A little while back I had the opportunity join in a conference call with the stars, Justin Bruening and Deanna Russo, and the executive producer, Gary Scott Thompson, of NBC’s reboot of the reboot of the Knight Rider series.
Things I wanted to know going into the call from Justin Bruening and Deanna Russo were the differences in preparing for a weekly series as opposed to a daily soap and what has been the most fun thing they have done on the show.
From executive producer Gary Scott Thompson, I wanted to know how much inspiration he has drawn from the original series or other movies and shows and the differences between the TV movie and the new series.
Most of all of them were covered in this interview and I ended up asking about the most fun they have had on the show, which is the final question on this interview.
As per usual here at TVaholic, below you will find the entire transcript minus the thank you for doing this call and other greetings, etc. It makes for a better and slightly shorter read.
Knight Rider Interview – Justin Bruening, Deanna Russo & Executive Producer Gary Scott Thompson
Question: Justin and Deanna, my first question is for you and I’m wondering, you know, in terms of momentum as actors, you know, because you shot a movie and not a pilot — and because you did it several months ago — how difficult was it to get back into your roles and into the Knight Rider storyline?
Deanna Russo: It wasn’t difficult at all.
Justin Bruening: Yeah, it was not difficult at all.
Russo: Because we didn’t take a break from it. I mean, once we wrapped shooting, we were…we just kept working on the show from when we shot the two-hour pilot and then we were promoting it. And then we immediately started training into the series, even before we even knew officially. We just wanted to be prepared.
Russo: And, you know, we just enjoyed our characters so much that it wasn’t – you know what I mean, we didn’t want to leave them behind just yet.
Bruening: And I think deep down we had all confidence that it was going to go to series.
Bruening: Seeing the…
Russo: Shoot, it’s Knight Rider. I mean, come on.
Bruening: Yeah, that and from seeing the, you know, what the ratings were and everything. So…
Q: All right. And Gary, I wanted to ask you a similar question because, you know, when the movie came out obviously it was, you know, a re-imagination of something we hadn’t seen in a long time.
You know, obviously it sets the stage for a series but at the same time there was a fair amount of closure. So, you know, how challenging is it to excite the audience a second time as a series begins?
Gary Scott Thompson: Well it’s not just the second time. It’s now in 100 more times because we plan on going a long time with this one. So challenging-wise, it was pretty easy actually.
We’ve got great stars here and a great car. We’ve got a few new cast members, great writers. So it actually was fairly easy. There’s a lot of stories to tell.
Q: All right. And finally, what can you tell us about the voice of KITT? Who is that going to be this time around?
Thompson: Same voice, Val Kilmer.
Question: A – talk at TCA was that the series was going to be in no way, shape or form even resembling the pilot, that everything was scrapped and writers were taking on a completely different mythology and storyline. Do you want to talk about that, and if that’s true or not?
Thompson: It’s still true. We went back to the original series to look at what made that work and (wrote a word). We went through the pilot and then, you know, we don’t want to disappoint some of the fans of the two-hour so there was – you know, we have four characters coming from that.
So 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.
So I think that’s really what we did was just try to bring it up to date.
Q: What were some of the new refurbishments for KITT that were not reflected in the pilot as far as KITT the movie?
Thompson: KITT can transform from one vehicle to another. He has more advanced weaponry. What else, guys?
Bruening: Yes, that’s (unintelligible)…((Crosstalk))
Thompson: He likes Deanna’s character better than Justin’s.
Bruening: That is untrue. The – his windshield is now a heads up display which interacts fully with our headquarters, the SSC.
Thompson: Right, and we have a headquarters which is – you know, 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. And we can track and follow the car anywhere in the world via a co-opted satellite.
Q: I think it was mentioned that KITT is a teenager in rebellion and is growing into himself – Val Kilmer’s voice over and the car’s personality. Would you talk about that as far as KITT’s maturation?
Thompson: It’s not so much a teenager as that he’s actually learning. It’s a developmental process through the course of the first season. The idea is going from you know, 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.
Q: (The two thing) – from the terrible teen years?
Thompson: Oh yeah, we’re – we’ve got some terrible teen going on right now in the Halloween episode.
Thompson: He’s a little defiant.
Question: Gary, I have a question for you. You know, after doing – you know, I think it was five seasons, Las Vegas, is that correct?
Q: Was this kind of in your plan to jump into another series like right away, to potentially keep you really busy for many years to come?
Thompson: No. 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. It – you know, NBC sort of handed me the show and said, you know, what do – do you want to do this?
