Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the state incentive program the production qualified for had been eliminated. “Shots Fired” qualified for a $9 million tax rebate through the N.C. Film and Entertainment Grant. That program is still in existence.
It was when they were scouting North Carolina locations for “Shots Fired,” the racially charged new Fox TV series they created, that Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood realized they sure weren’t in California anymore.
“There are a couple of grand houses we have in the show, and when we were location scouting, we discovered some of these wealthy homes had these slave figurines on their shelves,” says Reggie Rock Bythewood. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s kind of interesting.’ And we would see more Confederate flags in certain parts of North Carolina than we would ever see in Los Angeles.”
“Given the subject matter and the story we were telling, coming from where we come from, to drive to work and see Confederate flags, is something we are not used to,” adds his wife Gina Prince-Bythewood.
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“Shots Fired” was filmed in parts of Charlotte, Concort, Gastonia, Kannapolis, Mooresville, Monroe and Salisbury. The 10-part series dramatizes the aftermath of two racially charged shootings in a small North Carolina community named Gate Station. One murder involves a white kid killed by a black cop, the other a black kid murdered by persons unknown.
Sanaa Lathan plays an investigator and Stephan James a lawyer for the Department of Justice. Helen Hunt plays the N.C. governor dealing with the fallout from the murders and a controversy involving school busing.
It is filled with local flavor: one character attended N.C. State, another plays for the Panthers. There are news reports from Fox 46 in Charlotte, and several scenes involve Southern cooking (plenty of fried chicken) in a (fake) restaurant named Dabney’s Soul Food Kitchen. The series also has a strong sense of place, from shots of mansions in rich, tree-lined neighborhoods, to apartment-style housing projects on the wrong side of the tracks.
“Initially the vision we talked about for the show was a town like Ferguson,” Prince-Bythewood says, referring to the St. Louis suburb where protests flared for weeks in 2014 after Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot by a white police officer.
“So we were looking for something that was Southern but also urban, and we wanted to focus on a part of America that doesn’t show up a lot.” she continues. “North Carolina felt right; everything we wanted was there – we knew it had a big crew base, and the community we shot in was very welcoming.”
“The other cool thing was my sister lives in the Raleigh-Durham area, and Gina’s sister lives in Durham, so that was an additional perk,” her husband adds. “We created this fictional town, and it gave us everything we needed visually and crew wise. And our extras were committed to what we were doing. We lucked out finding great background extras.”
The Bythewoods used a mostly local crew, many of whom had also worked on “Homeland.” They were also lucky in that they were able to qualify for a $9 million tax rebate from the state. The production spent more than $36 million in the state.
Bythewood says the decision to feature two murders was “pretty instinctual. We felt we had to have a black cop kill a white kid, and investigate the why of it, and in doing that let a lot of people be in the skin of Trayvon Martin’s mom, or Michael Brown’s mom. We wanted a portion of the audience to be in the skin of somebody’s mother who had to bury her kid.”
“Dealing with two different victims enabled us to dive into how communities and the media deal with things based in race,” adds Prince-Bythewood. “Because a lot of these things happen, and the first thing is people demonize the victims.”
The show was filmed from late March to early August. During the filming, the news was full of the death of Philando Castile, the man shot by a Minnesota police officer and whose girlfriend live-streamed their encounter on Facebook.
The crew had wrapped before Charlotte saw its on protests last September after Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old African-American, was shot and killed by an African-American Charlotte police officer. The shooting led to protests that sometimes turned violent.
“The incident exploding in Charlotte after we left, that was surreal,” Bythewood said.
The couple said the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department was supportive of their production, providing a police technical adviser, a white man named Kenneth Shul.
“I talked to him about what the show was about,” Prince-Bythewood says, “and that it was important to tell this story from every seat in the house. We were giving different viewpoints, and he read the script, and he got it. He was supportive of the show, of the narrative. And during the shoot we would hear from white, black, whoever, and they really appreciated what we were doing.”
Charlotte Observer reporter Théoden Janes contributed
What: “Shots Fired,” a 10-part series starring Sanaa Lathan, Helen Hunt, Stephan James, Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Hennessy and Will Patton.
Where: Fox TV
When: Begins March 22, at 8 p.m.