Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Future

I was called a Luddite once, and after I’d ridden my horse to the library and looked it up, I sent an eloquently worded telegram to the mistaken party in dispute of that claim, but this week I’ve thought that perhaps the mistaken party was myself.

I’d like you to picture a scene from my life this week. I was interviewing CSI creator Anthony Zuiker on the telephone, holding the earpiece up to my ancient video camera which was plugged into the wall. I could barely hear the conversation and later as I transcribed it by playing it back in five second segments, straining to hear the faint voice the camera’s mic barely picked up over its own hum, I listened to what he was saying. Guy was talking about the future like someone who’d been there. Seriously, when Anthony Zuiker sees the future - it looks eerily like the mirror. Whereas, I see the future and get distracted by the price of bread.

Ten years ago his little television show debuted starring that guy from To Live & Die in L.A. and went on to spawn a spin-off shortly afterward starring that guy from Jade. That’s right, Zuiker was on a mission to resurrect the careers of stars of William Friedkin movies. Such a fan was he, that he even had Friedkin direct a couple episodes of his show, (and ya know who else did? Yeah, fellow career ressurector Quentin Tarantino – just try sneezing at that… you can’t). That’s right, he’s the creator of those shows about preternaturally technologically equipped police reconstructing crimes and criminals through what they leave behind, (in the words of Nathan Arizona “microbes and shit.” It’s there whole “damn forte.”)

After a decade of it, he’s scratching the itch to write books. But hell, anybody can do that, so he’s gotta take it to the next level. Level 26: Dark Origins was the first of a strain of book experiences he’s dubbed digi-novels. And what exactly is a digi-novel? A book that can be enjoyed cover to cover conventionally, but is designed to be experienced in tandem with film supplements and an online community, exploring the fictional world created by Zuiker and co-author Duane Swierczynski. Dark Origins was a creepy as hell book about a serial killer who dons bondage gear when he operates, rendering him effectively forensic-proof. Add to that, a contortionist’s body, a sick mind and immovable will and it sounds like a job for Steve Dark – a damaged, forensics dragon-slayer with something more than a knack for catching killers and a lot to loose.

This week, Zuiker and Swierczynski give us the second Steve Dark volume, Dark Prophecy and digi-novel version 2.0 featuring a stand-alone one –hour film and even more bells and whistles on the iPad app. Zuiker insists they’ve improved and re-focused the tone and direction of the books as well, steering away from some of the darkest elements. I asked him about the new book and the future of publishing.

I’ve heard the books described as a trilogy, is that accurate?

Yes it is. When I first got into the bidding war with Dutton and Hyperion and we settled on Dutton, they were definitely very aggressive about making it a trilogy. Which was fine by me because we felt that the more chances we had to tell the story, the better. Book one was definitely a villain point of view with Sqweegel, book two is definitely a Steve Dark point of view for our protagonist, and book three is probably a good balance between villain and hero. Again, we’re finding the balance in our story telling and trying not to replicate ourselves twice, and try to go into new territory and just improve. We’ve made a lot of great improvements. And we’ve been very vocal in the press about our mistakes. Because the thing is for me as a producer, as a leader of industry, it’s not so much to try to have success in industry, but rather be able to verbalize what’s been going right and wrong, to pay that information forward and push the medium forward, so that if anybody else tries to do something like this, we’re closer to our goal, which is perfecting this thing called the digi-novel and moving publishing forward the best way we can through our successes and failures. I did the same thing for television. I’m very verbal about the things I’ve done right and done wrong. I’d like personally to go down as one of those producers that shared as much information as possible for the next person coming up.

Have you heard of any other digi-novels being made?

I think 39 Clues has been doing has been doing things in this arena and been very successful at that. If you ask me will there be a Stephanie Meyer Twilight type series or a Harry Potter type series or a Dragon Tattoo type series coming out in the future where you incorporate motion pictures with real actors like we have and social communities and interactivity instead of just doing a book and the movie comes out a few years later, we can merge all three going forward with all this amazing technology and with the iPad, the answer is ‘absolutely.’

I think that people will appreciate what we’re doing at our company now in the next five years. There’s just no way I foresee going forward that there won’t be some level of storytelling in the publishing industry that doesn’t have this type of interactivity and extra content because publishing and technology will have to merge going forward. We’ve seen the impact of Kindle and taking e-books on the go. It will only get better and faster.

Do you have an idea what the next step is?

