Bryce Zabel is one of the most interesting personalities in the entertainment industry. As a writer/producer, he is responsible for some of the most entertaining science fiction projects to be brought to the screen. One of his crowning achievements is ‘Dark Skies,’ a show that remains as innovative as it is intriguing. At its core, the show is a magnificent period piece which centers around an idealistic Congressional aide, John Loengard and his fiance Kimberly Sayers. Their world is turned upside down when Loengard discovers evidence of aliens living among us and a massive government conspiracy to keep one of history’s biggest secrets under wraps. The show, which infused the iconic moments of one of America’s most captivating decades with the possibility of an alternative explanation to what we have all been told, quickly ignited a cult following dedicated to the creatively layered show. Fifteen years after its network television debut, the entire series will finally be unleashed for the first time on DVD to capture the imagination of a new generation. ‘Dark Skies: The Declassified Complete Series’ was unleashed on January 18, 2011 via Shout! Factory, ironically marking the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s inauguration (who is a key player in many of the show’s events). We are often reminded by ‘Dark Skies’ that “history as we know it is a lie.” Now the truth can be told! Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Bryce Zabel to shed some light on the mysteries of ‘Dark Skies’. In the interview they discuss his roots in entertainment, the challenges involved with making a show like ‘Dark Skies’, his work in the realm of UFO/Extraterrestrial Truth, his recently released book ‘A.D.: After Disclosure’ and much more!
We are big fans of the Dark Skies series, going back to when it started, so it was really cool to see the DVDs coming out.
Nobody was more relieved than me to see it finally happen, but they did a beautiful job over at Shout! Factory.
I want to give our readers a little background on you. How did you originally get involved with the entertainment industry?
Well, I started out, you probably know, in journalism. I was a CNN correspondent, then I was a investigative news reporter. And I got into entertainment because my wife at the time, she wasn’t my wife at the time, but my girlfriend at the time said, “Maybe you should write a screenplay,” and I didn’t even know what a screenplay looked like. So I got a copy of one and said, “Okay, maybe I’ll write one.” And I wrote one, and it ended up being, auctioned and turned into 108 episode series in Canada. And I guess I never looked back. I just kept writing. And I kept thinking to myself, “I’ll stop writing screenplays when they stop paying me to do it.” And luckily, they’ve continued to pay me, so I keep doing it.
Another interesting thing you’re involved with the world of UFO/Extraterrestrial Truth. How did that come about exactly?
Well, let’s face it. The main thing that’s really red hot for me right now is that Richard Dolan, who’s the leading UFO historian in the whole world, and I, have co-written a book called A.D.: After Disclosure. And it’s a nonfiction book making the case that what the world – instead of trying to prove that UFOs are real, it’s one that basically says they are real. Here’s how it’s going to change the world when the powers that be acknowledge it. So that’s kind of exciting.
And how did I get to that place? Well, I got into UFOs I guess simply because I thought as screenwriter, they would make a good story. So the first – I was spec-ing a script called Progenitor, which became Official Denial, which became the Syfy Channel’s first original film. I started to do my research for it. I mean, I’m – as a former – as a reformed journalist, I still have research habits, and one of the things for me is it’s very important that your scripts have a real sense of authenticity. So I started doing, basic research in order to write this thing. And the more I read, the more I went, there’s something here. The thing about UFOs, it’s a big signal to noise thing. There’s a lot of noise, a lot of crazy stuff around it, but beneath it all, there’s a very true and real signal.
And so, look, I’m a journalist. I’m attracted to important, powerful stories. The most powerful and important story that’s never been told, if you will, is UFOs. I mean, it’s real. There is a reality to UFOs. That’s all there is to it. I don’t know what exactly they are, and I can speculate like everybody else, but the one thing they aren’t all is the planet Venus seen by people in the middle of the night.
So, I’ve continued to read over the years, and the more I’ve read, the more it becomes simply impossible to ignore the reality here. So I guess I just feel like in my lifetime I would like us to at least begin the public dialogue that is necessary to start to deal with this for real. So I guess that’s why I’m kind of an activist in that regard.
