'Broadchurch' postmortem: Creator Chris Chibnall on the killer, key scenes, and keeping the secret

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Image Credit: Patrick Redmond/BBC America

Spoiler alert! If you haven’t watched the season finale of BBC America’s Broadchurch, stop reading now. We asked creator/writer Chris Chibnall to take us inside the episode.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were notoriously tight-lipped with the cast about the identity of the killer. When did actor Matthew Gravelle find out his character, Joe Miller, the husband of DS Miller (Olivia Colman), had strangled Danny? (Danny had threatened to tell his father that they were spending time together, hugging.)
CHRIS CHIBNALL: We shot episodes 6, 7, and 8 together in one block. I called him the night before I issued the episode 8 script and said, “It’s you.” There was about 20 seconds of silence, and then he just went, “Oh, brilllllliant.” [Laughs] I think he realized it meant he was gonna get some interesting stuff to play. I’d done my due diligence on him, very early on, knowing all along that it was gonna be him. He was the lead in a Welsh-language series, so it didn’t even play nationally in Britain, but I watched a fair bit of that before I cast him knowing that he had the capacity to lead a series. And I knew that we’d need somebody really fantastic once we got to the reveal of who it was and why. So he was thrilled, and then we had long conversations about what that meant for the character, what that meant for how he’d been playing it, motivations, and backstory.

So you said you knew all along it’d be him. Even when you sat down to write the first script on spec?
I wrote the first draft when it was on spec having storylined it. Then maybe a week or two later, I just woke up one morning and it was the lightbulb moment above my head — which you never get as a writer, frankly. I’ve never had it before, probably won’t ever have it again. I was, like, “Ohmygod, it’s Joe. It can’t be anyone else.” It means that the story is a.) so much Ellie’s story and b.) a tale of two families. Once I had that thought, it was like the material was speaking to me and telling me what it should be. It felt so inevitable then, and so right, and everything I wanted to talk about within the piece was served by that idea as well. So I redrafted the first script and from then on, everything was plotted, storylined, and written knowing what the ending was.

Who was the killer going to be in that initial script?
I hadn’t really set on anyone. Often as a writer, you get your first draft out, and then you look and think, “Now, what have I got here.” You’re really just throwing mud at the wall and then going, “Oh, there’s a pattern there.” So I had a couple of ideas but they were nowhere near as good as that solution. When I landed on it, I was delighted and slightly revealed (Laughs) to be honest. From the moment I did the second draft of episode 1, I knew everything else was not going to be the case. That said, I also had some alternative endings up my sleeve in case it leaked during shooting. So there are different iterations with other possible resolutions.

Can you give us one alternate ending?
No! (Laughs) Given we may remake the show [for Fox], I’m not gonna let you in on anything. That’s certainly valuable commercial information.

I had to try. Let’s talk about the scene in which DI Hardy (David Tennant) is walking, tracking the signal of Danny’s cell phone, which the killer has turned back on. It’s three and a half minutes until he comes face-to-face with Joe, who was ready to turn himself in. It was gloriously excruciating to watch. You’re yelling at the TV because you’re in such a prolonged state of panic and agony.
That’s what I wanted. I think normally with the reveal, you have to do it verbally. The tradition, particularly in old-school British detective things, is everybody’s in the drawing room or the library, and they’re all gathered, and the detective walks around and tells them where they were that night, and you see the flashbacks. And I really didn’t want to do that. So I knew it had to be something incredibly visual and cinematic. I wanted to slow time down just at the moment when you would expect it to speeding up toward a resolution. What I wanted to do — which is what I wanted to do with the whole show — is place you in the drama and get you as close to experiencing what it would be like as possible. That’s why we’re on Hardy’s shoulder for that walk. I knew how I’d reveal it very early, because we went and did a shooting recce with James Strong the director and Joel Holmes, our brilliant location manager who found the location of the houses and the field. We walked from the Latimer house to the Miller house across the bridge, and I just thought, that’s how we reveal it. (Laughs) As I was walking, I just said to James, “Look, look, this is the walk at the end, and it’s all got to be one shot.” It was one of those things were the location was just so extraordinary that again, it felt quite inevitable. And I wanted it to mirror, as well, the very first Steadicam shot in episode 1 when Mark [Andrew Buchan] walks down the street and meets everyone in one long Steadicam shot. I wanted the resolution to come through something similar. James and I talked about that a lot — we had to do something that was hopefully slightly different. Screaming at the television was exactly what I hoped would happen.

