01:27:25 on May 20 2002
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By: Alexander Chase
Dept: TrekWeb Features
Written by Steve Krutzler
When he joined STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION in the beginning of its third season, the series had yet to reach the critical point when everything that has come over the last ten years suddenly became possible. But as the eventual head writer and co-executive producer, Michael Piller steered the fledgling series into television history, cementing its position at the head of what soon became an even larger STAR TREK behemoth.
"You look at the numbers for NEXT GENERATION and it did something that third year shows very rarely do-it increased viewers week by week by week by week," Piller recalls, talking with TrekWeb from his office in Los Angeles. "Do you know who those viewers were mostly? Women. Because most of the audience for sci-fi, particularly space, was male; they couldn't get women into the tent. Suddenly we started doing stories that appealed to men and women."
It's precisely this sort of magic that Piller is hoping to work on his latest and highly anticipated project for the USA Network: THE DEAD ZONE. Based on the Stephen King novel that was also adapted into a feature starring Christopher Walken over fifteen years ago, the new series stars Anthony Michael Hall as Johnny Smith, who gains his phenomenal abilities after a car accident and six years in a coma. The series also co-stars DEEP SPACE NINE actress Nicole de Boer as Sarah, Johnny's girlfriend who marries and has a son after Johnny's accident leaves her little hope that he will ever come out of his coma. Piller co-created the series with colleague Lloyd Segan and serves as executive producer. After co-creating two successful STAR TREK spin-offs and writing the ninth feature film, he's no stranger to the immense responsibility of adapting a popular property and he tells TrekWeb that he's approaching this challenge the same way he did with TNG.
"We are actually using the book, not the movie, as the basis of the series and we're doing many things that are inspired by the book," he says. "We're treating the original material with a particular reverence, and I don't find a lot of people who place the same importance on that as I do," he says, always mindful of what might rub the Stephen King fans the wrong way. "Fundamentally, I fight the battle to maintain the integrity of the original material," something well-learned from years at the helm of STAR TREK.
Piller says that getting the King fans through the door is his first priority. "I believe the key to success for this series is to get the Stephen King fans into the tent by making clear that my goal is to make this the best adaptation of any Stephen King property in the history of television. And frankly, we've succeeded - I mean that."
Diversifying the appeal, however, is crucial. "We need to get some STAR TREK people who know my work into this tent, and once we get these people in there we need to satisfy them. And I believe the quality of the show will satisfy them. The word of mouth will begin to go around, and if this sounds familiar it's because it's the same strategy we used looking back on the third season of TNG, which is when of course it grew into a phenomenon. The word of mouth gets out and people say 'you really should be watching that show."
"The title might scare women away," Piller admits cautiously, "but I think if you can get people to watch this show with someone they love, the end result is going to be a much broader base of an audience than the typical sci-fi/genre piece."
Debuting on USA Network June 16th, THE DEAD ZONE will air thirteen episodes before taking a break for the fall premieres. "I call it a cycle and we'll probably put a punctuation at the end of the 13th episode," Piller says, alluding to the possibility of picking up a major plot point from the novel by the end of this first cycle. This particular thread involves an evil politician, played by Martin Sheen in the original feature, rising to the presidency in one of Johnny's visions. "That is on the drawing board but I'm not guaranteeing it. the network hasn't decided yet," the exec reveals.
Attracting an audience in today's television climate can be a tall order and offering something new and fresh has been a common goal of many new shows, most recently the STAR TREK prequel. In addition to looking to the novel for guidance, Piller has said that writing outside the box is key. But one particular way THE DEAD ZONE will deliver innovative television is through the visualization of Johnny's psychic powers.
"Johnny has a vision of the fall of Saigon in the pilot, and we see people
running in the streets as bombs are going off, and while this is happening Johnny is holding onto the arm of someone who was there on the street," Piller sets up one particular moment. "Now, it would be perfectly normal to cut to the street of Saigon and see the guy that he's touching and all that would be perfectly clear but we added several elements to make it unique. Number one, Johnny is there on the street watching this as a passive observer trying to solve a mystery; as he's there he's able to slow time down to a halt and people are standing like statues in the street while
explosions are frozen around them and other things that are falling are frozen in mid-air, but Johnny is capable of walking around, through the still-life motion as he explores the environment that his vision has taken him to until he ultimately reaches someone on the street that reveals to him the secret of the mystery that he's trying to solve. It's an extraordinary sequence beautifully realized by director Rob Lieberman and it's one of several in the first few shows that I think will just blow people's minds."
