"We're a huge car society so people like to tune in for cars," says Gary Scott Thompson, the executive producer/writer behind the new incarnation of the classic '80s series, "Knight Rider." After the highly rated two-hour movie aired this past spring, it was a no-brainer that NBC would find a spot for a weekly series on its schedule. Thompson, along with stars Justin Bruening and Deanna Russo, talked to our Jim Halterman during their lunch break about the new and improved "Knight Rider."
The actors confided that they weren't nervous about the series coming to life after the movie. Russo, who plays Sarah Graiman, the daughter of KITT's creator, said that "Justin and I... just kept working on the show from when we shot the two-hour pilot and then we were [busy] promoting it. And then we immediately started training into the series, even before we knew officially. We just wanted to be prepared." Russo also added, "We just enjoyed our characters so much that... we didn't want to leave [them] behind just yet." Bruening, who plays Mike Traceur, the son of David Hasselhoff's character, Michael Knight, shared, "I think deep down we had all confidence that it was going to go to series."
In shaping the series, Thompson and his writing staff found themselves not necessarily wanting to model the series after the two-hour movie. Thompson explained, "We went back to the original series to look at what made that work. We went through the pilot and... we don't want to disappoint some of the fans of the two-hour so we have four characters coming from that. We made sure that those four characters clicked into what the new mythology was for the series. Again, it's 25 years later so we have to update the car, update the people and be in touch with the times."
And what about bringing back Michael Knight himself? Hasselhoff, currently one of the judges on NBC's "America's Got Talent," had a cameo in the movie when it was revealed that he was the father of Bruening's character. Will viewers see "the Hoff" pop up in the series? Thompson, wanting to keep some story elements under wraps, would only reveal, "I have spoken to David [about returning] and David and NBC, and myself, we're discussing."
Thompson shared that being at the helm of another potentially long-running series was not necessarily in his career design after creating/executive producing "Las Vegas" over the course of its five-year run. "I have a lot of features that I still have on hold that I put on hold five years ago. So, it was not really my intention... NBC sort of handed me the show and said do you want to do this? Do you think you can make this work? And I looked at is as a big challenge. And the other thing was I started thinking about it and once I started thinking about it I couldn't turn it off. And that's usually a reason why to jump into something because if I'm staying awake obsessing about it, then there's probably a good reason for me to be doing it."
Giving the characters additional backstory and depth appealed to series star Bruening. While the original "Knight Rider" had Hasselhoff's character primarily chased bad guys and romanced babes, Bruening shared that "one of the new mythologies and one of the storylines to the series is actually Mike's past. He was in [the] war [and] he doesn't remember a few years of his life. There are things that come up from his past throughout the series, people that necessarily want to kill him or his loved ones and that really affects the missions [and] everyone's relationship with him." Bruening also revealed, "the things that he does remember are not good and the things that he doesn't are probably far worse. So there are... a lot of elements and it makes the character a lot more complex."
Besides having a romantic past with Mike, Russo's Sarah Graiman possesses automotive skills taught to her by her father, which makes her much more than a damsel in distress in the scheme of the series. Russo explained that Sarah "definitely has mechanic tendencies and I think she's just trying to prove herself as one of the boys. So she's been trained to fight but winds up getting in trouble and has to be saved a couple times. But then, in turn, there's a couple times when Mike gets in trouble and she has to save him. So it's tit for tat, perhaps."
Having film actors like Bruce Davison (Sarah's father) and Val Kilmer (who voices KITT) is "great [for] a writer," Thompson beamed. "Bruce is great because he knows � and Val as well � that there's a lot of explanations to be done and that they can do it because they're pros and know how to deliver that information so it doesn't just sound expository."
As the voice of KITT, Kilmer has the challenge of being heard and not seen. Thompson sang Kilmer's praises for his acting when he said, "the great thing about Val is he has such a voice that he can sort of, you know, get in this character of KITT and he's able to go all the directions that we ask him because KITT is learning from one point to another point." Kilmer also has made some interesting speaking choices for his four-wheeled character, Thompson added. "[Val] doesn't speak with contractions. He doesn't do anything like that. And Val's really embraced the idea [that] on a weekly basis he starts to learn something more and in learning he actually imparts much more wisdom in some strange way than our humans do."
KITT also has updated abilities that he didn't possess in the original series. Thompson mentioned that "KITT can transform from one vehicle to another [and] he has more advanced weaponry." Bruening, who spends much time behind KITT's wheel, added that KITT's "windshield is now a heads up display which interacts fully with our headquarters, the SSC." Thompson chimed in and further explained that, "we have a headquarters which we affectionately call the KITT Cave which is Satellite Surveillance Chamber, which is part of Knight Research and Development. And that's our main base of operation [where] we can track and follow the car anywhere in the world via a co-opted satellite."
Thompson also pointed out that KITT's journey mirrors that of a teenager with growing pains. "It's a developmental process through the course of the first season. The idea is going from as if a child would go from, say, sixth grade all the way through college. So it's the idea of training him and making him learn or having him learn." Thompson also teased that the Halloween episode that is currently being shot finds KITT going through some terrible teen rebellion. "He's a little defiant," Thompson offered.
Finally, in updating the series, Thompson and his crew will be employing more state-of-the-art special effects. "There's real driving and then, because the car is transforming we need to do that with CGI. Also, it's just not cost effective, nor can we close down freeways, to drive 300 miles an hour. Trying to drive fast in the state of California is a little prohibitive. So we have to do green screen for a lot of these shots. But we're out doing stunts in highways that we can control."
"Knight Rider" premieres tonight on NBC at 8:00/7:00c.