Looking back, you see the clues: Joe had mentioned he was a former paramedic, and we’d heard that Mark had bruised Danny’s lip — that was the moment that set things in motion. There was Ellie judging Susan in episode 7, saying, “Back then, in your own house, how could you not know?” — which is what Danny’s mother, Beth (Jodie Whittaker), ultimately said to Ellie. But what might we have missed?
The very first time we meet the Miller family on the street in that market scene, where Mark Latimer’s walking through saying hello to everyone, Joe has got his arm round Tom’s neck and he’s kind of play strangling him. That’s something James the director improvised. At the beginning of episode 2, Ellie is kneeling looking at this slug-insect creature on the carpet. Certainly here [in the UK], nobody really noticed what was going on. And then when she squishes the slug under her shoe in episode 8, everybody went a bit mad going, “Why has she suddenly started killing insects?!” (Laughs) But the slug is a metaphor for something is wrong in that house — there is an invader, an evil force has come into the house. Joe being at the skateboard park — there’s all kinds of stuff. Hopefully they trickle by on your first viewing. You watch the first time as mystery and then the second time as drama and maybe even tragedy. You go, “Oh. Okay. This is a terrible thing that’s happened.”

You mention the skatepark: In addition to Joe joking with Ellie about him being/not being a suspect, it’s almost like, is he looking for a new friend there?
That scene was very deliberately there to go, “You have to take this guy into account as we move toward the end game.” I didn’t want it to feel like we’ve been shielding him all along. I think there’s enough subtle clues in there that you can pick it up and work it out. I never wanted it to be a cheat. I wanted it to feel like you could piece this together and you could have your suspicions and they could be proved correct. I will say though, as I sound confident now, as I sat there about ten to nine on the Monday night before episode 8 went out in the UK, I texted Jane Featherstone, the other executive producer on the show, and said, “I think we’ve got it entirely wrong. I think we’ve made a terrible mistake. I think it’s an awful ending.” (Laughs) I had the equivalent of stage fright knowing that so many people by that point were really invested in it and watching it. I’ve never been more panicked in my life. Then after about 20 minutes in, I was like, “No, no, it’s all right. I’ve had a drink. It seems to be going okay.”

Since you won’t say whether David Tennant and/or Olivia Colman will be in the second season, here’s a burning question you might be able to answer: Did Tom feel something deeper than friendship for Danny?
I don’t think so, no. I think their friendship was just kids’ friendship. That kind of Lord of the Flies brutality of being 11, it’s a tough time. You’re trying to figure out who you are, and who your friends are, and what your alliances are, and kids fall out all the time. There was no deliberate hint to anything more than that in that storyline.

Did you have to tell the parents of Adam Wilson, who plays Tom, that their son wasn’t playing a murderer early on?
Funnily enough, he didn’t know for a very, very long time. Obviously for the actors who play Danny and Tom, their parents were around all the time. For example, with Oskar [McNamara], who plays Danny, there’s that onscreen very violent scene of his death, and we worked very closely with them and made sure everybody was okay and comfortable. But with Adam, who played Tom, he didn’t know even after everyone else knew. His mom — very cleverly, I think, and with his agreement — didn’t tell him who the killer was until a few minutes before they shot the scene where Ellie tells Tom. So he was playing the shock of that in the moment.

Let’s talk about the scene in which Hardy tells Ellie that her husband killed Danny. Olivia was so amazing with the vomiting and the kicking and screaming — it felt real. Were those actions scripted?
It was all in the script. Some scenes take days and weeks, and some scenes take an hour. I wrote that scene very fast because there wasn’t any other choices for what people would be saying in that scene. But I think there’s a couple of things that give it such a life and immediacy, one of which is, to state the obvious, David Tennant and Olivia Colman are just two of the best actors in the world. They are just extraordinary. And the way it was directed, James Strong and Matt Gray, who is the director of photography but also operated the camera throughout the show — they set up an environment where what you see onscreen is, I think, the first take. And they may not have even rehearsed it. The reason that scene feels so fresh and alive, I think, is it’s happening in the moment. David and Olivia didn’t know what each other were going to do, so it just preserved that kind of spontaneity and just felt so true.

