Beneath the holiest city in the world lies a complex web of murder and conspiracies that could spell the end of days.
FBI agent Peter Connelly (Jason Isaacs) is stationed in Jerusalem when his investigation into the murder of a young archeologist spins into uncovering an apocalyptic prophesy thousands of years in the making.
USA Network’s 10-episode showDig brings together Heroes and Homeland creators Tim Kring and Gideon Raff, respectively, for a breathless plunge into the dark waters of religious fanaticism that has haunting echoes in the real world of terrorist organizations committing brutal acts of violence and murder in the name of a higher power.
Dig marks the first time these TV titans have worked together, and the result is a powerful collaboration in effective storytelling. Kring and Raff spoke with Fast Company about creating in constraints, the beauty and terror of shooting in Jerusalem, and why Dig could resonate strongly (for better or worse) with audiences today.
How did you two come together for Dig?
GIDEON: We actually came together because we have the same agent, Rick Rosen, and he and Gail Berman, who is our executive producer, hooked us together. We were both working on other projects at the time but we wrote this on spec and we fell in love with the idea and the characters so we worked on it in every free moment we had and then it became our day job.
TIM: Exactly. It morphed from the sideline project to right in the radar.
Had you two worked together before?
TIM: No. I’ve worked with lots of other writers on the shows that I work on. But usually when I’ve created stuff, I created it by myself. In that respect it was a unique project.
GIDEON: I’m the same. I usually create on my own completely. I know the cliché that collaboration is great but usually collaboration sucks ass. But this was exactly the opposite–it’s been such a joy.
How has working together been a joy?
TIM: Doing stuff by yourself is hard–it’s gratifying to have a partner. There’s so many millions of times in the course of making something when you wish you had somebody to gauge your reaction to things. Because both of us do work on our own and can continue to work on our own, we didn’t load it up with “this thing has to work because our whole careers are riding on it.” It had a fun quality–it never felt like it was burdened with work.
GIDEON: I think it’s also because Tim and I share sensibilities and we have similar tastes and at the end of the day we care more about the work than who gave the idea.
How did you land on this particular story?
GIDEON: I was born and raised in Jerusalem, and this thing was born on a long flight where Avi Nir of Keshet Broadcasting told me he always wanted to make a show about archaeology. So I started researching possible conspiracies and possible characters that would serve as a framework for a series. Then I met with Tim and we landed on the idea: Almost every American embassy in the world has a legal attaché who is really an FBI agent in charge of investigating crimes against and committed by Americans on foreign soil. So we thought that’s a great character that could be a franchise. Then when we started researching what’s hiding beneath Jerusalem, and we uncovered scary stuff that is happening right now. People are trying to bring about the end of days and that’s what it became. The murder of one archaeologist and then Peter Connelly trying to figure out who killed her and in that he unveils a conspiracy 2,000 years in the making.
TIM: It also needs to be said that part of the impetus for doing this was to set a show in Israel and take advantage of that desire there to bring the United States there, so we knew there was going to be unprecedented access to locations and making it easy to shoot in a country that’s not always easy to shoot in.
Speaking of which, didn’t you run into filming issues during the Gaza Strip conflict?
TIM: We ran into the same conflict that the whole country ran into. We wrapped production on the 90-minute pilot and were in prep on the next two episodes when the conflict began. Thankfully, we had everything in the can for the initial episode.
GIDEON: The unrest started when we were filming the pilot. It started with the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish kids. Throughout this whole thing we were gauging how stable it was to stay there.
TIM: The mayor of Jerusalem was involved on a daily basis.
GIDEON: Everybody wanted us to complete the show in Israel and it was heartbreaking when we had to leave [for New Mexico and Croatia] but the truth is we stayed there as long as we could.
Jerusalem is a character in itself in Dig–what was it like shooting there?
TIM: There are a lot of places in the world that don’t evoke those kinds of feelings and emotions and visual stimulation that Jerusalem does. It’s extraordinary when you go there. It’s got a frenetic and chaotic quality to it as well as being so steeped in history. There’s just no way to substitute shooting on streets that are 3,000 years old. It was just enormously important that we capture that energy.
