Post-Mortem: Co-showrunner Dan Futterman weighs in on the ‘Gracepoint’ killer reveal

The event series run of FOX's “Gracepoint” ended on Thursday (December 11) night and if you don't wanna know whodunnit, you'd better stop reading… now.

OK, really, I'm about to talk about the finale and its aftermath before segueing into my post-mortem chat with co-showrunner Dan Futterman… So you've been warned.

Oh and I guess the conversation and article spoil “Broadchurch” as well. It's a somewhat specific focus. Apologies…

So Ellie's husband Joe did it!

Or not.

For around the first 20 minutes of the finale, all signs were pointing to the guilt of Josh Hamilton's Joe, the same killer from “Broadchurch” and I was worried that I'd have to call everybody involved with “Gracepoint” a liar for keeping the same killer and the same basic motivation — Joe was having an unconsummated emotional affair with 12-year-old Danny Solano — but only changing the method — Danny tripped while fleeing with Joe in pursuit and crushed his skull, rather than being choked.

But I wasn't really panicked. There was one other character whose guilt could fit with the show's ongoing thematic thrust and, indeed, it was revealed that Jack Irvine's Tom was the true killer, whacking Danny's head with an oar/paddle trying to defend his estranged friend from his sketchy father. 

The change in ending altered the reaction of Anna Gunn's Detective Miller, who first flew into rage at her husband, but then was forced into a conspiratorial alliance with Joe to protect Tom. And while David Tennant's Carver went until the episode's closing moments thinking he'd locked up the right killer, he seemed to figure things out by the end, leaving viewers with the question of what will happen next.

Although “Broadchurch” was renewed for a second season and will premiere on BBC America in February, that series actually left its characters in a much more conclusive place at the end of Season 1. “Gracepoint,” while billed as a 10-episode event series, wrapped with doors open to an interesting second season, possibly pitting Carver against Miller, trying to seek justice. Viewers, however, may not see more “Gracepoint,” because the first season has attracted only a small, but admirably steady, audience to FOX. 

I thought the finale was, like probably the last seven or eight episodes of “Gracepoint,” very solid. Even with its changed ending, it still followed the “Broadchurch” structure for much of its running time, even echoing key pieces of dialogue. But Anna Gunn's character was ultimately quite different from Olivia Colman's Ellie and that, in turn, pushed David Tennant into different places to go with his character's different name. The tweaked performances and tonal variations, as well as the few key narrative detours, kept me watching “Gracepoint” with real interest through the season.

After seeing the finale, I got on the phone with Dan Futterman, who I briefly chatted with — off-the-record, while sitting in the Gracepoint Jail — when I was on the set in May. The “Capote” and “Foxcatcher” screenwriter weighed in on how they came to settle on the new killer and the new mechanics for Danny Solano's murder.

Futterman and I talked about the nuts and bolts of the finale and what it would set up for a possible sequel, which he and wife Anya Epstein would love to make, a second season that wouldn't be at all beholden to “Broadchurch.”

We also discussed the inevitable need to compare “Broadchurch” to “Gracepoint,” which led many critics to get hung up on initial superfluousness, which ties into Futterman's biggest regret about the adaptation process.

Check out the full Q&A below…

HitFix: So I guess the first and most obvious question is at what point did you know that it was Tom whodunnit?

Dan Futterman: We knew going in. Anya and I, before we started mapping out the season, I think for both of us as writers, we feel like it's impossible to write the beginning until you know the ending. So this was a topic of lots of discussion. We presented this to Chris Chibnall and Jane Featherstone, our partners in England, and said, “We want to try this” and they were excited about it. So we knew before we started.

HitFix: Was Joe always off-limits or did you put Joe off-limits to yourselves as a choice?

Dan Futterman: Having seen it, and obviously for any readers who are DVRing this, it's a huge spoiler alert, right? He is on-limits in certain ways and off in other ways. I think we wanted to complicate his situation to force him and Ellie into a very, very uncomfortable pact, given what she now knows about him, that he has done something horrible to betray her and the family, but yet they are in it together, in a way, to protect their son. That, to us, felt really rich and exciting and I spent several hours when Anna Gunn got the script talking to her about it. She was excited and scared of it and just generally turned on by that prospect, of playing those scenes in particular with Joe and with Tom. But it also gave us what was the most important thing to us, which was a jumping off point for a second season.

HitFix: I was struck by the contrast here. In “Broadchurch,” what she learns the truth, this secret shatters Ellie and she's broken down almost entirely. Here, it definitely hurts her, but she's as much angry as anything else. How much was that your intention, what you were aiming her towards?

