In 2009, Anthony E. Zuiker launched a brand new media platform. The Digi-novel concept was featured throughout the entire Level 26 franchise, Zuiker’s first project after leaving CSI. Now, just a little more than two years since Level 26: Dark Origins was released, the book series comes to an end, and with it, a final installment of cyber-bridges, a video feature that takes you beyond the pages of the book. Level 26: Dark Revelations contains eight cyber-bridges, each directed by Joshua Caldwell. Born in Bellevue, Washington, Caldwell joined Zuiker’s Dare to Pass Company in 2009, and has since taken the position as Director of Digital Media. In this interview with CSI Files’ Shane Saunders, the Dark Revelation director gives background to what his duties at the company involve, talks what it’s like working with the creator of CSI and being behind the camera for the epic conclusion of Level 26.
CSI Files: First off, let’s get a little background on you. You’re the Director of Digital Media at Dare to Pass, what exactly does your job entail?
Joshua Caldwell: Basically, it works like this: Anthony is obviously the top creative force in the company and right with him is Matthew Weinberg, who oversees all the development and production. Orlin Dobreff is our Vice President, who produced the cyber-bridges for all three books. Then, there’s myself as the Director of Digital Media and David Boorstein, Director of Development. Like David is for our television business, I’m a conduit for all our partners on the digital side for anything coming into Dare to Pass, or anything that might be going out. In the case of the third Digi-novel, that ended up being my project to run, with Anthony and Matt overseeing.
CSI Files: How did the job at Dare to Pass comeabout?
Caldwell: It’s a bit of a long story. Basically what happened was Matthew Weinberg co-ran a company called Guy Walks Into A Bar right before he joined up with Anthony and David Boorstein was his assistant. While they were still at Guy Walks, I had a script that got submitted to David–I didn’t know David at the time–and he read it and went to the producer at Guy Walks and said, “We gotta produce this.” Which they signed on to do. David and I grabbed drinks and stayed in touch. At the time, I was working freelance, odd jobs, and was at a point where I came to the decision that, regardless of what I was doing, I wanted to work in this industry, even if it wasn’t directing; there was just no giving up. And I realized that the only way to get there was to possibly take an internship and try to get my foot in the door. I contacted David to see if he knew of any opportunities–he and Matt were with Anthony at this point–and he gave me a call and said I should meet with Anthony and Matt. So I came in, met with the guys and started to intern. It was right around when the first Digi-novel was being released and the editor who cut Level 26: Dark Origins was no longer there. They needed some deliverables made and I said, “Hey, I know how to use Final Cut.” [Laughs.] So I started doing that and eventually my ‘in’ was as an editor. January of 2010 Matt pulled me into his office and they said they wanted to hire me full-time, and at the end of 2010, I was promoted to Director of Digital Media.
CSI Files: Were you familiar with Anthony’s work on CSI?
Caldwell: Of course I knew of the show but I’m not generally a big TV watcher, which my dad always gives me a hard time about.
CSI Files: You were the editor on Level 26: Dark Prophecy, which was directed by Anthony, and on Level 26: Dark Revelations, you got to serve as the director. How did you get the opportunity to direct the third series?
Caldwell: That’s probably more a question for Anthony, but I feel like it was a combination of the work I did on Dark Prophecy, as his editor working to fulfill his vision, and him seeing [and signing onto as an Executive Producer] my short film Dig. Obviously as we moved into late summer, Anthony had turned his attention back to TV, and it was really up to me, once we locked picture, to coordinate and shepherd the bridges through post and bring him the music, color correction, and sound mixes that he would both like and approve of. Following that, I co-wrote, produced and directed Dig in an effort to show Anthony and Matt what I was capable of as a director.
CSI Files: How daunting of a task was it to be directing the final chapter of the trilogy?
Caldwell: It never really felt daunting. I had a very clear vision of what they would be, having helped to developed the novel component with Matt, Anthony and Duane Swierczynski [the co-author of the series]. One of the things that I learned very early on, when I was directing in high school, was that no matter what I did visually as a director, no matter how good the talent was, no matter what was brought to it in that respect, if the script wasn’t great then the film itself wouldn’t be great. So lately, even with Dig, for me it’s all in the writing. Me and my writing partner Travis Oberlander, who co-wrote the screenplay for the bridges, spent a lot of time crafting it. Once we had the script in a great place, I felt very comfortable stepping on set and seeing this thing through. Anthony had done an amazing job setting up the world in the previous two books and cyber-bridges, that it made it easy to both fulfill that existing vision and bring my own thing to it.
CSI Files: You were very fortunate, you were able to get the actor who plays Steve Dark back. What kind of casting process was it like for the others? What was your involvement, and who did you have in mind for Labyrinth and the other characters?
Caldwell: There were a number of roles I filled immediately with actor friend of mine who I had worked with previously. Our casting director, Jennifer Cooper, did a fantastic job of setting up this marathon casting session where we filled out all the others. Every person in this is amazing. We got really lucky that she was able to find some really awesome people that would work for not a lot of money but deliver a performance at a really high level. Part of that is my job saying, “Yeah, you know, listen, if you’re in this, it’s not a paycheck, but it’s gonna be something special for you”, and then living up to that. Everybody came in and killed it.
