Hangin’ out with Billy Zane on the Vancouver set of Dean Koontz’s Sole Survivor


By Steve Newton

Back in 2000 I got assigned by Fangoria magazine to cover the Vancouver filming of Sole Survivor, a TV-movie based on a Dean Koontz novel. After covering awful adaptations of great Zoontz books like Watchers and Hideaway, I was doubtful. But hey, us freelancers gotta make a buck somehow.

Here’s an abbreviated version of the story that ran in Fangoria #194, the one with that skinless guy from Hollow Man on the cover.


It’s a chilly November afternoon in a downtown Vancouver parking garage, and Billy Zane is behind the wheel of a Jaguar. When director Mikael Salomon calls for action, Zane–with co-star Gloria Reuben at his side–guns the vehicle out through the exit onto Cordova Street. Fortunately for him–and whatever pedestrians might be around–local police have briefly closed the street for filming of this Fox miniseries, Sole Survivor (not to be confused with the upcoming Artisan feature currently titled Soul Survivors). Not even nasty government agent Yates–played by Intensity‘s John McGinley–can get to Zane.

That’s a good thing, because in this version of the Dean Koontz book, tentatively scheduled to air this summer, Yates would like nothing more than to get ahold of Zane’s character, Joe Carpenter. Carpenter is an ex-investigative reporter hot on the trail of a government conspiracy that resulted in his wife and child being killed in a mysterious jet crash. It’s yet another intriguing plot from the bestselling author, and one that easily attracted Zane to the project.

“The plot is cool!,” he raves during a break in filming, “and so is the director, Mikael Saloman. I’ve seen more of the film that he’s shot as a DP–Always, The Abyss, and Arachnophobia–amazing work. So I knew this thing was gonna look great, and he was gonna cover it like some of the best features, as far as TV goes. It’s gonna be damn fine-lookin’ television.”

Although millions of people have read Koontz’s work, Zane wasn’t one of them–at least not until he got involved in the Sole Survivor project. And he had some qualms about working on a film that had its origins with such a King-sized author.

“I was certainly fascinated by his success,” Zane says. “I don’t know if I had an aversion to it, like people who didn’t go see Titanic because it was too popular, and then finally went and sad, ‘Oh yeah, it was a good movie!’ Or who did’nt like it, for that matter. I don’t know why we question somebody who’s prolific, and question the merit or the value of the content. He’s such a good writer, you know–really, really fun. I was turned on by the man’s work.”

No doubt many fans of Koontz’s popular brand of suspense have also seen Zane in the film that brought him much acclaim, 1989’s Dead Calm. Zane played a thoroughly engrossing psycho, menacing Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman in director Phillip Noyce’s seagoing thriller, and today he’s still proud of that movie.

“It’s one of my favourite films,” he says. “they should rerelease it [theatrically], ’cause it’s good on the big screen.”

While singing Dead Calm‘s praises, Zane is suddenly called away to run through some rehearsals on the nearby set. “Oh, I gotta jump in,” he says, before heading off. “Let’s hold that thought.”

While shooting some routine scenes of his character entering a concrete stairway, Zane–dressed in a green Army-style coat, baggy pants, and grubby white runners–takes occasional puffs on a cigar between takes. When he returns as promised, he carries on with his Dead Calm discussion, addressing the idea that he was typecast as an intense nutcase after that film’s international success.

“Oh sure, you know, Hollywood is definitely about safe choices,” he offers. “If you can do a turn in a movie that leaves an impact, they really want you to do it again. So it took quite a a bit to resist that. But people like to see me play bad guys sometimes, and I enjoy it.”

Five years after Dead Calm, Zane took another villainous role playing a servant of the devil out to do serious damage to William Sadler’s titular evil-battler in Ernest Dickerson’s Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight.

“That was a blast,” Zane recalls. “I did a Tales from the Crypt episode [“Well Cooked Hams”] with Martin Sheen a few years ago, and they’re a fun group, you know, really wild. And the feature was just a hoot. The cast was great, and the crew was awesome. And the effects were pretty incredible. I have infinite respect for people who have to wear prosthetic makeup, like the cast of any of the Star Trek episodes. Detach-All is like–I don’t know, it’s a heinous, terrible invention [laughs]. It does remove the stuff, but I’m not big on the chemicals.”

