Interview: Jon Turteltaub from Harper’s Island

We had the chance to ask Jon Turteltaub some questions about his latest project – Harper’s Island which will debut on CBS on April 9th. Here’s what he had to say:

I just thought I’d start off and ask you kind of, maybe what appeals to you most about working on a project like this and presenting it in sort of a really kind of not seen before on TV kind of series?

Jon: Well, that’s part of the attraction, the not ever seen before part. Which is, you know, you always want to do something new and interesting and, you know, maybe, you know, have that great new idea that everybody says “wow, that guy’s really smart.” Usually what happens is when you have something brand new, that means you have a thing everyone doesn’t watch and everyone says “wow, that guy, he…” But, you know, on the TV producer side of it, it just seemed like 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 now. Until networks were at the point of really looking to experiment with formats and, break out of, you know traditions shows of, you know, 22 weeks and episodic style. Through a director’s stand point, the notion of doing something that was more thriller/horror based was really the bigger deal for me because I had never done that and every director wants to.

And for someone who doesn’t know anything about the series. Maybe has only just seen the commercials and been like “what is that?” What would you say to them? Why should they watch it? What is it that you want them… why do you want them to watch it and what do you hope that they get out of it?

Jon: Surprises every week. You’re not going to ever be bored. You will have something where you will get sucked into the characters and the drama but the horror/thriller format means that anything can happen at any time. So that usually shows are kept within really small parameters and oddly enough that’s the appeal of a lot of television. You know that you’re going to get thirty minutes of law and thirty minutes of order every week and that’s what 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 that’s something we learned from reality TV. I was riveted for The Bachelor because I wanted to know which of those girls were staying and which were going. If I knew every week that this was how it was going to go, then I probably wouldn’t have watched. It’s the surprise that keeps- that kept me interested. I think that’s what reality TV has brought to the viewer. Surprise.

Right on. Ok. And umm-

Jon: I think that really didn’t answer your question.

No. It did. It did. Because I know that the kind of feedback that we’ve been getting is “what is that?” And also, is it really for people who have maybe a sensitivity for maybe the horror angle? Is it really gonna be like horror horror? I don’t get the sense that it will cause I’m a horror fan myself and I know you can only show so much on network TV anyway. But it does. It’s a good answer but I just wanted to know if you could pick three words to describe the series, what would they be and why?

Jon: Exciting. Surprising. Addictive.

Okay. That sounds good to me.

Jon: Surprising because you don’t know who the killer is or killers. We’ll leave that option open. And you don’t know who the victims will be each week. What was my second word?


Jon: Oh yeah, exciting. I mean it in a broad sense, in that you have a show where there’s a lot of action but also a relationship level, there’s lots going on there with affairs and surprising trysts and things like that. But also you have huge locations and big, beautiful locales that you don’t normally get on a regular hour drama. And it’s much more like a movie than it is like a TV series.

And then the last is addictive, which is the feedback we’ve gotten from every person who I’ve shown it to. Gotta know what’s happening next, what’s happening next?

Jon: The thing that you brought up is the painful dilemma that I think the network is going through and it’s one of the problems you always have when you’re trying to sell something. How do you frame something in a way that attracts people but that also doesn’t push people away? You say, “Don’t worry, it won’t be scary” because you know a lot of people hate horror. And then all the people who like horror say “Why should I watch it? It’s not going to be scary.” You keep… you’re stuck. You wanna make a police show but it’s not gonna be violent. And then other people say I like police shows cause they’re violent. What ends up happening is you try to make it commercial to appeal to everyone and then it waters it down and you have no idea what the hell it is. This show is an old fashioned murder mystery. But what’s new fashioned about it is you don’t get the kind of thing that you see a lot. Normally in a who-done-it, you’re trying to figure out whose doing the murdering. But the excitement really is you don’t know who’s being killed. Who’s getting bumped off and that’s where the show really has its extra edge. All that being said, the only thing that ever works on TV is if you have good characters and good stories. And we knew that we had to make a good show that no one died and no one was killing anybody that you still want to watch. And that’s what was the main objective, you know, when we were sitting there writing is how do you write good stories regardless of the broadcasting and that’s usually the key to a good show. I think.

So you just mentioned that it was a really great place to film, did you actually film on an island or…

Jon: Yeah, for Harper’s Island we used an island known as Bowen Island. B-O-W-E-N. And that’s off the coast of Vancouver. And we would take a ferry to work. And usually on a TV series you’re called five days in, three days out or six days in, two days out which is six days out on set and two days out on location. We were shooting basically one day in, seven days out. Almost all of the shooting took place on location and very little of it on sets in the studio.

Great! Fun!

Jon: It’s not fun, it’s horrible!

Fun for us to watch, I’m sure.

Jon: Fun for you, horrible for us. Especially, we start shooting in August. We finish shooting in February. Vancouver’s not the most consistent weather city.

In watching some of the promos, I noticed there were some familiar TV faces like Christopher Gorham from Ugly Betty, a couple other people… I don’t know what hand you had in the casting but were there certain deliberate choices that you made ahead of time or was it mostly all through auditions that you found everyone?

