‘Ted K’ Brings Unabomber Back to Lincoln

Starring South African actor Sharlto Copley as Kaczynski, much of the new biopic was filmed in and around Lincoln

By Mike Kordenbrock
A scene from “Ted K.” Courtesy photo

Before the bombings, the bicycle rides, the desperate phone calls for money; before the disguises, the rifle shots at passing aircraft, and the brooding scenes of paranoia, rage, and destruction, the movie “Ted K” opens with white text rolling down the screen against a black background.

The introduction provides background details about Theodore J. Kaczynski, a man commonly known as The Unabomber, the domestic terrorist responsible for killing three people and injuring another 23, and who became notorious for his use of mail bombs and the ability to maintain his anonymity for almost two decades. The opening text of the movie places him on the outskirts of Lincoln, Montana, living with no running water or electricity. This way of living would go on for 25 years before the FBI finally tracked him down and arrested him in 1996 after his brother, David, read a version of his manifesto published in the Washington Post and identified him as a possible suspect.      

Kaczynski, audiences are told, “was born to a Chicago sausage maker and a suburban house wife in the spring of 1942.” He attended Harvard at age 16, earned a PhD in mathematics, and “after a year of professorship he turned his back on society and fled to the American wilderness where he purchased a small parcel of land.”

The 10-foot-by-12-foot cabin that Kaczynski inhabited was built in the summer of 1971 with help from the same brother who eventually helped lead authorities to him. The last sentence of the introduction is one of particular importance to the movie: “This film was made on the land where his cabin once stood and uses his words from the 25,000 pages of writing that filled his shelves to tell this story.”

A scene from “Ted K.” Courtesy photo

Both the ability to film on Kaczynski’s property, and the ability of South African actor Sharlto Copley to internalize Kaczynski’s writings and embody them on screen, were critical in the production of what director Tony Stone said was a project he had long envisioned.

That interest was driven in part by Stone’s own fascination with people who reject technology, and he described how to some degree Kaczynski’s story, involving a violent campaign to reject modernity, seems to be gaining more relevance with each passing year.

“Each month, each year it felt more important to tell the story,” Stone said in a recent interview. “I wanted to do this project 10 years ago, and people would say ‘Why do you want to tell the story of that guy?’ As time went on, it became super clear. You mention Ted Kaczynski these days and they’re like ‘Oh, of course.’ There’s suddenly an understanding of the importance of telling this guy’s tale. I think, 10 years ago we still were these techno-, maybe optimists, right? Now, I think we’ve seen the damage of the iPhone, the social media, what it’s doing to children, all sorts of things, that we’re concerned about.”

Stone also feels that Kaczynski’s concerns about environmental degradation have grown in relevance. At the same time, he said he was very conscious of not making Kaczynski out to be a prophet, something he said helped win over some Lincoln residents.

“I think it’s important to know that Ted was very brutal, and totally psychotic about it,” Stone said.

The goal, in part, was a nuanced portrait that would show not “a pure villain,” but a human being doing horrible things. Stone even went so far as to intentionally stylize the bombing scenes and take a different approach to each one in order to try and communicate something to viewers beyond another big movie explosion. The director described how one bombing scene begins as “Ted’s heroic 90s cinematic moment, that the violence is usually fetishized, and then boom, it’s severed at the explosion, and it’s completely brutal and you’re pulled out and you’re like ‘Oh, this is back to reality, this is really bad and this person is really maimed and it’s horrific.’ So you have this moment of sort of sliding into the sort of cinematic sublime, but then you’re ripped out of it back into the reality of what this carnage is.”

Part of Stone’s approach involved trying not to make the movie overly informative, but to instead embed facts into scenes.

“We wanted to really have it be the Ted Kaczynski existence movie, and what that experience is like,” Stone said.

One thing that sets “Ted K” apart from other filmed versions of the Unabomber story is the relative absence of an investigative storyline. The camera rarely leaves Kaczynski, and while the bombings are depicted, there are also numerous scenes of Kaczynski destroying private property in the Lincoln area.

