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Michael Piller

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at June 10, 2002 - 3:21 PM GMT

Michael Piller -- Emmy-nominated co-executive producer of Star Trek: The Next Generation and co-creator of Deep Space Nine and Voyager -- left the Trek franchise after writing Star Trek: Insurrection to develop his own projects. His new series, The Dead Zone, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, premieres on June 16th on the USA network. Piller developed the series in partnership with his son Shawn and brought several former Trek staffers aboard, including writers Joe Menosky and Michael Taylor. Deep Space Nine actress Nicole DeBoer costars alongside Anthony Michael Hall and David Ogden Stiers.

Piller talked to Trek Nation about getting to the heart of the psychic, the conundrums of the Trek franchise and his desire to make meaningful television.

Trek Nation: Are you a Stephen King fan?

Michael Piller: I am now. I am sort of an odd kind of reader. I don't read a lot of novels or science fiction or genre material; I read history books and biographies. I had Stephen King's guide for writers, but I haven't read a lot and I haven't been terribly impressed as a rule with the movies or television shows that have been made out of most of his books. But when they brought this to my attention, I read The Dead Zone, then I watched the movie of The Dead Zone, and I saw very clearly what the opportunity would be for a television series -- it really was that quick.

The Dead Zone was clearly a Jesus metaphor, and the idea of doing a show about a contemporary Jesus-like character -- so that we're doing a contemporary Last Temptation of Christ if you will -- I felt would be absolutely stunning material for us to use to explore life as we know it. How would we treat Christ if he came back today? What would it be if we were suddenly, any of us, designated by fate and/or by God to carry on with extraordinary powers to help mankind, to save mankind? Would mankind destroy us first or would we ultimately be successful? These are great questions to answer over the life of a television series.

Trek Nation: When you went in with a novel that is so well-known, that has inspired a movie that is so well-known, were there things you immediately said, 'I would have done this differently...I will do this differently?'

Piller: I learned my lesson when I worked with Roddenberry, which is that essentially, there's a certain expectation by people who love a vision. My goal is to satisfy that audience first and foremost, and myself as well. But I believe that if we can do justice to the source material, treat Stephen King's vision with a reverence, then the people who are tired of seeing it changed will appreciate it and ultimately come back and support us. I think we have to satisfy that audience first, and if we can do that, and word of mouth gets around about the show in general, we can begin to build a fan base that really supports a television series.

In terms of changes, the only changes that I saw that really needed to be done were based on the fact that King wanted to separate Sarah and Johnny by the action and by the events that occurred. For the sake of a television series, we want conflict to endure, not to be resolved. So I needed to create a circumstance in which Johnny and Sarah were forced to be in proximity, and one of the ways I did this was by giving the child to Johnny instead of to Sarah's new husband -- that was a change made specifically for the sake of television. The other change was that I combined the characters and made the sheriff into Sarah's husband instead of the second male that was in the book. By doing that, I was able to use the serial killer case and other criminal-type activities that our hero gets involved with, to bring Johnny into their lives one way or another and create a very interesting, strange romantic triangle. I think it's worked out very well.

The other thing that I changed...I felt that the mother's character, who died about a third of the way through the novel and the movie, was like Carrie's mother revisited -- very heavily religious, and I felt that that was a dated look at conservative religion. I wanted to explore the same themes that King explored, but I wanted to do it through a different means. My son Shawn, who obviously joined me in creating this, felt we really needed an antagonist to carry through the series, so we created the Reverend Purdy, who stands for all the same things that the mother does and in fact has a complex romantic and financial relationship with the mother, but allows us to explore those same things without the sort of shrill old-religion type that I think might have been more acceptable in 1978 or whenever it was written.

Trek Nation: How much are you keeping of the political storyline -- the arc with the presidential candidate?

Piller: In our thirteenth episode, which probably will be the last one of the first cycle put on the air, we will introduce that character, Greg Stillson, to the audience. That will throw Johnny into the next level of his self-discovery on this journey, which will ultimately force him to reckon with the potential that this guy has to destroy the world. I think it'll be a harder journey. We have already made the decision that we don't find it acceptable for Johnny to use a gun and violence as a television hero to solve problems.

