Interview: Anthony E. Zuiker

CSI fans got a treat in season eleven of the flagship show with CSI: Crime Scene Investigation creator Anthony E. Zuiker‘s return to the writers’ room full time. In addition to penning this week’s entry, “Sqweegel”, which features a character from his debut novel Level 26: Dark Origins, Zuiker is releasing his second novel with co-author Duane Swierczynski tomorrow, entitled Dark Prophecy. Like its predecessor, Dark Prophecy is a digi-novel, featuring both a full-length novel and cyberbridges: filmed footage that tells a story alongside the novel. Zuiker sat down with CSI Files to discuss the changes he made from the first to the second book, in both the story and the cyberbridges, as well as his return to CSI this season.

For Zuiker, the publication of his first novel was a learning experience, and going into the second one, he found there were things he wanted to change. “I had to really put the book under a microscope after the first go-round and say, ‘What did we do wrong? What did I do wrong?’ and really make adjustments because I wanted to make sure we understood going forward what the DNA of the digi-novel is,” Zuiker said, noting over-hyping of the format and the graphic novel-esque cover as two such mistakes. He also expressed concern that the first cyberbridge may have turned viewers off: “The conscious choice to have a snuff film for the first bridge wasn’t the smartest idea in the world because it really set the tone that this is how the whole book is going to be,” Zuiker noted. “I should have learned that lesson in the CSI pilot when they showed the maggots crawling out of the gunshot orifice. The dials all went down in the testing of the CSI pilot when you saw that. The network note—I think it was from [CBS President] Nina [Tassler] and I think she was right—was that if we keep that in the audience was going to think it’s all about gore and shock value, and they’re going to miss the forensic message. After the testing, we actually cut that part out of it, and the rest is history. [For Dark Origins,] I was hell bent on doing something too hot for TV, so I got ahead of myself in terms of doing something that was jarring and shocking and not seeing forward that it was going to set the tone for the entire book and the experience, and that it might turn women off. Whatever you do, it has to include success for women, or you won’t be a success. The biggest lesson I’ve learned in the industry is that it’s all about women. Whether it’s women in the industry, whether it’s women consuming content—if that is not a market that you’re catering to, you’re pretty much in big trouble. So I had to make that radical adjustment.”

Zuiker also found that the digi-novel experience itself could be a bit jarring for readers. “Philosophically for the digi-novel, the out-of-context interstitials that complimented the read—where you read up to a point, you stop, you log in, you watch a digital continuation, then you go back for a verbal recap—was a bit speed bumpish and cumbersome,” he commented. “Some people wanted the imagination to take over, they didn’t want to slow the book down to get a recap, they didn’t log in; a lot of people didn’t want to stop and open the book and log in and go back to the book. So we had a lot of rhythm problems in the experience.”

The book’s publisher expressed some concerns about Sqweegel, the forensic-proof killer who wore a full body suit in order to avoid leaving any DNA evidence at his crime scenes. “From the Dutton end, they felt like Sqweegel was just a bit too alien, and that was hard to digest for the reader. I don’t necessarily think that’s necessarily true, but we played ball. I said, ‘We’ll keep Black Sqweegel in some respects, but we’ll go into new territory.’ And that’s what we did for Dark Prophecy,” Zuiker noted. While the first book focused on Sqweegel, Zuiker turned the spotlight on hero Steve Dark for the second novel. Dark is a forensicist who worked with the elite unit Special Circs to bring down some truly frightening serial killers. Once again retired from Special Circs, Dark finds himself pulled into a new case.

