Bruening and Bartis on the New Knight Rider


“Knight Rider,” a popular series from the ’80s, is coming back as a two hour movie on NBC on Sunday, February 17 at 9/8c. took the opportunity to participate in a conference call with Justin Bruening (“Cold Case,” “All My Children”), who plays Mike Traceur, the estranged son of Michael Knight, David Hasselhoff. Executive producer David Bartis (“Heist,” “The O.C.”) also sat in on the call and answered questions about what viewers can expect to see in the “Knight Rider” sequel.

CS: What was it like working with the new KITT?

Bruening: Working with the new KITT was an amazing experience. Actually it is the Ford Mustang Shelby 500 GT KR. It is absolutely an amazing piece of machinery. With all our little bells and whistles that we added to it also heightened the experience. It’s great, absolutely a joy, but it is a little standoffish and doesn’t talk all the time (laughing).

Bartis: One of the things that we were able to do on the show is create something which we called the pod car. It allowed us to put Justin and Deanna (Russo) in an actual car and run the stunts live action and record their performances rather than putting them in a car on a green screen on a stage and hope that it looks really good when we matted the backgrounds together. A lot of the performances you see from Justin and Deanna are actually them in the car on the road with a stunt driver who is sitting in a cage that is bolted to the top of the car. So, it’s the real car going the real speed doing the stunts while they are doing their performances. I think when you guys see the final product you will feel the moment they are feeling with them really in it. It’s not them faking it on a stage. It’s really happening. For me as a producer, it brought a level of reality to the performances and the action. That was pretty special.

CS: Did you have the voice of the car during the takes, or was that added after post?

Bartis: We had both. We sometimes would take turns doing the voice. We didn’t have Will Arnett on the set, but various people, some of the producers and one of the other actors would take turns doing the voice to help the actors through their performance, but then we would do the actual voice in post production.

CS: Justin, in real life what kind of a driver are you?

Bruening: I am a very good driver. I got all my points. I am good. Not to the degree that KITT does, but definitely I can hold my own.

CS: David, what made you decide that this was the right time to revive “Knight Rider?” Did “Transformers” have anything to do with it?

Bartis: “Transformers” definitely played a role in it. It sort of heightened everybody’s awareness for the potential of the show. To be honest, it wasn’t my idea to bring it back. Ben Silverman at NBC was the first person to say, “Hey, this is a series that we own that was a classic from the ’80s.” Ben had a lot of passion for the show. I was lucky enough to be on a deal at Universal to be on the show where they are partners with NBC. I got lucky in some ways being in the right place at the right time. I was also working on another project with Dave Andron, who wrote the sequel. We were sitting in my office when the folks at Universal and NBC called and said this is something you guys might be interested in. We jumped on it. For the both of us, it was something that we remembered from the first time it was on TV. We definitely had a lot of passion for it from our own experience of it when it was on the air the first time around. The chance to reinvent it and bring it to a new audience was definitely something that was exciting to us.

CS: What were the discussions of what the tone should be like?

Bartis: We had a lot of discussions about the tone. There was a lot of debate and discussion. For me personally, I grew up watching a lot of lighter fun action shows. Shows from my childhood are “Dukes of Hazzard,” “Rockford Files,” and “Knight Rider,” where there is sort of this model of a cool guy and a cool car. They were fun and you loved the fight scenes and you loved the action. The stories and the characters were great. That was something we felt hadn’t been on TV for a long time. We didn’t want to go dark with this. We want to go back to sort of the roots of what everybody loved about those kind of classic lighter one hour (shows). Because we didn’t think it was on TV, that’s what we went for.

CS: Justin what was your interest in this role and what was the process in getting it?

Bruening: The process I went through was just like everyone else. I went to the initial audition and had a few follow-up ones. I did the studio tests and all that. They were gracious to hire me. My interest in this role was when I first got the initial sheet for the audition. I called my agent right away and said I want to do it. It’s something from my childhood and I was a huge fan. “Knight Rider” was an iconic figure in my childhood. I’d run around with my leather jacket and fight indiscriminate crime in my house. I never saw it when it initially aired because I believe it started in 1983 when I was about four. I watched it when it was syndicated and I didn’t know the difference. As a little boy that was the best show on television. Just being able to take on that role was such an amazing honor.

CS: Everybody was wondering about what David Hasselhoff’s involvement would be to the show. Was it planned from the beginning to bring his character back as a cameo?

Bartis: Yes, we always knew that David had to have a role in this project. We spent a lot of time with him both before production and during production. The thing that surprised me the first time I met him was that “Knight Rider” was something that was very important to him. He is very passionate about it, even more so than anything else he has done, including “Baywatch,” which he did for eleven years. It’s still “Knight Rider” that he seems to have a stronger connection to. He had this inherent understanding of what made it work and what the fans responded to. For us, that was a tremendous asset to be able to tap into and get a sum from him as to what elements we could carry over to the new version that he was passionate about and what he felt made the show work for the audience. He definitely had a role in helping us conceive what this would be, as well as being in it. I think everybody will be excited to see the way we worked him into the show as Michael Knight.

