Interview Date: 01/06/2011
Run Date: 01/17/2011
Fourteen years ago Bryce Zabel executive produced and co-created “Dark Skies.” Today, he wants you.
“Dark Skies” was a one-hit TV wonder that never got the chance to move beyond its freshman season on NBC. It was a densely layered alien conspiracy-driven show that had the misfortune of being on at the height of “X-Files” mania. Kicking off in 1962, it tells the story of John Loengard (Eric Close) and his girlfriend Kim Sayers (Megan Ward) as they find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into terrifying extraterrestrial encounters and labyrinthine government cover-ups. As the pilot so deftly explains, JFK was assassinated by an alien, and every episode after that sees the show purging historical events and warping nostalgia on a weekly basis. Nothing was sacred and everything was up for grabs. Dogging Loengard and Sayers every step of the way is government baddie Frank Bach (the late, great J.T. Walsh). Of course, on “Dark Skies”, who’s to say who’s bad and who’s good? The tables turn from one hour to the next.
Finally, after all these years, “Dark Skies” is available on DVD from Shout! Factory, and Zabel is dying for you to check it out. As somebody who watched the set himself, I concur. It’s great stuff. And who knows? If the set is successful enough, maybe, just maybe “Dark Skies” will return. Take it away Bryce…
Bryce Zabel: Ross! You’re with Bullz-Eye right?
Bullz-Eye: I am.
BZ: OK, let’s talk.
BE: First I want to tell you that I’d never seen “Dark Skies” until the last week and a half I guess.
BZ: Oh my gosh!
BE: Yeah, yeah and it’s weird because it’s one of those series that as a sci-fi nut I’ve been hearing about for years. To finally see it was pretty cool.
BZ: Let me tell you something Ross, you’re the guy I’ve been thinking about for 13 years, because it’s always bothered me that the only way anybody could ever see it was if they stayed home on a Saturday night – and most people I know try not to stay home on a Saturday night. It’s been so frustrating trying to get the DVD out and I’m really heartened to hear what you just said, because that’s exactly what I’ve been gunning for all this time.
BE: I watch and review a lot of TV-on-DVD and this was the most fun I’ve had doing that in months.
BZ: You know what? They did a great job with the DVD set.
BE: They did. Well you know, you can almost always count on Shout! to do something special.
BZ: Well, the other thing is I insisted from the beginning to be involved. I had all this extra stuff and I wanted to be part of the team, and make sure this thing has everything in it that I would want in it, and I have to say, they’ve done it.
BE: The real reason it’s taken so long to come out on DVD is the music rights, am I correct?
BZ: Unless you’re a conspiracy theorist you might be right. I don’t know if you’ve seen the YouTube wire-tapped phone conversation --
BE: With John Loengard? I have.
BZ: So there’s the conspiracy theory version of it – that it was suppressed all these years. I will say this, from the beginning I kept getting told [by Sony] it was the music rights, and I kept saying, “OK, if it’s the music rights, I’m willing to overcome that objection.” I went through three different DVD companies. It was always the music rights. I went to our music supervisor on “Dark Skies” and said “Here’s what we’re gonna have to do. We’re gonna have to go into an edit room and pull out every single song these people are complaining about and put in a sound-alike that we own. It won’t be perfect, but at least we’ll get the dang thing out there.” So we were prepared to do that, and literally that’s where we were this time about a year ago. And suddenly, they call back and they say, “We just talked to the legal department again and they say we have the music rights.”
BE: Oh wow.
BZ: So I’m thinking, “Well where have you been for 13 years, legal department? How could you put me through this?” I honestly don’t know how that changed.
BE: I’m glad it all worked out. It was such a ride, man. You crammed a lot into 19 episodes. I feels like it took seven years to watch, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.
BZ: That was always our intent and what was great, is the experience you just had, is something I never had, because when you’re making them, you barely get ‘em done and you’re on to the next thing. And then when they were done, well, I have some bad VHS copies of ‘em, and I never sat down and watched ‘em all at once. When we were getting ready to do the commentaries, they sent me screener copies of the DVDs and I got to do what you just did, which is to basically in about 7 to 10 days, go through the whole thing and experience sequentially what it was. I found a couple episodes I certainly wish I could have done a little bit better or had more money for, or whatever, but this is about 90-95% of what Brent Friedman and I set out to do when we first thought of it. And to do that in television, that’s pretty amazing.
BE: I loved, loved the acid trip in the final episode.
