'The Missing': Inside the Hit British Mystery

How this BBC and Starz co-production turned this thriller about a child's disappearance into a compelling, must-see sleeper hit

James Nesbitt as Tony Hughes in 'The Missing' Credit: Courtesy of Starz

It happens so quickly: The boy is there, standing in the packed French pub right behind his dad, who's cheering on a soccer match. The next second, he's gone, vanished among the loud, boisterous crowd. His father turns and yells the child's name: "Oliver? Olly!!!" He checks the nearby pool, where hours earlier, they'd gone swimming during the warm summer afternoon — a way of passing away the time while being temporarily stranded in the quaint town of Chalons Du Bois. He runs around the nearby streets, asking passerbys if they've seen a kid with a yellow scarf anywhere, and still there's no sign of his son. The locals law enforcement and a Parisian inspector named Julien Baptiste, a specialist in such missing-person cases, began to mount a search, with news cameras turning the investigation into a media circus. Months pass. The boy is never found.

Then, eight years later, Tony Hughes — Oliver's father — returns to Chalons Du Bois. He looks ragged, a shell of a man. He rents the same hotel room that he, his wife Emily and their son briefly stayed in way back when. Staring out the window, he picks up his phone and dials a number. Then Tony says to whoever is on the other end of the line: "I think I've found something."

The premise of The Missing, the Golden Globe-nominated British miniseries that ends its stateside run on the Starz Network tonight, is the sort of Whodunnit 101 scenario that's fueled hundreds of mystery novels, movies and TV procedurals. But what this self-contained eight-episode show, a co-production between the premium cable channel and the BBC, does with the material makes all the difference. Toggling back and forth between the year Oliver vanishes (2006) and the year that Tony (played by James Nesbitt) forces Baptiste to reopen the case (2014), the plot plays its timelines off of each other, forcing viewers to reassess every bit of past and present information that comes their way. Even more impressively, The Missing finds room within its structure to accommodate a number of peripheral stories — Baptiste dealing with his drug-addicted daughter, a pedophile suspect struggling with his affliction, a journalist exploiting the case, a local Franco-Moroccan cop and a filthy rich property restorer who each have respective skeletons in their closets. Within this psychological thriller lurks a number of intimate character studies, each of them circling around the question: What happened and why?

"I think it was Jimmy Nesbitt who'd said that when he read the first episode, he pictured a pebble being dropped into a pond," said Tom Shankland, the director of all eight installments. "The show is really more about the reverberations of what happens after Olivier goes missing. There have been dramas that have revolved around crimes involving children in the past. But I’d never really seen something that focuses on how the community is affected by an event like this, and how people's fates are determined by what happens. Some people are devastated. Other people find love. In some cases — say, the journalist character — things actually change for the good. It becomes about so much more than a crime story."

The project was the brain child of Jack and Harry Williams, siblings with a history of writing for British TV (Harry contributed to episodes of Call the Midwife). Their father, Nigel Williams, is a prolific novelist and playwright who'd directed a 2008 documentary called Dance With a Serial Killer, about French detective Jean-François Abgall tracking down a murderer. A conversation with Abgall about that case sparked something in the brothers regarding grief, justice and the psychic damage that's a byproduct of such long-term investigations. After further research, the Williams decided to focus on a possible abduction, though not on a specific real-life incident (the superficial similarity to the disappearance of Madeline McCann in 2007, however, did spark some controversy when the show starting airing in the U.K. last year). They wanted to tell the story using two different timelines. And finally, they wanted to use the sudden, unexplained absence of the youngster as a starting point for a much larger exploration regarding what happens to the people who are left to pick up the pieces.

"I have to admit, I thought that being a parent would make playing the part a little 'easier,'" Nesbitt says. "By 'easier,' I mean that I'd be get to where I needed to go with Tony right away. But I quickly realized well, this isn’t going to work. So I got the art dept to give me all the police records and photos that he’d have and put them on my walls. I kept to myself. I drank too much wine, just like he did. I lived in that world from the time I woke up until I went to bed. When I arrived at set, I was pretty much in that headset from the moment they said go."

Nesbitt says that viewers Were "constantly coming up to me in shops, crowding me on the bus...asking me who I thought was responsible for Oliver's disappearance."

Asked if having to go such dark places for so long took a toll on the actors — according to Shankland, they shot the 2014 sequences first during a three-month period, took a week off, then shot the 2006 sequences over the proceeding eight weeks — Nesbitt laughs. "I think they had to put less and less make-up on me during the shoot, in terms of making me look haggard. But look, no one said it was going to be easy, right? You do it to go to the dark places." He pauses, before adding, "If you'd asked me that question while we were filming, I'd have probably snapped at you: 'Yes, of course it's taking a fucking toll!' There were some grueling days." His costar Frances O'Connor, who plays Olivier mother Emily, echoes Nesbitt's sentiment that it was "worth it, but rough. The 2006 sequence, when the abduction happens and they're dealing with the immediate aftermath...that takes place over 11 days. We had to be in that mindset for two months."

Not that The Missing wallows in the sort of rubbernecking-as-entertainment miserablism that often characterizes dramatizing traumatic events — a type of storytelling that Shankland dubs "emotional pornography." Both the director and his leads were determined to avoid the pitfalls inherent in using a child in trouble as the catalyst for a TV show. "If you're going to be making a genre thriller about something that is a truly awful experience," the director says, "you can't resort to clichés and you can't rely on just being knee-jerk or manipulative. I was wary of taking an approach in which it becomes all about the camera fixating on people grieving. It would have just been inappropriate. We wanted to present people dealing with something unimaginable in a genuine way, but we didn't want to simply rub viewers' faces in it for eight hours."

Nesbitt says that when the show was airing in the United Kingdom last year, he'd have viewers "constantly coming up to me in shops, crowding me on the subway and the bus, and telling me how much they loved the show, asking me who I thought was responsible for Oliver's disappearance...they were really into it. And I just don't think people would be that invested in the series if it were exploitative." The actor chuckles before adding: "Or that they would have debated the ending as much as they did after it aired."

Indeed, after the last episode of The Missing screened right before Christmas in England, there was, according to everyone involved, an equal amount of cheering and jeering; without giving anything away, it's safe to say that the show takes a climactic turn that feels unexpected until you look at the series as a whole. (You can currently catch the entire miniseries on Starz On Demand; a second season is in the works, which will supposedly concentrate on a different case.) Both Shankland and O'Connor said that when the Williams presented them with the final script, they realized just how ambitious the brothers had been in telling this story; Nesbitt joked that "if there was a way to fashion an ending to this that would have satisfied everybody, I wouldn't know it" before declaring that the revelations lift the project into "the realm of the Shakespearean."

"When you see it," the director says, choosing he words carefully, "you understand what it's been about all along: guilt, the dissolution of a marriage, what we do for the people we love, the boundless limits of parental love — and obsession."