CS: What was behind the decision to go with the Ford Mustang instead of the Trans-Am?

Bartis: If we stuck with the Trans-Am it would have to be an old one. It’s not really a model they make anymore. We want to bring the car to a new audience and reinvent it enough and that meant going out with a new model. We also knew it had to be American. It had to be two-door and it had to have some muscle to it, and be exciting to watch. When you line up all the options available, it fulfilled all the requirements. For me personally, it became sort of an obvious choice. When we started digging into all the lines available, and Ford showed us this new Shelby, which isn’t even on the market yet, it kind of blew us away. That car was just pretty cool.

CS: I understand that the voice is going to be different.

Bartis: Again, it’s a balancing act. We want to give people elements that they are going to be familiar with, but, then bring something new to it. That’s really what we did. You’re going to recognize the theme, but it is completely re-recorded and re-instrumentalized. What you love about it is still there.

CS: Justin, aside from the pod car, did they let you drive the real car around?

Bruening: Yeah. I never got to really open it up or anything but I went from point A to point B. Just turning it on you can hear how much power that thing has.

Bartis: We didn’t let him do the stunts but we did let him drive it.

CS: Justin, growing up was there a car that you really loved?

Bruening: My uncle had a 1977 Chevy Camero that I absolutely loved. That was the first muscle car that I had ever been around. I mean, minus watching TV like the “A-Team” and “Knight Rider.” That would be it.

CS: With your daytime background I wanted to ask you about the relationship part of the story with Mike and Sarah. Can you tell me about that?

Bruening: Sarah is Mike’s potential love interest. She was someone in his life a while ago; they grew up together. That friendship blossomed into a romance but it ended sort of poorly. The movie picks up at that specific point when she comes back into his life, so that’s when you get all the drama and conflict and all that fun stuff that they love on daytime TV.

CS: Does it get as hot as on daytime TV?

Bruening: I can’t say that, maybe.

CS: Readers are dying to know about the technology makeover that KITT has going from a Pontiac Trans-Am with smoke bombs to a souped up Shelby GT. What surprises do you have in store for us so far as its capabilities?

Bartis: Obviously, there are going to be a lot of new tricks that the car can do and I’m not going to give them all away. It’s funny one of the most frequent questions we get asked is does the car have turbo boost? We know how passionate people are about what the car can do. We’ve gone into it really aware that it is important to the audience. We spent plenty of time building in some pretty cool tricks. I think everybody knows already that the car has the ability to morph. It can shape shift a little bit in ways that enhances its handling and its ability on the road. It also has weapon defense systems that are based on technology that I think are going to be pretty amazing when people see the way we have built the effects there. It’s got a pretty deep arsenal of abilities and tricks there. The exciting thing for us, if we are lucky enough to get a series, is that we have this long list of things that we want to roll out and show people in each episode so people will be tuning in to see what’s the new thing that we are going to reveal, or what’s the new trick that the car can do. I think people are going to be pretty satisfied in the two hour pilot. They are going to see that the car has the ability to change colors, shift shapes, defend itself against bullets and things like that, and repair itself. There are some pretty cool effects that are as good as any effects you are going to see in a hundred million dollar plus movie.

CS: When you were first putting together and developing the script, did you approach all the different car manufacturers asking them if they had a car that could be an updated version of KITT for “Knight Rider?” Or did you just focus on Ford?

Bartis: There was a whole team of people from NBC and Universal who were involved in this process. It was opened up because obviously NBC has relationships with lots of advertisers, among them all the car companies. So, at different points in time, we were in contact with different companies and were having discussions about what model would make sense for the show. Yeah, we did open it up pretty wide and go down that path with a couple different companies and Ford lucked out. They have been an incredible partner because not only did they have the car that we fell in love with; they have also been involved in the marketing of the show. They are very organically integrated in the whole production process.

CS: Why did you decide to have the sequel follow some of the original “Knight Rider” material instead of starting over?

Bartis: There are a couple of answers. The legal answer is that this is a sequel because that is one of the rights that they had with NBC so we knew we were working within the boundaries of making a sequel, not a remake. For us creatively we knew how strongly people felt about the original characters, as did we. The best way to bring David Hasselhoff into it is to bring him in as Michael Knight. I think one of the really brilliant moves that Dave Andron did in writing the script was he created a new character named Charles Graiman who is the link between our show and the original series. He is the guy who actually built the original KITT. There is never a mention in the original series about who actually physically built the car and developed the technology. We have created that character; therefore he is the guy who knows the original Knight Rider — Michael Knight. He knows what happened in the original series and what kind of issues and stories they dealt with. His daughter happens to be the girl who grew up with our new driver, Mike Tracer. So, it’s a really organic connection with the series, yet, this new character brings something new to it and provides that link to the original series.

CS: This question is for Justin. I basically wanted to know how you prepared for this role. Did you work with David and get tips from him?