Jon: First it was almost all 100% through auditions with the exception of Harry Hamlin and Harry’s part which is obviously one you can’t. And you know how it ends and all of that? I’m not sure what you found out but Harry’s part was very important for us to get a bona fide TV star. Both to elevate that pilot cast but also to give the audience a little bit of a fake out. But that’s kind of something I try not to talk about before the show comes out cause that kinda gives something away. In any case, but yeah, it was all auditions and… which was what was always the best thing for the people making the show cause you really want to see people read the part that they’ll be doing not just see parts that they’ve done in the past. But the most interesting piece of casting was finding Elaine Cassidy who put herself on tape in Ireland and suddenly this tape arrived and the casting director was like, “You should watch this girl.” Turned it on and said, “That’s it. That’s the one.” It’s like one of those cheesy Hollywood, this-never-happens stories. But it happened.

Also in the pilot I noticed there were some creepy emails and text messages and stuff so how do you think murder mysteries are more interesting or different now that it’s not just, you know, a creepy, dark room, there’s nothing around, no phones or anything. Anything that makes it more interesting to-

Jon: The cell phone has totally changed movies and television. It’s like a director, and also with writing it used to be someone could be stuck somewhere without a phone. Now that’s really hard. We’ve had to address it in the scenery. But also when you’re- We used to have to shoot scenes where someone got a phone call and have to stand in one place. The big advantage was that you’d put that really, really long cord on the kitchen wall phone. And now you can go anywhere and get a phone call anywhere. So it has changed, I think. You know, texting, certainly, is just another form of stalking as we’ve all learned. The cell phone and computer technologies are kind of a boom to the stalking industry as many of us have found out. It wasn’t as much fun to stalk when you had to send a letter.

I was wondering if there was any sort of horror film or a murder mystery show that you felt sort of influenced the show at all?

Jon: Believe it or not, I thought a lot about Friday the 13th. The ones from my generation, not the one from this generation. In that, it was one of the first to really get into this format where you realize that you have to keep coming up with interesting ways of killing. But also putting characters into the interesting situation that would make them vulnerable to the killing. But I also remember and thought about the old shows like Ten Little Indians, and the psychological game that was going on. And that was the other thing that influenced us. The desire- the fact that for the team it’s not a mystery who’s doing the killing, it’s the giant immortal person in the hockey mask. Kind of tipped his hand a little bit. He needed to know that it could be person sitting next to you at dinner that added an extra layer of mystery to it.

Yeah definitely, I was wondering if… this is sorta off topic from the show, but if there was a film or anything in particular that go you inspired you to pursue film making and I know you went to film school, so…

Jon: I thought that- I guess was got me really excited to make movies, believe it or not, was Duck Soup. That Marx Brothers movies could be that entertaining and fun and funny and you watch something that you revere that gave you that much fun. It’s like, “Okay, that’s something that I really like.” And then I was part of the Spielberg generation of kids watching Jaws and Close Encounters which took entertainment to a whole ‘nother place.

Definitely. Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing the show and I was wondering how you felt about the online response right now… like, how you feel the internet’s sort of changing the way TV’s viewed.

Jon: You know, I think it’s good and I don’t think that any of us really know what effect is has. It’s very interesting stuff, partially because there’s not a single person who’s really an expert in it. We are looking at (inaudible) writers in a field that is changing in massive ways. Some might say catastrophic ways. Some others might say really wonderfully opportunistic ways. But these changes are about to happen. The internet still, I think, is in its toddler years. We’re still just exploring and figuring out all the good things it can be, and all the bad things it can be. TV, and certainly network TV, really doesn’t know what to make of it yet. It doesn’t know how to use it to help its broadcasts and it has figured out how to make money directly from it. And everyone’s just kinda flinging darts around hoping something will land on a bullseye somewhere and then follow that. Anyone who tells you they know what they’re doing is just misguided. No one really knows. Everybody’s a genius in hindsight but at some point someone’s gonna be smart enough, rich enough, and have the guts to make a big difference. But we haven’t seen that yet in terms of connecting internet and network TV.

Do you think sites like Hulu is a step in the right direction?

Jon: I don’t know. Being someone in the entertainment industry, our big fear is that the internet seems to want to give away everything for free. And the public has quickly adapted the internet as a free source of entertainment. It’s just in their blood that this is supposed to be free. That means that someone else has to pay for it. Who that is or how much that is, nobody quite knows yet. But everybody wants to watch an episode of Lost for free because they get to watch it for free on regular television. But no one’s paying any advertising dollars; you’re just downloading it for free. The public should have a right to watch the show for free, but you don’t make the show for free. The show costs a lot of money to make, so somewhere in there we’re going to have to make the business model work right for everybody. And no one’s quite sure how to do that yet. You know, Hulu is an odd thing because I think what you’ll find, and you can check this, but I think the show people are watching on regular television are probably the same shows they’re watching on Hulu. It’s not like The Bachelor is a huge hit on ABC but all of a sudden a number 55 is getting on the hits on Hulu. A hit is usually a hit no matter where you watch it. And I think what’s going to end up happening is a lot more of the same. You’re gonna end up with the same hits, just gotta figure out how to watch it. I don’t know. You better figure it out. You’re gonna become loaded.

