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Anthony E. Zuiker

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at July 21, 2009 - 9:19 PM GMT

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation creator Anthony E. Zuiker prides himself on being on the cutting edge of entertainment, looking forward to the next great way to reach the masses. He embraces technology in all its forms, from using Twitter to writing his first blog to typing out entire scripts on his Blackberry. He's not afraid of taking risks, either, as evinced by his latest project: the first digital novel, Level 26: Dark Origins, which will be published on September 8th by Dutton. The digital component comes in with level26.com, an interactive website which launches on July 23rd. Among other things, the website will feature twenty "bridges"--two-three minute scenes that will give readers a glimpse into the world of the book and allow them to see the characters come to life.

"It all started with the writers' strike," Zuiker says. "The second the writers' strike started and we weren't on what I call the hamster-wheel of television, I went back to Vegas for a couple of months. It was at that point when I could complete a thought and say, 'What's next? What is the future of where technology is going? How do I bridge Hollywood and Silicon Valley?' I've been thinking about that for years. I was ridiculed by a lot of people for focusing on that before its time, but I'm glad I did because I'm really at the forefront of it. And at that point, I saw a lot of multimedia beginning to converge and that's how I thought, how do you take publishing and converge it with motion pictures and converge it with the web and make it one experience?"

For Zuiker that meant spending some time in his head with the serial killer at the center of his novel, Sqweegel, who is able to contort his body to fit into the smallest of places--allowing him easy access to his victims. "It all starts with character over concept, so it all started with the character of Sqweegel," Zuiker reveals. "What would it be like if we had a serial killer that was wearing a forensic-proof bodysuit? When I was in Japan traveling with my wife, I saw a special on TV about serial killers and they said the rank of serial killers goes from 1 to 25. And that's based on manner of death, mode of death, geography, intelligence, etc. And I said why don't we just unlock a new level of fear and make Sqweegel level 26?"

A truly terrifying creation, Sqweegel maims, rapes, and kills at will. "I get messages on my Facebook that say, 'I don't want to be inside your head!'" Zuiker shares. "Being a success in Hollywood means that you've been through a lot of psychological trauma to make it. Every artist goes through a lot of psychosis when they're a success. And some go to a therapist, some go to the liquor store; I write. Therapeutically through my writing I've launched a villain that's not nice. So that is in the spirit of my CSI audience, and something different that you haven't quite seen before. It's one thing to write about a guy who shaves all his hair off; it's another when he has a forensic-proof custom-made bodysuit. And then [you have to] try to wrap a compelling character around catching him, who's flawed and damaged and then let the story take you where it will."

That character is Steve Dark, a tormented young man whose beloved foster family was slaughtered by Sqweegel, driving Dark out of Special Circumstances, the elite law enforcement unit he worked for and into an early retirement. "[He]'s loosely based on Steve Darkman, one of my fraternity brothers at Arizona State, who's this really good-looking guy who got all kinds of girls," Zuiker says. "And I said, what if [the hero is] a good-looking guy named Steve Dark, who's an ex-Quantico CSI whose whole family was murdered by Sqweegel. He left the business and then he's sucked back in by the villain." Zuiker drew on even more personal influences when creating Dark's personality. "I think there are a lot of undertones of me in Steve Dark," he notes. "It's really about a guy who's doomed to do this. From the abandonment [he suffered] from the very beginning, he grew up with a profound sense of trying to right the wrong and I think he's a guy who loves action, and there's no better action you can get than working in Special Circs, which is dealing with all the most horrific crime cases, the ones you don't hear about on television, the ones you don't read about in newspapers. That is, there's a rush in a job [like that]. It comes with a consequence: it's dangerous. It's psychologically dangerous and when it hits too close to home, you just want to get out, but you realize you can never really get out, you can never really hide. Something's going to suck you back in to where you have to go back to that dark place."

When we first meet Steve Dark, he's slowly rebuilding his life. He's met and married a beautiful woman named Sibby and they're expecting their first child together. But soon Dark is pulled back in to the Sqweegel case after Secretary of Defense Norman Wycoff pays a visit to Special Circs, determined to catch the killer. "It's something [Dark is] destined to do. [There's] so much more to explore about him as a character, about who he is and what his background is and where he comes from and what's inside of him. There's a lot of room for that. Anybody who has done something great and paid the price for it will understand what it feels like," Zuiker says.

Steve is drawn back into Special Circs by the department's leader, Tom Riggins, who is forced by the Secretary of Defense to call on Dark to take up the Sqweegel case again. "Riggins is that war general--he's done one job in his life, pretty much this," Zuiker reveals. "He's worked his way up from the police department to the boss of Special Circs. He and Steve Dark have been to hell and back together. He's got a one-track mind: get the bad guy. He's been to hell and back: failed marriages, he's an alcoholic--his whole life is just about chasing darkness. He can do nothing else but that. The only family he really does have is Steve, who's like a son to him."

