A boy who believes his father’s spirit has come back to earth by means of a comet. A war widow who must work full-time as a nurse at a military hospital to provide for herself and her child. A sheriff who struggles to connect with his son, and yet will do anything to protect his town and family. A soldier so terrorized by his past that he’s forgotten how to be a father. These are the main characters in the new drama Granite Flats, premiering on BYUtv on April 7th. These are the characters that will tug at your heartstrings and make you want to believe in miracles.
As the only national television station run by a university, BYUtv has a lot of weight on its shoulders. For years, the station’s motto was Keeping You Connected, but three years ago, the powers that be decided to revisit their mission. With BYUtv viewed in over 60 million homes nationwide, the opportunity to do even more good was tremendous. The goal became to provide quality content to persons of every faith who share the family values of the Mormon people, and LDS-themed content was shifted primarily to Sundays. Now viewers can tune in on weekdays and catch programming that is not specifically LDS in nature, but upholds the principles we espouse as members of the Church.
The new tagline of the station is See the Good in the World. “Not just the Mormon world or the Wasatch Front world, but the good everywhere,” said Scott Swofford, creative director for BYUtv.
I had the opportunity to speak with Swofford this week and ask him some questions about this new series, BYUtv’s goals moving forward, and his experiences with filming.
The motivating force behind Granite Flats was the station’s desire to create a scripted drama that was sophisticated enough for adults and yet appropriate for children. Swofford knows he’s going out on a limb with this new project. “When you’re a pioneer, you either make it to the valley or you freeze to death and get eaten,” he said with a chuckle. There’s always an element of risk with a new endeavor, and that’s a risk he’s willing to take because he believes in this project.
How did the idea for this series come about? A BYU student named James Shores made a twenty-minute film called “Heaven Under a Table” about a young boy who is struggling to overcome the death of his father, sees a comet fall from the sky, believes it was sent by his father, and decides to find out where it landed. This was the nugget that started the idea, and you’ll see that scenario played out in the first episode of Granite Flats. In addition, “Heaven Under a Table” will be shown on BYUtv at some point after the premiere of the series.
Granite Flats is set in 1962 in a town connected to a Colorado military base. Swofford explained that they chose the sixties as their era because it was a time when vulgarity was not the norm, when sexuality wasn’t so blatant, and when innocence prevailed. These factors all worked in creating a show that would be deemed appropriate for the audience of BYUtv.
However, while the setting seems quite idyllic, there’s enough going on under the surface to keep things interesting. A strange object falls from the sky, attracting the attention of “G-men” in dark suits who come to Granite Flats to investigate. The child protagonists of the story take it upon themselves to investigate as well, and a mysterious explosion at the base sends many of the other characters into a whirlwind. The show contains action, adventure, and elements of science fiction all wrapped up in a bundle the whole family can watch together.
Interestingly, the show has no overtly LDS elements. This is in keeping with BYUtv’s goal of reaching out to viewers of every faith to provide quality entertainment that transcends the boundaries of religion.
I had the opportunity to watch the first two episodes of the show in preparation for writing this article and found myself impressed by the authentic 1960s feel of each thing, from the costuming to the vernacular of the day to the sets-it all looked so real. I asked Swofford how this was achieved. “We read magazines from the era,” he said. “A lot of research went in to it. The writers researched the dialogue, and the art directors and cameramen researched their areas as well.”
To create Granite Flats, Swofford and his team went to Magna, Utah, and spoke to the business owners with shops on that town’s Main Street. Many of the buildings had fallen into disrepair, and it was simple enough to build new faades, make appropriate signage, and transform Magna into Granite Flats. “They were already using aluminum siding and things like that in the sixties,” Swofford explained. “It really wasn’t hard to make the transformation. However, the curbs and sidewalks were different back then, so we did have to work with those.”
And who are the people who walk those sidewalks in this fictional town? I was surprised to learn that most of the cast comes from Hollywood. Richard Gunn plays the chief of police, and his acting credits include such shows as The Mentalist and CSI. Annie Tedesco portrays the young war widow-you might recognize her from Modern Family or Dexter. This cast’s rsum is impressive. “We wanted the best for this show,” Swofford explained. “We worked with a Hollywood casting agent to find these actors.” This is not to say, however, that we won’t see a familiar face from LDS films-Scott Christopher, probably best known for his role in Mobsters and Mormons, plays a patient in the military hospital whose role will, I predict, become more key throughout the series.
But how would Hollywood actors feel about participating in a show that’s so different from their typical work? Swofford explained that the actors fell in love with the idea of a family-friendly drama. Once they understood the concept of the show and the mission behind it, they were willing to make sacrifices of their time and be a part of the undertaking. The mothers of the child actors expressed their appreciation for such clean material, citing how nice it was that they could hand their child the entire script without having to censor out any objectionable scenes first. In fact, the feeling on the set is so open and friendly that actors who aren’t needed that day often come and hang out anyway because they like being there.
So … top-notch actors, an entire street made over to match the look of a bygone era, costumes and makeup done to the specifications of the times, an incredible crew, fantastic camerawork-Granite Flats looks like a very expensive production. Not being known for my shyness, I asked Swofford about the cost of this series. He wasn’t able to share exact figures, but he did state that Granite Flats was filmed for roughly 1/3 the cost of a Hollywood drama. I have to give two big thumbs-up to Mormon frugality and ingenuity-I would not have guessed that you could pull off a show of this quality with that kind of budget.
“BYUtv is not for profit, so this has been a big undertaking,” Swofford said. But if the show brings in a large audience, it will be worth it.
Approaching the show from the viewpoint of a media reviewer (which I have been for many years), I have to say that I for one believe the show will attract an audience. The premise is compelling, the acting is superb, the writing is spot-on, each character has their own arc and journey, and it’s a show I could easily watch with my family. And, in fact, I could watch it on a wide variety of devices. BYUtv is accessible on cable television, of course, but also through Roku and iPad apps and online at BYUtv.org. The show will be shown several times throughout the week to make sure to reach its intended audience, and the episodes will be available to play at will on the other devices.
“We’ve filmed eight episodes, and if people like it, we plan to do more,” Swofford said. “We left just enough loose threads to leave room for a second season.”
I think this show is well worth a season two. I know I’ll be watching.