Obviously, that’s kind of what laid the groundwork for Dark Skies originally.
You took a very unique approach when you presented the initial idea to the network. What can you tell us about the pitch?
What Brent Friedman and I decided to do is we created an ultra-classified briefing book that was our pitch, in which inside the briefing book there was a memo that basically said, “This truth has to be revealed to the public, but it’s such a radical truth that if we try to do it by covert means, it’ll blow too many people’s minds, basically. You have to present the truth with such – ” That’s what the context of the briefing book was. And so therefore, you need to do a television series. It’s kind of crazy.
So what we did is we created this very authentic black briefing book that basically had a gold foil seal on it, and we – and it said on the front of the briefing book that if you broke the seal, you accepted the penalties of treason if you were to speak about this. So I mean, it’s pretty intimidating stuff. Then we wrapped it in brown wrapping paper and put twine around it and stamped top secret on it, and we left those with these network executives, because we were trying to make it an interactive experience.
So if you imagine, we went and pitched three networks in one day, and left one of these notebooks with each network. And just imagine, after we left, there’s a network executive who’s got a brown-wrapped notebook with twine on it stamped top secret. So he has to open the twine, then he has to open the brown wrapping paper. Now he looks at this notebook that has a gold foil seal, and it says he’s accepted the penalty of treason if he blabs about it. He opens it up, and it tells him that he has to do a TV series to get the truth out about UFOs.
I think that’s why it’s somewhat legendary, because it was pretty ballsy and it worked, because that one day that we visited three networks, two of them made offers on the series, on the same day.
The script for the series is very interwoven and very complex. How difficult was it to map out a project like this when you’re starting out?
Well, it’s enormously – here’s the thing. It’s enormously complex, but the job is to not let people see the complexity, and not to see that people – not for people to have to see all the wires and the behind the scenes things. And the – in order to map the series out, we took a very unusual way to go about it. I’m the son of a history teacher, so I know a lot of history, and I also collect Time and Newsweek magazines, and – which I know is kind of a weird obsession.
But what we did is we created a timeline with three columns in it. Column 1 was – and I have a collection of UFO books and all that. So column 1 was UFO events, where we would take dates of any UFO event and stick them into the timeline. Column 2 was where we took dates from history books and from my Time and Newsweek collection from the 1960s and plugged them into that column. And column 3 is where we wrote interpretations, when column 1 and column 2 lined up with something interesting, column 3 is where we did our Dark Skies spin.
So for example, I don’t know if you’ve seen the whole series, but there’s one episode called “To Pray in Darkness,” where the New York power blackout of 1965 occurred within the same 24 hour period as columnist Dorothy Kilgallen’s death and a UFO sighting over New Hampshire, where the power station failed. And we just – we said, that’s just too good. If that’s not an episode of Dark Skies, we don’t know what is.
So that’s how we found a lot of stories. So – and that’s how you put the layers in it. And the other thing we did that I don’t think anyone’s really done, we’re kind of ‘Mad Men’ with aliens, if you will. What we tried to do is say, look, there’s official history, the history that we can get from those Time and Newsweek magazines, and the history we can get from the history books, but then there’s – if UFOs are real, then there’s also UFO history. There’s Betty and Barney Hill in 1961. There’s Lonnie Zamora in Socorro, New Mexico, in 1964.
There are personalities like J. Allen Hynek and Carl Sagan and people like that. So we started trying to weave that storyline in with the historical storyline, in with our worldview about Majestic 12 and Loengard and Bach and all that, and all this kind of – it could have been a big mess, but instead, the gods smiled on us and it hung together.
What was the biggest challenge in putting that series together, either from a creative standpoint or just a technical standpoint of getting it to the network and all that?
Well, there’s two – let’s divide that into two parts. Part 1 as a big challenge is simply you’re shooting a period show, and that’s expensive and difficult to get right. And we took our responsibility of being a sixties period show with as much integrity as obviously the producers of Mad Men do today. We wanted to – we wanted people who had lived through the sixties to look at our series and say, “That’s how it was.” Other than the UFO part, we wanted them to say, “That’s the clothes I wore. Those are the glasses I wore. That’s the car I drove.” That kind of thing. So we wanted to get all that stuff right, just like Mad Men does. So that was a big challenge.