Apart from Dead Calm and Demon Knight, Zane’s other genre outings include Critters, The Phantom, I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, the TV movie The Hillside Stranglers, and several direct-to-video releases, such as the horror spoof Silence of the Hams. He claims that he doesn’t seek out horror roles, though–just good stories.

“The genres are the gravy,” he says. “I’ve been lucky to kind of dip into nearly every one. I’m sure there’s some I’m missing. I’d love to do a musical!”

Sole Survivor is the fourth Dean Koontz adaptation to be filmed in the Vancouver area. First off was Watchers, director Jon Hess’ 1988 adaptation of Koontz’s best seller about a hyper-intelligent, genetically enhanced golden retreiver that goes up against an equally smart (but less friendly) monster. Starring one-time teen idol Corey Haim, the Roger Corman-executive-produced film was a failure on all fronts, ranking down there with such lowly Koontz-based fare as Whispers and Hideaway. (Not to mention the Watchers sequels.)

But a few years ago, director Yves Simoneau came to Vancouver to shoot the two-part Fox miniseries Intensity, and that drew raves, largely due to the performances of Molly Parker as long-suffering heroine Chyna Shepherd and McGinley as seriously twisted serial killer Edgler Vess. The Koontz-produced Intensity currently stands as the network’s highest-rated miniseries ever, although the makers of Sole Survivor would like to knock it into second place.

And while things look promising from the cast and director standpoints, it also appears to have the writing angle covered. In penning the script, the highly regarded Richard Christian Matheson–son of legendary author Richard Matheson–met the challenge of adapting Koontz’s work head-on.

“The biggest was to protect the emotion of Joe’s journey,” says Matheson, “where he tries to re-establish a connection with either his wife or his daughter. There are two daughters in the book, but it seemed better to do it as one for the miniseries–it kind of unified everything.

“Another challenge was to respect the complications of the book, but understand that some of them had become almost–I won’t say burdensome, because they weren’t–but there wasn’t enough time, in the format we had, to explore them all. You know, if we had a 10-hour format, we probably could have done a lot more of that stuff. But I think the unilateral view of it was, ‘Let’s streamline,’ And once we streamlined it, and made the piece more aerodynamic, then we needed a bad guy. So I had to devise this guy, named Yates, and he’s the ongoing pressure that is put on Joe. He’s not even in the book, so by default he became sort of the force that is in pursuit of Joe at every turn.”

One thing Matheson didn’t have to worry about dealing with in the transition from novel to teleplay was watering down any gruesomeness for prime-time TV, as there wasn’t much to begin with.

“It’s not a violent book,” he says, “it’s a forceful book. For me, the book’s power is the emotion. I told Dean the other day that he is able to convey loss in a very powerful way; he has real feelings for how to portray it. I found the pathos that the main character goes through quite overwhelming.”

While Matheson gives Fango the lowdown on Sole Survivor, he’s taking a break from putting the finishing touches on his second short-story collection, Gauntlet Press’ Dystopia, which includes more than 60 unsettling tales. Matheson is also finishing up a new novel, and says he doesn’t mind fitting jobs like scripting Sole Survivor in with his original literary projects.

“My schedule has always been sort of this divine schizophrenia,” he laughs. “You know, I’m also a musician, so in any given week or month my schedule always includes working on music, working on my short fiction, working on some novel, usually a movie–either on spec or on assignment–usually a pilot, and usually anything else that fits in there.”

Matheson, who’s been rattling the skins for 30 years and taken private lessons from former Cream drummer Ginger Baker, is currently in two bands. One is the Existers, which he describes as “fusion, world music and acid-jazz, very eclectic”; the other is Smash Cut, which includes accomplished blues musician Preston Sturges, son of the famed comedy director of the same name.

“We’re all screenwriters,” says Matheson, “which is where we came up with the band name, because in any script, when you go from one scene to another scene very quickly, you say ‘smash cut’.

“You might also be interested to know that Dean [Koontz] plays, ” he adds. “As a matter of fact, we got into a conversation the other day about music and drums, and he revealed to me that he too had been a drummer, which I thought was fascinating. I know so many writers who I feel bring a sort of lyricism to their prose, and they’re all drummers!”

Leave a Reply