BZ: The final episode – because Brent and I knew we weren’t coming back – and they’d said to us, “We really don’t give a damn what you do, as long as you don’t go over budget.” So what Brent and I said is we’re going out and we may never come back and if we do they’re going to put us in present day, so we’re gonna have Carl Sagan, we’re gonna have Ronald Reagan, Timothy Leary, acid trips, we’re gonna show that Jim Steele was Charles Manson and Kim Sayers turned out to be Squeaky Fromme.
BE: If you want to sell this show to somebody, how do you do that, since it ends on something of a cliffhanger? Or does it?
BZ: I don’t even know that it’s a cliffhanger. What we tried to do was thread the needle. The word I would use is closure. We provided some closure, and yet we left the door wide open for a potential return, and to this day, honestly, if I could sell “Dark Skies,” I would do it again. I’d pick up from that ship, with that kid and I would carry on the story.
BE: Which brings me to my next question. Why not?
BZ: The reason I’m working so hard to promote “Dark Skies” is not that I make any money off it, because I really don’t. I’m doing it because if the DVD turns out to be a rampant success, then people would look at it again. I think it can – it has the potential to come back.
BE: It totally does! If “Family Guy” can do it, you guys can do it.
BZ: That’s true. And if you think about it…what was my train of thought here? “Family Guy” took me to a different place.
BE: I’m so, so sorry.
BZ: Oh, I know, if it became a success because people could watch it the way it was intended – where they could actually see all of the episodes and see the development. For my money, don’t watch “Falling Skies,” watch “Dark Skies.” If you want a real event, don’t go to the “The Event,” go to “Dark Skies.” If you want an alien invasion, don’t do “V,” do “Dark Skies.” I think we compare favorably to all of those, and on a one on one basis, I think we best of all of them in terms of storytelling.
BE: I think you’re better than most of those shows. I’ll tell you one of the things that I really liked about the show that something like “The Event” doesn’t have, is that even though you’ve got an arcing storyline – which people do enjoy today – up until basically the last four episodes of the season, the stories are very standalone. There’s no reason why somebody couldn’t get in on any episode of the show and pick up on what’s going on. These days shows get so convoluted, so quickly, that if you miss just one or two episodes you’re completely out of the loop and you have no idea what’s going on.
BZ: Ross, you’ve totally nailed one thing. Tell me what Episode Five of “The Event” was? And you’d go “Was that the one where they, uh…?” But if you ask someone about a “Dark Skies” episode, they’ll say “That was the one where they went to Vietnam,” or “That was the one where they did the civil rights movement.”
BE & BZ: Episode Four was The Beatles episode. [Writer’s note: Yes, we actually did say this simultaneously.]
BZ: We strove very hard to make sure there was always one thing that you could say “That was what the episode was about. That took that icon or that movement from the ‘60s and turned it on its head.” [We did this] so that they all stood alone and stood out, and then of course we had the arc of Kim’s disintegration and fall, and Loengard’s son, and in fact, on that wiretapped phone conversation, one of the lines is, “You’re beginning to sound more like Bach than Loengard.” Our thought was that Frank Bach probably didn’t start out quite as bad as he turned out to be, right? And John Loengard started out one way and would’ve begun to take on different colorations.
BE: As I watched the show, I thought, “It would be so cool if Loengard became Bach.”
BZ: That’s funny you say that. Brent and I had that conversation when we got together to do the audio commentaries. He and I stood in the parking lot and said “We need to do this storyline, and Loengard has to become Bach.” We said that out loud, and in fact, if I can get enough attention for “Dark Skies” over the DVD release, which is again why I’m working so hard on it, it would be my intention to go back and say wide-eyed innocent John Loengard has become the Bach character and has to deal with himself again. I think that would a cool, interesting turn of events.
BE: This would be the ultimate TV comeback story.
BZ: Wouldn’t it?
BE: Oh, it would be. I’m curious as to what the difference was between your initial five-year plan and this whole revamped Season Two, which I was taken aback by, where all of a sudden they’re 30 years in the future. [Writer’s note: This refers to an extra featured on the box set.] Was this some kind of network thing?
BZ: It was a desperation play. Here was the deal – and by the way, this would be the ultimate vindication if we came back and I could say “We’re not gonna do that.” – the studio told us as we were being cancelled, they set up a meeting at USA and said “Nobody thinks they can afford to do it as a period piece, so if you want us to support you, you have to put it in the present.” So basically Brent and I had a gun to our heads we said, “Look, continuing it in the present is better than killing it altogether.” Brent and I had a pretty good way to have done it. We all know that in real life these devices have some kind of time distortion element, and that’s where the missing time comes from, so it wouldn’t be ridiculous.