Longtime CSI: New York fans will recognize the name of Special Circs operative Constance Brielle, a former protégé of Steve Dark. "I use Constance Brielle for everything!" Zuiker shares. "Constance is the name of a woman that works at NASA that I read a Time magazine article about six years ago. Brielle is my goddaughter. We used that name for a character in CSI: New York in season one and then she went away. [For this project,] we hired Ava Gaudet to play Constance Brielle."

Readers will likely recognize several familiar faces from the trailer, including Terminator: Salvation's Michael Ironside (Riggins), 24's Glenn Morshower (Wycoff) and Predator's Bill Duke as a police detective. "It's really, really exciting to hire these great actors who just want to be part of something new, that are looking for a new way to get themselves out there, too," Zuiker says.

For Zuiker, the idea of being able to bridge the gap between publishing and the web was an exciting one: "I knew that the fun part of it would be to create something new for publishing, to facilitate a need I've always had, which is when I read scripts, when I read books, it's hard to get through page one to the end unless it's just absolutely amazing and I take that ride. But for the most part if, it's not engaging, it's a very tough thing for me to do. What if we took it to a digital level: we have the existing crime readers and gave them a different way to consume, by every twenty pages logging into a website, unlocking a code and watching a three-minute motion picture scene that bridges you from one chapter to another? At the same time, take the YouTube generation, which doesn't read, and ask them to follow a scripted narrative with the things they're used to consuming, which is the YouTube clips that are two to three minutes long. Could I combine the existing paradigm with the new paradigm in the Digi-Novel as a sort of one size fits all? Can I put a book out that has a motion picture attached to it with a social community that's built to sustain longer than just the short launch of a book."

Zuiker was able to assemble a strong team to work on the project alongside him. "I had to think about who would be the ideal person to co-write the book, and I read a couple of Duane Swierczyski's samples and I liked his voice. I had talked to Miles [Beckett] and Greg [Goodfried] over at EQAL who did lonelygirl15. We were talking about something to do for years and finally settled on Level 26. Marc Ecko got involved: he saw the bridges, he freaked out, and he wanted to be the art director. So he art-directed the project, he did the cover, he did the t-shirts [that are going to be] at Comic Con, which are really, really great. He drew twenty illustrations inside the book by hand. He's such a great artist," Zuiker enthuses.

Zuiker is extremely pleased with the home he found for his book at Dutton Publishing. "Literally I walked into the publisher and read off my Blackberry what I thought this would be, a vision of it. We had seven offers of eight the next day. Hyperion and Dutton got into a bidding war and Dutton wrote me this long letter that said, 'We understand what this is top to bottom, this is the future' and I went with them," Zuiker reveals. It's a decision he hasn't regretted. "Dutton's been really, really great as a partner, very, very, very supportive in the creative," he says. "The bedside manner has been pretty unbelievable. In turn, we're giving them the very best and they're behind it a thousand percent. This feels really, really good. Fewer cooks in the kitchen, a hundred percent backing, putting real money into the promotion, and really feeling like this could be the future of things."

The filming of the scenes from the book gave Zuiker an opportunity to step behind the camera to helm the mini-movies. "[It's] my directing debut, which was a lot of fun," Zuiker says. "I was surprisingly comfortable behind the camera. Everybody really rallied and supported me in that. I had to send [frequent CSI director] Danny Cannon an apology letter for all the times I would told him to [film] the script, because [while shooting the bridges] I would say on the set, 'I don't care about the script!' I realized that when you get behind the camera, the script pretty much goes out the window. You're telling a story in its totality; it's not this DNA paint-by-numbers you have to follow. I never quite understood it until I got behind the camera. I stopped myself and said, 'What did I just say? Did I just say forget the script?' It's so funny."

The experience gave Zuiker a greater respect for other writer-directors. "I think I understand now why Quentin Tarantino's stuff is so good, because he writes and directs it and he has full control over it," he says. "I think when you're that talented and you have a vision, that's when things turn out pretty great." Zuiker was pleased with the twenty scenes when all was said and done: "I was so happy with the way the bridges turned out. The directing was so much fun. They were digestible. And there's nothing in those bridges that I can say I'm embarrassed about. There's nothing that's bad--there are no bad scenes in there."

Zuiker is looking ahead to the publication of the novel, but first he'll be making a trip down to Comic Con on Saturday, July 26th for an afternoon panel (4:30-5:30pm) to promote the book and the launch of level26.com. "For Comic Con, I'm going down to support Marc Ecko's panel for the Dexter video game on Thursday," Zuiker says. "Then Marc's going to do my panel Saturday at 4:30pm and we're going to be debuting the promo, we're going to speak for six to seven minutes, hand it over to Miles and Greg from EQAL who are going to be walking us through the website, we're going to have Marc discuss the shirt and the illustrations he drew in the book and how he got involved in the project. And we're going to have Daniel Buran who plays Steve Dark read half a chapter and then show a bridge so we feel how it segues. And then over to Q&A for half an hour, and then party that night. We're going to be handing out a thousand Comic Con exclusive t-shirts designed by Marc Ecko and if you go back to the booth after the panel and say the keyword, then we'll give you a shirt that has [my signature] and Marc's signature on the shirt. There will be about two hundred of those available."