GIDEON: And honestly, Jerusalem dictated how we would shoot it because it’s not a comfortable place to shoot–you have to put the camera on your shoulder and run behind the actor or in front of him because you’re in very narrow, crowded streets or underground in very narrow tunnels, which translates really well to the camera.
What kind of research did you have to do to make Dig authentic?
GIDEON: In addition to the two trips Tim and I did to Jerusalem where we went undercover into some of these organizations, we went down to locations that haven’t been seen before that have just been unsealed and excavated. And we did a lot of reading about these groups and the connections between these groups and how these groups are funded and what they really want and the messianic goals in every one of these groups.
Wait, what do you mean you went “undercover”?
GIDEON: There are these organizations that are ideology based, like about how “Jerusalem is just for the Jews” and when you go there you don’t say, “I’m doing research because you guys are going to be the villains in our story.” We just went in without revealing our intentions.
What are some of your key tenets for storytelling?
TIM: We tried to utilize a kind of storytelling I had explored on both Heroes and Touch, which is the idea of a pastiche quality to the way the stories are laid out and a sense of watching disparate stories that you’re not quite sure how they’re going to connect. Part of the fun is the participatory nature of watching them to guess and try to figure out how and when they’re going to connect.
GIDEON: Also, the idea of shooting it in the location in a very gritty way–it’s guerrilla-stye filmmaking. It’s a bunch of us running in the rain with umbrellas and a camera and actors changing clothes on the street. Even that gave it a certain type of energy that we brought from our other projects as well.
TIM: And finally I would say that both Gideon and I shared a common style of storytelling that I can only describe as aggressive, meaning that you push story maybe a little faster than a lot of people would. This gets us into the idea of only doing 10 episodes, which became really helpful because with a lot of shows when you have a longer broadcast network order of 22 episodes or you know you’re going to try to stretch it out over a couple of seasons, you have a tendency to work in these long stalls to avoid getting to various plot points. But when we only had 10 episodes to work with, it allowed us to write toward an ending. And it meant that every episode could be chock-full of story.
So you found a sense of freedom in the constraints?
TIM: I personally loved it. I felt very liberated from the normal parameters where you’re trying to keep something going for a long time–that can be very stressful. There’s something liberating in knowing this is mid-point of our story, this is three-quarters of the way through, and here’s the end of our story. We were able to break that out pretty easily because of it.
GIDEON: And I think even for the audience, the idea of knowing there are only 10 episodes gives them the confidence that the writers know where they’re going.
TIM: One of the accusations always with serialized storytelling from the audience is “the writers don’t know where the story is going.” Having been involved in a long serialized show I can attest to the fact that that’s often true–you may have plot points you’re writing toward but you can meander quite a bit when you don’t have the discipline of knowing when you’re ending it.
What sensibilities of today’s audience do you keep in mind when creating a new show?
GIDEON: Everybody is binge-viewing, everybody is DVRing so it allows you to tell a story in a very sophisticated way, a very novelistic way. You don’t have to repeat, you don’t have to have so much exposition from week to week because people are going to watch this like they read a book.
TIM: In broadcast network television a statistic the executives would always remind you of is that the most loyal viewer would only watch one out of three episodes. On the show we would say, that can’t be true! They love us—they’re watching every single episode. And then sure enough they’d show the statistic and they were right. As a result of that, you were asked constantly by the network to repeat yourself each week to remind people, just in case someone missed two episodes. And it made for a kind of frustration in storytelling because you constantly were having to dumb things down. And I do believe that has been one of the positive by-products of the whole binge-watching phenomenon.
Where do you go for creative inspiration?
GIDEON: The thrilling part, the roller coaster, the murder mystery, we love to do that, we’re storytellers. Then you open the paper and the world is becoming scarier and scarier. Every day people are losing their lives because of their beliefs. The world is becoming so scary because of this fanaticism and I think that’s something we were inspired to comment on.
Dig premieres March 5 at 10/9 C on USA