Frank Spotnitz: Exclusive Interview

Frank Spotnitz: Exclusive Interview
The producer talks about the DVD release of his Night Stalker remake TV series.
Updated: 05-25-2006

Staci Layne Wilson / I read an interview with you in a magazine, and your foreword to The Kolchak Chronicles book, prior to the airing of your Night Stalker remake. I was really impressed by how much you "got" the original Kolchak… what made him such an enduring character. Yet, the new Kolchak is totally reimagined -- how come?


Frank Spotnitz: Well, when I signed on to do it, I didn't realize I was going to change it so much. I really thought, you know, I'll just remake the original. The more I got into it, the more I realized that was impossible. I started talking to people who were close to Night Stalker and the more I talked to them they were like, "Of course you can't do it." The closer you are to the original series like the people in Darren McGavin's family, or the people who have written books about Night Stalker and stuff, they will tell you that it did not work.


I was sort of well on the way to making this show, and as I started making these changes it became more of a radical… sort of a train you couldn't stop at that point. But you know, there were some things that I thought were still true to the original in spirit which was the idea of this city editor and his relationship to Kolchak. In this version I try to give it more complexity because Vincenzo clearly has great affection for Kolchak in the series. Where we were going in the show was that Kolchak becomes a liability to Vincenzo. Vincenzo is a guy with ambition. He's gone up from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and he wants to keep going up. But his friend and his crazy stories and his outlandish behavior become a threat to that. So there were things that were recognizable as coming from the original Night Stalker.


Q: I always thought, if Night Stalker were to be remade, that an actor like Scott Bakula or Bruce Campbell would be perfectas Kolchak -- and I understand (from the DVD commentary) you were trying to cast the role right down to the wire… did you have a certain type and age-range in mind, or were you looking at all kinds of actors?


Frank Spotnitz: I went through a long process with this show because when I originally approached the material I thought it was going to be much more faithful to the original show. I originally thought "Oh, I'm going to go for Ted Dansen or John C. Reilly or something like that." But when I really started analyzing the tv movies and the original series I saw there were a lot of problems with having the character be somebody that old.


The idea of the TV movies was this is a guy whose career is behind him. He's fallen into bad water and he stumbles upon a story about a monster that could be his ticket to the big time. That worked in the TV movies but in a series, week after week, to have the guy hoping he's got the story that's going to be his golden ticket, it's one-note. It can only go one way which is of course he always has to fail every week or the series is over.


So I realized in my mind that's one of the reasons why the original series wasn't successful.It is because it was the same thing every week. Why would Kolchak of all the reporters in Chicago be the only one to find monsters every week? Why didn't the cops do anything about it? and so on. So it sort of pushed me in a different direction and I ended up being a lot less faithful to the original than I had anticipated.


I hit upon a whole new area for the show to explore which was good and evil and what the quality of goodness is and what the quality of evil was. I really got excited when I started thinking about Kolchak as a character who you thought you knew, but you may not know. As somebody you presume as good because he's the hero of the television series but then these questions start coming up that make you reevaluate whether he really is good or not.


That was where the series was going, a series of reversals where you're not sure which way is up. Is Carl really bad or he actually good? I don't know if you got to see the second part of the two-parter yet [on the DVD] but that's a real shocker, the ending of that episode because you leave it thinking, "Oh my God, Kolchak actually is evil."


So I wanted somebody who is younger whose career was not behind him but was ahead of him and who could make those terms where you could believe he's good and Stuart can. He's a very attractive guy, appealing. But then when the [resolution] comes at the end of these episodes to make you think that he may be evil, he can also incredibly pull that off. I thought Stuart has that about him he's got that sort of darkness that works.


Q: Dan Curtis and Darren McGavin have since passed on from the time Night Stalker aired -- but what kind of feedback did you get from them?


Frank Spotnitz: That was actually one of the best things about doing the show because I got to know and work a little bit with Dan Curtis. I grew up watching his work, Dark Shadows, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Winds of War... he really is one of the giants of television. I had been warned: "He's a very crusty guy and he's going to really shoot straight with you. You better watch out." He was pretty crusty and very blunt, if he didn't like something he didn't hesitate to tell you. But he was very constructive and very smart and really very kind which I hadn't expected. So it was a joy working with him.