And David and Olivia found out who the killer was around the time Matthew did?
Yes. There was one point during shooting — just as we were about to start shooting episodes 6, 7, and 8 together — we’d put together a trailer of the footage we’d shot so far, just to show the crew and the cast how it’s coming together, what it looks like. We said, “We’ll show you the trailer and we’ll tell you who it is,” because everybody was going, “Oh, I just want to know!” I went down to the location the night before we were due to tell everyone, when we were shooting the reconstruction from the beginning of episode 5, when Tom plays Danny skateboarding through the night. Lots of members of the crew came up to me and went, “Oh, you’re gonna tell us tomorrow, aren’t you? I sorta don’t want to know until I’ve read the other scripts. But I suppose we should.” A couple of cast members went, “Oh, we don’t want to know. We might not come tomorrow.” And so, I had a really sleepless night going, “I don’t want to spoil it, and actually, I’m loving the atmosphere where people don’t know.” So the next morning, we had a catering bus full of every member of cast and crew who was there. We showed them the trailer, and then I stood up to tell them, and I said, “I don’t think I’m gonna tell you. I’m sorry. Because lots of people came up to me last night.” Half of them were delighted and half of them looked like they were going to kill me on the spot. They were like, “You’ve dragged us here, and now you’re giving us nothing!” David Tennant cornered me in the car park afterwards and said, “I can’t believe you’re not gonna tell me… and I think you’re absolutely right not to.” (Laughs)

Did you ever slip and tell someone?
No. But Jodie Whittaker [who plays Danny's mother] came to me at one point as we were getting close to that and said, “Oh God, listen, if it’s me, just tell me. Just tell me. I can’t bear it.” And I just said, “It’s really not, and it just could never have been. So I will happily put you out of your misery because that’s not the show we’re making.” I couldn’t have done that to an actor. It’d have been so deceptive. I hope when you watch the show, and when you watch it back as well, there’s an honest through-line in terms of what we depict. But I didn’t tell anyone else.

Andrew Buchan (who plays Danny’s father) got that intense scene when Mark confronts Joe through the peephole of his cell.
It’s a very artfully framed scene, I think. The fact that Joe is tiny and in the middle of the frame, and then Mark is so much bigger, and that barrier between them. As ever with the scenes in this show, I think it’s very simply and beautifully shot. I think it’s also these guys are in two different prisons. And it’s the acting there. It’s one of my favorite scenes that Andy does, because that’s not makeup around his eyes. His eyes are bright red there. That’s real emotion that he’s put himself through to get himself to that point in that scene.

You’re keeping mum on details about season 2, which will shoot next year, but can you tell us how far into it you are?
Literally, as I stand here talking to you now, I am standing one foot away — I’ve now moved, just for the theater of it — in front of the board which has the whole of the first episode plotted out on it. Every single bit of the first episode, I’m looking at now… And that’s all I’m gonna tell you. (Laughs)

Cruel!
But there are numerous whiteboards. We know what we’re doing. And I’m really excited about it.¬†For people who are wondering, I promise we have interesting stories still to tell.

How involved will you be in the Fox series?
I’ve written the first episode and I’ll be an executive producer on it. There’s a whole team coming into place on that, and Fox will decide whether they go forward with it. But we’re very excited about it. I think there’s a really great opportunity to make something that is hopefully as good if not better than the British version. I’m very, very fascinated to see this story in a different landscape with an acting ensemble that’s just as strong but taken from really great American actors. The DNA of the original is absolutely intact and filtered through a new prism, so it should still feel just as vibrant, and interesting, and strange, and unique, and beautiful, but just in a different setting — and then it’s exploring the dramatic opportunities that that offers up. We’re not gonna do the terrible version. We’re gonna do a great version.

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