Chris Chibnall: Inspiration For Broadchurch Came On A Walk Along The Cliffs

Broadchurch writer Chris Chibnall has opened up to Broadcast magazine about the writing, development and shooting of the new ITV drama series starring David Tennant and Olivia Colman. Read what he had to say here:

I’d wanted to write a big ensemble piece for 10 years, but inspiration finally came on a walk along the cliffs near my home, says Chris Chibnall

Broadchurch started when I was out walking. Lin Coghlan, my writing tutor at Soho Theatre, always said “take a problem out for a walk”. It’s how I work out my script quandaries, across the cliffs and beaches of West Dorset where I live. In 2011, after writing United for BBC2, I wanted my next project to be as authored and personal as that film.

I’d wanted to write a big ensemble drama, set in a small community, for the best part of 10 years. And as I walked, I began to realise that I lived in the perfect setting: my corner of Dorset has an epic, cinematic landscape.

So, over a few months, I wrote just for fun. A first episode, on spec, just for myself: no production company, no broadcaster. I then story lined the series with Sam Hoyle. We sat in my back garden, drinking tea and writing on whiteboards. I told director James Strong about it. He came and walked the cliffs with me.
I wanted James to lead direct, as he’d done such a beautiful job on United. We both felt we could make a beautiful, epic piece where landscape was key, and the visuals were bold. But I’m not sure any of us thought it would lead anywhere.

In the autumn, I rang Laura Mackie at ITV. I had a script, and some storylines, for this new secret project, would she like to read it? She read it and within days paired me with Kudos. Suddenly, my little back garden spec was taking on a life.

The greenlight decision was made speedily: the show had to be shot in the height of summer – and ITV wanted us to deliver eight episodes for TX in early 2013. They pushed us to make the show distinctive and authored. With our HoDs, we compiled images and shot test footage. We showed all this to ITV at a pre-shoot tone meeting.

We got a good budget, but we needed more to achieve the scale of what I’d written. My big ensemble drama was just that: 17 regular speaking parts. ZDF read the scripts and came on board early, while BBC America would do the same a little later on. Both invested in the show before we’d started shooting.
It was clear early on that we couldn’t shoot the whole piece in Dorset, due to the lack of transport links, studio facilities and crew. Our studio base was in Bristol, where Skins had recently vacated, and where we built the interior of our police station.

But the key piece of the jigsaw became Clevedon, just outside Bristol, which matched with our Dorset locations to make the fictional town of Broadchurch. We shot in real houses and buildings wherever possible, to give the scenes as much reality, and connection to the landscape, as possible.

The locations were shot beneath the Jurassic Cliffs at West Bay in Dorset, which had previously been used, 15 years back, for Harbour Lights (one passer-by watched us shooting and asked: “Are you doing Harbour Lights: The Movie?”). The first week, in early September, was the only week of sunshine Dorset had had all summer.

As punishment, the second and third weeks, in October and late November, were miserable: cold, rainy and gale-force windy. So much so that the third location week had to be abandoned halfway through and rescheduled as, due to the forecast winds, the safety of our crews on the cliffs couldn’t be guaranteed. We decamped back to Clevedon, frantically rescheduling, and returned a few days later.

Throughout, we deliberately kept the identity of the killer(s) secret. It energised the production: the cast had a sweepstake, and the make-up truck collated a rogues’ gallery of suspects with odds and comments. At one point, I called a meeting to tell the whole production, but crew members collared me the night before on location and said they didn’t want to know. So we kept everyone in suspense even longer (I can still see Olivia Colman’s furious face that day).

The hardest thing in this industry is to ensure the execution of a piece matches your intention. We’ve all worked on shows that have fallen down the gap between the two. With Broadchurch, the extraordinary team who came together have matched and bettered my original intention. To me, it feels like that walk really did pay off.

Chris's Tricks Of The Trade
  • Write big images, not just dialogue. ­
  • Write parts that actors will want to get up at 5am in the morning to play. ­
  • That US screenwriting diktat that tells you not to describe the camera movements? Bollocks. ­
  • Set a clear, simple vision for the piece and stick to it. Watch rushes as soon as they’re up. Say when something is wrong and suggest how to put it right. ­
  • Get in the edit. Each cut is a new draft. ­
  • Be at the final mix. Sound and score are massive components. Make them as ambitious as everything else.

Watch Broadchurch on ITV from 9pm on Monday 4th March

Source: Broadcast