CSI creator Anthony E. Zuiker introduces audiences to a new level of fear with his new "digi-novel," Level 26. It's a full-length novel, but every 25 pages or so, there's a video "bridge" which readers can view to enhance the experience. Taking a break from reading a traditional hardbound book in order to log on to a website to view three minutes of footage sounds pretty annoying, but luckily a true digital version of the book is now available for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iTunes. Reading it in a digital format allows you to seamlessly move from text to video and back again.
The storyline might make even the creators of Saw blush. A serial killer nicknamed Sqweegel has been running rampant for thirty years. The creep is a contortionist, allowing him access to crime scenes that most people can't even imagine, and he wears a full-body latex suit, making him essentially "forensic proof." Nothing is too cruel for the psychopath, whether it be filming a rape and murder for his own pleasure later on, or slaughtering a young mother in front of her child. We recently chatted with Zuiker (pictured below) about his delightfully sick, twisted mind, and asked him to explain what exactly this "digi-novel" is all about.
Where did the idea of a "digi-novel" come from?
When we shut down for the writer's strike for three months, I was able to take long walks and think about cross-platform storytelling, merging media. I wanted to encompass the best in publishing, movies, and social communities, all in one project. As our behavior has shifted due to the revolution on technology, and the consumption of our economy for content. I've been thinking about this for many, many years. Being the CSI creator, I have all this darkness floating around in my head; I have spoken to every paranoid police official, and read far too many horrible crime stories. With the digi-novel, I wanted to center on the edgy crime we see in CSI and have the option for the reader to read the book cover to cover – stand alone – or, as a digi-novel, every 25 pages you log in to the website, enter a code, and you can watch what is called a "cyber-bridge", which is a five-minute piece of motion picture that bridges you from one chapter to another.
After 20 of those in a book, we want to invite people to Level26.com to continue the experience. These are people who have read the book who want to contribute content, read my daily blogs, and just make it a 24/7, ongoing experience beyond just the book read.
The plot is quite twisted. What inspired Sqweegel?
If you are the CSI creator, why not create a forensic-proof killer? I've received so many letters and calls from law enforcement that is mad at me because they feel that CSI teaches criminals to wear gloves and booties and all that, to basically forensic-proof themselves. It got me thinking, what if there was a psychotically twisted serial killer that wears a forensic-proof body condom?
When I was in Japan, I watched a television special on the "evil scale," which is the 25 levels of evil, used by law enforcement as a barometer for killers. Level one being – hopefully not – but like the next-door neighbor; level 25 being some of the "bigger names," like John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer. Level 26 is unlocking a new level of fear with Sqweegel.
The back story with Sqweegel is that, once upon a time he was hiding in a woman's trunk, contorted into the spare tire area, and she did something bad that he didn't like. He has to get justice on people whom he believes have sinned, so we are all vulnerable. She drove through the car wash because her little daughter loves the car wash. Suddenly he snuck up to the front seat and sliced the mom all up to ribbons, but didn't touch the little girl, who is still innocent, because she is very young. When law enforcement came and interviewed the daughter, she just kept making a "sqweegel, sqweegel" noise because that was the noise the windshield wipers were making, and the name stuck.
Yes, it is very twisted, I am very twisted. It is very out there; I am very out there. But I wanted to make sure that anyone out there reading Level 26 sees it as something they can't get on television, and that is what it is designed to do.
So you are taking the story further than CBS or any network would allow?
No question about it. You see how my mind works on CSI. It's on every second of every day all around the world. This is a different level of thinking in terms of crime – it is level 26. I originally wanted it to be much darker than what it was, but we had to commercialize it just a touch because we had so much responsibility to our retailers: Wal-Mart and Costco and all that, so we had to make sure we weren't going out of bounds. I originally wanted to make it go much further than it does, and dare the readers to walk in, it is so damn scary. It's still pretty scary the way it is. Book two we are going to make much more psychological and shift focus a bit, but for book one, we put our best effort forward.
Would you consider yourself a horror fan?
I am. I am dying to see Paranormal Activity. I am in love with the campaign, I love what they did. I love the fact that Blair Witch can pop up every five years and do real business – I think that is really exciting. I am a horror fan. I don't see every horror film, but I love to be scared. Some things seem too scary to watch, but when you get the right horror film for your appetite, there is no better experience than that.
What is too scary for you?
Things like The Orphan or The Others… I see the trailers on TV and I just think, "I don't know man… that seems like a horrible two-hour ride." When I used to watch The Exorcist as a kid, I would watch it in my attic. Don't ask me why. When you are an only child living in Las Vegas, you do foolish things. I remember making popcorn and going up there when I was like eight years old to watch The Exorcist and thinking, "this is so scary!" I guess I am an action junkie, being from Las Vegas, and I think that translates over to fear junkie/horror junkie.
