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The Trek Nation - 'Dead Zone' First Season Finale

'Dead Zone' First Season Finale

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at September 14, 2002 - 7:27 AM GMT

On Sunday, September 15, the USA Network will air the season finale of The Dead Zone -- the hit series developed by Piller Squared based on the novel by Stephen King. The series has averaged well over four million viewers per episode, making it one of the highest-rated cable series. The show has already been picked up for a second season and is in pre-production in Vancouver.

Executive producers Michael and Shawn Piller brought many writers from Star Trek to their new series. This season they included Voyager staffers Joe Menosky and Michael Taylor; next season they will include Deep Space Nine's Robert Hewitt Wolfe. Deep Space Nine regular Nicole deBoer and Next Generation guest star David Ogden Stiers were cast in major roles.

Anthony Michael Hall, well-known to audiences from a feature film career with the "Brat Pack," took on the central role of Johnny Smith. Though Hall never appeared on Star Trek, he played the quintessential geek in Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, making him a hero to fans of the geek persuasion.

"The two most obvious reasons [for interest in The Dead Zone] were Stephen King and Michael Piller," Hall explained in a telephone interview. "I can't say I was a huge Stephen King fan, but I'm a big fan of his adaptations...The Shining is a movie I've watched fifty times. That was one plus. The other one is Michael Piller, a very accomplished television producer [who's] a very talented guy. He's a dedicated writer; he gets up every morning at 5 a.m. and works."

Piller had seen Hall play Bill Gates in Pirates of Silicon Valley and was impressed with the performance. He pitched Hall the role of Johnny, who comes out of a long coma with precognitive powers that give him insight into the past and future of the people he touches. But his fiancée has married another man, and his body has been damaged by years of immobility. In Piller's spin on the scenario, Johnny often uses his powers to help his beloved Sarah's husband, the local sheriff, who is raising Johnny's son with Sarah as his own.

The role of Johnny was made famous by Christopher Walken in David Cronenberg's 1983 film The Dead Zone, in which an older version of the character discovered that a presidential candidate might bring the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. Hall watched Walken's performance but did not want to emulate it. "I looked at it, and then I went in the opposite direction. I really admire Walken, I think he's one of the great American actors alive...but we were going in a totally different direction. So I just cleaned the slate, started over and created a new character."

Hall signed on as a producer when he took the part, which often requires him to work consecutive fourteen-hour days. "To me [being a producer] means that if I can expedite things on the set, if I can accommodate the incoming director in a way that helps, if I see any shortcuts, I'll speak up," the actor explained. "But there are so many people contributing that it's not like I wear a separate hat for my producing -- I just kind of put my experience to work. I have meetings, typically with Shawn Piller who's on the set more."

"His workload, I don't know if he knew what he was biting off," chimed in Stiers, a veteran of over 100 television shows and films including seven Perry Mason movies, several Disney features and his legendary role as Winchester on M*A*S*H. "He's thoroughly wedded to this piece. And he loves to laugh, but he has a producer's beanie on, and he's sort of on guard because if he lets go, the beanie becomes a very heavy top hat. He's a very smart man and a very crafty actor."

Stiers, who plays Hall's stepfather and guardian Reverend Purdy, and Shawn Piller, the on-set executive producer, both said that Hall is the leader of the crew. "He's so grateful and he's so professional, and he's so talented," said Piller. "He's there before most of the crew in makeup and he leaves when everybody else leaves."

As a result, when it came to casting Johnny's nemesis Greg Stillson, they needed "someone who's as good as Michael Hall, who can hang on the same screen with him as a villain, who's equally charming and likeable and as good of an actor, but completely the opposite from him as a character." The producers chose Sean Patrick Flanery to play Stillson -- a name most people remember from the big screen from Martin Sheen's chilling performance as the dangerous politician.

The arc on the television series begins much earlier in Stillson's political career, when his relationship with Johnny is adversarial but not yet hostile. "I think we're going to extend it and play with it, but I don't want it to seem unfulfilling," said Piller, who expressed concerns that it could become a crutch for the writers. "I really want it to be an organic story that we use, and we're eager to see where it goes."

"For the season-ender, 'Destiny,' they hired a really talented actor that I admire...and he plays [Stillson] really well," agreed Hall. "He has a sort of Kennedy flair about him. I think it's Michael [Piller]'s intention to bring the character back; it's something he and Shawn both mentioned. It's an interesting arc as it relates to Purdy and his relationship with both of us."

"Johnny has to comprehend what he thinks he sees with Stillson, and interpret it properly," explained Stiers. "The visions are not full stories; the visions are sometimes puzzle pieces, and sometimes they're parable-like. I don't think Stillson is an instantly-answered question."

Neither is Stiers' Purdy, the conservative minister who became Johnny's guardian upon his mother's death. "I think the next energy you see will be trying to co-opt Johnny's abilities and put them in the service of Purdy's ends," Stiers added. "I think we're going to try to become uneasy friends."

As for Sarah, Johnny's former fiancée, the strain of relating to her husband and onetime lover makes for complicated emotional terrain. Not even deBoer knows what lies in store for her character and her not-quite-dormant feelings for Johnny.

