Michael Piller

Posted: June 10, 2002
Here is an interview I did with Michael Piller who is the writer/executive producer and creator of the new TV series The Dead Zone.

Piller's credits as a writer-producer include the series Simon & Simon, Cagney & Lacey, Miami Vice, Probe, and Hard Time on Planet Earth. He is also known to television viewers around the world as the executive producer/co-creator of more than 500 hours of Star Trek. In 1998, he wrote and co-produced Star Trek: Insurrection, the ninth installment in the enormously successful Star Trek feature film franchise for Paramount Pictures.

Previously, Piller served as executive producer & head writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1989-1994). He also co-created and executive produced Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1992-1999) and Star Trek: Voyager (1994-2001). During the 1994-95 television season, Piller also co-created and executive produced the UPN series Legend.

More info about Michael Piller can be found at

Lilja: Why was it The Dead Zone (of all Stephen King books) that you chose to turn into a series? Was it your decision or the networks?

Michael Piller: The network bought the series from a pitch by producer Lloyd Segan and then they hired me. I was attracted to the project after I read the book. I felt it would give me an opportunity to explore the world we live in through Johnny Smith's eyes.

Lilja: After watching the pilot I must say that I'm positively surprised. The show looks really professional (not that it shouldn't) and the parts where Johnny has his visions are really well done. Was it a big problem for you to come up with ideas on how to do the look of Johnny's visions? I guess you had some to choose from, right?

Michael Piller: First of all, director Rob Lieberman deserves enormous credit for what you see in the pilot. As far as ideas, I can only say that I try to watch the movie as a write it and try to see what I would like to see as a viewer - and ideas come (or not sometimes.)

Lilja: I also noticed that there are some additional characters in the series that aren't in King's book. I'm thinking of Bruce Lewis (played by John L. Adams) and Reverend Gene Purdy (played by David Ogden Stiers). How did you come up with these characters and why was it them that was given a bigger part in the series?

Michael Piller: Bruce was created because the network and studios felt that Johnny needed someone to talk to, to express his intimate thoughts to, besides Sarah. John Adams has turned what was originally envisioned as a small role into a major regular - there's real chemistry between the two guys as you'll see.

Purdy was my son Shawn's idea. He felt we needed an antagonist in the series to provide conflict for Johnny. I wanted to continue to explore the spiritual themes in the novel but in a contemporary way. Purdy allows us to do that. He's a mutli-faceted character, however, not your typical moustache twirling villain.

Lilja: I also think that you did a great job with the casting of the show. I especially like Anthony Michael Hall as Johnny but both Nicole deBoer (as Sarah Bannerman) and Chris Bruno (as Walt Bannerman) are great. Who did the casting? I guess you must have been nervous in casting Johnny's role since Christopher Walken did such a great work in the movie version.

Michael Piller: Casting Johnny was our first and most important challenge for the very reason you point out - we had to find someone who could fill Chris Walken's shoes. Because of Walken, I didn't want to cast a leading man type in the role. I wanted someone off center. When I saw Michael Hall as Bill Gates in "Pirates of Silicon Valley", I knew he was our guy. He was my first choice for the role.

Ellie Kanner cast our pilot.

Lilja: In the pilot the King-feeling is present but as a Stephen King fan I'm a bit worried that King's feeling will get lost (as it does in so many of the adaptations of his work). How are you planning to keep the King feeling in the series?

Michael Piller: If you know my work on Star Trek, you know I was committed to executing Gene Roddenberry's vision. I figured if the Trek franchise had been that successful for so long, he must know something. (Many writers had problems with Gene's vision of the future.) We're bringing the same reverence to Stephen King's vision. Obviously, we have to create our own stories but they will be influenced heavily by the characters in the book and be in the tradition of King's work (all of his work, not just the horrific pieces). I don't think Stephen King will be disappointed if and when he watches. Neither will you.

Lilja: How are you going to keep the show interesting? Not that I doubt that you can but there is also the risk that all episodes will begin to look the same. I suspect that you must have hade many discussions on how to avoid this, right?

Michael Piller: In fact, it's turning out to be quite the opposite - much to the consternation of some people at our network who want to know exactly what the series "is" (i.e., what's our formula?) I don't like formulas and the show is different every week. A murder mystery in week two. A medical mystery in week three. A time travel show (in Johnny's mind), an alternate reality show, Johnny on trial as a witch, Johnny under the influence of mind altering drugs... every episode is different, tied together by Johnny Smith's journey toward his new destiny.

Lilja: Are there different writers, directors and producer for each episode or is it the same throughout the entire first season?

Michael Piller: We have a staff of writers but many of the first season episodes were written by either myself and Shawn or free-lancers. Different directors come in each week but Rob Lieberman has stayed with the series and directed the most episodes.

Lilja: Finally, can you give us some insight to what we can expect in the weeks to come? Can you reveal any plotlines?

Michael Piller: Think I've answered that one. Thanks for watching!