Wednesday, April 08, 2009

On 'Island' Time with Jon Turteltaub

Producer and Director Jon TurteltaubBy LillyKat
PTR Senior Staff Writer

I am a horror fan (plain and simple).

I am a thriller fan (equally plain and simple).

I am a murder mystery fan (you get the idea).

So what happens when a network decides to air a show that puts all three of these things together in one 13-week series?

Not ever done before television.

Or rather, perhaps we should say, yet to be done regularly on television.

But this Thursday, that will change when CBS (yes, CBS - the network of steady-eddy procedurals and formulas) debuts its intriguing murder mystery/thriller (and okay, yes, we can say horror) series, Harper's Island.

"That [horror/thriller] dilemma you brought up is, I think, the painful dilemma the network is going through," says executive producer Jon Turteltaub, with whom we recently had a chance to speak. "It’s one of the problems you have when you’re trying to sell something – how do you phrase it in a way that attracts people but also doesn’t push them away. What ends up happening is you try to make the commercials appeal to everyone, and then it waters it down and you have no idea what it is. This show is an old-fashioned murder mystery, but what’s new-fashioned about it is that you don’t get see this on TV a lot. Normally, in a whodunit, you’re trying to figure out who’s doing the murdering. But the excitement [with our show] really is that you don’t know who’s getting bumped off. That’s where this really has its extra edge."

In case you're not in the know, the mystery, intrigue, secrecy and conspiracies surrounding Harper's Island seem almost of X-Files-esque proportions.

As CBS has summed it up on their Web site:
The show is about a group of family and friends who travel to a secluded island off the coast of Seattle for a destination wedding. The island is famous for a streak of unsolved murders from seven years ago. As the wedding festivities begin, friendships are tested and secrets exposed as a murderer claims victims, one by one, transforming the wedding week of fun and celebration into a terrifying struggle for survival. In every episode, someone is killed and every person is a suspect, from the wedding party to the island locals. By the end of the 13 episodes, all questions will be answered, the killer will be revealed and only a few will survive.

'Harper's Island' on CBSShot almost entirely on location on Bowen Island off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and looking cinematically more like a movie than a television show given its huge locations and locales, CBS sent certain journalists a full nine episodes to preview while others received only the first premiere episode all the while employing Fort Knox type restrictions to ensure NOTHING about the series is revealed (and if it is, you're going to be tar and feathered in the town square). For the record, we here at PTR received NO preview screener of any kind, so it's safe to say we know nothing about the series that we would be able to give away.

Still, we have remained intrigued and impressed by the promos, not to mention the buzz that seems to be following the series from every corner of the the television blogosphere. We had already intended to bring the series into the PTR summer line-up, so we didn't want to pass up the opportunity to join in on a conference call to speak with Jon about the show and his involvement in bringing it to CBS.

Jon is known to most television addicts as the executive producer of the wonderful albeit short-lived CBS series Jericho. To film folk, he has helmed the fantastically entertaining National Treasure franchise of films and is currently shooting another Jerry Bruckheimer production in New York City, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, starring National Treasure alum Nicolas Cage.

For starters, the 13 weeks given to Harper's Island is not because the network doesn't know whether it wants to pick up the series for a full 22 weeks.

That 13 weeks IS the series.

'Harper's Island' on CBSAnd Jon says that is as deliberate as the mystery in the series itself.

"The short series is really something HBO has had success with," says Jon. "They discovered that you can hold the attention of people with 10 weeks in a very powerful way; it’s harder over 22 weeks. So, it was really CBS' choice to make Harper’s Island a 13-week show. And in 13 weeks, you can ask an audience to put a night aside and focus on [the show] in a [much] better way."

And focus on this show is intense.

It's mysterious. It's spooky. It's a thriller. It's horror.

When I specifically asked Jon to tell me what appealed to him most about working on the project, it was indeed the fact that a series such as this had not really ever been done before on television.

Says Jon: "That was part of the attraction – the not-ever-seen-before part. You always want to do something new and interesting. On the TV-producer side, it just seemed shocking that it was a new idea because it seemed like such an obvious idea. But, I don’t think the climate and the business atmosphere was right for this kind of show until networks were at the point where they were really looking to experiment with formats and break out of traditional episodic shows. From a director’s standpoint, the notion of doing something more thriller/horror based was really the biggest appeal to me because I hadn’t done that."

And that thriller/horror angle has proven to be an interesting sell even though CBS has shown a willingness to venture into more edgy waters. We remember the network showcased America's favorite serial killer (Dexter) during last year's writers strike shortened season. That was the first time a premium cable show ever received a run on a major network - and it still wasn't a show for the light at heart even WITH the edits.