BE: But so much of the beauty of the show is the period setting.
BZ: Look, I can’t wait to get my hands on Watergate.
BE: Ha! On my list of questions is, “It’s a huge shame you guys didn’t get to tackle Watergate.”
BZ: Our plan for Watergate was – and I don’t want to give you too many details—
BE: Please don’t in case you get to do it.
BZ: -- the 18 and a half minute gap is Nixon talking to Haldeman and Ehrlichman about Majestic, and Nixon, rather than being the horrible, venal politician that he’s seen as, actually fell on the sword protecting the cover-up. He took the bullet for the cover-up.
BE: Oh, man. Wow. See, that would’ve been…yeah, alright, alright, yeah. [Writer’s note: Clearly I was at a loss for words at this point, but now with some time to think, I’d like to say that “Dark Skies” needs to come back for this development alone.]
BZ: If we were able to jump ahead, I would jump from the Summer of Love probably to Watergate if I had a chance to get Eric Close, ‘cause then I could maybe use his age. If not, then I think you’d jump to the Chicago Convention of ’68, and you’d wanna do Woodstock and do the moon landing. In fact, this is the thing that just kills me right now, if you look at the “Dark Skies” timeline, at least one version of it, we intended originally for our last episode of the first season to be Apollo 18 – we thought that the last Apollo mission was Apollo 17, but there was an Apollo 18 that went to the dark side of the moon to confront the Hive there. If you look in the trades right now, there are two movies about the Apollo 18 coming out, which kills me when I see it, but, what can I do?
BE: So, um…crap. I just lost my train of thought.
BZ: “Family Guy.”
BE: Heh, heh. Yeah, “Family Guy.” So, you’re a hardcore UFO junkie?
BZ: Uh, I don’t know…
BE: Is junkie not the right word?
BZ: I take it in the spirit you offer it. The truth is I’ve got a book out with Richard Dolan right now called A.D. After Disclosure and I’m writing a movie based on the life rights of Stan Friedman and Donald Schmitt called “Majic Men.” So yeah, I guess that qualifies me as being into the topic in some respects. I think I just know a good story when I find one, and I didn’t start out as a guy who was a UFO believer or junkie or anything. I started out as a guy telling as story about this, and the first movie I wrote about this was called “Official Denial” and it was on Syfy [back when it wasn’t Syfy]. I started doing research on it and I honestly believe you or anyone else who spent a year reading books on the topic would come away saying “Absolutely there’s truth here.” That doesn’t mean everything in “Dark Skies” is true, but we were able to take some of the real UFO mythology wound together with the Summer of Love and so forth. It’s a fascinating story – it’s the greatest story that’s never been told. Years from now, when we finally acknowledge that there’s some reality to this thing – I don’t know what the reality is, but there’s a reality beyond what we’re currently aware of – it’s gonna blow people’s minds. So, to that extent, yeah I guess I am passionate about it. Look, I was a CNN correspondent originally. I’ve won investigative reporting awards. I’m not just a guy who’s in love with every cock-eyed theory I hear, but the preponderance of viable evidence literally and clearly states that there’s reality here.
BE: There’s a moment on one of the commentary tracks I think where you guys talk about how the day this all comes out, we’re going to have to rewrite all of the history books.
BZ: You bet we will.
BE: That’s a pretty big idea to wrap your brain around.
BZ: Let’s me put it this way, you may not rewrite the history books, but when you read them, you’ll read them knowing there’s something else going on besides the official story. That’s the whole rationale for “Dark Skies.” Look, either this stuff is real or it’s not. But if you come down after reading the evidence with the idea that there’s a reality to UFO/ET visitation of some kind, of any kind - that any part of it is real and people in power know about it – then that means every single thing we take for granted has to be questioned.
BE: So Bryce, how do we close this? Would you like to say something to the readers of Bullz-Eye – something to get them to go out and buy the “Dark Skies” set?
BZ: This is a rewarding viewing for people and it respects their intelligence. It’s got a nice payoff. Today’s man is stretched 10,000 different ways and we have limited viewing times, but what’s great about today’s technology is that we’re not limited to watching the least objectionable program that’s on television. We can choose from everything that’s out there, and I think to a busy guy that’s got a lot on his plate, but likes sci-fi, they choose to watch this, and I’m thrilled that they can and I hope they enjoy it.You can find out more about Bryce Zabel, “Dark Skies,” and his book, A.D. After Disclosure at www.afterdisclosure.com.