Dan Futterman: Once you start working with a particular actor, that actor becomes very present in your mind as your mind as you're writing subsequent episodes. We had about six episodes largely written by the time we were started and then we were still writing the remaining four as we were shooting. Anna brought something very, very different than Olivia Colman brought to it and I think you point to exactly the emotional difference between them. Anna, in a very deliberate way, wanted to bring a strength to the character. Her interactions with Carver, I think, reflect that, where she doesn't seem to take things lying down. And this is not to take away anything from Olivia Colman's, I think, really brilliant performance, but it's like watching two actors play a classic role and have different takes on it. Anna brings a strength and probably, with that, some anger that we found interesting and exciting and had a big effect, I think, on David Tennant's playing of this part, as opposed to the British role and it had an effect on how she played this episode.

HitFix: Going back to Tom, were there things you were looking at in Jack Irvine's performance early on to know that he was capable of pulling this off in the last episode? How did you know that he could sell this?

Dan Futterman: I think we didn't. We tried to cast the best actor we could. He didn't know until the final episode came out what the story was. That was just for the show, for the producers, for us, self-protective on our part. The only person who we had a conversation about all of this with was Josh Hamilton, because he knew what the British ending was and he wanted to know, understandably, where he was going with the character and what he should be playing and so we talked it through with him. But Jack, Jack's a great little actor and he has that unusual quality that some actors have and some actors don't but he's got it, where he doesn't have to do very much for you to think that there's a lot going on behind his eyes and behind his performance and he seems to be a person who is not revealing everything and that felt great. Knowing that made us feel confident about it and then people can decide what they think of how the last episode played out.

HitFix: When I was talking to him on the set before anybody knew, I was asking everybody if they thought their character could turn out to be the killer and he seemed excited about the possibility that it could be him. [Futterman laughs.] What was his reaction when you told him?

Dan Futterman: Yeah, I would say that he was excited by the prospect of being at the center of everything that was happening in this episode and then also a little scared about taking this on: How would this play out? How would the mechanics of what happened play out on film? Would he be able to rise to the occasion? And we had a great, great director in Euros Lyn, who directed some, but not these episodes, of the “Broadchurch” episodes, who is not only visually terrific, but really great with actors and was with Jack as well.

HitFix: When it comes to the mechanics of how things went down, was there ever a possibility where it could have been actually an intentional act of violence? Or did it always have to be at least somewhat inadvertent? 

Dan Futterman: Look, I think the more that you read into it the better and I think that there is no question that there's an enormous amount of anger on Tom's part towards his father and what he sees as an incredible betrayal of trust, an incredibly confusing situation. I think if you think about it, you have to realize that that feeling has to extend towards his friend Danny as well and so what's intentional and what's accidental, there's always some proportion of each, I think. And if there's a question left in viewers' minds about that, that's all the better.

HitFix: But there was still obviously a more “Bad Seed”-y kind of direction that you could have gone in, but you didn't go down that path.

Dan Futterman: I think that's right. One can say that in theory, but then what actually would the story be? That didn't interest us all that much. We talked through a lot of scenarios. What would get you to that point? And any of the backstories that would get us to that point seemed unsupported by the material. This felt, to us, the most potent and mostly the most potent in that it had, not ripple effects but tidal wave effects through our main character, Ellie. That was absolutely the most important thing in constructing an ending that would be devastating and unsettling and put her on very dangerous ground both in her home life as well as in her professional life.

HitFix: Talk about how you guys landed on the exact beat that you wanted to end the finale on. There's the phone call to Ellie that's not being answered yet, but with Carver walking determinedly and, we assume, now knowing the truth, but not necessarily knowing what he'll do with what he knows, I guess…

Dan Futterman: Yeah, this script went through a lot of iterations and, as you can imagine, there was a lot of discussion about it. Anya and I wrote a version that ended with Tom telling Ellie in the bathroom what had happened and it ended with him saying, “Mom, what're we gonna do? What're we gonna do?” And then it blacked out and that was the end. And we talked about that a lot, had a very, very long discussion with Chris and Jane, also John Goldwyn and some of our folks at Shine, Carolyn Bernstein in particular, and we all decided that maybe we should move that event up and have the aftermath of that play out in the last third of the episode and see what we could wring out of the aftermath. And what felt exciting to us was that Carver had been brought to a place where he was empathic, caring towards Ellie in a way he had not been before and that when it clicked for him that some of this story did not fully add up, he was back on the warpath and she was in his sights.

That felt like a really exciting way to end the show and when Anya and I constructed that, wrote it and handed it in, everybody felt excited about ending in that way. And, as I said, we wanted to do something… The goal of the show was: How do we start in the same place and end in a very different place. So ending in a different place with this last episode felt like a great jumping off point for a potential second season where then things would be very, very different from “Broadchurch” Season 2, just as a matter of necessity, because of the situation between Carver and Ellie.