"Can you love more than one person?" she mused. It's a question she would like to explore, along with Sarah's career as a teacher. "If I flip one more pancake I'm going to scream!' joked the actress.

Told of the comment, Piller laughed. "Every week I'd be the one on the set as she was getting ready to bake something, and I'd be, 'Oops, sorry, we did it to you again!' But what else can you show that's family, that you can afford to do on the television schedule? So it came down to being around the dinner table, or else in front of the TV, but you can't really have them all watching TV."

It might not make for interesting television, but everyone involved with Dead Zone seems to be an avowed TV fan except for Stiers, who said he doesn't get cable and as a result had never seen the 1983 Dead Zone. Hall, who watched Star Trek growing up, said that he's been watching more of it since he's been working with Michael Piller, "not to impress him but just because I wanted to see what the writing was like. I think the way Michael described it is that Johnny is a kind of portal -- the Enterprise of this show -- and we experience all these things through my character. That's very challenging."

Hall said he strives to make the crew his first audience, using them to gauge how well he's bringing out Johnny's emotional and ethical dilemmas; he tries to approach the role from a three-fold paradigm of spirit, body and mind. "I have to create a body for this character because he's rehabilitating himself. The mind, obviously, is aware of these transitions in and out of visions. And spiritually, I need to connect with the actors, to really connect with them. I'm certainly in it for the long haul."

Along with the Stillson arc, another storyline which might recur is the appearance of the Native American medicine man from 'Shaman,' an episode in which Johnny had visions of a man from earlier in history and the man in turn had visions of him, until they made contact across time.

But Hall remains unsure whether his character might end up romantically with Sarah, reporter Dana Bright, or somebody new. "Some people are vehemently against Sarah and I ever coming together and some people want to see that," Hall gleaned from the bulletin boards on the Dead Zone web site. "Some of them want to see me with Kristin."

Kristin Dalton, who plays the red-haired reporter, was the central character in the witty yet complicated 'Dinner With Dana,' an episode both Hall and Stiers cited as one of their favorites. "We had such a fun day," recalled Hall. "We were on the set shooting the scene for like eleven hours, and it was this bizarre choreography where I'm in bed with Kristin and then all of a sudden Nicole's there, and I look over and Purdy appears behind Kristin, and it's very funny. Everybody felt kind of odd, and that made it funny for everyone."

Piller explained the concept as an analogy for the idea that when you're dating one person, you're dating every person they've ever dated -- which in the case of Johnny's touch-triggered visions means that you're literally in bed with all their past bedmates. Stiers named his favorite moment of the first season as his "sudden guest appearance in a bed with three other people...that we barely got through until we were so tired of being in bed together that it became really boring."

For Stiers, the excitement of the show lies in the ethical quandaries it broaches, something he appreciated from Michael Piller's work on Star Trek: The Next Generation. In 'Half a Life,' he played Timicin, a man under pressure from his society to commit suicide at the age of sixty before he could become a burden on his family.

"It was meaningful and tough. I have a feeling that episode started a lot of very interesting conversations. It was certainly true in my case, where the discussion was generational; I made the mistake of watching it with my mother and father, who had very particular thoughts about aging and unwillingness to prolong life by heroic measures. When two things are warring, it's easier to play. It's also more interesting for the audience."

Stiers admitted to being a fan of Michael Piller's writing. "Michael is not a whim-based writer. He is meticulous, and such a craftsman, that when I get a script, I feel terrible when I rewrite a line just because the little post-its aren't sticking in the back of my brain and I transpose clauses. He's very careful about even something like that, word choices he's puzzled over. He's not throwing darts here. I remember that from Star Trek -- you did not change lines because you wanted to put some personal stamp on it. The stamp is there. When he writes something, I tend to take it very seriously."

Hall expected the next season to be better than the first season, given the expanded writing staff and their increasing familiarity with the characters and the range of special effects available to them. "Rob Lieberman really set the tone for the show creating the look, and it's interesting for the feel of the show -- it's not like we're using anything that's new in terms of technique, but it's in combination that these techniques are used that they're effective," he explained. "For example, steadicam work is nothing new in the industry, but we shoot it at 60 frames per second, so it's fast speed. So when I go into a vision and the camera circles around me, it creates this really cool effect."

Cracking a joke about a Brat Pack reunion, Hall noted that his old friend Rob Lowe -- who recently left The West Wing over a well-publicized contract dispute -- might be available for a Dead Zone appearance now that Sheen had become a better president. But Piller said that it was no joke to him; he thought it would break some records to do a high school reunion episode starring Hall's former castmates from John Hughes films.

"I would love for them to be a part of this show if it makes sense to my partners," agreed Hall. "I'll get on the phone myself, I told them. Some of them I haven't seen for years, but now I'm a producer -- I've got to open my mouth."

Piller's other casting fantasy for next season involves his friends from That '70s Show. "I'm determined to get Ashton or Danny or Laura to do an episode," he said. "I know the second season is going to be better than the first season, with the stories we have, and I can say one thing: we're talking about doing a Big Chill episode where we do sort of a Breakfast Club."

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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.