Creator, Executive Producer, CSI Franchise, ANTHONY E. ZUIKER Photo: ROBERT VOETS/CBS ©2006 CBS BROADCASTING INC. All Rights Reserved.
Anthony E. Zuiker
Is Not Afraid of the Dark
by Jay S. Jacobs
When you have created three of the most popular shows on television, what can you do for an encore?
How about revolutionizing the way people experience a novel?
That lofty goal is in Anthony E. Zuiker’s sights. And you don’t want to doubt the man. Fifteen years ago, the guy was driving a tram, for goodness sake. Now, he is one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.
He was a complete unknown when he pitched a TV idea he had about forensic detectives in Las Vegas. That series, called CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, quickly became the biggest show on TV. This led to the popular spin-offs CSI: Miami and CSI: New York.
So, the guy has some idea of what the people want.
Now that he has conquered television, he is looking to change the way that we look at a book. His second novel Dark Prophecy, (co-written by Duane Swierczynski) is arriving in stores on the same day that CSI’s latest episode is debuting – an episode which is featuring the very same serial killer that was hunted in his first book.
Holy synergy, Batman!
When does Zuiker find the time to write two books (with a third of the series in the planning stage) when he is hard at work on three TV series?
“I serve as the executive producer on all three shows,” Zuiker explains to me on a rare off day, calling from the Santa Monica Pier. “I am currently full services on CSI: Las Vegas. I’m not the show runner of all three shows, but nevertheless I am busy with the shows. There’s just no time to do anything, so obviously, trying to better myself as an artist, it’s my responsibility to keep the three CSIs up and running and fresh as possible. At the same time, going to other artistic venues like publishing and trying to push those limits in publishing further the brand and open up our company doing the best.”
This new brand is called Level 26. The first salvo from the Level 26 saga was Dark Origins, a creepy novel about a detective named Steve Dark on the trail of a vicious serial killer. The second Dark book is Dark Prophecy.
Actually, calling it a book is a little misleading. Like the first chapter of the series Dark Origins, Dark Prophecy is a new art form that Zuiker refers to as the “Digi-Novel.” It is a book which is also a movie and also a video game.
“We’re probably the only company doing the Digi-Novel as created by myself, but you’ll see going forward there will be a lot more interactive opportunities in things like the iPad,” Zuiker says. “We are working on a rather extensive and expensive Dark Prophecy for the iPad app, which we’re going to launch probably in a couple of months. In this particular app, you will be able to read the book. You’ll have three levels of engagement. [There is] a cover-to-cover version which is called ‘the traditional experience.’ ‘The Digi-Novel expecience’ where you read forty pages, hit a button and watch the movie and then go back to the reading experience. And ‘the ultimate Digi-Novel experience,’ which will be reading the book, watching the bridges, collecting evidence while you are reading, hitting interactive names of characters that pop up in boxes, being able to work on a separate storyline while you are reading, on top of playing with the tarot cards. [It’s] kind of like Alice in Wonderland app, where you can touch the dog and it barks and touch the devil’s wing or spin the wheel of fortune, also turning the pages and gunshots going off which break the screen for the iPad or set something on fire inside the iPad page. There will be all kinds of tricks and hidden audio clues and verbal clues inside of the apps for the ultimate experience.
“So this way, for one price point, my mother may just like to read the kindle version of the book on the iPad, which is very straightforward. Somebody like my brother may want to have the Digi-Novel version where he could watch the movie and read, whereas somebody quite younger may just want to jump in and have the whole experience where everything is very interactive from top to bottom. It’s giving people the option of levels of engagement. It’s what the future of interactivity is with publishing and technology.”
Not bad for a guy who grew up fixated by paperback books. It makes sense that he wants to push the envelope with pulp novels – even as a kid he was fascinated by Peter Benchley’s mega-best-selling novel Jaws.
“I remember that book laying around my house one hot summer in the 70s,” Zuiker says, “and seeing that big, huge shark with that small, tiny woman swimming across. How, just perspective-wise it looked so much bigger than her. I remember the name Peter Benchley really sticking out in my head. I was one of those kids that would thumb through paperbacks and look at the copyright date and kind of read the first couple of pages and read the back cover. [I was] just always enamored by the marketing of a paperback.”