He read all the scripts at once, all the cuts, gave me very good advice and guidance on a number of issues about the series, which he liked. As different as it was from the original but he too thought you can't do the original. He didn't think it was going to work the first time around. He wasn't involved in the series that came out on TV.


Darren McGavin, unfortunately by the time this version of the show came around, he was in such poor health I didn't get a chance to speak to him about it. I had gotten to know him already, I had gotten to know him and see him a little bit when we doing the X-Files but I did see his family a few times over the course of doing this show. They were really supportive and very gracious. His eldest son, York McGavin, came by the cutting room and watched some of the pilot and gave us his blessings to use his father's image. We digitally inserted in into the pilot.


We had a screening of the first two episodes, and all of his children came and just couldn't have been nicer. They completely understood that we weren't trying to do what their father had done, we were trying to do something different. I think had we gone on longer my belief was that people would have seen the integrity of this approach and they would have recognized it wasn't an intent to replace what had gone before but to stand side by side.


Q: The show looks amazing on DVD -- can you talk a little bit about the hi-def camera that was used, and what the visual style of the show is?


Frank Spotnitz: I wrote the show for these cameras, because I worked briefly on a show for Michael Mann for CBS called Robbery Homicide Division and he's a big believer in these cameras. That was where I first saw what they could do. I mean especially then, they're much better now than they were four years ago when I was doing that show. But what they are most spectacular at is filming low light situations, at night time. So as I was working on Night Stalker it was right there in front of me; these cameras which literally pick up more than the human eye can see would be really exciting on a show like this which has so much night photography.


There are things about the night that you forget after years of watching movies shot on film,things that you're not seeing like the clouds in the night sky. You just don't see those. Or things way off in the distance just don't pick up on. So there's a level of detail about these cameras that I found visually really exciting and it made the show feel more like it's happening around you.


I had to argue pretty passionately on the idea of using these cameras because by the time Night Stalker was a series there was this brand new camera that was a state-of-the-art video camera, and people couldn't understand why I was willing to pay so much money for this. I heard "television doesn't matter", "it's a small screen, nobody cares". I really think when people see the world in a new way, whether they're conscious of why they're getting excited or not, it makes a difference. So I was able to persuade them to use these cameras and I think everybody did get excited once they saw what the series looked like. Now, of course there are many shows on TV that are using those cameras.


Q: There are four unaired episodes on the DVD, and unproduced scripts. So… is there any resolution to the series?


Frank Spotnitz: No, you know we didn't have the luxury of knowing that the show was going to come to an end. I think being able to see the second part of that two-parter is enormous because it really advanced the series and told you very clearly were we were headed. And I think the final episode we shot, which was also one of the best episodes, What's the Frequency Kolchak?, gives you another piece of the mythology in the show.


What I tried to do in the commentaries was talk as much as I could about what the show was really about, where we were going, what the mark was on Kolchak's wrist, who that guy was in the pilot that was standing outside of the house in the beginning. I really tried to reward people who were buying the DVD, who were probably frustrated at having these questions asked and not hearing the answers.


Q: Is TV more cutthroat than film?


Frank Spotnitz: Well, that's an interesting question. I mean they're both pretty cutthroat in different ways. I think television is actually better to work in for a writer because the writer is the producer in television. What's good about television as well is that it's on a pretty rational schedule. Like every year in May, you know which series are going to be broadcast in the fall, it's a regular thing. It gives you some predictability that you don't have in the movies.


I think the pressure in network television to be a hit out of the box is so enormous right now that it's very tough with a kind of show like Night Stalker which you know we had a terrible time slot, we didn't get a dime in paid advertising, our lead-in didn't work, and we had a lot of big obstacles. I think there were a lot of people who recognized that the show had great quality and had a lot of strength. Despite the fact that they realized that they weren't willing to stick with it and I think that's a[n indication] of how tough the network marketplace is right now.




Be sure and read's review of the Night Stalker DVD by clicking here.

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