Accompanying these kinds of spectacular visuals, Piller promises what he likes to call out-of-the-box writing. To accomplish this, he turned early in the development of the series to another prolific STAR TREK writer. "Joe
Menosky's the best example I've ever met of somebody who wants to write out of the box," Piller says of the writer who contributed such NEXT GENERATION episodes as "Time's Arrow," "First Contact" and "The Chase," as well as VOYAGER's "Scorpion," "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy," "Distant Origin," "Year of Hell," Timeless," "The Voyager Conspiracy" and a slew of others. Menosky has joined THE DEAD ZONE in a unique capacity as executive consultant, working freelance and making sure the series delivers on its promise to innovate with its writing.
"He's attracted to big ideas and wrestling them to the ground and doing something that explores the life we live in. He wrote "Darmok," perhaps one of the top five STAR TREKs of all time. He thinks on a different plane than the rest of us. Having worked with him on TREK, knowing what he's capable of, he was one of the first people I called when I got a pick up and he has been remarkably effective," Piller continues.
But that isn't the only familiar name STAR TREK fans will recognize when TDZ hits their television sets this summer. DS9 and VOYAGER writer Michael Taylor, who's first STAR TREK script was the critically-acclaimed and fan-favorite DEEP SPACE NINE installment "The Visitor," has entered the ZONE as a co-producer.
Piller remembers Taylor's work as particularly adept when he used to review scripts as a consultant during the latter years of VOYAGER and DEEP SPACE NINE. "As you read scripts every week, this writer or that writer would jump out at you, and Taylor was one of those people. Joe recommended him to me very highly and I had read his material. So I essentially gave him an assignment to see how he could do and it turned out to be one of our most remarkable episodes about what happens when Johnny the psychic is called for jury duty."
The episode, "Unreasonable Doubt," is described by Piller as a combination of TWELVE ANGRY MEN and RASHOMON. "[It's] extraordinarily ambitious. It was really the strength of that script that convinced me to put him on staff and hire him as co-producer."
Experienced artists from space bring some of STAR TREK's brightest talent to THE DEAD ZONE, but Piller has made it a point to take risks. Part of his production company Piller Squared's goals from the beginning has been to help new talent gain access to the networks and studios and with THE DEAD ZONE, Piller is taking a lead by hiring first-time writer David Benz on staff.
"The goal of any show is to put the best material on the air that you can and that requires a certain passion. I respond greatly to passion in material and frankly, young untested writers may not have the skill yet but they almost always have the passion. So if you can find somebody who has the combination of passion and a spark of creative originality I think you embrace that," Piller says of the creative value of seeking out new talent. "In the case of David Benz, he pitched us three stories and they were the three best stories anybody pitched in two months of taking pitches, in one room in one meeting. So even though this guy was working as a temp in somebody's office somewhere, I was basically saying, 'you know what, I have to have a mind like this in the room.' I took a shot and he wrote a very nice story, we picked him up and put him on staff and he's growing along with the show, and ultimately will- I hope-be a very important part of our equation."
Piller says taking risks and adopting a little extra work is just part of the way he fully intends to bring innovation and excitement to his new series. "I would rather work through the script process with somebody with no experience than hire somebody off a reputation that they might've earned on a different kind of show from people who don't have the same kind of tastes as I do."
THE DEAD ZONE isn't just breaking the rules of storytelling, but in promotion as well. Recognizing the power of fan support and online marketing, the official web site for the series (TheDeadZone.net) hit the Internet months ago and Piller has been updating fans every couple weeks with episode tidbits, behind-the-scenes stories, and his thoughts on how the show is progressing. In addition, the exec has made rare convention appearances recently, driving up interest in his latest project. STAR TREK fans are used to having to squeeze an ounce of insider gossip from unlikely sources, but Piller says it's all part of being open and taking an interest in reaching his audience.