The second big challenge is when you’re doing something as wacky as the unification theory of conspiracies that ties in JFK being killed because of the desire to disclose UFO reality, and that’s your pilot episode, and you’re trying to – and an American network is giving you like $44 million to make these episodes, then you have a ongoing daily challenge to protect your vision, and – because there’s always somebody who’s going to say, “You can’t use a real name. You can’t say this. This is too crazy. This will offend so and so. This isn’t right.”
Any network television series, and this I think is true for every series, has its own share of problems that simply go with different creative types having different visions, whether it’s the studio or the network or the creators. Any series has that. So we had that. But on top of that we had the fact that we were doing a very disquieting thing, and on top of that, we were saying that it was all caused by a desire to tell the truth under the cover of fiction.
So we literally, just one moment in time that’ll show you how bizarre this got, we were shooting I think the first or second episode, and the line producer called me in and said, “We just received a question from the network. They would like a memo from you by Friday explaining what’s real.” How often do you get that?
So Brent and I had to stop what we were doing in terms of telling the story and our product duties and compose a network memo that explained what parts of the series were real and what weren’t to lawyers. So you can see that it is really Alice in Wonderland in a lot of respects.
Now looking back, I mean, it’s been obviously many years since the series. What was the process like with Shout! Factory and putting this together?
Oh, absolutely. Well, first, it – let’s just – let’s put this in perspective. This DVD should have been out a lot earlier. I’ve been advocating it since 1997. Okay? But people always said the music rights would cost too much money. We went through three different DVD companies, two before Shout! Factory and Shout! Factory, where we approached them and got them to say that the material – they loved the material. They wanted to put it out. They said it was great. And then they did a budget on what it would cost to license the music and said, “We can’t afford to put it out.”
And so even Shout! Factory turned us down with the cost. And so at that point, I started investigating with my music supervisor the possibility that we would bite the bullet, take all the music out other than the composer stuff, which we had rights to, all the original songs that gave it such a beautiful, sense of honesty, and instead put in sound-alike songs that we had rights to, were not expensive.
And just as we were pushing that forward, and that would have been a mess of its own, just as we were pushing that forward, Sony calls and says, “We’re not exactly sure why, but the same lawyers who for 13 years have been telling us that we don’t have the music rights and have to re-clear them, those same lawyers now have read the contract over and say we do have the rights.”
That’s what happened. So then we went back to Shout! Factory and said, “Actually, we have the music rights. You don’t have to re-clear them.” And they said, “Well, that’s different. Now we can afford to put it out.” And the only thing that I insisted when they called me was I have a vast amount of – I’d saved from the beginning all the extras and the goodies that you find on that tape. I mean, I don’t think they would have found them from anybody else, the promos, the sales reels, all that stuff. I gave them everything, but I just said, “The thing I want to make sure is I want this to be the best DVD presentation that it possibly can be, so I want to be involved all the way in it.”
And they were thrilled, I think, to have that. So we turned it into a real collaboration in terms of just trying to make this something that really, really stands out. I think they did a brilliant job, and I think they think that they couldn’t have done the brilliant job they did if I hadn’t steered them in the right directions. And so I’m very proud of it. I think they’re proud of it.
Do you think at any point we’re going to be able to finish that story that you started so many years ago with Dark Skies?
I pray that we could. Wouldn’t that be the comeback story of all time in television?
It sure would.
Well, there’s no reason why not. I mean, there’s no reason why not. It was cut off prematurely. We could easily rejoin the battle. We could recast. We could find a new way to dip our toe in the water. But part of the reason I’ve worked so hard to get the DVD set out is my dream has always been to do exactly what you just suggested. But in order to do that, we need to demonstrate that there is fan support to see that it happens, and that’s why I look at the success of the DVD that is coming out on January 18th. If it becomes a raging success in the sci-fi community, which it has the possibility of doing, then we could come back, and that would be a beautiful thing. I think Brent and I would be thrilled to finish the story.
