Seven Questions for CSI Creator Anthony Zuiker

The former Las Vegan on how to tell great stories, the appeal of forensics and what he watches when he’s not writing

Photo by Monty Brinton/CBS

Photo by Monty Brinton/CBS

You’ve been celebrated as a storyteller who changes the way viewers expect stories to unfold. How do you do that?

I try to tell stories that haven’t really been told before, on top of striving to reinvent the medium as much as possible. How do I take television and reinvent it, how do I reinvent animation, how do I mix mediums to tell stories, mixing Silicon Valley with Hollywood? Those are the challenges that excite me about the future of storytelling, rather than just telling the best conventional story possible.

What are the fundamentals of a compelling story, whatever the format?

It starts with really great writing. We make sure the characters have distinct personalities, specific skill sets, that their dynamic is interesting, that the arc has somewhere to go, and once all those are accomplished and we know we’re writing for the audience, versus writing for ourselves, that’s when we feel like we have the most success.

What about forensics got under your skin?

It’s funny, you’d think I’d be more into forensics after my father shot himself. But I was actually into forensics before that. It’s part of my gaming mind. At the age of 13, I invented 527 different sports games with dice, cards and a game board, and I just took that philosophically into television. The interpretation of evidence is fascinating, the pathology of criminals is fascinating, and in CSI: Cyber, behavior is what’s going to be fascinating.

What’s been the CSI effect on jurisprudence?

The CSI effect is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that the jurors and laymen have a better understanding about what forensics is, so they can’t be bamboozled by swift-talking lawyers. The curse is that sometimes people think life is a TV show—it’s not. You can’t just push a button and find the killer. All in all, I think CSI is a pretty darn good public service announcement that there are ways to [catch criminals], and that it’s more of a deterrent.

Has the way viewers engaged with CSI influenced your interactive projects?

Of course the writing for CSI had a level of interactivity, but it’s not really very interactive at all, because you’re still on the couch and watching a television show. But having three children —14, 11 and 7, all boys—the future of storytelling will have to be interactive. We have been re-hardwired to have a level of engagement based on our behavior and the communication aspects of how we live, and therefore we have to implement that behavioral shift into the daily lives of how we tell stories. There will always be the static television show and movie, where you just sit back, but I think we will all be striving for interactivity, where you are being transported by a great story, and you are—for lack of another word— “in it.”

Your web series Cybergeddon was groundbreaking. How did the online medium influence how you put that story together?

The philosophy behind Cybergeddon was to do snack-size chapters of a motion picture, nine or 10 chapters to be consumed in 10-minute scenarios that can go viral and achieve as much scale as possible. It’s ambitious, and it’s inexpensive, based on other motion pictures. Nobody is used to consuming original programming motion pictures on the Internet. Ten years from now, we will have a conversation again to where they are making original motion pictures of that caliber for $1 million and streaming it all over the world and making hundreds of millions of dollars on a $1 million investment. That will probably be the model going forward. This was the first attempt at doing that.

Do you ever turn off the creative part of your mind?

If you’re me, you are working all the time. I try to take a writer’s and creator’s standpoint on every single thing that I do in life. So if I’m at the grocery store, I’m watching, I’m learning, I’m listening to how people talk, to how they behave, how they react. What’s in the women’s carts? Why is that guy playing the lottery?

One thing I have found when I’ve taught or when I speak at universities is kids in writing classes don’t ask questions. It’s fun for a guy like me to talk to kids like that, because I’m 46 not 86, I’m not hoity-toity at all, I come from Vegas, you wouldn’t recognize me on the street. And then when they see me talk like this and approach writing like this, they get very inspired.

What do you watch when you aren’t working?

Downton Abbey is the only scripted thing I watch; So You Think You Can Dance; Hell’s Kitchen; and The Hunt With John Walsh. And I also watch any sort of Investigation Discovery stuff. That’s pretty much all. And the Food Channel at night.

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