“We had to take the position in Dark Prophecy that we were going to do a coming out party for Steve Dark,” Zuiker said of the book’s hero. “If we were going to succeed, we were going to have to find a way to launch James Bond in this genre.” In focusing on Dark, Zuiker also found a more fluid way to integrate the cyberbridges into the book. “So we began to think about, digi-novel-wise, let’s ditch the twenty out-of-context scenes, and let’s shoot a one-hour movie cut into eleven segments,” he continued. “Number two, let’s utilize the tarot cards as, from a position of storytelling, almost in this Slumdog Millionaire style, to the point where you would slap down a card personally in the one-hour movie and tell Steve Dark’s story, while at the same time slapping the same card down for the Tarot Card Killer that’s leaving these tarot cards at crime scenes and staging the crime scenes. So we were able to do both in this experience: the book can stand alone without ever logging in, and the one-hour movie can tell a separate story about our hero. And they didn’t fight each other. That was probably a really radical decision we did, and we feel that’s pretty great. Because then you can enjoy both without having them conflict with each other. Because what we’re finding out more and more is that although people want different levels of engagement, you have to at least maintain the sanctity of the read with the imagination—that has to stay the same.”

Zuiker also made some changes to the social community at Level26.com, an interactive message board and news site where fans of the books can come to get the latest news, view the bridges and discuss the series. “We re-skinned the website to be lighter, brighter and book-friendly,” Zuiker commented on the site’s new look. “I think the issue we had with the website earlier was that it was too horror-centric. It was dark; it was devious. We brought a lot of people to the site that weren’t necessarily fans but were there for all the wrong reasons. So we had a tough time honing the community’s harmony because of the subject matter. Now I believe with the rotation carousel that’s going to be going on and the light and the same spirit—it looks like the cover of this book—is definitely going to invite book readers to feel like they can be safe in their environment.”

Zuiker notes that there will be several options for watching the cyberbridges: “On the book stage, the rhythm is you read 35 to 40 pages and then you can enter a code and watch the first part of eleven cyberbridges. They’re about five minutes long. They will all be in succession, and they’ll speed bump every tarot card, so it doesn’t cut the movie off in the middle of nowhere. It will stop before every tarot card. The only option to watch the movie front to back is if you thumb through the book and keep entering codes. There’s no magical button you can press to watch it wall to wall. We are going to be selling the movie for $5.99 through iTunes where it’s uninterrupted a la Joss Whedon‘s business model of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, where there will be a charge for every individual third—$2.99 for each third of the movie—or $5.99 to watch the movie straight through. And that will be a completely well-mixed version of the movie.”

The option to watch the movie straight through will also be available on the iPad app for the book. “Now on the iPad app, there will be an option once you thumb through the book and unlock all the bridges, then there will be an option to press a button to watch the movie straight through on the iPad,” Zuiker noted. “But it won’t let you do that until you read the book. I feel like I’ve got to maintain the integrity of the experience rather than just say, ‘Hey, watch it separately.’ It’s still is a digi-novel, meant to read and watch, read and watch, read and watch. And the iPad is such a great, laid-back experience, it’s ideal for the digi-novel.” Zuiker previewed the iPad app for the book, which will take readers even deeper into the novel: “We’re doing a really comprehensive iPad app with Hooray, where you can not only read the book cover-to-cover, read the book, watch the bridges—it looks beautiful on the iPad—but also the third level of engagement is to read the book, watch the bridges and you’re able to collect evidence while you’re reading. So words will be pulsing, you’ll press the word, a box will pop up with an explanation of the character, you’ll be able to bank evidence for a future storyline for Steve Dark, narrated by Steve Dark. You’ll be able to turn the page, a bullet will fire, it will break the screen then it will go back to normal. You’ll be able to play with the tarot cards, where you can swing the Hangman back and forth, you’ll be able to play with the swords, spin the Wheel of Fortune, make the dog bark if you touch it, shake it like a snow globe for the Five of Pentacles, and just kind of have some fun interactively with that experience. And then you have three different ways to do it: cover to cover, read and watch the bridges, or read and watch the bridges and do all the fun bells and whistles. So we’re hoping that’s out by Halloween. That will ideally probably be the first time in the history that someone’s really trying to perfect the interactive novel experience on the iPad.”

