Claiming that Michael Piller knows what it takes to make a show successful is an understatement. After all, he was the executive producer on three STAR TREK hits, THE NEXT GENERATION, DEEP SPACE NINE and VOYAGER. This June, Piller's newest venture, based on Stephen King's novel THE DEAD ZONE, begins its run on the USA Network.
With reportedly the largest budget on cable television (the network has committed to one million dollars an episode for 22 episodes), hopes are high that Piller will recreate the success he achieved with the STAR TREK franchise. It would seem that the executive producer has something of an uphill battle with DEAD ZONE, however, as it has already endured a big screen translation. Nonetheless, Piller has a rather positive outlook.
"I think that it will make a good TV series because, if you look at the novel, it's about a man on a classic quest to find out how he fits into this world," says Piller. "It's the quest of us all. He's been robbed of everything he ever wanted: the girl he loves, the job he had. And it's not easy to get back. But in his case, he has all of these remarkable powers.
"If you look at the novel itself, it's quite episodic. I think that Stephen King has left us extraordinary room to explore this world he lives in. That's why we're using the novel as the structure for the first season. We plan to lead the audience, who really loves the book, who really loves the movie, into this experience. If they love the movie, they're really going to get the chance to take it from the beginning to the end in a detail that the movie just didn't have time to do."
One of the details that Piller does not and will not overlook is the careful development of characters audiences can relate to.
"You know, if you went back to NEXT GENERATION's third season, which was really the year that that show caught fire, the reason that the ratings increased so dramatically was because we attracted women to the show," says Piller. "We really started exploring all the various characters, some of whom had been underdeveloped for the first couple of years. The same thing applies to THE DEAD ZONE. This is a character piece. It does have genre elements, and the special effects are state of the art."
Piller feels that fans who watch the show for the characters will not be disappointed, as he believes this is the key to bringing them back week after week.
"People who tune in for that sort of thing will be fully satisfied," says Piller. "They can watch it with their families and if [they] can drag [the wives] to the set for the pilot, she will never leave it, and she will be rewarded week after week with great character development."
Although this new series is based on a novel, it does not completely follow every idea contained within the pages of King's classic. Piller hopes that his changes will create an interesting blend of tension and humor.
"We made changes because in the movie, and in the book, Stephen King had reasons he wanted to separate Sarah and Johnny," says Piller. "Because [we're doing] a series, we needed to find ways to force them into proximity so they [would] be forced to stay in contact, and close. That makes life difficult for both of them. Humor is going to be a very, very important part of the show. It always comes out of character, and out of the situations that our main character, Johnny Smith, finds himself in."
Rumor has it that USA is promoting the series for a more mature audience, which has caused some friction with UPN, the network that originally optioned the series.
"We don't want to disagree with what the network is telling people," says Piller. "They're basically saying that it's a different audience. The truth is that there is an older, more mature audience at USA. That only gives us the opportunity to do stories that are deeper, richer and more textured, but frankly I don't think that we were going to write down to that UPN audience either. There's nothing in the pilot that will be changed to suit UPN."
While THE DEAD ZONE might have the largest budget on cable television, Piller doesn't feel the money affects where the show is going creatively and emotionally. He knows exactly what he needs to do to make the series a hit and he is determined to do it.
"It's a generous budget," says Piller. "It's going to allow us to do appealing special effects on a weekly basis. We don't have to cut corners. We had a huge budget on STAR TREK and I just went out and wrote good television scripts. And that's what I intend to do here."