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24 May 2006 @ 08:31 pm
Diary of a Night Stalker  
This was in the Sept. 30, 2005 issue of Entertainment Weekly magazine.

Diary of a Night Stalker
Former 'X-Files' executive producer Frank Spotnitz chronicles
his efforts to resurrect a 1970s TV cult horror classic for ABC
by Frank Spotnitz

July 15, 2004
Having coffee with my wife, Melissa, when my cell phone rings. It's Mark Pedowitz, president of Touchstone Television. Reception is poor, but the words ''The Night Stalker'' cut right through the static. Mark, a longtime science fiction fan, wants to know if I'd be interested in doing a new series based on the 32-year-old TV movie.

Would I be interested? As a child, I watched endless hours of television — Star Trek, The Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible — but nothing struck me as deeply as The Night Stalker, which aired as an ABC Movie of the Week on Jan. 11, 1972. It was about a down-and-out newspaper reporter, Carl Kolchak, who comes upon the story of his life when cocktail waitresses start turning up exsanguinated, apparent victims of a real-life vampire. The show scared the crap out of me — and I wasn't alone: It was the highest-rated TV movie of all time (up to that point), grabbing 48 percent of the viewing audience.

Not surprisingly, ABC broadcast a sequel, The Night Strangler, which transplanted Kolchak to Seattle in pursuit of a serial killer who couldn't die. I loved every second of it, as I did Kolchak: The Night Stalker, the TV series that followed in 1974. Although the show wasn't half as good as the movies, it had one very big thing going for it: Darren McGavin.

McGavin, by that time a veteran character actor in his 50s, was unforgettable as Kolchak. Funny and charming, sporting a straw hat and seersucker suit, he was always sticking his tape recorder into places it didn't belong — a perpetual irritant to anyone in a position of authority, most especially his long-suffering editor, Tony Vincenzo, played by the late, great Simon Oakland.

But neither McGavin nor the viewing public was enamored of the series, and by the time the 20th episode aired, the network granted McGavin's pleas to cancel it.

It made sense Pedowitz would think of me to take another crack at it — Chris Carter, my friend and collaborator, cited The Night Stalker as his prime inspiration for creating The X-Files. I was an exec producer of that show, writing on it for eight years. And the similarities between the two were undeniable. But much as I loved Night Stalker, I wasn't eager to put in 80-hour weeks over the next eight years telling the same kind of stories. I said I'd think about it.


July 16
Woke up thinking about Night Stalker. Pedowitz probably doesn't know this, but I liked The Night Stalker so much I wrote McGavin into The X-Files as an FBI agent who discovered those unsolved cases before Agent Mulder was born.

July 28
My agent called. Touchstone is prepared to make a deal for me to develop a new Night Stalker. I say I'll mull it over, but I'm leaning against it. Truth is, for the past few years I've had a nice career writing movies — an action thriller about World War III for Revolution Studios, a remake of The Star Chamber for 20th Century Fox, and an adaptation of a novel for Paramount I'm working on with Chris Carter.

August 2
For the hell of it, I put the original two TV movies into my DVD player. They're a little dated: Production values were not what they are today, and there was a reliance on zoom lenses that has (thankfully) gone out of fashion. But so much of it still plays: McGavin's neo-film noir voice-overs, his jauntiness in the face of doom. Even the scares, tame by today's standards, still entertain.

August 7
Thinking more about Night Stalker. Comparisons be damned. This is a chance to do good work.

August 22
Negotiations continue. We're getting close.

September 1
My agent and my lawyer call: The deal's done.

September 2
Pedowitz calls to congratulate me. One problem: I have no idea how to update the show. As much as I liked the first TV series, it clearly was not a success. But why?

September 7
Still don't know what I'm going to do. But surely Kolchak's not Kolchak unless he's still got McGavin's straw hat and seersucker suit.

September 8
Thinking some more. Darren McGavin was in his early 50s when he played the role. Who could play Kolchak today? Ted Danson? Ed O'Neill? John C. Reilly?

September 11
Still stuck. All I know is this: No way can Kolchak wear a straw hat and seersucker suit.

September 15
I have a great idea. Kolchak is a TV personality, a Bill O'Reilly type disgraced by his newfound interest in the supernatural. It'll be scary — and funny. I outline the whole thing.