Zuiker is eagerly anticipating the day the book hits the streets. "September 8th is going to be a great day because we're launching it everywhere," he shares. "In the pre-sales, we've already re-cooped all our advance money just with the one book overseas. The international demand for it has just been humongous, which is really, really neat. It's a great confidence boost. And again people are followers of myself and CSI which obviously helps. But the most important thing we had to do in the project was to make sure the book was great. If you don't ever log in, if you never see a bridge, the book has to be something compelling or all the gimmicks would kind of work, but people would say, 'But the book is boring.' Whatever you launch that has cross-platform effects or 24/7 effects or multimedia effects that extend the brand, the core launch needs to be a solid, great piece of work for the other things to work. It's like watching a bad TV show with a great website."

For those readers leery about having to head to the web every twenty pages or so, Zuiker promises the book can still be read traditionally. "People say, 'What about the imagination? It's just not fair that you're providing visuals.' And [my response is], 'Just don't log in.' Riggins can be whoever you want. You can still buy a great book and read it cover to cover and never log in. You don't have to log in to enjoy the book--it still makes perfect sense." Though watching the bridges isn't a necessity for the story, Zuiker is hopeful that most will experience the novel to the fullest: "But if you do log in, then you're having this really awesome experience, and if you do log in and become a member and socially connect with other people, then it's the deepest experience you can get."

Zuiker sees the conversion of different types of media as the wave of the future: "We've got to give people all the different levels of immersion in one experience," he emphasizes. "That's going to be the future. It just can't be, 'Consume it only this way.' Television's problem is, 'Just watch it this way at 9.' Suddenly when people [are given] different options to do other things, they take them. The future of television will be watching content on the go on any device anywhere, anytime. And television's going to have to figure that part out. Scheduled television I don't think will ever change in the next fifty years. There will always be scheduled programming, but how people consume it based on the behavior is going to be a major paradigm shift that people will have to do. I think that we have to figure out a way to go to the audience rather than make them come to us, which is the major problem we have right now."

"My strict philosophy is that the future of the one-off is over with," Zuiker continues. "Just doing one of something great is not going to sustain business. Just doing one great book or one great TV show or one great song--it's like a one-hit wonder philosophy. If I was to go out and do an individual crime novel it might be good because it's me and my name's on it, if I was to do a movie it might be pretty good because it's me and I would try to make it really good, if I was to do a website it might be pretty good but there are a million websites out there--but if I take all three into one, then I've probably got something special."

To that effect, Zuiker's novel will be offered in just about every media out there: "It will be available in/on hardback, paperback, [audiobook], Kindle, Kindle Lap, Sony Reader, the App Store [for iPhone]," he says. And he's already looking ahead to what's next: "We're going to put out book two, Doppelganger of Darkness, next year, and gun for book three by the end of 2010. Mr. CSI is going to launch in 2010 also, which is the inspiration memoir/I-Made-It-So-Can-You book, co-written with Todd Gold. I know for a fact [what] books four, five and six [of Level 26] are. I know the scope of them. I'm focusing on developing new shows for CBS. I'm working on a couple of dramas, a reality show, and a comedy. [My production company] Dare To Pass is open for business--we're taking submissions, thinking about things we want to do solely for television. It's a very tough market so we'll see how it goes. The other thing I was working on before this is called 40 Days. That might be something I do strictly for the web. It's about a seventeen year-old who locks herself in hotel room for forty days, cashes all her credit cards out, and goes online every single day and does a video blog, trying to decide, is she going to kill herself or not. It's very intense. That's something I'm not sure who I want to do it with or how I want to do it, but it's going to be a digital novel in some permutation."

With plenty of projects to keep him busy, Zuiker is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the franchise that made him famous, but he's quite pleased with the state of all three of the CSI shows, and confident that they'll continue to thrive creatively. "I think all [the CSI shows] are going in the right direction," he observes. "I think the more we can surprise the audience and bring characters in a new direction is always a good thing. It's three families a week that people are enjoying. The challenge going forward is to make sure we stick to the format of what CSI means, [while] at the same time bringing new science and new storylines that continue to intrigue an audience at the highest level."

He's also pleased with the flagship show's new leading man. "I think Laurence Fishburne (Ray Langston) is a tremendous actor and we're lucky to have him in the franchise. Billy [Petersen (Gil Grissom)] will never be replaced, but if we're going to at least have somebody carry the baton, who better than Larry? Eventually the show will bend more towards him and it will have a different life of its own once it adjusts," Zuiker says.

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Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.

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