You know, what do you think? Do you think you can make this work? And I looked at it as a big challenge. So – 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, for me, 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.
Q: All right, okay. And Justin and Deanna, you both have done some time in the daytime world. How do you think that world prepares you for really anything else outside the soap world?
Russo: Well the – I mean, the pace of the show is much more intense than anything else out there, so it’s an entirely different animal than primetime. I mean, we go through like 70 to 90 pages a day for daytime and for primetime, you know, people complain if we’ve got 9 pages.
Bruening: And yeah, I mean, one thing – it just prepared us, I think, you know, a little more as actors in general and I’m saying that is like finding your camera, you know, learning how to be comfortable in front of a camera because you don’t have time to think about it.
So now it’s actually refreshing to have more time to be in a scene and make it deeper, and make it more complex instead of, you know, having to rush through it.
Russo: Because that like challenges your instincts.
Q: All right, and as far as any like main people coming to the show, I know Hasselhoff was in the movie – is he coming back for any, you know, episodes or maybe William Daniels popping up somewhere, even though he wouldn’t be the voice of KITT?
Thompson: We haven’t spoken about William Daniels at this point. I have spoken to David and David and NBC, and myself, we’re discussing.
Question: Hey you were just talking about soap operas. Justin and Deanna, there wasn’t a lot of time for a romance in the two-hour movie, so do – will there be more time for romance in the series?
Bruening: Actually that’s kind of part of the story – is, you know, we have to save the world and there’s not a lot of time for that, but trying to fit that in, having a life and, you know, going on the missions and all of that.
That’s kind of where sometimes the humor comes in and, you know…
Russo: Sexual tension.
Bruening: …and the sexual tension, and all of that.
Q: But the two of you will still be each other’s love interest for the series?
Russo: Well it’s more of like the will they, won’t they kind of, you know, kind of storyline.
Q: But they’re not going to be kind of like, you know, Mike finds, you know, the girl client of the week kind of thing, or he’d just be more interested in Sarah?
Russo: That’s what kind of keeps us apart is all these floozies that keep coming in.
Bruening: Yeah, when you’re a spy you sometimes have to go under covers…
Russo: Sure, under covers.
Q: Now with the series being changed around a little bit, is the family connection still going to be important with the father and all?
Bruening: I believe it’s always there. Family is very important, you know. It’s – you know, I – we haven’t talked about it much, but I believe there’s times that we’re going to have to – you know, I may have to learn from the – my predecessor.
And definitely, you know, I know with, you know, Sarah’s character her family works there. So it’s – family is very important. And actually, the whole team is a family.
Bruening: You know, we come to – as the series progresses, as you get to find out, you know, what each character means to each of us. And that’s – sorry, that’s – I mean, that’s the thing.
You know, like in the first episode my character, I think, really does realize that – who everyone means to him and there going to be – that’s his new family.
Q: Okay. We do miss the both of you on daytime. And Justin, what’s Alexa up to?
Bruening: Oh she’s probably walking her dog right now. I don’t know.
Q: Well maybe she can come back to daytime.
Bruening: Yeah, she – that’s never ruled out. But, you know, she’s focusing more on film right now. So…
Question: All three of you. Deanna and Justin, how often do you guys just crack up on set considering that you’re dealing with a talking car day in and day out?
Bruening: No, our show is serious. What are you talking – no…
Russo: All the time.
Bruening: All the time, especially when you add the green screen in with it. That’s a fun…
Q: Is it bizarre? Is there somebody standing offline, obviously off to the side reading dialogue for the car because obviously Val Kilmer is coming in and doing it later, right?
Bruening: No, KITT really talks.
Questioner: Oh yeah, it’s a real good car.
Bruening: Yeah, everything is real. We do, we have an interesting – a voice double for Val and his name is (John Berdell).
Russo: And he’s amazing.
Russo: He really helps us out. We couldn’t do what we do if it wasn’t for him.
Bruening: You know, Gary had mentioned earlier about how, you know, KITT learns and having someone there that is a voice actor can always add those elements of what he may be learning or may not be learning. And that really helps us react.
Q: Okay, cool. And then Gary, you said there are a lot of stories to tell. Give us a preview. What kinds of stories will you be telling on a weekly basis? Are they standalones? Are they mythology? Will it be a combination?
Thompson: All of the above.
Q: Can you break it down a little bit, give us a sense of…
Russo: Ha ha, cop out.
Thompson: A lot – most of them are standalones. It’s, you know, boy and car save world. We live in a different world than the original show. In the original show it was, you know, a drug dealer here a runaway there.