[Head to Page 2 for Futterman's hopes for a second season and his regret about the early process of adapting from “Broadchurch” to “Gracepoint”…]

HitFix: As we got to near the end of the finale I was wondering if there was any way that this could end with Carver in relative ignorance. He can have the happy ending where he can go back, he can have the surgery, he can make nice with his daughter, but he's gonna end up being wrong about what happened. Was there any thought about maybe the appealing unease that that might leave people with? Of the hero being wrong?

Dan Futterman: We talked about that a little bit and we decided that there was a contract that you make with the viewers of a show where, if they get ahead of your investigators… Most of the time they're learning information at the exact same time as your investigators and then if they're ahead of them, it's only because they've guessed and maybe they've guessed correctly. And this case was one of the very few times where the audience got ahead of him and we felt like it was dishonest to end a show that has been in that place in a way where the audience knew that he was in the dark. You start to care about your characters and you care about their integrity. In a weird way, you feel protective of them and care about them in terms like: How good of a cop is he? How hard has he worked on this? He was wrong for a very short period of time, but the fact that it twigged, hopefully gets your heart beating at the end thinking, “Oh f***. What's coming?”

HitFix: In your mind, a hypothetical second season, is it sorta an adversarial Carver versus Ellie thing? Cat & Mouse? Her as the mama bear and him going after Tom?

Dan Futterman: Anya and I have talked a lot about it. That's one possibility. There are other possibilities of what his attitude and emotional state towards all of this could be. One could see him feeling that there are ultimately more important intentional betrayals that have happened and need to be punished than accidental ones. Or not. We would love to get a chance to play that out and debate that and go for one of those halves, but I don't know whether we will or we won't.

HitFix: To some degree is there almost more excitement for you guys in the prospect of a second season where you wouldn't have “Broadchurch” looming over your shoulder at all times?

Dan Futterman: Absolutely. It was always the plan and it felt like a great experiment to us, that you start in the same place and you diverge to a certain point by the end. To me, what a thrilling thing it would be to then have two shows running concurrently that are on very different tracks. I've never seen that before. That felt like it would be a great experiment. People could compare and contrast, decide which one they liked more. That possibility is inevitable and that would be fine. So yeah, there would be some relief in that and there would be some, I think, excitement on both sides of this. I don't mean in an adversarial way. Chris, as a writer you think, “Well, what if this plot took a different turn? What actually would play out?” And he would get to play that out through us, through the American version, as excited as he was by this alternate ending. Yeah, that all felt great and, as you said, the possibility of doing something that was consciously different in a very powerful way from the British version was also exciting.

HitFix: When you look back at these 10 episodes, how do you feel about how much or how little you guys did deviate, at least certainly in the first half of the storytelling? In retrospect would you have wanted to deviate sooner?

Dan Futterman: I don't think, storytelling-wise. I would say the only thing that I would have done — I think I can speak for Anya as well, but I'll speak for myself — is I think James Strong, our director, is extremely talented, but I think we should have assigned to him episodes he had not directed before. I think there were visual similarities that gave people the sense that they were watching something that was a remake of something, rather than something that was going to start to take a different path. That's the only thought that I have in that direction, but in terms of storytelling, I feel happy with what we did and I feel like we kept what worked so beautifully and set it on a different enough path that for those who wanted that experience would love it and be excited by it. I've heard both from people who watched the “Broadchurch” original and this and were excited by the differences and I've also heard from a lot of people who've just been watching “Gracepoint.” When people dove in and stuck with it, they really loved it. I wish we had more of those people, but that's something that you ultimately can't control.

HitFix: I've heard the same thing, a lot of people who didn't see “Broadchurch” seem to really like this. For me, it really did take three or four episodes before I was able to see what the different actors were doing and I was able to feel it in a different way. Do you feel like reporters and critics and people who had seen “Broadchurch” got too caught up in those comparisons, or do you accept that that was kinda inevitable and there was nothing we could have done?

Dan Futterman: That was probably more inevitable than all of us gave credit for and I think that that's just human. There was a feeling that I sensed from writers who were writing about it that not very many people saw “Broadchurch” here and those who did felt like they discovered this sorta unexplored gem. That was not true in The UK, because so many people watched it, but here it just didn't get that kind of attention, and so you find something that excites you and you think, “Hey, I'm one of the few people who saw it” and you've written about it and there's a certain skepticism that comes with approaching a remake or a retelling or however you want to talk about “Gracepoint.” So some people didn't stick with it and I wish they had and given it the chance that you gave it, but people will be what they are. I understand that. It's a human thing to do. I wish we'd gotten a little bit more time to make our case.

HitFix: Do you know if there's a path that Shine is looking at for if FOX decides not to go forward with a Season 2? Is there an alternative, do you think?

Dan Futterman: I hope so! You know as much as I do at this point. Shine, there's been some changes at the company and so I don't know what the intention is to do with the programming that they've got. Anya and I would love the opportunity, but we don't know any more than you do.