Zuiker believes the iPad experience will definitely be superior to that on the iPhone or iPod Touch. “We had a really great app for Level 26, but to consume that on the iTouch, you’re asking someone to do 1500 flips for 400 pages. 3.5 flips per one page is a lot to ask, but the iPad is a beautiful apparatus for an app,” he said. “I think at a $12.99 value, to receive a full motion picture and a four-hundred page book and all the bells and whistles on top of an invitation to a social community, for that kind of price is pretty fantastic. If people are enjoying the consumption of the Kindle, I think they’ll really enjoy the level of visual engagement that Hooray is doing. That will be out October/November-ish. They’ll basically do the same thing for the iPhone and iTouch, [without the bells and whistles]. I think the iPad is going to catch on more and more, and the capabilities of what it can do—and being able to line up time-wise with the execution of the digi-novel is just a nice marriage.” For Zuiker, the device is the perfect medium for the digi-novel: “I always wanted the digi-novel to be a laid back experience, so you can read the book and not have to leave your current position to consume the movie. I’ve not hidden from the fact that going back and forth from the book is a bit clumsy, but I didn’t want to take the book out of the consumer’s hands.”

Zuiker is pleased with the arc for Steve Dark in the book, which opens five years after Dark Origins concluded. Dark, more or less forced out of Special Circs, finds it’s not so easy to leave his old career behind. “In book one, we were catching him after twenty years of chasing darkness and working at Special Circs with Riggins. The brooding part of the character was really informed through book one, and when the most important thing in his life, a pregnant Sibby, was being visited by his number one nemesis, Sqweegel, he really had no choice but to be pulled by back in,” Zuiker noted. “By the time we started book two, it was five years later, and we got to a point where Steve Dark was—and I kind of got this idea from Donnie Brasco, where Donnie Brasco went through all that crap to bring those mob guys down and it was just like photo op, here’s your check, here’s your medal, thank you! So he just sat there like, ‘Wow, all that for that moment and nobody cares?’ So when [Dark] paid off his indentured servitude to the government, he found himself going back to being a father after five years, being out of Special Circs for good, and the casual interest he was taking in the Tarot Card Killer began to rejuvenate his juices, and I think what he learns the most about himself in book two is that he cannot not catch killers.”

This compulsion to hunt killers informs Dark’s character in Dark Prophecy: “I kept telling Dan Buran [Steve Dark] on set, it’s almost like a werewolf. Once the moon comes out, the hair is going to start coming out of your fingers, the claws will get long—you cannot not catch killers. But there is a stone in your shoe that you have to be able to exorcise to have the confidence to really break through and have the courage to grow and get out of this brooding phase.” Zuiker goes on to add that this is a big turning point for Dark in the book and the movie: “I think getting out of the brooding phase and becoming a whole man is so much a part of this book, and without giving too much away, that surfaces in the movie. That somebody at a young age that he was close to ended up dead, and he couldn’t do anything about it, he didn’t quite understand it, but he remembers the words of his best friend who said, ‘You’re going to be something someday.’ And I think that began his interest in becoming a CSI, or at least try to solve what happened. And he was one of those guys like myself that wants to do everything at the highest level. He didn’t want to just be a cop; that didn’t last long. He wanted to catch the best of the worst. Riggins is trying to warn him not to cross over to this dark side, and of course he didn’t listen, and Riggins sees the downward spiral. It’s not until he has an emotional breakthrough that he’s able to accept the newfound life he has with his daughter.”