Can you talk a little bit about Level 26 now being an app for the iPhone and iPod Touch?
We are really proud of the app in the iTunes store. Kidding aside, reading for 25 pages, putting the book down, logging on to the website, watching the bridge, going back to the book… it's a bit clunky and I get that. But I had to put a book in the stores. To consume the book on the iTouch and the iPhone, or on the computer through iTunes, that is really what the digi-novel is all about. Everything is in the palm of your hand. You aren't breaking away; it's all right there. We are very excited for the [rumored] iTablet to come out because we think that, by book two, the iTablet will make for a really fun digi-novel experience.
Speaking as someone who checked out Level 26 on her iPhone, I have to say it felt very organic.
With the book, you either love it or hate it. But with the app, the press has been along the lines of, "Hey, the digi-novel is finally a digi-novel!" It is great that the press recognizes the genius of the idea – if there is any genius to it – is to create device-specific content. That is really what the digi-novel is for the iPhone.
It is a delicate balance, to create bridges that are worthy enough to stop your reading to enjoy something visual before going back to the book. For quick readers it is kind of a tough concept. They will fly through a book in a night, but for me, it takes me months to read a book. With the digi-novel, it's like, "I read my 25 pages – give me my chocolate!" The video bridges are my chocolate. It's a little reward for my reading.
There will always be books – that will never change. But I believe that people will want more, and this is the first step towards that.
Level 26 and CSI would both be considered "police procedurals," yet they deal in subject matter that is far darker than the typical Law & Order. Do you see your work as more horror, more procedural, or do you even draw a distinction?
Well, I am writing two dramas for CBS right now that are definitely not dark. I'm a 41 year old man with three kids – I'm definitely softening up a bit. When it comes to crime, and devious crime…. Special Circumstances at Quantico [the division featured in Level 26] is a very, very extreme division. To do a job where you have to examine a baby's crib for semen, or investigate a mobster with a pool cue impaling him from anus to mouth… those are daily jobs, every day there. It's a real division – someone has to do it – and it is fascinating to me. How do you do a job like that? So I take that, and try to write a compelling story around that. The burn-out rate, just for CSIs, is around five years, and that is a dead body here, a little decomp there, blood splatter over there… it is hard to look at because there are real people involved. But imagine the Special Circ's job… that is really, really tough. I think that and crime scene clean-up are the worst jobs in the world.
There is a lot of fetish imagery in Level 26: the bondage, the latex, the contortionism, the S&M. Is this at all an indictment on the fetish community?
No, not at all. These are just all my sexual perversions coming out in the writing. I don't live this life in real life, but I find the fetish world really fascinating. I love to go to [fetish shops and clubs] to look at all those crazy things… it's unbelievable. I fell in love with a couple of devices, like the spreader and the zapper [that we use in the Level 26 bridges]. I thought it would be fun to explore that level of sexuality. It's a very strong emotion, and mixed with a level 26 murderer, it is a very strong combination, but it was never meant as an indictment on the fetish community.
How did you go about casting the role of Sqweegel? How does one go about casting a contortionist nowadays?
Luckily I cast Daniel Browning Smith in CSI: New York season one. He played a circus performer who could fit in a box. When he came in to audition, he would bring in his box, and do it right there. And that was pretty much it – end of audition, you're hired! I forgot about him, so when I was casting Level 26 I brought all these young guys in that were 5'6", and they couldn't take physical direction. They couldn't move slowly, or contort their body. They couldn't do the physicality of what Sqweegel had to do. It's not CGI; the actor had to actually do it. Then I remember Daniel, so I called him and he did a few moves in my office. He kind of got it, but when he put on the Sqweegel suit – the $3000 latex suit – he became the villain. On the third or fourth day of shooting we do a scene where he walks down the hallway bent backwards on all fours, like a triple-jointed turtle. It is the scariest thing you have ever seen and every woman who saw that ran from the set. They went downstairs, never came back up. It was so funny, because every time he would twist his body, the latex would go [makes an indescribable and bizarre squeaking/shushing/rubbing sound] – it was so crazy.
We have been talking internally about a movie, maybe, possibly, some time in the future. I think that would be a lot of fun to do the motion picture version of Level 26, with a real crew and real movie. For the bridges, we only had like five people on the crew, and we shot it in 10 days for $100,000. Everything was on a shoestring; we only had one camera.
Are you working on anything else besides the 47 CSIs that are currently on air?
We haven't made an official announcement, but we sold a couple dramas to CBS, so I am writing one of those right now, and overseeing the other. That might become official in a couple weeks. We are also working on book two. My company, Dare to Pass, is taking pitches year-round for development. I have tip-toed off the CSI franchise, creatively, but I am thinking ahead to the next CSI-type crime drama.