He also became a film buff, however for a man whose writing has been so dark and violent, Zuiker has a surprising favorite film – Mike Nichols’ classic The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman.
“I saw it way past when it came out,” Zuiker recalls. “It came out when I was still young, but I found Buck Henry’s writing to be pretty fantastic. I loved the performances. It was a movie I’d always heard about, but then I bought it on Laserdisc when I was younger and I watched it over and over and over again. I just loved the music. Some of the shots in there really inspired me, especially when he jumps out of the pool on the raft onto her bed – one of my favorite mash cuts of all time.”
In fact, even Zuiker himself is not sure why his writing is not as light as The Graduate. Someday, he admits, he would be very interested in doing a lighter project than he is known for.
“I’m trying. I’m trying,” he says, good-naturedly. “It just always seems to skew a little darker and edgier. But I like to write some of these more emotional, human scenes. They’re my favorite things to do. I’m sort of the crime guy, so to speak, so I tend to live in that arena because it’s been successful for me. I’m sure as I grow as an artist; I’ll have the opportunity to do other, lighter things.
“I don’t really consider myself a darker soul, although I feel like every time I write something it turns out dark. I’m a gamer at heart, so I like the game play of it. I like being able to chase different killers. I’m very intrigued by how crimes are put together like a puzzle. I just found a modern way to do the mystery in this generation through CSI, and also try to tell the most compelling, scary story in the narrative form for a book.”
Dark Prophecy by Anthony E. Zuiker and Duane Swierczynski
Therefore, Zuiker has decided to meld the experiences of his three favorite childhood pursuits – reading, film and games – to make it a whole new multi-media experience.
However, the writing process is not that incredibly different than his work on his television shows.
“The development process for both is rather similar,” Zuiker explains.
“The CSI development for a script really involves five to ten people in the writer’s room. Maybe you think about story arcs and the direction of the episode. In terms of novel writing, it’s the same three or four different people in my company. In fact, we just had a session today for book three. It’s very similar, talk about the direction of the book and arcs for characters and things you did right or wrong in the previous book. But, in the end of the day, in terms of teleplay writing it is one week in the room – do an outline and write a 53-55 page teleplay. For a novel for me, it’s helping to develop a 60 page outline treatment and then handing that over and developing it through your novelist – in this case, Duane Swierczynski.”
Of course, with all the bells and whistles, a story can only be good if it has a good story. Zuiker feels that he and his Level 26 team have taken it to the next level with the second novel.
“I’ve got to say, it is significant step forward in every aspect,” he says enthusiastically. “We made several mistakes as well as several successes in the first one. We definitely changed the cover to be more commercial – not as masculine and not as graphic novel-y as the first book. Instead of doing twenty out of context cyber bridges, we shot a one-hour motion picture, cut into ten segments, for Dark Prophecy. Whereas book one was more villain-centric, book two really focuses on the protagonist, Steve Dark, as our sort of James Bond in the series going forward. On top of the fact that we shot the movie with a better production – we shot six days versus twelve days. We also right now have a very comprehensive internet and viral campaign going on. Even as this morning, you go to Level26.com you can watch the first ten minutes of the movie. We’ll be unleashing one segment per day until we launch the book. We’ve seen our Amazon rating go from 60,000 rank to under 1,000 after two hours of doing that. So, the viral campaign is working pretty brilliantly so far. And we just have a much more progressive functioning. The other main thing is, whereas book one was much more sexually deviant and dark, it definitely made this next novel much more palatable to the CSI reader and the novel reader and a much more psychological thriller. We cleaned up our act significantly since book one.”
The original novel had Steve Dark – a Level 26 investigator specializing in extremely violent serial murderers – tracking a pathological killer who wears black bondage-wear and skitters around on all fours, killing a series of people that he feels have sinned. The new book furthers Dark’s saga.
“There is a serial killer running around leaving tarot cards and staging scenes in a tarot card fashion,” Zuiker explains. “[The book is] going to kick Steve Dark into high gear. This book takes place five years later, where he has been dismissed from special search and wants to get himself back in trying to solve this murder. The tarot cards metaphorically, symbolically play a big role in the storytelling, in terms of the connectivity of why all these specific people are being murdered. Whereas, inside the one-hour movie inside the book there is going to be personal readings of Steve Dark’s past, present and future with the same exact tarot cards that have been dealt by the killer in the book. So, those pieces of content don’t fight each other, but they compliment each other rather nicely in the books. I think you’re going to be able to read some heart-stopping action set in the tarot card world.”
