How do you build an international murder-mystery about a 2,000-year-old conspiracy? Call Gideon Raff (Homeland, Tyrant), whose sprawling new series Dig (Thursdays at 10 p.m. on USA) tells three intertwining stories that all converge in Jerusalem. Here’s how Raff (and co-creator Tim Kring) built the show’s many layers.
The initial plan for Dig was to shoot entirely in Raff’s hometown of Jerusalem, which he calls “the biggest character” in the show. “In Homeland, we played Israel as different places, and when we brought Tyrant to Israel, we played it as a fictional country, but with Dig, I really wanted to play Israel as Israel and show more than what you see on the news,” says Raff.
Production shot there for three months until the Israel-Gaza conflict broke out in 2014, and filming moved to Croatia and New Mexico. Although that altered the production plan, the narrative stayed the same, with the show’s Israeli art directors flying to Croatia to ensure that the new Jerusalem was visually authentic to the real one.
“Once you place a show in the holiest place on earth, we knew a lot of it was going to be about faith,” says Raff. Dig follows a faithless FBI agent stationed in Jerusalem, a Christian cult leader in New Mexico, and a Hasidic Jew in Norway, all of whom are either questioning their beliefs or killing for them.
It’s a topic that’s one of Dig’s most important and most provocative. “You open the paper every day and you see our liberties are really at risk because of religious fanaticism,” explains Raff, unafraid of poking the dragon. “It’s the world we live in, so it might be controversial but it’s also very dangerous to ignore it.”
The series’ inciting incident is the death of an archaeologist, and production employed a handful of archaeology professors from Israeli universities to consult as Dig shot in actual excavated tunnels beneath Jerusalem, some of which had been sealed for 3,000 years.
“We were shooting tunnels where the last people who were down there were burnt by the Romans, and some of the walls were still black with charcoal,” Raff explains, adding that only 5 percent of Jerusalem has been excavated, leaving Raff and Kring freedom to imagine what might lie beneath the other 95 percent. “We were lucky enough to not only look at this stuff but shoot in places that people haven’t seen before. You really feel a sense of history vibrating from the walls.”
While it may sound like it belongs in a history class, Dig’s three stories linked by a central murder mystery (about a dead girl who looks like Jason Isaacs’ character’s dead daughter) makes it a marker departure from Homeland and Tyrant. “Unlike my previous shows, this has scope and scale going back 2,000 years,” he says. “It’s a conspiracy in the vein of Indiana Jones and those ’70s espionage thrillers.”
Teaming up with Heroes creator Kring, Raff says they’re anticipating rapidfire storytelling that may leave the audience in a tizzy—but that’s okay. “We’re not afraid of confusion because we know where we’re going,” promises Raff. “It’s up to the audience how active they want to be in guessing how these three sets of stories are connected.”
A version of this article appears in the March 13, 2015 issue of Entertainment Weekly.