Remember that timeline went from 65 million BC to 2030. So we have lots more story. We could jump into the time stream almost anywhere. And there’s so many new things. I mean, think about it. What interpretation would Dark Skies bring to 9/11? What about Watergate? There’s so much good stuff!
What do you make of the recent rumblings about Wikileaks and possible alien activity being revealed, which kind of ties into your book a little bit?
Well, I think Wikileaks probably has some documents that probably show something that we’ve known for years, which is people in government take UFOs seriously. Do they have a smoking gun document? I’m not sure. I think if they did, I think the cover-up has been so extreme that even the Wikileaks people would doubt the authenticity of the document. So I don’t really – I don’t look for Wikileaks by itself to bring about disclosure, but Dolan and I in our book, A.D.: After Disclosure, do think that it’s a symphony of events that will have to lead one to another into an avalanche of disclosure.
So it won’t be one single event, but Wikileaks, for example, could be one of those events, coinciding with a mass sighting, coinciding with say a deathbed confession from somebody like a Colin Powell or somebody like that, or a George Bush Senior. Some collection of events will break this thing open someday, and probably sooner than later.
Awesome. Now in the – in the world of entertainment, what other projects are on the horizon for you that we should be on the lookout for?
Well, one thing that we’re doing with A.D.: After Disclosure, I’m – my company, Stellar Productions, is partnered with Brent’s company, Brent Friedman’s company, and Jeff Sagansky’s company, Electric Farm Entertainment. So it’s really bringing the Dark Skies boys back together. Sagansky was our Sony executive. And we are developing the television series of A.D.: After Disclosure. So we’re working on that right now.
Also, I’ve just closed a deal to write the screenplay to Majic Men, M-A-J-I-C, Majic Men, which is going to tell the story of breaking the Roswell story from the point of view of two of the researchers whose life rights I’ve optioned, Stan Friedman and Donald Schmitt, and their books, Top Secret Majic and Witness to Roswell. So we’re going to try to tell that story as sort of – it’s the story of two down to earth guys chasing a story that’s out of this world, if you will. I have some other non-UFO related things going on as well, but those are the sci-fi kind of things.
I read that article that you had written about television and “The Blur” called “The End of Television As We Know It.” I thought was very well-written. How do you see technology impacting sci-fi as a genre in the future?
Well, that’s a really good question. I think the one thing that’s right about that article that you’re quoting is telling ourselves stories is something we’ve done since we did it around the fire, eons ago, and still will continue to do it, and only the technology will change. But for example, the technology is going to allow more people to see Dark Skies now, and to talk about it, and to network about it, which could cause it to become a television series again.
There is an impact of that stuff. Or we could decide, Brent’s company, Electric Farm, by the way, has pioneered a number of web series. And so the – I guess the way sci-fi is going to be impacted is that there are different venues to tell your story now, and there’s – and the – sort of the flattening of the technology means that we all have access to it now. So people can tell stories who aren’t professional storytellers anymore. So some of it’s good, but some of it means that we’ll be overwhelmed by some mediocre product, too.
That’s why networks still I think are going to exist into the future, because you still want your really big series that can really compel your attention like ‘Lost,’ Battlestar Galactica’ and ‘Dark Skies’.
If anybody wants to learn more about you, what’s the best place to catch up with you in whatever you’ve got going on at the time?
Interviewee: Well, I have a website with my name. It’s www.BryceZabel.com. But also, we have a very vibrant website for the A.D. book if they want to know about UFOs, and Dark Skies, I put a lot of stuff about Dark Skies on the A.D. site, and so it’s called Afterdisclosure.com. I would say people who are interested in Dark Skies or science fiction or UFOs, Afterdisclosure.com is a good place to go.
Awesome. Well, I’ve watched a couple of video interviews with you over the past few days, and obviously I’m just scratching the surface, but I definitely want to turn some people on to the series and what you’ve been up to, because it’s very fascinating.
You’re really kind. I appreciate it. It’s been a pleasure!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.