and sold T-shirts, mugs and stickers with the Unabomber’s famous likeness featuring sunglasses and hooded sweatshirt.

Flanders found that, even 26 year later, Lincoln still has a mixed reaction to its Unabomber fame.

“Some people are like, ‘Can we move on? There’s more to this community than the Unabomber.’ And other people were very excited to have their side of the story told in the place it actually occurred. I think a lot of people felt slighted by the fact that these other projects had taken place and nobody had bothered to come to Lincoln and explore it and get a sense of what it was like.”

The “Ted K” crew shot the film over a year, starting in 2018, and returned multiple times to capture all the seasons. Flanders said they began to feel like part of the community. 

Megan Folsom Alexander, an actor living in Missoula, played the role of Mrs. Hill, based on Sherri Wood, a librarian who befriended Kaczynski. After she got the role, Alexander researched Wood as much as she could. And then they met.

“She was there on set the day I filmed,” Alexander said, “so I got to meet and talk with her. She even lent us one of the headbands she always wore to add to my wardrobe. Learning more about his personal relationship with Lincoln and its inhabitants was really interesting.”

There is a lot to take in, visually, in “Ted K.” The film is a late-1980s-to-early-1990s period piece, and the clothing, cars, motorcycles and snowmobiles are all of that vintage. The film also includes some wild and disorienting fantasy scenes, flashbacks and flashforwards that feel like hallucinations or a surreal stew of Kaczynski’s thoughts. And then there’s the Montana landscape.

Flanders says that Montana is really the film’s second lead character. And that’s true. The cinematography captures the landscape of pine forests and snow-capped peaks and wildlife in ways that don’t seem like just background. In a way, that foregrounding of nature is where a viewer might find some connection with Kaczynski: Who wouldn’t want to live in a place like this? The beauty of the landscape also helps create a stark contrast Kaczynsk’s spiraling plots as he slowly becomes the Unabomber. 

Even before Kaczynski was identified as the Unabomber, people took sides. Many were horrified. Others defended his manifesto but condemned the means he used to communicate it. Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, for instance, expressed publicly that he wanted to give the Unabomber a platform for his ideas. And others who regarded Kaczynski’s violence as necessary to enlighten society about the evils of technology. Everyone had opinions. Decades later, the Unabomber isn’t completely forgotten, but the frenzy around him has died down to nearly nothing. So, why does an artistic biopic about a man who hasn’t made the headlines in decades matter now?

“There is a very interesting statement here about technology and a very interesting statement about protecting the environment,” Flanders says. “And there are interesting statements about mental illness and human connection.”

For Flanders, human connection is the story’s most compelling thread.

“Right now, people are feeling disenfranchised,” he said. “There are a lot of people that are feeling ‘other.’ I think it’s a cautionary tale about what could happen when you remove yourself from society and what happens when you don’t connect with other people. The Unabomber  lived in this place with these warm, welcoming people. He could have just reached out and asked for help, and he would have gotten it. It’s funny that he railed against technology because he thought it was going to keep people apart more than it brought them together, and yet he kept himself apart from other humans — and I think that was his downfall.”

“Some people are like, ‘Can we move on? There’s more to this community than the Unabomber.’ And other people were very excited to have their side of the story told in the place it actually occurred.”

“TED K” PRODUCER MATT FLANDERS

Flanders and the crew also met and interviewed residents to add authenticity to the script. In the months and years after Kaczynski was arrested and prosecuted, Lincoln struggled with its new identity as home of the Unabomber. A lot of residents hated being in the national spotlight for anything — and especially for being associated with a domestic terrorist — but some people and businesses embraced the infamy and sold T-shirts, mugs and stickers with the Unabomber’s famous likeness featuring sunglasses and hooded sweatshirt.

Flanders found that, even 26 year later, Lincoln still has a mixed reaction to its Unabomber fame.

“Some people are like, ‘Can we move on? There’s more to this community than the Unabomber.’ And other people were very excited to have their side of the story told in the place it actually occurred. I think a lot of people felt slighted by the fact that these other projects had taken place and nobody had bothered to come to Lincoln and explore it and get a sense of what it was like.”

The “Ted K” crew shot the film over a year, starting in 2018, and returned multiple times to capture all the seasons. Flanders said they began to feel like part of the community. 

Megan Folsom Alexander, an actor living in Missoula, played the role of Mrs. Hill, based on Sherri Wood, a librarian who befriended Kaczynski. After she got the role, Alexander researched Wood as much as she could. And then they met.

“She was there on set the day I filmed,” Alexander said, “so I got to meet and talk with her. She even lent us one of the headbands she always wore to add to my wardrobe. Learning more about his personal relationship with Lincoln and its inhabitants was really interesting.”

There is a lot to take in, visually, in “Ted K.” The film is a late-1980s-to-early-1990s period piece, and the clothing, cars, motorcycles and snowmobiles are all of that vintage. The film also includes some wild and disorienting fantasy scenes, flashbacks and flashforwards that feel like hallucinations or a surreal stew of Kaczynski’s thoughts. And then there’s the Montana landscape.

Flanders says that Montana is really the film’s second lead character. And that’s true. The cinematography captures the landscape of pine forests and snow-capped peaks and wildlife in ways that don’t seem like just background. In a way, that foregrounding of nature is where a viewer might find some connection with Kaczynski: Who wouldn’t want to live in a place like this? The beauty of the landscape also helps create a stark contrast Kaczynsk’s spiraling plots as he slowly becomes the Unabomber. 

Even before Kaczynski was identified as the Unabomber, people took sides. Many were horrified. Others defended his manifesto but condemned the means he used to communicate it. Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, for instance, expressed publicly that he wanted to give the Unabomber a platform for his ideas. And others who regarded Kaczynski’s violence as necessary to enlighten society about the evils of technology. Everyone had opinions. Decades later, the Unabomber isn’t completely forgotten, but the frenzy around him has died down to nearly nothing. So, why does an artistic biopic about a man who hasn’t made the headlines in decades matter now?

“There is a very interesting statement here about technology and a very interesting statement about protecting the environment,” Flanders says. “And there are interesting statements about mental illness and human connection.”

For Flanders, human connection is the story’s most compelling thread.

“Right now, people are feeling disenfranchised,” he said. “There are a lot of people that are feeling ‘other.’ I think it’s a cautionary tale about what could happen when you remove yourself from society and what happens when you don’t connect with other people. The Unabomber  lived in this place with these warm, welcoming people. He could have just reached out and asked for help, and he would have gotten it. It’s funny that he railed against technology because he thought it was going to keep people apart more than it brought them together, and yet he kept himself apart from other humans — and I think that was his downfall.”


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