I noticed that you used Rick Bota. I’m a Jericho fan so obviously I’m-

Jon: Oh!

How much crew did he use? Did he take some of his film crew with him? Did he take his TV crew? And I see that you really favor pretty much everyone who worked on this production with you…

Jon: Well not only is it about TV, but as a Rick Bota fan you’ll be happy to know that Rick ended up directing two episodes.

Oh wow. Yeah, he’s really good.

Jon: And they’re two of our best. And Rick… Rick is a fantastic director. You’re probably gonna be seeing a lot less of Rick the cinematographer and a lot more of Rick the director.

Wow. That’s really interesting. I like that very much. Umm, I love the look of it. The one episode that I saw.

Jon: Well that’s because of my extraordinary talent.

Haha. Yes, I noticed. Well, I’m a big fan of murder mysteries. And you know, people are talking about that this is horror, but I don’t see this as horror. There are horrific elements to it, but it’s not horror. And I think that would turn off a lot of viewers that are sensitive to the word horror. They think, you know, dark, slasher films.

Jon: Correct.

This is much more murder mystery but grown up.

Jon: It is. It’s a thriller. Some people say that. It’s kinda sorta right but not sorta right.

Right. You know, CBS is… this ties in to what you were saying about network television and the notes you got about repeating character names and what not. And I think that, to me, CBS taking a gamble on this really, I wanna say daring, project is giving their audience a little more credit than they normally do instead of dumbing down their programming which is what I think all of the networks are suffering from right now.

Jon: Look. I definitely agree. I see them see they’re right because they’re still the number one network and even when they have good years and bad years then even the next year they’re back to being the number one network. They never give them reason not to take chances because they’re doing so well or the freedom to take chances because they’re doing so well. They’ve been taking a lot of chances, not doing great, and then went back to their very traditional programming they finally… they had new hits again. Whether, you know, The Eleventh Hour or The Mentalist. But they know that the world is changing. They know that viewership is changing and I think with they show they said, “Alright, let’s do something different and let’s experiment with the audience a little bit.” It’s almost like throwing out a different kind of bait on your line and seeing what kind of fish strikes. And they’re willing to- the short series is something that sort of HBO has had success with and discovered, that you can hold the attention of people for ten weeks in a very powerful way. It’s harder for 22 weeks.

So it was really the network’s choice to make Harper’s Island a 13 week show not a 22 week show. Which I- which we all thought was brilliant because it would’ve been way too hard to extend this one story line over a 22 week season. But in 13 weeks, which is really the shelf life of a lot of reality shows, you can ask an audience to set a night aside and focus on that in a better way. It’s definitely cinematic. They pushed us and wanted us to make the show look fantastic. And where you find the money for that, cause this show is cheaper than most, and by doing a show like this you don’t have to cast big name stars. And so you’re not spending, you know, $500,000 a week on a star, you can take that money and put it into locations, and cinematography and action and things like that.

Craft service too.

Jon: Probably. That’s a good bump.

I noticed that you have Julie Beaton, your special fx person, make up person, working with Rebecca Lee again. They worked together on Case 39. They did great work together there.

Jon: You’ve been paying attention.

Yeah, no I love the makeup artists. Of course, I’ve only seen one episode. So, the head and all the different, you know, interesting prosthetic parts of people, was that something she did or did you shop that out, or?

Jon: Yeah it’s a mix because dealing both with special fx, special fx people… they never quite get it to the point that it’s finished and it looks right and then you need the real make up people to come in and do adjustments on that. And then you also have the real make up people doing the actors who are in the midst of whatever awful thing is happening to them that you gotta get right.

But then what we found out was that post production visual effects people also play a big role. And that there’s sometimes that little bit that you need to play with and finesse that you can add much later that brings a little extra life or a little extra depth to the look of something. So what was a one stage, became a two stage, and is now a three stage process of traditional make up, special fx make up, and visual.

ow many special fx scenes did you have in total for the series?

Jon: A lot. A lot. It’s- sometimes it’s little things, making it rain, taking away the rain. Those kind of things. Two huge explosions and helping us stab someone in the head with a spear when we really didn’t want to hurt the actor. Those kind of things. A lot. Not as much as, say, a show like Fringe, but a lot.

As much as you can tell me anything to do with the ending is, you know, is the ending going to be really good for viewers of this show?

Jon: So much conversation went into the ending before we even started, 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. And if you- one of the things I think CBS did brilliantly was that they nailed their advertising. They not only give you the premiere date, but they also give you the conclusion date. (Crying baby in the background.) Uh oh, my son just watched episode four. You can hear him crying in the background. Getting the ending big, right, exciting and not out of left field, completely believable and something that you can look forward to, was very important to us. The show does has a great ending, it has a surprising ending and has a longer ending than people might thing. But believe me, it doesn’t end with no ending and you have to log onto a thing that never ends or any of that crap. It definitely has an ending.

Interview By: Emma Loggins

– Harper’s Island


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *