Interview: Jim Pierson
Marketing Director and 2004 Pilot Associate Producer
 

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Jim Pierson is responsible for the ongoing marketing and merchandise strategies for Dark Shadows. In 2004 he served as Associate Producer on the unsuccessful Dark Shadows pilot and offers an insider's view of the project's shortcomings, along with plans for the future...

When we spoke for the site back in 2003, you seemed a little pessimistic about the chances of a new Dark Shadows project…
I'm horrified to hear I was pessimistic!

Let's say you thought a new project was a long shot.
Okay, well there wasn't really anything brewing at the time - that was before the Wells thing came out of nowhere.

Indeed. As it's not really been discussed in detail anywhere else, let's talk about how the John Wells connection was made.
There's a guy who works for John Wells who loves Dark Shadows. John Wells, of course, is very powerful, one of the top television producers at the moment with E.R. and The West Wing. He has a big development deal with Warner Brothers, and so this colleague of his is a big fan - he's been to a Dark Shadows Festival - and made his case for Dark Shadows. Wells' company then approached Dan Curtis Productions about trying to do something with Dark Shadows. There had also been some interest around the same time from some other entities - there's almost always somebody wanting to do Dark Shadows. Dan is very protective and cautious - he won't just farm it out - so that automatically rules out a good percentage of proposals. The Wells thing took a fast track, it seemed an ideal arrangement, and The WB Network expressed interest as a broadcaster.

The first thing was to bring in a writer that was approved, and Mark Verheiden of Smallville was recruited, because he was a fan too. We're fortunate that there are a few fans within the profession's ranks. So Dan started hashing things out with Mark and after a couple of months, the script was done and got the go-ahead. So by then the pilot season - which is horrendous, a terribly antiquated process - was approaching in January. Everyone in the business is suddenly trying to get a cast and crew for their show, and it's dreadful because the clock is ticking and virtually everyone on your list is being wooed by someone else.

Dan's never collaborated for Dark Shadows before - what changed his mind?
That's an interesting point. Dan respected John Wells and knows he has a great pedigree. And the fact that there was a passion in the ranks also helped and the timing was good, too. Dan has another couple of things happening - he's directing a new Showtime feature and he's got another movie coming up after that. So the combination of still having creative control and a solid foundation to work with made it a good opportunity, along with the assurances that he could have the control that he's used to.

So, as of now, where does the project stand?
Now that the pilot has been made and turned down by the WB, there is still a relationship with John Wells and there is still interest in revisiting it, but there's really been no firm decision made on where we'd go next. Dan's tied up and Wells is busy, but we do hope to see if we can still get a series out of it, maybe a feature film.

The pilot had a very public post mortem when The WB's Garth Ancier panned it during a press conference…
Yeah. Fortunately we do have a few TV critics who are fervent supporters of Dark Shadows, who've seen it and did a good job of trying to push the project.

Ancier seemed to very squarely blame director P.J. Hogan for the project's failure. Was that a fair assessment?
Unfortunately we did not end up with the director Dan wanted. Everyone agrees now that P.J Hogan did not deliver what was expected and hiring him was simply a mistake. You have writing, cast and director - those are the big things. Everyone agrees that the script was strong. The casting we had concerns with - no one was completely satisfied with all of the actors, but the expectation was that we could recast, so no big problem there. So you come down to a conflict with the direction.

Rob Bowman, who directed two episodes of the 1991 Dark Shadows, was our original choice. When Dan passed on the baton of director's chores in 1991, he wanted guys he really felt respected his vision and Dan was particularly pleased with Bowman. He wasn't satisfied with all the 1991 directors, but he liked Bowman who went on to do The X-Files. So Rob was an immediate choice for the WB pilot. He went on the first location visit up at the Greystone Mansion - he was eyeing it and getting some pretty good vibes, a lot of memories from 1991 too.

Then unfortunately Rob got a feature film deal [for Elektra] and backed out, fate stepped in and the network liked and suggested P.J. Hogan. P.J. had most recently done Peter Pan - which I haven't seen - but it is what it is, and Dark Shadows is what it is, and he took a highly stylised visual approach. Along with the overall look, some of the characterisation was a little off-centre. He used a lot of red light and he didn't do the foggy diffused look that Dan likes. Instead he went with a lot of red. I don't know really what to say - it's just very red! There was one scene in particular - the very last sequence - which didn't really work. I think it ruined a great deal of the impact, because it's the last thing you see. P.J. did his own thing and it really wasn't what the rest of us wanted.

Do you think this experience would affect how any future Dark Shadows project is approached?
Any time you put your faith in something which is betrayed, it is going to make you more cautious, and I know Dan Curtis is very disappointed this thing didn't work out. He still wants Dark Shadows to be properly reborn, but doing commercial television nowadays is just very restrictive overall. This Dark Shadows pilot is a textbook example of a sure thing gone sour. It shows how the wrong guy navigating the ship can just sink it. P.J. Hogan just did not have the right feel for this material. He was a feature guy who brought some style and whimsy to it which was really not faithful to the Dark Shadows formula. I think a lot of the actors did a good job in rising above that misdirection, but there are a couple of scenes which really got royally misguided.

What did you make of the new cast?
The key to Dark Shadows really is Barnabas, Vicki, Willie and Julia - those are really the core characters, the ones that are do or die. I think that Alec Newman as Barnabas and Marley Shelton as Victoria had a great chemistry. I think Marley had that doe-eyed innocence, but she also had a strength to her. She probably reminded me more of Joanna Going than Alexandra Moltke. Alexandra always seemed like such a virginal innocent, whereas Joanna had a little more backbone, as did Marley.

Alec Newman had that same formal eloquence. He had a little more youth, but of course he was ten years younger than the other guys to play Barnabas. He also had something we referred to as 'Blue Collar Barnabas'. A little less polished, but he came across as a strong actor. There was a feeling at the network that he wasn't enough of a soap stud, but I don't think that The WB completely understood the appeal of the show or the essence of the character. But on the plus side, I think the chemistry was good between our two leads.

For Willie, we had Matt Czuchry. He's a very nice guy and he loved meeting John Karlen on the set and had a good time. I think he's a good actor and Karlen liked him - Johnny's hard to please, he can really sum up an actor. I think there were a couple of scenes where Willie just got a little too silly, but I'd blame the director for that. Everyone agreed that Willie should be a little more down to earth than in 1991. Jim Fyfe is a great comedic actor, but with him Willie was really too much of a court jester. So Matt was a real asset.

Julia didn't really appear in the pilot much, so you didn't get a feeling for her. Kelly Hu was a sweet gal and had a couple of scenes, but really there wasn't enough to tell, so the jury was out on that. I think we had a really good Barnabas, Vicki and Willie. Of the remaining cast, Martin Donovan made a great stuffy, aristocratic Roger. He only had a couple of introductory scenes, so he didn't really have enough space to flesh it out.

I really liked Alexander Gould, the little kid who played David - he was a really spunky little guy. He'd be sitting there between takes reading his Harry Potter book, just a perfect little boy. He had a great time. You did worry that he'd end up some disturbed adolescent with some of the stuff he was doing in the pilot! The girl who was playing Angelique, Ivana Milicevic, was really excited with her role. She only had a couple of small things in the pilot, but I think she was going to work out.

Willie seemed to be upgraded to pin-up status too!
Yeah, Willie was made younger, and he and Joe were our two heartthrobs. We had Jason Shaw play Joe, who I think was a model for Calvin Klein. He'd not done much acting and didn't have much to do in the pilot, but he seemed quite natural.

So what were the main differences between this and the 1991 pilot?
This pilot moved very fast, unlike the slower 1991 opening. We cut down the characters for the one-hour format - Maggie and Sam were taken out of an earlier draft. It certainly moved very fast and you stayed busy with it. Our set designer Kurt [M. Petruccelli] did a nice job of reinventing Greystone. You didn't think of the 1991 interiors at all, so it was a total transformation. We also did some digital work on the exterior which gave the outside a different feel from before.

Presumably there was a lot more technology available this time?
Yeah, over the last 13 years there have been so many advancements in digital effects. We did a lot of green screen work. The train in the opening sequence was just an interior set for the cabin, with everything else green-screened in afterwards. The Old House didn't even exist - we just had little Alexander running out in Canyon Country, in the woods with a big green screen, onto which we matted in the exterior of the house. It was very 21st Century in that respect.

Onto 2004's other new Dark Shadows production. The Return to Collinwood play has just come out on CD…
I'm happy with that. The actors had a lot of fun and with all the original music, it's just like the Dark Shadows fans remember. We haven't really mapped out any other stories yet. The writer Jamison [Selby] has been busy doing a lot of stuff, and so have I, so it's taken a year to get the thing out. At the moment, the plan is to let it incubate for a while and then look to see if we can do something else in 2005, or maybe for the 40th Anniversary in 2006.

What else is happening on the merchandise front?
Well I'm always interested to find new ideas for merchandise. With this WB Dark Shadows project we'd been talking about doing some comics. As you know, the comic book market is very driven by teenage boys, and the idea was to do something with the new Dark Shadows to go into that market. We do have a new novel coming soon, though, which Lara Parker is working on.

Majestic Studios, who are doing the new action figures, are making a Barnabas and a Quentin, along with busts of those characters as well. If the response to their stuff is good, they hope to do some other things. It's the whole trickle effect thing - if those do well, we might be able to get some other companies doing stuff too. MPI Home Video is equipped to do merchandise to tie in with the DVDs too. It'd be nice maybe to do a board game - something a little more sophisticated than plastic fangs though!

Speaking of DVDs, there's been some dismay over some footage being removed from the sets. What's happened and how is it being addressed for future releases?
MPI and Dan Curtis Productions have every intention of issuing the original episodes in their entirety. Unfortunately, the episodes were all digitally re-mastered a few years ago and some of the engineers who worked on the project took it upon themselves to do some fixes without being authorised, and without informing anyone. These digital masters have never been touched until now for the DVD authoring, so there have been a few cases where trims have slipped by unnoticed.

We can all live with a few frames missing out on a fade-out or something, but there have been some unfortunate cuts, including the famous scene with Bathia Mapes being prompted. We'll put that one out uncut when we do the bloopers DVD. I can say that quality control is being stepped up and we're trying to stop that sort of thing from happening again.

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