'Gracepoint': Making (and Then Remaking) the Mystery Series

FOX series 'Gracepoint' may seem familiar to some viewers since it's cut from the same creative cloth as BBC America's 'Broadchurch.'
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The FOX series Gracepoint may seem familiar to some viewers. The ten-episode production is cut from the same creative cloth as Broadchurch, a short-run British crime drama that aired on ITV in the spring of 2013 and later on BBC America. Gracepoint adheres to virtually the same script as Broadchurch, though the new incarnation substitutes a coastal hamlet in Northern California for the original’s quaint English seaside village and American accents for Broadchurch’s brogue.

Adding to a common creative bloodline is the fact that the main character in both series is played by Scottish actor David Tennant (Dr. Who), though he’s known as Alec Hardy in the United Kingdom and Emmett Carver in the United States. In both series he plays a detective investigating the mysterious death of an 11-year-old boy. The search for the boy’s murderer plays out in a national spotlight as the media descends on the close-knit town.

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Detectives Ellie Miller (Anna Gunn) and Emmett Carver (David Tennant) arrive at the scene of the crime on 'Gracepoint.' Photo by Ed Araquel/FOX.

Gracepoint is described as an “expansion” of the original series, as it introduces new characters, identifies new suspects and threads new storylines through the narrative.

James Strong and Euros Lyn directed episodes of both the British and American versions, the latter being produced by Shine America in association with Kudos and Imaginary Friends. The Fox series co-stars Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad), Jacki Weaver, Nick Nolte and Michael Peña. The ten-part Gracepoint (the BBC America version was only eight) airs in the United States through early December.

Those who watched Broadchurch will find the exterior atmospherics similar—notably the seaside high cliffs of the town of Gracepoint (digitally lengthened by Stargate Studios) closely matching the dramatic cliffs of Britain’s Dorset (aka “Broadchurch”).

Director of photography John Grillo (Luck, Argo) let the story itself dictate what equipment he would deploy on set. “Like choosing the proper film stock back in the day, I guess. Our mantra was, ‘A horrible thing happens in a beautiful place.’ James Strong wanted the feel to be rural Americana, natural light and a very unobtrusive use of camera. I decided to go with the basic ARRI Alexa package shooting ProRes 4444. It’s a camera I’ve been using on a regular basis and have gotten to know quite well. I love the simplicity of it, no frills and great dynamic range. It almost makes me feel like I’m shooting film, with great detail in the shadows and a good handle on the highlights. And it looks and feels like a real camera,” Grillo says.

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Camera preferences aside, Grillo believes the key element in the Gracepoint shoot was his choice of lenses. “Since we were looking for ‘sunny California’ in the middle of winter in Victoria, B.C., I knew I would be battling Mother Nature for the first four or five episodes. I went with the Leica Summilux-C, which was fantastic: small in size and really surprising at a 1.4 for those run-and-gun moments. With our daylight hours very limited, the Leica/Alexa combination allowed me to extend the day’s exterior scenes and still maintain continuity well into dusk. And I love the multiple blades in the iris for the perfectly round bokeh,” says Grillo.

Broadchurch was shot in and around Dorset (southwest England) in the summer, when the days are the longest of the year, and where real-world locales were written into the story by show creator and writer Chris Chibnall. Gracepoint, on the other hand, was shot in the dead of winter on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, in and around Victoria, and as far north as Sidney, Canada, Grillo says, with the additional challenge of having to piece together a fictional town in Northern California that had to match the original story.

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Beth Solano (Virginia Kull) arrives at the scene of the crime. Photo by Ed Araquel/FOX.

For cast and crew, Grillo says, one of the biggest production challenges was the weather. “We started shooting in January when all the trees were bare and it was cold and wet and overcast. We had to deal with the tides, so we had to devise a way to block-shoot for different episodes whenever possible—namely, shooting all the beach scenes in episode one well into March! We avoided bare trees when possible and took advantage of those sporadic sunny days. Honestly, it was a nightmare.”

The veteran DP thinks Broadchurch’s look worked well for the story and its British Isle location, though he chose to watch only the pilot episode of the original series during the Gracepoint shoot and let the directors lead the way in terms of creative decisions like blocking. “After finally seeing Broadchurch, you realize how much story, location and actors affect how you shoot. I went in just to do the story justice,” Grillo adds. (Tennant, by the way, has dropped hints that Gracepoint could have a different ending than Broadchurch.)

There was little stage work for most of the Canadian shoot, although the art department did choose to build an extensive police precinct environment and a small-town newspaper office, two locations that featured prominently in Broadchurch.

Grillo adds, “As a filmmaker, it’s not ideal to shoot a remake of anything, but I think for the vast audience that did not see Broadchurch, this show will be something quite different than what they are used to seeing on network TV. We took the DNA of Broadchurch and created something new.”