Level 26 Dark Origins by Anthony E. Zuiker and Duane Swierczynski
The first serial killer that Dark faced in Dark Origins – unofficially named Sqweegel – will get one heck of an re-introduction in an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigations titled after the evil character, in which he stalks an aging Las Vegas matron played by legendary 60s star Ann-Margret.
“That’s a home run for us,” Zuiker acknowledges. “I never dreamed that I would be able to extract a forensic-proof villain and put it on the show. So, that’s really great. I just talked to Ann-Margret this morning. She just watched the show and was rather pleased with how it all turned out. I think this is the best opportunity to maximize exposure of Dark Prophecy, putting a villain from book one on the air in front of sixteen million people and asking them to continue the storyline in the book. The episode and Dark Prophecy both hit stores and the airwaves on the same day, October 14th.”
For a TV exec who has acknowledged publicly that his breakout success worked mainly because he knew very little about television writing, therefore he broke lots of rules, it seems to make sense that as a novelist he would follow his own path as well.
“We broke a lot of rules with this one, too,” Zuiker laughs. “Normally, in the traditional novel experience, there is no visual, because the imagination kind of takes over. Again, in our tradition experience for the iPad or even the book, we don’t want to interfere with that, so you can read Dark Prophecy cover to cover in the hardback and you’ll never know the difference. Where we begin to break the rules is adding these speed bumps of content, if you will – this five minute motion picture footage, which continues every forty pages. Also, in terms of the social website, you’ll be able to continue to meet people that are in the same bathwater of your mythology in terms of joining the site and meeting other people that like this kind of thing and like the book. Also, in terms of the iPad, we’ve broken every rule, because it’s not really tradition that you would read a book, stop, gather evidence for a future storyline, turn the page and gunshots go off or things fog up, or snow begins to take over your iPad screen while you are reading. We are just giving you all kinds of interactive bells and whistles which do enhance the story that are not really something that happens in traditional book reading.”
And will the books ever officially make it to the big or small screen? After all, they are made with being cinematic as a goal. Will Steve Dark ever be a movie or TV hero?
“I think so,” Zuiker says. “Everything has its time. I think Level 26 – in terms of the character of Steve Dark capturing a meta-villain in the Level 26 category – feels like a TV show, top to bottom. Whether it is suitable to air for network is another conversation. But our primary focus is to get the Digi-Novel right, make the adjustments, earn the trust of our readership and build on fiction. I think Dark Prophecy has the opportunity to be a movie. I feel like Dark Origins had the opportunity to be a cable TV show. We keep all those options open going forward.”
Keeping options open make sense here. After all, less than two decades ago Zuiker couldn’t get a sniff of Hollywood, now he has spent eleven seasons as one of the most powerful men in show business. He tries not to dwell on his past; however, Zuiker refuses to forget where he comes from.
“There are times when my mother and I will have a moment together based on how far we’ve come – from a kid out of Vegas who worked for $8.00 an hour on a tram. [I] drove a tram back and forth a little over fifteen years ago. Came from nothing and created one of the biggest TV franchises in the world. That’s something that’s pretty great for us. But my goals remain lofty in my career. Really, really aggressive, wanting to be a worldwide best seller. We are in book one. We want to be in the top five, if not number one, with Dark Prophecy, going forward. You set lofty goals, you dream big. Some come true, some don’t. In the end, I feel like still the same guy – a sort of misunderstood only child trying to get everything off his chest. So far it’s working pretty good.”
Even if he hadn’t received his big break, Zuiker is certain that his life goals would not be that different than they are now. If there were no CSI, what would he be doing now?
“Probably creative and something in terms of writing,” Zuiker laughs. “I don’t know where it would be, but I think my creative outlet, my writing outlet and producing. I love music. I love art. Anything in the arts and entertainment would be probably where I would be. By the time I was 26 years old, when I felt like I had so much talent and there was no break for me, I thought I might just break myself. Luckily I got that big break right in the nick of time, before I kind of went loopy. But now, I get a chance to do what I love to do at the highest level and have everybody else enjoy it, so it feels good.”
