NEW YORK – Filming in Jerusalem, and having to cancel filming because of a war, were major firsts for the USA Network when it commissioned the new show Dig, which began airing last Thursday after a gala premiere on February 25 in New York.
Show creators Tim Kring of Heroes and Gideon Raff of Homeland stressed to The Jerusalem Post that the entire idea of the show and the writing of the script were based around wanting to shoot in Israel.
“The show was very intricately involved with the idea that we were going to shoot in Israel,” said Kring. “That was the initial lure for both of us. We were going to go make a show in Israel.”
“As we were writing it, we were basing it on real locations,” Raff said.
Golden-Globe nominee Jason Isaacs, of Harry Potter and The Patriot, stars as an American FBI agent who gets caught up in a conspiracy to bring about the end of days. Isaacs, who is Jewish and whose parents live in Israel, said it was magical to be shooting in Jerusalem.
“The fact is the story’s about Jerusalem, everyone knows that it’s the most controversial piece of real estate in the history of mankind,” Isaacs said. “And if you don’t know that before you go there, you know that as soon as you get there. And that’s what our story’s about. It not only affected how we shot, it defined what our story is.”
Isaacs and his co-stars told stories of shooting chase scenes running across the rooftops of people’s homes and through their courtyards.
“It’s not a place where people film, so people would come out and were curious,” Isaacs said. “We’d be shooting early in the morning, and a door would open, so you’d be worried you’d woken a resident, and people would come out with trays of mint tea and biscuits. Anywhere we went, we were welcomed.”
Golden Globe winner Regina Taylor, who stars as the US ambassador to Israel on the show, said that being in Jerusalem had a great impact on her.
“I had never been to Israel before, and to start shooting at a time that was very volatile was really a wake up call to me, just being an American and just being conscious of what’s happening around the world.”
“What happens in Israel ... is the subject of discussions all over the world,” Isaacs said. “We had the privilege of people from every group and of every opinion all working on the same crew. And so every lunchtime there were interesting arguments, to put it mildly.”
With a city as old as Jerusalem, with tight corners, interconnected rooftops, and narrow corridors, the aesthetic lent itself very well to the “paranoid, claustrophobic, somebody- looking-at-you-all-the-time, ‘70s thriller style” that the creators were going for. “You have to have the camera on your shoulder and run behind the actor, or you have to lead in, because you’re in a tunnel this narrow,” Raff said.
“We had kind of a skeleton crew when we were in the narrow parts of the city, we were there sometimes at night and had to whisper as we made our way to the next location,” Kring said. “It was an amazing experience, very different from the traveling circus that you have in a Hollywood production.”
If there were people or laundry hanging in the background of a shot, Kring said, that didn’t matter because that was just part of the aesthetic anyway. “And the truth is, that was the beauty, Kring said.
“Unlike a lot of the shows that I have done and produced, where we faked every single frame with something else, this was the exact opposite.”
The crew was granted access to some areas of Jerusalem that had never been shot before, or even seen by the public.
“It was heady stuff to be there,” Isaacs said. “To be shooting as the sun comes up over that famous gold dome, and hear the call to prayer, and to smell the za’atar in the shuk, it was impossible not to be aware of how this is the focus of so much of the world’s passion. And it looks gorgeous.”
Isaacs said there were many times when he would get out of the car to start work, and was “stunned” to see where they’d be shooting. He relayed the story of one scene that was shot in some of the tunnels under the city, where he saw some black charcoal on the walls.
“I said, ‘what’s that on the wall over there,’ and some charcoal came off on my finger. And they said, ‘that’s the charcoal where the women and children were burned by the Romans thousands of years ago.’ We took these locations and their stories very seriously.”
Kring and Raff both lauded how little bureaucratic headache was involved in getting some of the unprecedented access.
“[Jerusalem Mayor] Nir Barkat was very involved from the very beginning,” Kring said. “I think he paved the way before we set foot in the country.”
Although shooting was interrupted because of the outbreak of the conflict with Gaza last summer, everyone said they had little political trouble while shooting.
“Thankfully we were already wrapped on the pilot, and we were in prep for the next episode, location scouting and casting, when the unrest started,” Kring said.
“It’s never easy to shoot in Jerusalem, but it’s definitely worth it,” said Raff, who is a native of the city.
“We got this access to the city and to some of these places that hadn’t been shot before, partly because Nir Barkat wants to bring culture and arts and liberal arts back to the city.”