Fans of both CSI and Zuiker’s book series will see the worlds collide on Thursday when Black Sqweegel shows up on CSI to challenge the Las Vegas team. The idea was born out of a trailer Zuiker masterminded before the season began. “I had Josh [Caldwell], who works in my office, cut together a trailer of Sqweegel and CSI,” Zuiker revealed. “And then I went and showed it to Carol [Mendelsohn, CSI‘s Executive Producer], and I said, ‘What do you think about this for an episode? CSI meets their match: a forensic-proof killer. How do you catch somebody who doesn’t shed any evidence?’ And of course I was very nervous because I was back on CSI full time and I wanted this to work. Carol loved the idea, [Laurence] Fishburne (Ray Langston) loved the idea, so I felt very confident that we could get it off the ground. We began to circulate the book, Carol read it and the episode broke relatively quickly on the board. She and I went right from the board to the script. We had a wonderful time writing it. And CBS called when the script came in and they deemed it an instant classic, which was really fun. We were one actor away from putting a cherry on top of the episode. We got Daniel Browning Smith back for Black Sqweegel, and the last piece of the puzzle was, how do we get a great actor [for the major guest role]? And we were able to graciously land Ann-Margret.”

Zuiker was thrilled to have landed Ann-Margret for the role of a philanthropist Sqweegel takes an interest in. “We wanted someone iconic to play the lead victim,” Zuiker revealed. “My literary agent in New York [told me that his] best friend is the manager for Ann-Margret. I pitched [the manager] the one-liner for the show, and he liked it. About four days later, we got on the phone with Ann-Margret, I pitched her on the phone, she thought it was fantastic. She was traveling from London back to New York on the Queen Mary, and she wanted to read a script. So Carol and I wrote this really great script and we e-mailed it to Ann-Margret at the Queen Mary and they actually printed it out and hand delivered it to her. So she read this really scary script at night and was very taken by the role and said yes. And she’s incredibly picky about the roles she takes. She’s definitely anything but over-exposed.”

Zuiker teased the episode a bit, pointing out that Black Sqweegel has an understandable agenda in what he does, a philosophy Zuiker adheres to strictly when he creates his villains. “We talked about as we developed the book, the one thing we did do successfully and are keeping is that we are creating villains that have a point of view that’s endearing. It’s not just some arch crazy guy,” Zuiker said. “You’ll see that the point of view of Black Sqweegel in CSI is that if you receive an accolade for being an upstanding citizen, [his MO is:] ‘I’m going to intrude on your home without you knowing it and see if there’s anything in the closet I should know about so I can discount that award.’ And there lies Ann-Margret in the episode, who just got the key to the city from Oscar Goodman for being the first lady of Vegas in terms of her philanthropic work, but as Sqweegel delves deeper into her life, we realize she has a dirty little secret. And therein lies that arc for that specific villain.”

Zuiker was very impressed with Ann-Margret’s performance, noting how much she got into the role. “The great thing about her is that she’s incredibly fit. She did most of her stunts. She still has all the bruises!” Zuiker said. “She is so unbelievably good in that episode. I remember watching it at the mix and saying, this is actually timeless television. So that was really interesting. We’ve since become friends; it’s just become a great thing. We did The New York Post together, we shot a half hour live from her home talking about the show, she’s done a couple of TV appearances featuring the book. We really got lucky that we had the chance to work with somebody so great who enjoys the whole process.”

For his part, Zuiker is thrilled to be back on the show that launched his career in Hollywood. “[It’s] pretty great,” he said of being back in the CSI writers’ room. “I wasn’t nervous at all. There were some old faces, some new faces. I was really well received over there; it felt like old times. I think the only difference was I felt like I was much better than I ever was. It felt like Carol and I could finally sit in the room as creative equals. I could correct some things that she did, she could correct some things that I did. She and I felt for the first time kind of like Ann [Donahue, CSI: Miami Executive Producer] and she were back in the early days. They could both kind of feed off each other, and now we’re in the same place.”