In fact, when I first was asked if I was interested in doing this, the first take on this that they had discussed before my arrival was that Johnny's television story should begin where the movie ends. He has just tried to assassinate Greg Stillson and was unsuccessful, and now he's on the run, everybody's chasing him, so he's a fugitive with psychic powers. I felt uncomfortable first because I felt that that was a derivative way to approach the material -- we've all seen The Fugitive in a variety of different fashions -- but secondly I didn't want John Hinckley to be the hero of my show. So basically I suggested that we go back to the novel, we use the novel as the basis of the whole first season, and go from there.

Trek Nation: Are most of the episodes based on events in the novel or original stories?

Piller: There are many that are suggested by it. Maybe half of them are, and the other half are things that are consistent with the novel if you read between the lines. It's Johnny beginning to understand his powers, explore what it's like to have them. How do you go about going back into the real world and assimilating when suddenly some people think you're the Second Coming and some people think you're the Antichrist? How do you deal with women in the new environment? There are so many things to deal with that there just wasn't time to deal with in the novel.

Trek Nation: Have you been in touch with Stephen King at all, or is his input sort of irrelevant to you beyond the book he wrote?

Piller: It's certainly not irrelevant. Nothing would please me more than for Stephen King to call me up and say, 'You know what? You guys are doing a great job.' And frankly I think that if somebody gets him to watch this thing, he will think that, because as I said earlier, we really respected his vision. Through the legal machinations that took place before I got involved, it was sort of decided by Stephen King's people and the people that I'm working with that he would allow us to use the material based on his characters, and not really take an active part.

Trek Nation: What specifically, since I'm sure you've thought about this, do you think your Star Trek fans will find of appeal?

Piller: I certainly think that Star Trek fans who know my work will recognize the same kind of smart, adult, ambitious storytelling that we did on Star Trek. I always felt that the Enterprise was an opportunity and a metaphor for not just exploring the universe through space stories, but exploring the universe of man. A writer is an explorer, and any opportunity that I ever have to work on a project that allows me to do that, I'm just thrilled with that opportunity. I think the audiences that loved the kind of stories we did on Next Generation will find that same quality here.

Each episode is an opportunity for us to explore moral and ethical dilemmas, character problems, and really look at the human condition as we know it. In a sense, Johnny is a human holodeck, because his psychic powers take us as audience to all the places that he goes, which can be anywhere in the world. So in essence, this is an exploration of our lives in a different fashion, using a different vehicle than a spaceship. Anybody who's interested in those kinds of stories is going to find something really, really to enjoy here.

I'm leaving out the obvious, that we've got terrific special effects. It really is top-notch science fiction. On top of all that, and I mean this sincerely, not since Next Generation have I felt so confident of the material that we're turning out on a weekly basis. I would say of the first twelve stories -- I haven't seen all the shows cut together yet, but scripts, stories and shows -- I can't remember ten straight episodes that we did that had this kind of quality. It is absolutely breakthrough television, and I would not put my name on this interview and tell you this if I didn't honestly believe it.

Trek Nation: You have followed Star Trek since you left it -- you've watched Enterprise? Can I ask where you'd rank it among the Treks?

Piller: I've watched, I'd say, half of the Enterprise episodes this year. If you want to go back and ask anybody about the first season of any show, where it fits into the legacy, every Star Trek series -- with the exception of the original I guess -- has needed a period to be nurtured, to find its true voice.

Trek Nation: You were talking about wanting to appeal to an adult audience, an audience really invested in sophisticated storytelling. Enterprise has been almost aggressively marketed as the opposite.

Piller: Yes, I know, and there's a good reason for that. Star Trek finds itself in a paradox. It's something I saw a great deal on Insurrection. The paradox is that the audience for Star Trek is getting older. They are not attracting -- and I'm not counting Enterprise because I have no idea what the success of their efforts have been -- but they have not been attracting younger audiences to the franchise over the past several years. Any franchise that wants to last has to attract new audiences; it cannot survive on the diminishing returns of the audience base that it already has. It became very clear that the studio was going to put its efforts behind finding Star Trek material that was going to appeal to the young demographics, which by the way is in television the most important demographics. In Insurrection, we thought we found a youth story, but I've got to tell you -- fourteen-year-old boys couldn't care less about the fountain of youth. And yet they marketed it to that young audience, even though the creative side had not decided to go down that road. Already there was a conflict there.