September 22
Meet with Touchstone and tell them my idea. They think it's interesting. If only I could get Bill O'Reilly to play him...

October 6
Pitch Night Stalker to Steve McPherson, the new president of ABC, who's riding high on the network's new hits, Desperate Housewives and Lost. Expectations are high: I'm expected to deliver a new hit to maintain ABC's momentum. McPherson listens carefully — he seems smart, intense, but he doesn't say much. I finish my pitch, and he nods. No notes.

October 8
The network calls. McPherson likes it, except the Bill O'Reilly part. Which is fine. Except now...I have nothing.

October 9
McPherson is right — what was I thinking? Kolchak as a Bill O'Reilly type?! Forget delivering a hit show — how about no show?

October 10-11
Touchstone calls. My agent calls. They all wonder politely when I'll be ready. Any day now, I assure them.

October 13
I do an interview for a story that'll appear tomorrow in Daily Variety, announcing I'm doing a Night Stalker remake. The reporter asks how the new show will differ from the original. I say this version is not going to be ''religiously faithful.'' Now if only I knew what this version was...

October 14
I wake up inspired. That quote I gave to Variety has liberated my imagination. Forget nostalgia. The world has changed a lot in 30 years. Honor the show by bringing it new life.

October 15
Lots of ideas coming. Fast. The new Kolchak is still a newspaper reporter, but he should be younger, a guy with his future ahead of him. And there needs to be a logic to how he finds these stories every week and why they don't end up in the paper. Just as important, he needs a rich emotional life — some personal connection to these stories that drives him.

November 1
Repitch the idea to ABC. They really like it. So do I.

November 2
I start writing the script. One line of dialogue I particularly like: Kolchak has to enter his house, where a supernatural threat may well be waiting. He's a writer, so the only weapon he finds to defend himself is...a pen. ''Mightier than the sword,'' he says.

December 3
Turn in the script to Touchstone. Even Melissa likes it, and she's my toughest critic.

December 10
Touchstone likes it.

December 17
ABC likes it.

January 4, 2005
ABC executives return from vacation. Word comes that they have ordered two drama pilots. Night Stalker isn't one of them.

January 7
I get some notes from the network. Instead of Kolchak describing the strange phenomena he's encountering, we should actually see what he's talking about. They're smart notes, thank God. Nothing too difficult to address. So why haven't they picked up the show already?

January 10
I turn in my revised, revised, revised draft.

January 11
ABC orders more pilots. Not mine. Crap.

January 12
Still nothing. This is bad.

January 13
My agent calls. ABC is ordering the last of its drama pilots tomorrow.

January 14, 5 p.m.
The day's ending and I haven't heard a thing. Bad. Very bad.

January 14, 5:50 p.m.
I pack up my briefcase. Waiting for the phone to ring. It doesn't.

January 14, 5:52 p.m.
I walk toward the door. Slowly. The phone rings. Jana, my development exec, picks up. It's my agent, who says a call is coming from the network. While he's talking, the other line rings. I pick it up, and two high-ranking ABC executives say ''Congratulations!'' They're ordering the pilot.

January 18
With the pilot greenlit, I start work with my producer, Michelle MacLaren, and director, Dan Sackheim. We've collaborated before, so there's an instant shorthand, which is going to come in handy. In the next six weeks, we have to hire all the creative personnel — from director of photography to property master to costume designer — and come up with a budget Touchstone will accept.

January 25
We have a casting ''concept meeting'' with ABC and Touchstone. A lot of interesting names are mentioned, although none seem like good choices for Kolchak or the new lead character I've invented, a reporter named Perri Reed. There is one actress I'd love to work with, Gabrielle Union. The network has been high on her for some time, and I can see why. She's beautiful, intelligent, and quick-witted — an essential combination when you're looking for someone who can believably play a newspaper reporter. But word is she's only interested in sitcoms.

February 10
Casting has been going on for three weeks, and we've seen close to 100 actors for Kolchak and Reed. There are some fine candidates, but none of them seem like the right choice.

February 11
We are supposed to bring our top choices for the lead characters to a meeting with McPherson. We stall.