And if he had to choose, would he continue on in television or give into the urge to be a novelist?
“I would probably want to be a producer.” Zuiker muses. “Probably writer-producer. I mean, the novelist thing is great, but it’s just it’s a very lonely business. You go away and write a bunch of great words and see it come to life. The opportunities I have to work with Ann-Margret, to be behind the camera, to call my own shots, to write my own scripts, to visually work with all the other actors and to work with a team of anywhere from 1,200 for CSI to a group of 50 for the Dark series. That sort of hand to hand, that face to face that occurs during the process is much more fulfilling, I think, than maybe hiding away and submitting a manuscript.”
Zuiker feeds on the interaction with artists and actors. He has had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest actors in the business in the last eleven years through the CSI franchises – and he never takes for granted those relationships.
“They are very important, because they all stem from trust,” Zuiker says. “Every time you knock on someone’s door that’s a big deal – to ask them to trust you. Putting their career in your hands is a big deal. Ann-Margret is the most recent who is pretty much one of the greatest American icons we’ve seen – at least my generation, your generation. So, it was important that I got the phone call an hour ago from her when she got my flowers and she got the disk. When she watched the show, she called back and said it was absolutely fantastic. Thank you so much for what I’ve done for her career in this one episode. She’s phenomenal in it. That feels good, you know? That’s when I pinch myself and say do you know you’re talking to a tram driver at the Mirage for $8.00 an hour? You just thanked him for helping your career. You’re Ann-Margret.”
Another relationship which he had was with fellow television producer turned novelist. Stephen J. Cannell (The Rockford Files, The A-Team, 21 Jump Street) had just passed away a few days before the interview, and Zuiker reflected on his fleeting experience with the man whose footsteps he was following in.
“Of course his work is an inspiration, because I grew up on his shows,” Zuiker says. “We both, ironically, won the Brandon Tartikoff Award, which was one of my greatest honors since I’ve been in the business. We accepted that award together in Las Vegas, in my home town, where I had the brief opportunity to meet him and talk a little bit about him. He taught me one of the most valuable lessons that I still tell everybody in the business, that I sometimes forget, and that’s ‘character over concept.’ I really try to approach everything I do from that position of character over concept. There have been some things that I’ve done where some concept over character have failed miserably. Those three precious words he taught me before he passed character over concept will probably end up saving my career over the course of many years to come.”
And that career will continue for many years to come – particularly if Zuiker continues following his own eccentric muse and staying true to his own particular artistry. If he can revolutionize a few industries, all the better.
“I’ll never go down in history as the creator that is doing these fastball shows down the middle that feel conventional,” Zuiker says. “To go and sell a science show to CBS in the year 2000 set in Las Vegas in the graveyard shift dealing with murder – knowing what I know about the network now, seems [it] like an extreme impossibility that it would ever happen. But it was just a fresh approach to science, the storytelling: that made it feel compelling and really changed the face of television forever.
“I think in terms of these novels it’s the same way. Not that these novels will change the face of publishing forever, but it will probably show off the rest of it. I know emerging technologies is what the future holds. Publishing is looking for a different outlet to keep the publishing industry going, besides just the traditional hits business. Everybody can’t be looking for the [Girl with the] Dragon Tattoo just to save business. Perhaps if we’re able to merge technologies, with publishing and make it interactive and something that can be enjoyed by everybody, that could just be the thing to keep publishing going and breed future great authors. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
However, despite the dark reputation and body of work, Zuiker’s big dark secret is much more basic than all that.
“I’m really a happy, nice guy,” Zuiker chuckles. “I’m still a Vegas kid that’s standing in the rain, wearing a Puma sweat suit and Nike Air Jordans. I think people see CSI and they’re looking for some sort of 50-year-old gruff man in a suit. But I really am kind of a pinball kid, wearing a sweat suit, walking around, looking for my skateboard. Just putting things in the atmosphere – stories I want to tell. Everybody meets you: they think in the back [of their heads] that the franchise doesn’t quite meet the shy man. That’s kind of fun.”
Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 13, 2010.
Photo Credits:#1 © 2006 Robert Voets. Courtesy of CBS Television. All rights reserved.#2 © 2010. Courtesy of Dutton Publishing. All rights reserved.#3 © 2009. Courtesy of Dutton Publishing. All rights reserved.