Anthony E. Zuiker has made an impressive career as the creator of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. In 2007, nearly 84 million people watched CSI, making it the most watched show in the world. Zuiker’s talent at telling a good crime story has led him to launch his next major project, Level 26, the world’s first digi-novel. Written with Duane Swierczynski (Severance Package), Level 26 is about a seriously demented serial killer and the tortured FBI investigator who is forced to hunt him down. Level 26 releases on September 8.
The interactive quality of this digi-novel is handled by EQAL, with roots going back to its creation of the internet sensation, lonelygirl15. And, while Level 26 is not directly related to comics, there’s a lot going on with its interactive components that someday may become common to the comics medium. Also, there is already a line of CSI comics put out by IDW and who knows what may lie ahead.
Zuiker has an energetic and commanding presence. He stays on point with ease. When asked if he thought his “digi-novel” was the future of reading, he gracefully said no claims on the future have been made. The one sure claim is that he is excited about what he’s doing. It was a pleasure to chat with him at Comic-Con International: San Diego.
Blog@Newsarama:Tell us what it was like for you growing up as your writing talents emerged.
Anthony E. Zuiker: As an only child in Las Vegas, I would often, just for fun, write letters for people as a favor. Just formal letters. I was sort of 16 of 16 in letter writing meaning that whenever someone asked me to write something, like get their girlfriend back or a letter to a judge to get out of jail, I would bat a thousand. I was in the hall of fame of letter writing. Then all through high school and in college I would charge people to write their term papers for $300.00 overnight and they were guaranteed at least a B plus. I made a lot of money doing that. When I was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame at UNLV, I said that before they awarded me that maybe I should confess that I put about hundred people through college. My father always said that I had some talent as a writer and I guess I believed him. I’ve always had a way of putting what I’ve envisioned on the page. When I wrote my first movie, The Runner, it went right to video but it was an interesting piece of work with an authentic voice and it landed me an agent and a manager. My first TV script was CSI. It got green lit and, obviously, it took off. We went on to do CSI: Miami and CSI: New York. I guess my visual way of thinking really worked simpatico with the philosophy of writing scripts in Hollywood.
BLOG@: Do you believe it had something to do with being at the right place at the right time?
ZUIKER: For CSI? I think so. I think every great show is a sign of the times. It began in the aftermath of the OJ trial. People were just becoming fascinated with forensics. I was able to come in with a show set in Las Vegas, set in the graveyard shift. The idea of people actually going into a crime scene, scrutinizing evidence and the story being put together in flashback, that style of storytelling, felt like a modern day mystery. It felt like a mystery genre of our generation. People liked that. They were learning and watching at the same time which was highly efffective. And with a great cast, CSI had that mystery magic, this different way to tell a cop show which is what I call, “from the crime scene tape down.” And it worked.
BLOG@: It seems like CSI could go on forever. Do you see interest in the franchise shifting?
ZUIKER: Well, what goes up must come down. You know, we are doing our best right now with all three shows to stay in the top 15, to keep challenging our audience. We’ve killed people in many different ways. We continue to look for different ways to excite us and excite an audience. We feel because its is a procedural drama, and everybody loves a good mystery, it has some good long legs to it, we believe.
BLOG@: Let’s say, somebody is totally in the dark on Level 26. How would you describe it?
ZUIKER: We are coining it as “the world’s first digi-novel.” What a digi-novel is, is it takes all the elements of publishing, movies and internet and combines experience. Level 26 is a horror prime drama. Every twenty pages that you read, you log onto the Web site, Level26.com, enter a code at the end of that chapter, and it unlocks a piece of motion picture footage which bridges you from one chapter to another, so its a continuation of the story, visually, its about three minutes long. There’s twenty of those experiences per book. So you figure twenty pages times twenty bridges is about a four hundred page book. That is what the book is, also. Sometimes its a horror scene, sometimes is a love scene, sometimes its a music video, sometimes when you call the killer, the killer calls your phone back. So its very interactive. We feel like in this attention economy, with how fast things are moving with technology, to ask someone to read twenty pages and then see a visual continuance, is a good rhythmic experience, rather than read four hundred pages and do nothing else. If you read the book cover to cover, no problem. But the best experience is to read, log in and watch, read, log in and watch. And then become part of a social community, built by the lonelygirl15 creators, Miles and Greg, to have this social site that is basically like a Facebook page Level 26, with all the bells and whistles of an interactive Web site.
BLOG@: Do you see this as just another form of entertainment or, in the future, as the way people read?
ZUIKER: Well you know, I think the audience and the reader will determine that. We are not taking the position that we are going to replace publishing in its current state. My philosophy is that, in this generation, you need to go to your audience and recognize your audience’s behaviors. People now, when they watch television, they’re also on their computer, they’re tweeting, they’re chatting, they’re checking email, they’re TiVoing, they’re doing multiple things at one time. So to ask someone to sit down and read a 400 page book in this generation, I think, is a tough ask, especially for younger people. If you can provide them with these visceral/visual speed bumps it might get more young people to read. I think that’s a victory. And, if you’re an existing reader, who already loves to read, quite possibly you’ll try a different way to consume which is to read and watch the bridges. So, we feel that we’re trying to bridge the gap between an older generation and a younger generation in the spirit of where technology is going.
BLOG@: Basically, it can appeal to any age group.
ZUIKER: Here’s the litmus test. Read the first twenty pages of Level 26, then you watch the first film, something you’ll probably find edgy and cool. If you’re not engaged by it, I may lose you as a customer. But, if you are, I think you’ll probably finish reading it that night. It’s pretty exciting.
BLOG@: The buzz concept in the entertainment industry is transmedia, the book sells the movie, the movie sells the game and so on. It seems like you’re sort of there with Level 26 or could you tell us where you might fit in?
ZUIKER: Sure, transmedia versus what we are doing is a little different. Transmedia is having one brand and launching it in various avenues. We’d certainly like to do that but our core concern is transmedia inside the narrative meaning you go from book to motion picture to Web site and it’s all inclusive in one experience so it’s nice and tight. It’s not about just creating a character and seeing if we can launch it on the Web, on the radio, on a phone and so on. That may eventually happen to Level 26 but, for now, we’re keeping it at the core of our philosophy which is: read, watch and log in and have a compelling story and let people consume that way. We’re not going to jump off any cliffs but keep to the core philosophy of what the digi-novel represents which is reading, watching and logging in.
BLOG@: How would describe in a nugget the story, Level 26?
ZUIKER: Level 26 is about Steve Dark, an ex-Quantico who works in Special Services which involves the worst and most horrific crimes that I can’t possibly tell you here. He’s been chasing an elusive killer named, Sqweegel for twenty years who has killed over 30 people and has killed Steve Dark’s family. Steve Dark is retired. He has met the love of his life, she’s pregnant and suddenly they get a message that Sqweegel has returned and he’s been inside Steve’s home. Steve is sucked back into pursuing Sqweegel. And that’s where it all begins.
BLOG@: I know you’re a busy man. Thank you for your time.
ZUIKER: I really appreciate it. Awesome.