“The producers wanted to show a different perspective,” said Allison Whitmer, the film commissioner of the Montana Film Office. “Previous versions of the story have just talked about the FBI tracking him down. These producers really wanted to show the community that surrounded Ted, and how it affected him in a positive way, and how being isolated and socially awkward didn’t help him living in the woods.”

A scene from “Ted K.” Courtesy photo

The Montana Film Office provided the movie with $110,000 in grant funding contingent on that grant funding being spent in Montana. It’s a strategy to encourage film production in the state with the idea being that the amount of money invested into local economies will exceed the grant funding.

One of the biggest challenges was finding the right actor to play Kaczynski. Stone said that Copley had the physicality and the brain to “ingest thousands of pages of Ted Kaczynski’s writings in a way that I don’t know who else as an actor actually would have had that ability.”

He added that Copley’s willingness to come back four different times over a year to shoot the movie “is almost unheard of.”

The location of “Ted K” functions as a “secondary character,” Stone said, and being able to film on the actual land gave the film crew confidence. At times shooting on the land was a sort of archaeological experience, he said. Remnants of Kaczynski were still there, including a root cellar where Stone said they found jugs of chemicals that apparently were left behind by authorities, and which Stone said lent an intensity to scenes. In another instance, a pipe found on the property was used to film a scene showing Kaczynski irrigating his garden.

Tony Stone, director of “Ted K.” Courtesy photo.

Stone said his 2016 documentary, “Peter and the Farm,” was a sort of prelude to making “Ted K,” including the way in which the natural beauty of the filming location sets the stage for a sort of “Walden Pond” gone wrong. In “Peter and the Farm,” Stone depicts the life of an alcoholic Vermont man named Peter Dunning who has driven away his family, and who lives alone on an organic farm that he operates by himself. The movie was filmed as Dunning, then age 69, was spiraling. He’d asked Stone at one point about doing a documentary in which he would die by suicide.

“He was kind of a case study, a warm-up for a case study of Ted Kaczynski, which we joked about with Peter, which he loved. Peter was very fond of Ted Kaczynski. They’re both Luddites. I was very interested in that, people that have turned their back on technology and work with very limited technology. Ted Kaczynski might have had a radio, but Peter basically just had his tractors.” 

Producer Matt Flanders said that in his hometown of Helena, at Lewis and Clark Brewing, they met the current owners of what was formerly Kaczynski’s parcel of land. It turned out that Flanders knew the couple through his sister, who had gone to high school with one of the property’s owners. Stone called it a simple barter agreement, in which the filmmakers get to use the land for the shoot in exchange for some work on the property. Filming on the land occurred over the course of about eight months, and wrapped in October 2019.

The director said he was “extremely thankful” for the access, and Flanders said he thinks his own Montana connection helped bring a level of comfort to the discussion about the land use.

“I think a lot of times people in Montana, and everywhere really, are hesitant to kind of open up their property, or their homes to film companies, just because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Flanders said.

Similarly, the trust of other Lincoln residents had to be earned through dialogue. “They were not kind of star struck or eager,” and “they were more kind of standoffish,” Flanders said.

“They wanted to hear what we were planning. They wanted the details,” he continued. “And when they understood we were doing something that was going to really kind of explain what was happening in Lincoln during this whole reign of terror, that he was also vandalizing their homes, their property, their business, that there was another side to the story a lot of people hadn’t heard … as soon as they kind of understood what we were doing they became very helpful and open, and we made long-lasting friendships in this town.”

The opening of the movie quickly moves to depict Kaczynski’s destruction around Lincoln.

After the introductory crawl of text ends, the glowering, rhythmic sounds of drum beats and blaring horns ramp up and the blackness gives way to the words MONTANA USA set over a landscape of snow-covered mountain timber. Snowmobiles rev their engines and wend their way down powdery slopes and eventually the camera begins to follow their movements from within the tree line before reversing to reveal from a distance a shadowy figure in the snow stepping out from behind a tree trunk.

Before Kaczynski says a word in the opening minutes of the movie, the audience hears the sound of his axe. The camera focuses on the framed pictures hanging on the walls inside a home. There’s a thumping coming from outside. The family members who live there are seen driving away in cars, before the pictures begin to rattle against the wall, and pink insulation explodes inward as the blade of Kaczynski’s axe breaks through. Kaczynski then squeezes his way into the home before making his way to the garage, where he takes the axe to the engines of the snowmobiles seen earlier.           