Labyrinth was a tough one. He’s from Britain, so we had to find somebody who was British because you don’t want to bother with faking that accent. This limited our choice of who we could get, especially for the amount of money we had available. And then beyond that, with an already small pool of potential people, we had to find somebody that could live up to who this villain was within the book. He needed to be worldly, a soldier, an assassin; someone who is very, very intelligent, charming, could pass through the party of wealthy aristocrats in Europe, who came off as a thinker and a bit of a renaissance man and you had to believe that he is capable of killing someone. We had to find all these different qualities within one person and he also had to be British and live in LA.
We met with some talented actors, and they would have worked, but they just wouldn’t have had that one extra little thing that would have pushed this character over the edge. As a last minute thing, Jen sent me one more “Hey, check this guy out.” His name was Hal Ozsan and I looked at his reel, and I said, “We should definitely meet with him.” He comes in and he goes, “Alright, so of the two of you who wrote this, who’s the Libertarian?” [Laughs.] He immediately got the politics of it. He immediately got the message of it, and he was just a guy that really came off like he could operate within all these different worlds. Honestly, considering what we were up against in terms of finding somebody, it was a blessing to have him come in the room, want to do it, like it—and then, as a guy who’s a seasoned pro (who could have sleepwalked through this thing if he wanted to) came in and delivered an amazing and a very nuanced performance.
CSI Files: Who are your influences for when you direct something like this? Were you inspired by what Anthony did before, or was there another director you’re kind of taking bits from to add to it?
Caldwell: You know, it’s interesting because I’ve reached a point where I feel like I’m less about trying to find how other directors do it and more about how can I do it. So I wouldn’t say that there are any directors that I referenced. Having directed a number of shorts and music videos over the years I’ve developed an aesthetic, a way of shooting, that works for me and delivers a specific result that, I feel, is unique to me and my vision. I think audiences are very smart, and they pick up on things consciously or subconsciously, and I like to use visuals in such a way that I’m tapping into that response. Beyond that, it’s an aesthetic that tends to work well with small budgets and short shooting schedules, because I shoot a lot of handheld and move very quickly. However, that’s a benefit of my way of shooting and directing, not a reason for it. Director of Photography Paul Niccolls, who shot this along with nine of my other projects, is a big additive to that as well. We know how to work together in a way that delivers that result I’m looking for, he’s looking for, keeps us on schedule but also, and this is probably most important, looks really good and interesting and different. I’ve reached a point where I’ve broken free from paying homage to or building off the aesthetics of other directors. Now it’s really about how I see it.
As I mentioned before, Anthony, in the previous two books, had done such an amazing job setting up this world and these characters that it was really easy to slip in there, bring something a little new, a little different, that fits well within the existing canon. He made it easy for me.
CSI Files: What was the major thing you learned about yourself while directing this project? Did you learn anything new about yourself, anything that you would add to future projects of yours, or anything in general?
Caldwell: Well, for one, I learned that I kind of agree with Labyrinth. [Laughs]. And that apparently, according to Hal, I’m a Libertarian. I think these bridges really feed into a collective sentiment that’s floating around out there, the idea that our world is corrupt, that we are not living up to our potential and that the majority of the people aren’t getting a fair shake. The timeliness of it was something that makes the book and the bridges really unique. Politics aside, I was really fascinated by a character who could commit some fairly heinous acts in the name of the world becoming a better place and make me say, “You know…I think I’m on his side.” That was the challenge in general, even for the audience, since Labyrinth, as far as the bridges are concerned, is our protagonist.
I’ve gained a lot more confidence as a director lately, having now directed Dig and the cyber-bridges this past year. I know that this is what I really want to be doing, and I think it’s what I’m here to do, to tell stories through film. To be given an opportunity like this with a generous budget, to work under the creator of CSI, to have him recognize the talent and/or ability in you to do this and give you the freedom to really make something special—and then to really like the result, it’s just very…Anthony ran the three biggest TV shows in the world, and for him to put his stamp of approval on something I’ve done means a lot to me. I think it shows that I’m capable of directing and doing it at a very high level, while at the same time doing it for a very limited budget and yet pulling off something that is still… This thing is fifty minutes long! We shot a TV show in five days! Despite that, watching it last night [at the cast and crew screening], people said it just feels big and epic. The funny part is that most of the scenes are dialogue heavy and they’re all interior. It’s great that my team and I were able to create this feeling of bigness despite limited means. And it’s rewarding to have Anthony tell me that he really likes them.
CSI Files: What’s the latest word with the movie? You guys were talking about how there’s a potential movie in the works on set, is there anything new with that?
Caldwell: No, we haven’t even had a chance to discuss it. There’s certainly the possibility, I know we’ve talked about it. It’s come up every now and then, but in reality it’s just not something on our slate right now. Something we definitely want to do, but we haven’t really had any actual, serious talks about it.
CSI Files: What’s your next project that you’ll be working on?
Caldwell: Anthony/Dare to Pass, along with Tony Valenzuela and Collective Digital Studio are teaming up on a YouTube channel called BlackBoxTV that will be debuting next April as part of YouTube’s premium content initiative. We’ll be producing roughly 40-50 short films as part of an anthology series over the next eight months and I’ll be coordinating development of that on behalf of Dare to Pass. Hopefully, there will be the chance to write and direct a few but the primary focus for me in 2012 is fulfilling my duties at Dare to Pass and getting our digital arm up and running. We’ve got some very exciting things coming up this year.
Follow Joshua Caldwell on Twitter: @Joshua_Caldwell
Shane Saunders is a freelance writer and reviewer. His work can be seen on EDGE Network and ShaneSSaunders.com. Twitter: @ShaneSSaunders.