What you wind up out of this is that you have to ask yourself, what is in the best interests of the franchise? Is it in the best interests of the franchise to attract new audiences? Absolutely. But, that having been said, you could very easily go back to Gene Roddenberry in 1967 or whatever year it was -- his fundamental decision from the start to say that he was not going to do a television show for young people. This was not going to be a sci-fi show that appealed to kids. He was going to make it for adults, and as a result of that decision, I think you could make a very good argument that that's the reason that this show has lasted. This franchise has lasted for 30 years because the shows rerun and they are intelligent and they ask questions that really stand the test of time.

So is Star Trek abandoning Roddenberry's ideals in a constructive way? Is there a way that you can hold onto the ideals and still attract new audiences? Those are the questions that I know the studio and Rick Berman are wrestling with, and certainly in terms of ratings I think in the first season that they're very pleased with the results on Enterprise. I think UPN has to be thrilled with the numbers.

Trek Nation: Do you ever see yourself working in that franchise again or are you very happy to be on your own, working on different material?

Piller: I think the Star Trek experience was the greatest experience of my career up until now, and I doubt that it can be recreated easily. The truth is that by the time I reached the end of my, what, twelve years on Star Trek, I really felt that I had said almost everything I knew how to say in the space element, and was saying it over again.

I was very affected by a documentary I saw on American Masters on PBS about Rod Serling -- his career after Twilight Zone. A lot of his friends from that time said, you know, 'This was one of the great writers of his time, he was an angry young New York writer, he wrote some of the great television plays of the 1950s, but after The Twilight Zone, he became a celebrity and he never really entered the tournament again.' I listened to that and I realized that I could live very comfortably on the celebrity in my nice little Star Trek world, but I really needed to test myself again. I needed to refresh the batteries, take some risks, lose some battles, lose some wars, but at least feel that I was growing as a writer again.

And that is certainly what has happened. Nothing has been more exciting than going into business with my own son, getting our first television series on the air. I think it's one that we're all going to be very proud of.

Trek Nation: When did you first know that you wanted to work with your son?

Piller: It's not a throwaway decision. Shawn started working with us on some stories for Voyager. He did a Q show that got on the cover of TV Guide. I found him to be very creative. It was something that clicked, and when something works, you don't start thinking about possible problems, though there are some special challenges that come from being in business with your own son -- like getting him to come to work on time instead of sleeping in, like he's in high school!

The other part is that I grew up in a family business. My grandfather had a furniture store in Greenwich, Connecticut for three-quarters of the 20th century, and my aunt and uncle worked there, my cousin worked there, my father had a branch office, I delivered furniture one summer. So the idea of family and business going together has always been part of my life. And now to be able to create my own family business has a special appeal to me.

Trek Nation: You seem to have gathered around you a lot of Trek-connected writers, some of whom I guess arrived as you were leaving -- I don't know if you had worked with them closely before.

Piller: I hired Joe Menosky in the third or fourth season of Next Generation, so I certainly have known Joe forever. He is doing some of the greatest work of his career on this series, I've got to tell you. Fans of Star Trek who remember shows like 'Darmok' are going to look at what his work here is and say, 'Joe is back in form and has really found a vehicle to express himself.' He's doing great work. Mike Taylor has done a great show for us and I put him on staff. I did not work with Mike directly on Voyager, but I read his work because I was a story consultant and I was reading every week the stories and scripts and giving notes on them. He's always turned out provocative material. So those two guys are very important cogs in our wheel.

Trek Nation: What appeals to you about their writing -- what is it about their style that works well for Dead Zone?

Piller: It starts with ambition. These are two guys who refuse to settle for the ordinary. I love people like that. Sometimes you have to make compromises to satisfy the commercial needs of a network, but if you start with the big ideas, if you start with the ambition of saying, 'I want to do something that will stand the test of time,' then people are going to want to watch over and over again because it says something in a deeper sense. They're the people I want to be in business with.

We've probably had pitches from a hundred writers on Dead Zone, as I waited to see who was going to rise to the top and really give us challenging material, and I would say 75 of them came in with some murder mystery like Murder, She Wrote with a psychic involved. I couldn't care less about that. I want to explore the world we live in, and I want to explore what it's like to be Johnny Smith. Writers like Mike and Joe can do that.