February 14
Surprise. Somehow, someone got a copy of the script to Gabrielle Union — and she likes it. We ask for a meeting as soon as possible.

February 16
Meet with Gabrielle Union. We are working out of shabby production offices near the Burbank airport that no one can ever find, but she's on time. We talk for nearly an hour. And when she leaves the room, I have no doubt who I want to play Reed.

February 18
Bad news. Several other shows are making offers to Gabrielle — mostly sitcoms.

February 22
Hallelujah! After a week of back-and-forth, the deal with Gabrielle closes. But who will play Kolchak? We have less than two weeks to find our man.

February 25
Ten days before filming. I have to find a Kolchak. I review my old casting notes — listing virtually every working leading man of a certain age in Hollywood. They're either actors we've read and passed on, actors who've passed on us, actors who aren't available, or actors who aren't interested in doing TV. Under this last category, I see the name Stuart Townsend. I've liked his work for some time, and I remember how good he was as Dorian Gray in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Townsend and I share the same agency. I call to find out whether there is any chance he'd consider TV. As it turns out, he has actually read a few pilot scripts this season, but he turned down everything. I tell them to please send him my script and ask if he could read it right away.

February 25, 5:30 p.m.
Townsend, incredibly, reads my script right away. And he likes it.

February 26
From the moment Townsend walks into our meeting, we're comfortable with him. He seems grounded, genuine. We talk for an hour. He's never seen the original Night Stalker, but he likes The X-Files and, being an Irishman, professes a natural interest in the subject matter. My spirits are high until I drop the bomb: The pilot begins shooting in nine days. Townsend has other plans. Will he cancel them so he can sign up for a pilot that could take over his life for who-knows-how-many years? It's a huge decision. And he has 48 hours to decide.

March 1
Stuart's agent calls. He's going to do it.

March 4
Strangely, it's the Friday before filming and this is the first time I'm going to hear Stuart and Gabrielle read their lines. We meet in a conference room at a Ramada Inn so that we'll have peace and quiet. As it turns out, someone has goofed, and this ''conference room'' only has an accordion divider between it and the bar next door, where a huge sales conference is in progress. I can barely hear Stuart and Gabrielle read. It doesn't matter. They're great.

March 7
We start shooting.

March 24
We finish shooting.

April 2
First cut of the pilot. It's 60 minutes long. That's a problem. Running time has to be 43 minutes.

April 5
Getting the time out. Remember my favorite line from the script? ''Mightier than the sword.'' It's on the cutting-room floor.

May 4
We deliver the pilot to the network.

May 13
Meeting with Touchstone executives to discuss the proposed episodic budget for the series. If we don't get a pickup, the meeting will have been academic. The Touchstone guys are collegial, but meetings about money inevitably become tense. We're interrupted by a phone call — for me.

It's Steve McPherson and his team on a speakerphone. ''Congratulations!'' I feel relief — and disbelief. Night Stalker has been ordered. I think of all the other producers getting less happy calls from the network today. I feel bad for them but grateful to be one of the few still standing. ''I guess we have to finish this meeting,'' one of the execs says.

May 16
I arrive in New York City for the ''upfronts,'' the networks' annual sales presentations to Madison Avenue, trumpeting their new fall lineups. Inviting me here seems like a formality — there's nothing for me to do other than go to parties. In the afternoon, all the celebration is tempered by word that our time slot's been decided: Thursdays at 9 p.m. Unfortunately, our competition is CSI, the top-rated drama on television. That's what some people in this business call a ''death slot.''

But there is a bright side, even to this discouraging news: When you're up against CSI, no one expects you to win. All you have to do is make a showing, and I feel confident Night Stalker can do that. What's more, I feel our series will benefit from a slot where it doesn't have to be an instant hit, as The X-Files did when it aired on Fridays for its first three years.

May 17
ABC holds its presentation at Lincoln Center. After touting the network's successes of the past season, McPherson unveils the new one-hour dramas. My name comes up on the big screen: ''From Frank Spotnitz, executive producer of The X-Files.'' It doesn't feel real.

May 18
Flying home. After nearly a year of obsessing about Night Stalker, I actually get to make the show. I haven't seen the in-flight movie, but I skip it and take out my laptop. Have to figure out how to get that pen/sword line into episode 2.


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