Here's the basic pitch of CBS's new drama "Harper's Island," premiering tonight at 10:00/9:00c after "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation": 13 weeks, 25 suspects, 1 killer. That's right, the Eye is getting into the horror business. To help tout the genre-breaking newcomer, executive producer/showrunner Jeffrey Bell, co-executive producers Dan Shotz and Karim Zreik as well as a handful of the cast and crew got together for a special press event last month.
So just what exactly is "Harper's Island?" The scripted series revolves around the destination wedding of Henry Dunn ("Ugly Betty's" Christopher Gorham) and Trish Wellington ("Supernatural's" Katie Cassidy) on an isolated island off the coast of Seattle. The island however has a morbid history - eight years ago a man named John Wakefield killed a half-dozen people there, including the mother of Henry's best friend Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy). History then begins to repeat itself as a new series of slayings begin, murders which the producers can assure are being done by one (or maybe more) of the 25 regulars on the show.
"There will be at least one [murder] in every episode," Bell explains. "Some episodes are a lot more. We wanted to make it not get formulaic so it's not always at the end." And what about the perpetrator - will there be just one? "Anything's possible," Bell reveals. "There's so many models out there - there's 'Scream,' there's '10 Little Indians,' there's 'Murder on the Orient Express, there's all these different models that are out there and we looked at all those and we tried to do something that we felt worked for us. I'll just leave it at that."
So when did the producers settle on the killer(s) and the victims? "[From the beginning] We had hints of who we thought the killer or killers should be, why the killer or killers are doing the killing, what brings these people to this island, the sort of heavy stuff and it all sort of filtered from there," Zreik shares. Left to fill in the blanks then was showrunner Bell, who was brought in since creator Ari Schlossberg ("Hide and Seek") is new to the TV world. "In terms of the story, I've done a couple other serialized shows and it seems to work really well to set up tentpoles," Bell says. "Like we know by this episode this is going to happen [etc., etc.]... and so if you looked at the 13 episodes as a movie: you've got sort of the first act, the second act and the third act. And so by episode 5 something is going to happen and episode 10 holy shit, everything's going crazy... but we never predetermined who was going to die. Other than a couple of specifics, we really wanted the story to dictate [who got killed]. I find that if you try and think everything out it's not going to be near as good as keeping it alive and organic."
Tasked with letting cast members know they wouldn't be back often fell to Zreik, who gained the nickname "The Assassin" during production. Much like "The Turk" during cut days in football, he was the last person you wanted to see. Cameron Richardson, who plays Chloe Carter (a.k.a. The Flirt, the shorthand moniker the network uses for each character), says everyone knew going into the project their tenure was probably going to be short lived. "We all basically got the same contract - 7 out of 13 - and we all had to be really well behaved." Bell also confirmed everyone's zen attitude toward the process: "All of our actors really liked each other and hung out together and even the people who got killed kept coming back and hanging out together... which I found creepy."
"Harper's" however promises to be much more than just a murderous game of musical chairs or even a quick cash in on the success of horror films at the box office. "Because we're a network show we can't do it by out grotesquing 'Saw' or something like that," Bell explains. "What I think we can do and what we do really well is we really let you care for the characters. In 'Friday the 13th' you go through people pretty fast. You know them as sort of a stereotype, as sort of a cliche. And so we started with some archetypes and some people and by the time the show's over we try to give everyone a really interesting arc. We try and bring surprises to everyone. It got to a place where in the writers' room we really didn't want to kill somebody each week because we liked them so much. And so it became a real challenge on how to do that."
Speaking of blood and gore, the producers point to "CSI" as the touchstone for what Standards & Practices allowed them to show. Hardcore horror fans need not worry though: an "uncut" version of the show is likely in the works for its DVD release. Also freed from the network's limitations: "Harper's Globe," the show's online experience. The social networking site features 16 weekly webisodes - four of which are already live - that track the adventures of Robin Matthews (Melanie Merkosky), a journalist for Harper's Island's newspaper who's looking into the Wakefield murders. More importantly, Robin will eventually turn up on the CBS series to interact with the aforementioned characters and vice versa. Don't worry though, the producers issued a mantra that the webisodes be "relevant but not required" for the regular TV viewer.
And what if viewers demand a second season of "Harper's Island," how would it work when the majority of the cast doesn't make it to week 13? "If we're fortunate enough to have a season two we would set that up in a whole new destination, a new setting, new characters, new plot, new storyline," Bell explains. "'Harper's' would continue but instead of being 'Harper's Island' it would be 'Harper's Safari,' 'Harper's Castle,' 'Harper's Space Station,' [etc.]" Shotz adds that it would use the same "formula we did for 'Harper's Island,' which is someone gets killed each week, one or more people get killed each week and you find out who the survivor or survivors are, who the killers are, etc."
Regardless, Bell promises that season one will "have an emotionally satisfying ending" but warns that "the show starts off kind of soapy and then it changes quite a bit over the course. It really picks up steam and as the group becomes aware of [the murders] it changes tonally a lot. By the end it's just people running in the mud, in the blood, in the goo."
Let the murders begin tonight at 10:00/9:00c on CBS.