We live in a world now where there’s terrorism, where people are trying to destroy and kill each other, and the stakes are a lot higher. So that’s what we’re going to deal with.
Q: And then back on the original show KITT was really a science fiction creation. Today, how much of a science fiction creation do you think the car is or is it even this close to reality? I mean, it seems just a step away.
Thompson: It’s a – it’s very close. You know, everybody already has GPS and OnStar. The cars do talk to you. They’re working on cars that can drive themselves using sensors, so they will never wreck. They’ll know the speed limit and all that. So it’s – you know, it’s 10 years away, 15 maybe.
Question: Hi Gary. I’m just wondering how different is the series from the movie?
Thompson: It’s a lot different. I think the movie just sort of set the table and bridged the gap between the original series and this series. That’s how we like to look at it. This is a much faster pace.
It’s, you know, kind of balls to the wall, flat out go, high octane adrenaline. And it’s a real rush.
Q: And who would you say it’s aimed at? Is it a family show? Is it mainly for younger male viewers? Who’s your audience, do you think?
Thompson: Everybody. Everybody loves KITT.
Q: And can you tell me about any guest stars you’re having?
Thompson: Who have we had? I forgot.
Thompson: We’ve had (unintelligible) – you know, we’re in the middle of shooting and we can’t remember yesterday hardly. And we’re shooting multiple units at the same time. Justin and Deanna are running back and forth between two units, sometimes three.
We just shot on a Sunday. They shot all day and night, so we can hardly remember what yesterday was, let alone what the guest star of the week was.
Q: Anyone from Las Vegas?
Thompson: We’ve had people that have been on Las Vegas, but in terms of our stars from Las Vegas, no – not at this point.
Russo: A lot of babe. There’ve been a lot of babes walking around.
Question: For Justin, the movie touched on Michael’s background and that he was previously in the war. How has that shaped him into the guy he is today and what have you enjoyed about the way they have flushed that history out this season?
Bruening: A lot of – you know, one of the new mythologies and one of the storylines to the series is actually Mike’s past. He was in war, but there’s also a – he doesn’t remember a few years of his life while he was in war.
There are things that come up from his past throughout the series, people that necessarily want to kill him or, you know, his loved ones. And that really, you know, that affects the missions. That affects the – everyone’s relationship with him.
And for him not to remember there’s things that he’s done that – you know, the things that he does remember are, you know, not good and the things that he doesn’t are probably far worse.
So there are – there’s a lot of more elements and it’s a really – you know, it makes the character a lot more complex. So…
Q: Cool. And for Deanna…What role does Sarah play in Michael’s life and adventures? I mean, do you consider her his trusty sidekick or what makes her important – an important member of the team?
Russo: Well I mean, she’s definitely got 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, you know, 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.
Q: Do you enjoy kicking some ass, then?
Russo: Always, oh man, the best part of the job.
Thompson: She does it quite well.
Bruening: Yes, all over me.
Qusetion: And Gary, I was just wondering what was the decision behind scheduling the premiere online a week earlier than television?
Thompson: I’ll be very honest with you, I didn’t know anything about that until someone told me.
Thompson: So yeah, I just found out about that a few days ago.
Thompson: I still don’t have official word from NBC on that, so I have no clue.
Questioner: Okay, I was just curious because it’s all over the Net by the way.
Thompson: Yeah, that’s how I found out.
Q: Okay. Actually, another thing – in the pilot movie, the mercenaries are almost successful in hacking KITT’s system and I was wondering are you going to install Norton on him for the series?
Thompson: We have Super Norton on him.
Q: And just one more quick thing, I noticed The Montecito was in the pilot movie, too. Is there going to be any kind of crossover between Las Vegas and this?
Thompson: There is no plan at this point. That doesn’t mean there won’t be in the future. It’s already been there once.
Question: I was wondering about practical effects versus CGI with the car. Are you going to be doing – I know you said green screen. What’s sort of effects will you be doing?
Bruening: There is a lot of green screen, but there’s also a lot – we have a whole, you know, second unit that does…
Thompson: It’s a combination of both at this point. There’s, you know, real driving and then there’s – because the car is transforming, we need to do that CG. Also, it’s just not cost effective, nor can we close down freeways, to drive 300 miles an hour.
Trying to drive that fast in the state of California is a little prohibitive. So we have to do green screen for a lot of those shots. But we’re out doing stunts in highways that we can control. And so it is very much a combination of all of those.
