A close-ended murder mystery set against the backdrop of a remote island wedding. That was the premise of the gory 2009 CBS series Harper’s Island.
Like most of the characters on the show, the life of Harper’s was short: Ratings for the one-season event series dropped from more than 10 million to 3.8 million by the finale. But for those who tuned in to the 13-episode Christopher Gorham-led thriller (spoiler alert: He was the bad guy!) it was binge-worthy TV ahead of its time.
Here, we look back on the show with creator Ari Schlossberg, co-executive producer Karim Zreik, and star Christopher Gorham.
In 2008, Jon Turtletaub (National Treasure, Jericho) was looking to do a serialized show with a one-season arc. CBS took a risk with a then unfamiliar format.
ARI SCHLOSSBERG (CREATOR): Jon Turtletaub had a company and they met with a couple of writers, but it was me who they chose. We developed this idea [for] a show where we could kill people off. We thought of a destination wedding, because weddings can be scary anyway. Then I pitched it and wrote the pilot.
KARIM ZREIK (CO-EXECUTIVE PRODUCER): When we pitched it to CBS, it felt like a 10- to 13-episode summer series where season 1 didn’t need to tie into season 2. Since then, you’ve seen Ryan [Murphy] embrace that model for American Horror Story where every season is a new story and sometimes actors come back and play different roles. That was always our intent with Harper’s Island. Of all the networks, CBS was the one to take the chance with us.
The series premiered on April 9, 2009, to more than 10 million viewers. Harry Hamlin’s character was the first major cast member to be killed off.
SCHLOSSBERG: We wanted the first death to be very shocking and in tone with what the others would be. I wanted it to be a famous person, someone people would recognize and think, “Oh, he’ll never die; that one will live to the end.” So we wanted to kill him off in the first episode. I remember this pulley system where [Marty’s] body would split in half. We spent five hours in the writers’ room drawing things on diagrams, like, “We pull the system here and his legs come here, and this guy flies on the tree here.”
ZREIK: It was a gruesome death for a pilot to be shown on CBS! We got a lot of pushback on it from CBS on it. We ended up saying, “We don’t understand, we just watched CSI where a dead body was hanging from the rafters. If they can do that, we can do that.” And they looked at us and said, “Well, they’re CSI.”
One by one, characters got the ax.
ZREIK: I became the guy to have to deliver the news. So I was the one to make sure that before the cast read the script, the person who was going away that week was told. I tried to make a game out of it. I would do it when they were all sitting around together and I’d ask someone to take a walk with me. It got to the point where no one wanted to talk to me! But they knew what they had signed up for — they embraced it. By the way, those were the best days to be on set. It was their swan song and we tried to schedule that scene on that actor’s last day.
Midway through filming, there was a major change to the story line.
SCHLOSSBERG: One thing we weren’t sure of was if Wakefield [Callum Keith Rennie], the guy we talked about as being the past murderer, was alive or not. So that’s something that we came to decide upon in maybe the sixth episode.
ZREIK: You would never believe Henry [Gorham] could do this alone, he needed help, and that’s where we said, “Well, what if Wakefield was alive?” and we tied it to the family history.
SCHLOSSBERG: Using him enabled us to have more story line, more soap, and a connection between Henry and him. We wanted [Harper’s] to be this scary horror movie, but people will sit through that in the theater for two hours. You can’t just have death scenes [in a TV show]. So that was a good backstory, using Wakefield as a real character.
Before filming the eighth episode, Gorham learned of his character’s murderous fate.
CHRISTOPHER GORHAM (STAR): When they told me it was really strange. Karim and [co-executive producer] Dan Shotz asked me to come to their hotel room in the middle of the night. We got on the phone with head writer Jeff Bell and he said, “The secret word is Henry.” And I just sat there going, “Okay, what does that mean?” Then they walked me through the entire plot and it was exciting. I walked back to my apartment with my head buzzing. I went out and bought a big knife the next day and kept a knife on me at all times and never told anybody just to have that sense of danger. But I had to keep the secret from the cast until we started shooting the last two episodes. I remember being at a bar in Vancouver with maybe three of us [guys] left and sitting across from Matt Barr just lying to his face. One of my favorite memories was the intense frustration of working with Elaine Cassidy near the end because I desperately wanted to tell her the truth about Henry being the killer and she absolutely refused to let me tell her. She didn’t want to know and it drove me absolutely nuts.
Ironically, Gorham, now playing a killer, actually saved a real life on set.
GORHAM: I was standing off-camera, and the 1st AD came to where I was hiding away and he was choking. I asked if he was okay and he gave me that signal. So I had to do the Heimlich maneuver to clear his throat in the middle of trying to stay in character as a murderer! When we went back to shoot the next shot, I walk in, tears rolling down my face, and the entire crew erupts into applause and I’m like, “Please stop, wait until after we roll!”
While some deaths were extremely graphic (i.e. a head spade through Mr. Wellington), those weren’t necessarily the toughest to film.
ZREIK: The one that stands out for me was Cam Richardson’s death on the bridge. It was the most difficult to shoot. We spent two days on that drawbridge. And for anyone who has been on that drawbridge, you know only two or three people can be on it at a time. We also had the best time trying to find the right piece of score to put to it. She was letting out all her aggression at the killer saying, “You don’t own me, you can’t have me,” and she flipped it on him. It was also an emotional death [because] it was witnessed by three of our characters. The end result we’re really proud of.
Katie Cassidy, who played Henry’s fiancée Trish, had to fight the cold while shooting her death scene.
ZREIK: What I remember about Katie Cassidy’s [death scene] was that we started shooting the series in Vancouver in July and it was sunny and gorgeous and by the time we got to Katie’s death it was December, there was snow on the ground, and it was three degrees outside. She had to run outside in the forest without any shoes on in a strapless dress. So that shaking in her lips was actually cold. But I think that was helping her get through that day because it was such a tough day physically to do all that running in the snow and we were trying to melt the snow on the ground because the story was supposed to take place over five or six days.
Ultimately, Henry was also killed off too.
GORHAM: It was great actually. I think it was the first time I died on screen and it was such a spectacular death. I knew if I could pull it off, I could make the audience feel sorry for this serial killer as he’s dying with a whaling knife shoved through his abdomen as he’s professing his love for his half-sister [Abby]. I just dug deep on the truth of it for Henry, which was that he loves her and really doesn’t understand to the end why she won’t love him back.
The series aired its finale on July 11. Although a season 2 was unlikely, there had been some early ideas.
SCHLOSSBERG: There were early conversations not to use the same characters. So the next season we’d have a group of new actors, no one returns, and it’s Harper’s Safari. We talked about a bunch of college kids going out on a safari and some horrible things could happen in Africa there.
ZREIK: We would’ve loved to do a second season. The two ideas [were] are on opposite ends of the spectrum. The first one was Harper’s Safari, and then the far-fetched one we talked about was a space station — and you’re stuck. But I think we were closer to the safari.
SCHLOSSBERG I want to give CBS a lot of credit because [this wasn’t] their bread and butter. Every network, I think, wants to create a star. And what good is it if then they’re [killed off] or the show is over? Abby was basically our star, we weren’t going to kill her, she was our heroine, but there would be no Abby for a returning season. So that I think was the hardest thing to sell, but we sold it, and I guess now it’s much more popular.
GORHAM: I’m thrilled that Harper’s Island continues to excite and scare its audience. It’s an example of a show just a couple years ahead of its time. I think it’s the perfect binge and the kind of thing that would’ve blown up had it been on Netflix years later.