“Modern technology is the worst thing to happen to the world, and to promote its progress is nothing short of criminal,” Copley, playing Kaczynski, says in a nasally voiceover.

The destruction of the snowmobiles is something that longtime Lincoln resident Lee DenBoer remembers from the 18 years he spent as chief of the local fire department. In another scene, Kaczynski lights a skidder and loader on fire. DenBoer said he was the one, then in his 20s, who had to drive up to the site on a Monday morning, load up the burnt logging equipment, and haul it out. 

“We just thought well, it’s some mischievous kids, or maybe that guy pissed somebody off,” DenBoer said of the various acts of destruction that occurred around Lincoln for years, but which no one had been able to tie to Kaczynski.

For DenBoer’s wife, Wendy Gehring, the movie also brought back memories. Gehring was Kaczynski’s neighbor for years, and she actually fired Kaczynski from the sawmill where he worked. She was someone that the film crew would consult with, which is how the decision was made for Kaczynski to be depicted shirtless in the sawmill firing scene, wearing only a trench coat over his torso, which she says is the outfit he wore. Gehring has no sympathy for Kaczynski, and said that she’s sick of him. Still, she thought Stone and his crew did a good job, to the point where she said she’s proud of the way the movie turned out.

In some ways, though, Stone and his crew might have done too good of a job for Gehring’s comfort.

“It was so weird to go through the whole Kaczynski thing, and then when this film crew showed up, Ted’s cabin was right back where it was before,” she said. “It was so weird to drive up, and they had it down to a ‘T’ what his cabin looked like. There was one movie, I think it was filmed in Virginia, they had frickin’ Ted have little flower boxes outside his window.”

For “Ted K,” Stone built the cabin himself before filming began and a friend hauled it out to the location from New York in a U-Haul. The one used in the movie was actually Stone’s second attempt at building Kaczynski’s cabin. Stone said that for his very first movie, “Severed Ways,” he did everything from costumes to hair to editing.

“When you’re making very physical movies, the more you’re physically involved in the production, which sometimes does include building, the better your understanding for character, story and the film itself,” Stone said.

Using FBI evidence photos, the film crew worked meticulously to try and reconstruct the contents of Kaczynski’s cabin as accurately as possible. A key player in that, according to Flanders, was the Montana-based production designer Kate Lindsay. A period phone booth that was used for various scenes in which Kaczynski would call his family asking for money was sourced out of Livingston.

A scene from “Ted K.” Courtesy photo

Colin Scott, a producer on the film, called it a gritty, nontraditional shoot, where everyone wore many hats. Scott said he actually had to fill in at one point for one of the snowmobilers in the opening scene, and that he started off on the crew as a fixer. Scott is one of several University of Montana graduates who worked on the movie, and for years he lived in Flathead County in a house south of Olney, which he used as a homebase for working on writing projects and learning about filmmaking between stints throughout the year as a fishing guide in Alaska and West Glacier.

“The gut feeling I had with the film from the beginning is that this is what I want to make and want to be a part of,” Scott said, adding that he ultimately sold his Montana house and moved east so that he could continue writing with Stone and working with him as a creative partner on additional writing projects. “There is this confidence that came with talking to everyone from Lincoln. Like, we didn’t have to fish. A lot of biopics you fish for ‘What would Ted do in this situation, what would he be thinking?’”

In a nod to the significance of Lincoln and Montana to the creation of the movie, the North American premier of “Ted K” took place in February at the Wilma Theatre in Missoula.

Flanders, the producer, said that while the movie is available for streaming through Amazon and Apple, he encourages people to see it in person. Showings of the movie can be found in Missoula, Helena, Havre and Polson, according to Flanders.

“The thing that I really connect with when I watch the film and think about the film, is how important human connection and interaction is,” Flanders said. “Especially in these times where we’ve all been kind of forced away from each other for a long time, and people have sort of retreated. That’s a dangerous thing. We need to connect.”

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