"Even as the number one network, CBS knows that the world is changing," explains Jon. They know that viewership is changing. And I think, with this show, they said, ‘Alright, let’s do something different. Let’s sort of experiment with the audience a little bit.' They were always really supportive and excited about the show, and pushing to really let us do what we wanted to do."

Harper's Globe by CBS and EQALAlong those lines, CBS had a desire from the get-go to have the Internet and TV work together in a cross-promotional push for the series, particularly with the likes of its social networking show, Harper's Globe.

"Because of how CBS has done it, which is not as an after-thought, we’ve all been very involved with each other," says Jon. "The character on Harper’s Globe appears in the TV series itself, and we worked really closely with the guys at EQAL as they were putting Harper’s Globe together. CBS, from the beginning, wanted to incorporate all of these elements and not just sort of throw the Internet at the TV series. They really wanted to work the two together."

Seeing as PTR was left off island with regards to screening the series, I asked Jon specifically what he'd say to those viewers who know little to nothing about the series in advance. Plainly, why should they watch and what are they going to get out of it?

Says Jon: "Surprises every week. You’re not going to ever be bored. You will have something where you get sucked into the characters and the drama, but the horror/thriller format means that anything can happen at any time. Usually, shows are kept within really small parameters. And, oddly enough, that’s the appeal of a lot of television. You know you’re going to get 30 minutes of Law and 30 minutes of Order every single week, and that’s why you watch. Here, you can’t quite tell what’s going to happen. You don’t know which characters are going to make it or which characters are going to be kicked out. And that’s the excitement of it."

And since questions always seem to come in threes, when I specifically asked Jon what three words he would use to describe the series on the whole, they came as ... well, no surprise.

'Harper's Island' on CBSSays Jon: "Surprising because you don’t know who the killer or killers is/are; you don’t know who the victims will be each week. Exciting – and I mean that in the broader sense – because there’s a lot of action, but also on a relationship level, there’s lots going on with affairs, surprising trists and things like that; you also have these huge locations, and big beautiful locales you don’t normally get on a regular hour drama. It's much more like a movie than it is a TV series. And lastly, addictive because the feedback I've gotten from every single person I’ve shown it to is that they want to know what happens next.

"All that being said," Jon continues, "the only thing that ever works on TV is if you have good characters and good stories. We knew we had to make a good show where if nobody died and nobody was killing anybody, we’d still want to watch. That was the main objective when we were sitting there writing is how do you write good stories regardless of the murder mystery."

Being the horror fan girl that I am, I was surprised to learn on the call that the infamous Jason Voorhees from the original Friday the 13th horror film franchise served as a strong influence to Jon for the series. Definitely not a bad thing considering the recent 2009 remake reaped box office gold.

"Believe it or not, I thought a lot about Friday the 13th - the ones from my generation, not the ones from this generation – in that it was one of the first [films] to get into this format where you realize you have to keep coming up with interesting ways of killing, but also putting characters into the interesting situations that would make them vulnerable to the killing," says Jon. "But, I also thought about the old shows like Ten Little Indians, and the psychological game that was going on. That was the other thing that really influenced us. Like, in Friday the 13th, it’s not a mystery who’s doing the killing – it’s the giant immortal person in the hockey mask. In our show, you needed to know it could be one of the people sitting next to you at dinner, and that added an extra layer of mystery to it."

And how about the ending?

Not that he could speak too much about it, but suffice it to say people will have a sense of conclusion to series when it ends its run in July.

"So much conversation went into the ending before we even started," says Jon. "I think the networks have gotten very sensitive to any of their serialized shows ending prematurely – and the backlash they get from audiences – that they’re aware they need a good ending. One of the things CBS did brilliantly in their advertising is that they not only gave you the premiere date, but they also gave you the conclusion date. Getting the ending big, right, exciting, not out of left field, completely believable and something that you can almost look forward to was very important to us. The show does have a great ending, it has a surprising ending and it has a longer ending than people might think. But believe me, it doesn’t end with no ending."

So no pulling a 'What the ...?' moment à la The Sopranos.

Good, 'cause that only needs to happen once in a television generation lifetime.

Our great thanks to Jon for taking time out of his filming schedule to talk all things Harper's Island. Special thanks to our friends at WKT PR. Tune into for the series premiere of Harper's Island Thursday, April 9th at 10 p.m. on CBS. For more about the series, visit the official Harper's Island Web site.

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