Q: Okay, and then as a follow-up to that, stunt driving has – for Justin and Deanna, have you guys had to do any stunt driving or have any training in that area?
Russo: Yes, and it was the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. I still don’t know how they green lighted that idea.
Thompson: Justin hit a tree.
Bruening: I did not hit a tree. I was (unintelligible)…((Crosstalk))
Bruening: KITT hit it. KITT hit the tree. I – yeah…
Question: Yeah, I wanted to start by asking a question to Gary. You wrote the first two Fast and the Furious films and I was wondering what, from that experience, do you bring to this show and what – if you could talk a little bit about your working relationship with Dave Bartis and Doug Lyman, and their involvement in the show on a day-to-day basis?
Thompson: The experiences from the Fast and the Furious was just drive fast and furious – a relentless pace and that there’s an audience out there for cars. We’re a huge car society, so people like to tune in for cars.
We try to remember that when we’re writing the episodes. And Doug and Dave, my relationship with them is they’re Exec Producers. I’m an Exec Producer and the show runner. So we communicate on all facets of the production from scripts through cuts.
Q: Terrific. Justin, I wanted to ask you a little bit about working with Hasselhoff on the film and if you were intimidated at all. And what was that experience like for you?
Bruening: Oh, the experience was great. We had – you know, I was a little intimidated at first. You know, he was my childhood hero as far as, you know, Knight Rider being my favorite show.
And so when he came to the set I was fine until we were in the middle of the scene and he introduced himself as Michael Knight. And then I kind of freaked out a little bit.
But other than that, I mean, it was a wonderful experience and, you know, it’s one of those that I get to tell my grandkids about.
Q: Is there any pressure that you feel playing the son of Michael Knight?
Bruening: You know…
Bruening: …not at all.
Thompson: I told him he couldn’t have any pressure.
Bruening: Yes, I’m not allowed to have pressure. I don’t have time.
Quesitoner: Well that makes that easy, then.
Q: And then last question to any of you, I just wanted to know how do you feel – you know, what kind of – you know, the veteran actors – film actors like Val Kilmer and Bruce Davidson, bring to the show – what level of authenticity and what’s it like to work with them?
Thompson: I can’t speak for these guys, but it’s great as a writer. You know that, you know – 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.
So that’s great from a writing standpoint. You only have basically 43 minutes to tell a story and at some point, no matter what the TV show is, you have to explain something.
And to have pros who can pull it off and pull it off in a way that it doesn’t seem like it’s just spoon feeding an audience is fantastic. Plus, you know, 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 a point to another point.
He doesn’t speak with contractions. He doesn’t do anything like that. And Val’s really embraced the idea of – 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.
Q: And what are those guys like to work with as actors?
Russo: Well I have to say the best part is lunchtime because the stories that they tell…
Russo: …well at least, Bruce. We haven’t met Val yet.
Bruening: Yeah, we don’t work with Val yet.
Russo: But yeah, he’s the most entertaining guy. I mean, the – like the projects he’s seen and the stories he can tell.
Question: Hi, good to talk to you again. So I was wondering – we had asked how, you know, the character changed from the pilot. But I’m curious now that you’ve been several episodes in, in shooting, how are the characters developing through the season? For Deanna and Justin…
Bruening: Want to go first? The – you know, with each script we – I found out more and more about Mike. And, you know, a lot of it – it’s fun for me because a lot of it – there’s a lot of things that he doesn’t remember.
So every time I get a new script, there’s always this little snippet. I’m like oh, look at that, you know, there’s something else to add into my personality or, you know, my bag of tricks.
But his characters gets more – he just gets deeper every episode and he gets more complex.
Q: Right. And Deanna, is your character growing like from episode to episode?
Thompson: We keep Deanna in the dark until right before she’s about to shoot, and then hand her pages and go, go!
Questioner: Yes, because it’s really at this point you’re – you’ve done more on the new series than you have on the pilot. So it’s interesting to hear.
Thompson: Oh, they’ve done a lot more.
Thompson: And, you know, each script there’s something different. There’s some relationship that’s different. There’s a little bit of back-story about what the relationships were like in the years past or months, or weeks past.
And so that they get to play with. Like Deanna just asked me a question – how come my dad wasn’t there on my birthday, because we had an episode recently that it was her birthday. And I haven’t answered her yet, but I will when we get off the phone.
Q: And I was wondering like character-wise, I saw on the production shot, photograph, Justin has this huge tattoo on his forearm. Is that something that’s yours, Justin, or is that part of the character development?