"I felt here that it was terribly important to reach the audience that I wanted to get into the tent - the Stephen King people and the STAR TREK people - and I felt that a personal approach to that would be more effective
than the typical 30 second trailer that would show up on somebody's television," Piller says of the strategy he credits to colleagues Eric A. Stillwell and Rob Chynoweth. "I wanted people to know that I was bringing the same commitment to quality, ambitious storytelling that I brought to STAR TREK. I wanted them to give us a shot and try to remember what made them like what I did on TNG, DS9, VOY when I was involved with those shows because if they liked what I did on those shows they're going to like this show. The only way I know how to do that is to go out and reach that audience, and one way is to go to a convention and create a buzz and another way is to go onto the Internet and talk straight forwardly about what is going on."
Spending more than a decade in the STAR TREK universe hasn't dulled Piller's belief in the success of the episodic format, which he says will make THE DEAD ZONE accessible to anyone. "I can't afford to do anything that would shut any potential new audience out, and I'm perfectly happy with what's come out of it. You look at STAR TREK TNG wherever it is on now and whatever show happens to be on that night, you get it, it's a little story. The same is going to be true here and that ultimately defines the shows that hang out there the longest," he says.
The first STAR TREK series Piller had a hand in creating, DEEP SPACE NINE, strayed from that format just enough to build a niche audience that maintains the show's superiority within the franchise even today. "I think DEEP SPACE NINE is going be appreciated in time the way the original STAR TREK took years to be really embraced," Piller says when reflecting on the sometimes forgotten "middle" STAR TREK series. "I don't think [a DS9 feature or television reprisal] is in the cards, but you could've make the same case about the original STAR TREK in 1969. The truth is if fans ultimately watch it and support it and it becomes a late night classic in reruns then anything can happen. It's on your shoulders, if there's no movie it's the fans' fault [laughing]!"
In 1998 Piller contributed to the ninth STAR TREK feature film, INSURRECTION, writing the screenplay for the film that received a lukewarm response from fans. Rumor and speculation has abounded since that his original script for the movie was tampered with by the studio and resulted in what many considered somewhat of a letdown. We asked Piller about his original script, and if he felt it would've made a better movie.
"No, it was a horrible script and I don't know anybody who would've said otherwise. The truth is that the first draft of my script was just deeply flawed. It was two movies, we were trying to do too many things; we were trying to do HEART OF DARKNESS meets THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and it was too much for it to bear," he says. "I can tell you that I went to the one person that I trust the most and showed him the script before I showed it to anybody else including Rick, and Ira [Steven] Behr came to my office and looked at me with doleful eyes and said, 'Mikey, I wish I was here to tell you good news, but-' and the moment he started talking I realized he was right. Rick didn't want to believe it, but we spent ten or twelve days taking it apart and putting it back together until we finally found what I believe was a very strong through narrative line. The next draft I think was the best draft of the movie but it was also too expensive, so it had to be brought down to a manageable budget and certain things fell out along the way."
Ultimately, he says INSURRECTION holds its own and met several goals the franchise had set for it. "I personally believe the final movie holds up very well in comparison to the other STAR TREK movies and I do have my own personal disappoints about certain things. But as a whole I think we accomplished the primary goal to do a change of pace movie in the series to essentially get back to some of the genuine Roddenberry values that perhaps we had strayed away from as a franchise and I think it would be a movie that Gene would've enjoyed a great deal."
Whether it could be considered a failure or not, it wasn't the box office that sent Piller away from STAR TREK and into THE DEAD ZONE. He says he wanted to "get back in the tournament" and keep his creative fires hot.
"I was inspired by a documentary about Rod Serling that was on American Master's a while back and they said that after TWLIGHT ZONE he never really entered the tournament again-and these were his best friends saying that. I said, 'you know, I don't want this to be the end of my career.' It's a risk to walk away, it certainly cost me a great deal of money to walk away, but I wanted to test my ability to do other things."
For now, Michael Piller is squarely in the zone with this exciting new series, and he encourages all his STAR TREK fans to tune in on June 16th for a new kind of adventure. "You're going to see the same kind of smart, ambitious, adult, storytelling that I did when I was running TNG, DS9, and co-running VOYAGER," he says as the biggest reason STAR TREK fans should watch THE DEAD ZONE. "The ten episodes that we've put into production so far rival any ten consecutive shows that I ever did on STAR TREK in terms of their ambition and effectiveness and I just think that anyone who likes good, smart science fiction is going to like this show."
Enter THE DEAD ZONE on USA Network June 16th. Stay tuned to TrekWeb for interviews with former TREK scribes Joe Menosky and Michael Taylor about their trip in the zone. You can find out more at http://www.usanetwork.com/series/thedeadzone/.
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