To be a great writer, you've got to be willing to explore beneath the surface, to take creative risks. I think Neil Simon said in one of his books, you have to be willing to die every time you go out there. These are people who are willing to take those risks. The people who write safe material...you see a lot of safe material on television, and unfortunately, they get a lot of work. But I love to take the chances and take the risks, and the payoffs are always wonderful.

Trek Nation: What exactly is your role -- do you have final approval on all the scripts?

Piller: I'm the guy in charge of this show. I have the last creative say in every decision. My colleague Lloyd Segan, who is also an executive producer, works with me, and he is more involved in the business aspect of this, solving problems with networks and studios, marketing and things like that, although I'm not saying he doesn't have a part in the creative side. Everyone will say, though, that the creative vision starts with me.

Then we've brought Rob Lieberman on as an executive producer as well. He directed the pilot, and you will be stunned by the direction of the pilot, and you will understand why we wanted him on the show. He's sort of the guy who's in charge of the vision -- to make sure the vision works. It's extraordinarily effective. So those are the three people who have executive producer responsibilities, and then Shawn Piller is like a jack-of-all-trades producer. Shawn's remarkable; he's so popular with all the people he works with. He solves problems and makes friends simultaneously, which is the definition of an extraordinarily gifted producer.

Trek Nation: Did you have a 'look' in mind for Dead Zone from the beginning, or is that something you tend to leave to directors and special effects crew?

Piller: The truth is that I want to give Rob Lieberman all the credit for the look of this show. I am fundamentally a storyteller; in terms of writing scripts, structuring scripts, making it an effective story, I feel I'm very confident in my abilities there. I always see the movie while I'm writing it. But that doesn't mean that I know how to translate what I see into anything that you'd want to watch necessarily. I'm not a director, don't want to be a director, and I just felt that when I met Rob Lieberman, that he was a guy who was going to bring a look to this show that we were going to be proud of, and he delivered on every count.

Trek Nation: In terms of the way the flashbacks work with the stop-motion, where sometimes Johnny is moving in real-time and sometimes everything is frozen...

Piller: I came up with that idea, but he executed it.

Trek Nation: Because I'm writing this for a Trek site, I'm curious about whether Nicole DeBoer was your personal casting choice -- you must have known her previous work.

Piller: Yes, absolutely. I thought Nicole did a terrific job for us on the last season of Deep Space Nine. I'm not taking anything away from Terry Farrell whatsoever, but we always as writers had terrible trouble with defining the Dax character. I thought Ira Behr did a great job of finding what she was good at, but it wasn't until that last season that I realized what we should have done from the very beginning. And that is, we should have killed the Dax host in the pilot. That way, you have a character who's struggling to find who she is and a new identity, which is the definition of what Star Trek does so well -- that dichotomy. I thought that's what made Dax so effective the last season, and I thought Nicole did a great job for us.

Trek Nation: The show seems to be getting a lot of exposure among genre fans -- are you hoping for a broader audience initially?

Piller: I think that we have an opportunity to get a nice sampling. I believe that genre fans are the key to our success, in maintaining a solid audience base. However, we're also on at a time in the summer that nothing else is on, so there's very little else to choose from. So I think we're going to be very lucky with that. And the truth is that this particular show has an extraordinarily wide appeal beyond genre. I think it's got crossover appeal. That's why USA decided to put it on, as opposed to Sci-Fi.

Trek Nation: What kind of feedback have you been getting since the web site has been up -- are Trek fans or King fans writing in with their interests and concerns? What does the future audience want to see?

Piller: I must be honest with you: I have not heard that feedback. I haven't got a great deal of time to spend on the web site. The truth is that the few things that have come to my attention, which have been fan reviews of the pilot that have been snuck out by somebody, have been extraordinarily positive. So I'm very confident that, at least up until now, we're doing everything right.

You can read more about The Dead Zone, including Piller's personal notes to fans, at TheDeadZone.net.

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Michelle Erica Green reviews Enterprise episodes and Star Trek books for the Trek Nation, as well as Andromeda episodes for SlipstreamWeb. She has written for magazines and sites such as SFX, Cinescape and Another Universe. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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