Bruening: That’s part of the character and it’s something that plays into the storyline and continuing storyline of our show. It ends up being more than it seem.
Q: Oh cool. And then I was wondering have you seen anything post-production wise since you’ve been doing all this green screen? I guess is it still (unintelligible) and how close to, you know, finishing the first episode are you guys?
Thompson: I’ve seen it, they haven’t.
Bruening: We’re not allowed.
Thompson: We’re – we will be working on it up until the last moment actually. We have something like 700 visual spec shots in the first episode and they’re complex effects. It’s not – they’re not just one layer effects.
They’re up to eight and ten layers, so you multiple each effect by that and it’s far more than the amount. It’s the amount that a, you know, a huge feature would have. And to have that in an hour TV show is unheard of.
Question: So clearly KITT is a wonderful part of this show. Can you guys just go back and tell me a little bit about maybe the coolest car that you’ve ever personally owned or, you know, whether or not you named your car back in the day, or anything like that?
Bruening: I had a 1976 Chrysler Cordoba with maroon Corinthian leather.
Russo: What was its name?
Bruening: It didn’t have a name.
Bruening: Well it’s a name that I can say and it was this piece of s…
Russo: Ah, the POS car.
Bruening: It was a POS.
Russo: I had a 1992 Hyundai Excel. Everything was manual but the transmission. He was a little white piece of plastic and I called him Elroy.
Q: Elroy, I like that. Gary?
Thompson: I had a 1958 GMC pickup that my grandfather gave me when I was 12 and there’s a long story attached to it, but that was probably my favorite.
Question: I’m just wondering, Justin what’s the – what’s your favorite bell or whistle on KITT?
Bruening: Favorite bell or whistle on KITT?
Thompson: It’s actually the bells and whistles that are on KITT.
Bruening: It is – as far as bells and whistles, that’s a hard one.
Russo: I think…
Bruening: Well each week we have…
Thompson: There’s something new.
Bruening: …you know, something new each week. You know, I fall in love with something and I get a new script, and there’s a new something. So I always – you know, there’s new little buttons to push and gadgets (unintelligible)…((Crosstalk))
Russo: That’s not true. I’ll speak for Justin. KITT is this like (veers) – like this little like globe…
Russo: …this orb thing that instead of the three lines, you know, lighting up and lighting down, it’s now three dimensional orbs and removable. So Justin likes to take it out in between scenes and just like play with it.
Q: Actually, for you Deanna, how much do you know about nanotechnology now?
Russo: More than I ever thought I would in my entire life. It’s – you know, it’s – what’s funny is I’d never heard of it before the pilot. Apparently it’s a real thing.
Q: Actually, speaking of the nanotechnology Gary, how easy is it going to be to fit in new technology as you guys go because just a couple weeks ago they discovered invisibility or something, I was reading.
Thompson: Yes, they did. We’re on top of that. That’s actually in an episode.
Questioner: Oh, okay.
Thompson: It’s sort of a cloaking device. It’s fairly easy because we have a super braniac in Deanna’s character who comes up with new technology and is able to program the car.
Russo: I say big words.
Thompson: Yes, really big words. I try to actually make up the words just to see if she can actually say them.
Deanna Russo: (Jerk).
Question: Deanna, we know obviously that Justin, you know, was a big fan of the original series and of Hasselhoff, but what was your experience? Had you watched the series growing up at all or what was sort of your background coming into this?
Russo: Yeah, I’m a little sister of a big brother who dictated everything on television and Knight Rider was always on. That, and the A-Team, and Dukes of Hazzard. I mean, all of it.
Questioner: All right.
Russo: No, we didn’t watch (Air Wolf)…
Bruening: Come on. You didn’t watch (Air Wolf)?
Question: I was wondering if you guys could each talk about what’s been the most fun element for you guys on the show.
Russo: Every day is kind of fun.
Bruening: Yeah, we have fun every day on this show.
Bruening: I mean, that’s – you know, I always say that this probably is the most fun show on television. Our entire cast and crew, we’re always laughing and we’re always having a good time.
Russo: Because it’s about a talking car.
Russo: So we can get away with a lot of, you know, things that wouldn’t exist in real life, you know. Like well a question that is why do I have so much makeup on when I’m working at the gym – oh yes, because the show (unintelligible) I can get. It’s the punch line of the day always.
Thompson: Oh sorry, me – just working with Justin and Deanna. They’re absolutely fabulous. That’s my favorite part.
Knight Rider kicks off Wednesday nights on NBC.