Zuiker is happy with the direction season eleven is taking. “Once CBS came back with the campaign of ‘come for the murder, stay for the fun,’ we really were on a mantra to make sure we were doing shows that got back to more Las Vegas, back to the first couple of seasons, that were promotable, that we could sell, like the Justin Bieber continuation of the premiere or pool shark or vampire convention or Sqweegel or Walking with Dinosaurs,” Zuiker noted. “Just going back to the thing that [Jerry] Bruckheimer taught me in Brentwood during the fires we had five years ago. He said, ‘How do you sell it? When you approach these episodes, just ask yourself, how do you sell it.’ That’s pretty much his advertising and movie background kicking in. Those are the biggest mistakes I made in CSI: New York when we were doing stories about the docks or sandhogs or real estate—things you couldn’t sell. It wasn’t going to work in a promo. But shark in pool? You can sell that. You’ve got a forensic-proof killer? You can sell that. Walking with Dinosaurs? You can sell that. So we’re very excited about this season. We’re excited to evolve Larry Fishburne’s character. We know that the stunt casting works in this show all the time: The Rascal Flatts [show] had big ratings; Taylor Swift had big ratings. These things are really important to us, so we look for every chance we can do that.”

Though he’s not sure what the future holds for the CSI franchise, Zuiker is pleased with the moves for the flagship’s two spin-offs. “I think that the moves to Friday and Sunday [for CSI: NY and CSI: Miami] were good moves,” he said. “I think it’s a confidence move. I read somewhere that [Deadline’s] Nikki Finke said [the slots were] the eventual graveyard; I thought that was sort of unfair. Only because shows that solid, like NY and Miami, can stay on Friday and Sunday for a long, long time. They can also help lead into other great shows like Blue Bloods, and really build a Friday, build a Sunday. The landscape has changed: there’s [fewer] dollars, people are consuming content in different ways, and I think CBS, like all the networks, approach the schedule in its totality. Of those 21 time slots, what is going to carry CBS into victory? And that’s going to take some shuffling. So all we can do is the best job possible, and tell the most dynamic stories possible, and then hopefully the audience still feels engaged. That’s all we can really do.”

Zuiker isn’t sure whether CSI itself will eventually change time slots, but he’s excited to be back on the show during what he sees as a crucial time for it. “I don’t know how long we’re going to last in this Thursday time slot, or if we’re going to flip with The Mentalist at some point,” Zuiker says. “But this is a really important season for us, season eleven. I really wanted to get back to the writers’ room, share everything I’ve learned, pay it forward to some of the younger writers, definitely free Carol up as much as possible so she can do The Defenders at the highest level, and work with her again. You forget so much when you’re not in the game. Obviously I develop TV shows with my company, but just being with other writers [is great]. And [seeing] how [Carol] thinks. She’s just so good at that job. The thing about Carol is that she always asks the right questions. And I think asking the right questions is so [important to] writing.”

And if the publication of a new novel and writing for CSI wasn’t enough, Zuiker has several other projects on his plate: “[My memoir] Mr. CSI is slated to come out spring or summer of next year. We’ve sold Detailed, a bodyguard show, to CBS, about the life of Kim-Maree Penn who’s a real life bodyguard. And also Robert Ludlum‘s Treadstone, citizen spy. We’re working on that with John Glenn, the writer of Eagle Eye. We probably have three or four projects we’re really excited about that we’re still pitching and developing. So it’s been a challenging season for me to not only be on CSI full time, but launch 5-7 shows, and have a speaking career, and launch a book, and direct and finish a movie, on top of doing a social game for Playdom that’s been acquired by Disney, tentatively called Celebrity Rising. And I’m going to be doing a book tour in France and speaking about cross-platforming at a conference in Tel Aviv called Cellcom in November.”

But at the moment, Zuiker is excited about the publication of Dark Prophecy—and looking ahead to the third book in the series, tentatively entitled Dark Enigma. “One of my main goals in my career is to keep this crime imprint going,” Zuiker said. “We hope if this can become half as successful as some of the great crime writers, we’ll still maintain our philosophy of writing really compelling villains so they have a point of view. I don’t know how to write any other way.”

Kristine Huntley

Author

Kristine Huntley

Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.

Up Next