Well. We’re going to see how book two does. We’re going to tear it apart and put it under a microscope so to speak. We’re going to see what we did right and what we did wrong. Ask ourselves whether we’ve built on fiction and if we’ve bettered our product and if the answer is ‘yes’ then we’ll keep trying different things and see if we can perfect this experience moving forward. We’ve already got some ideas that are already different for book three. Hopefully Dutton feels that we’ve been successful globally after three books and we’ll do more. And we’re also very seriously thinking about doing a digi-novel that’s not crime based. That there’s a lot of other ways to change up the format. I just took a five mile walk this morning around Central Park and had this discussion, if we did the Dark series and continue, what’s our next series? What would that look like? So we’re having discussions now for the next five years. You know, the thing about publishing is sometimes it’s about book nine. So we really are dedicated to staying in this industry as long as we possibly can and keep challenging ourselves to do great things and hopefully the world appreciates it and likes it and takes us along for the ride.

I’ve got to ask, Steve Dark almost seems like an homage to Thomas Harris's Will Graham - and with William Peterson having played the role in Manhunter, did that have anything to do with his being cast on CSI?

That’s funny. Kind of. When he and I sat down, I want to say in August of ’99, Billy Peterson and I, you know he was from Chicago, I was from Chicago, we both liked the Cubs, we both liked to drink beer at the Cubs’ games, so we got along pretty well and that’s how CSI was started. In terms of Steve Dark, it’s been such a challenging emotional ride with the launch of all three CSIs. I flew back and forth from Vegas to Burbank twice a year for a decade straight. I lived out of a hotel room for five days or seven days (at a time) with three kids, and missed everything from first steps to school plays and soccer games. So I think a lot of the hardship that I’ve dealt with in television, I’ve poured into Steve Dark’s hardship in terms of chasing evil. On top of that, I’ve taken all the information of my CSI career of all the bad people and horrific crimes and put them into one entity, which is Sqweegel, the forensic-proof killer. I think that artistically, channeling all that hurt and pain from the TV experience into the art form of the digi-novel is kind of how that got portrayed as an artist. Hopefully people who are fans of CSI and like that side of it, find it stimulating intellectually.

What's changed now that Steve Dark is not working for the government anymore?

In the book it’s five years later, he’s finished his so-called indentured servitude. I keep telling Dan Buran who plays Steve Dark ‘y’know you’re a werewolf.’ Meaning you really can not not catch killers. There just really is no walking away. So what starts as a casual interest in book two, you know picking up the newspaper, having a cup of coffee, reading about Tarot cards, quickly becomes an obsession with Steve Dark. And I think you’re going to see him get past the brooding phase in book two and really be able to emotionally put to bed the one thing that’s held him back for all these years. Now the challenge for us for book three is how do we turn the stakes up? How does one man take down the man who might control the whole world for book three? All I can tell you is that I was very inspired the movie Inception and you’ll see some similarities in book three.

How did Duane Swierczynski get selected?

He was one of a handful of people selected that were sent to me with writing samples from Dutton. Duane’s done a really, really great job. He had a very, very tough task with book one, to go off a ninety-page outline that I wrote during Terminator Salvation, that had a stop in the writing, that lead to visual, that he had to trust what I was shooting and continue back in the manuscript, that’s really challenging and not something that authors really do. To be sort of given this blue-print where they have to stop twenty times and trust a film maker. So in book two we wanted to make sure that the one hour movie didn’t fight the narrative, so we told him to get back to his roots in the outline manuscript phase of the book and let us shoot the movie separately. And instead of him coming to me in book one, we would make the movie and go to him and write the manuscript for book two. I think it worked out pretty great.
I read somewhere that you were a mystery aficionado since childhood, I'm curious what first grabbed your imagination.

I was an only child in Las Vegas, my parents worked for the casino business, so pretty much my babysitter from three to ten o’clock at night was the library. So I would literally just walk around the library in the mystery or horror section, read all those great Sherlock Holmes novels. I just became infatuated with mystery at a very young age and then I think as I got older as you know a child in Vegas, plus all the CSI stuff, began to get extra creative in terms of telling all these CSI stories.

The whole thing started when I was in Japan and I saw a special on the 25 levels of evil that measure a serial killer. I had no idea that that sort of barometer existed and once I saw that special in Japan, I began to think about level 26 which is a fictitious level with one name on the list, Sqweegel. And that’s how the whole franchise was born.

When was that?

That had to be in the year 2007.

The books straddle the mystery and horror genres, would you classify them one way or the other, or does that kind of distinction make a difference to you?

That’s funny, I went to Columbus Circle this morning to look for the paperback, and it somehow got shoe-horned in the horror section. I always thought of it in the mystery genre or the mystery thriller genre, especially book two.

You studied 'competitive forensics' in school?

I did. The sort of joke around town was when I was a freshman in high school we had an elective and I took “forensics” thinking it was forensic medicine like in Quincy. When I showed up it was actually forensic speech not forensic medicine which taught me about public speaking and that kind of thing. The only ironic thing is that one day I would take those public speaking skills in pitch phase to sell a show about forensic medicine.

You can read the rest of my interview with Anthony Zuiker at Ransom Notes.

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