Bruening: I didn’t get to meet David until a few days before we filmed together. I picked his brain then. We got to really talking on the day of filming. To prepare for it I just got the opportunity to watch a lot of “Knight Rider,” which was enjoyable. I sat down with my wife and we watched all of the series that we could get our hands on. That was a lot of fun. Trying to get that relationship with the man and the car down pat was the key.

CS: Do you have a favorite episode from the original series?

Bruening: I really like the origin story; so, actually the very first one was my favorite.

CS: This is for Dave. You talked earlier about the tone you were trying to go for. How do you do the lighter tone that harkens back to shows fifteen or twenty years ago without being too campy?

Bartis: It is actually really hard. To me, it’s easier to do the darker, more sinister kind of evil stuff. It’s just an easier tone to nail. It is a very hard balance to find because, as Justin said, the core of the show is the relationship between a guy and a car. There is a lot of comedy in that relationship too, so, you have to believe that this guy is building a relationship with the car, but, at the same time, the story that we are playing has real jeopardy in it and there is real danger. We need to play that as real too and believable. It really is a very hard balance to strike. My partner and our production company have a director named Doug Liman who did “Bourne Identity” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” I’ve learned a lot from working with Doug. He has been able to find that balance in a lot of the movies that he has directed. Doug happens to be sitting in the room next to me. We are in the editing suite now putting the show together. That is the main focus of our job in post production right now. You can cut a show together many, many different ways. What we are trying to do is make sure we are playing the comedy, the fun of the action, but making the jeopardy and the danger feel real. It’s tough, but we are pretty excited about it because we feel like it is working.

CS: Is there anything that you tried to avoid so as not to make people think of the old show too much?

Bartis: Not really. The old show had a lot of good things going for it. Just like Justin, we went back and watched all the episodes and absorbed it. It was a really fun show and we wanted to make this something fun. We felt like there was enough dark stuff on TV and we wanted to give people a fun ride—no pun intended. That was the goal.

CS: Was there any attempt to make this a “green” car? Is the new KITT a hybrid?

Bartis: The new KITT is incredibly efficient. Yes, it is a hybrid in some new ways. You’ll see it incorporate solar energy and technology that we could create because it is a TV show. There are some cool new technologies we have applied; it is a highly efficient vehicle.

CS: Was it the fact that Will Arnett does voice spots for cars now or was it something about his voice you liked?

Bartis: With the voice of KITT we knew we needed the comedy. We knew we needed somebody who could bring a new audience to it as well. The vocal tone and quality of the voice had to be believable coming out of a computer that was wrapped inside a car. We talked a lot about what people expect in a voice now from a car because so many people already do have talking cars. It’s not such an amazing thing anymore. There was one time when a computer that could talk was portrayed as something very mechanical. Now the mark of sophisticated technology is a voice that sounds as human as possible. We had a little more leeway in how we cast because it can be more human, I think, than the original voice just based on what people’s expectations are.

CS: Does he do voice spots for Ford?

Bartis: I don’t think he does anything for Ford. I think there is a separation between the entertainment world and the commercial world.

CS: Obviously you wrote the film script before the writers strike. Do you feel that the strike will have an impact on this going forward as a series?

Bartis: I think it has the same impact as everybody else is feeling right now. If the network and the audience love the show and they want to go to a series, we can’t do anything about that until the strike is over.

CS: Justin, what did you talk to David Hasselhoff about? What did you ask him?

Bruening: The first day of filming I had a lot of questions. I was nervous about continuing this franchise and I had some pretty big shoes to fill. Obviously, I asked him a lot about what kind of fun he had on the original show and things like that. He started giving me advice and was one of the first people to mention that the key of the show is the relationship between a man and his car, and how they become best friends. That is the foundation.

CS: Didn’t he make his leap from daytime television to nighttime television with “Knight Rider?”

Bruening: He did. He was on “The Young and Restless,” I believe.

CS: Did you see any parallels there, or did it just happen that way?

Bruening: It just happened that way but it was hard not to see the parallels. I think we were about the same age and we were both coming off of a show. We talked about that in length too. We wanted to try something new and were kind of done playing our characters for a while.

CS: I think you guys both met your wives on your soaps didn’t you?

Bruening: That’s true too. I forgot about that.

CS: David noticed the parallels as well and I think he was somewhat startled by it.

Bruening: I didn’t know that. I know his first wife though. His first wife has actually gotten remarried and to a man named Michael Knight, who played my father on “All My Children.” That’s the creepy coincidence there.

CS: How did you know that it was time to leave the soap?

Bruening: My contract was up. I was playing the ultimate hero on that show and the good guy that could do no wrong. I just wanted to change it up a little bit. It got a little redundant after awhile.

CS: Dave, if the series gets picked up have you considered having William Daniels do some sort of audio appearance?

Bartis: Yeah, we have actually talked about that. We love Will Daniels voice, and again, it’s like seeing Hasselhoff in the show. It would be really fun to find a way to put him in there somehow.

CS: There were a couple of other “Knight Rider” follow-ups including one David Hasselhoff was in, in the “Knight Rider 2000” TV movie. Do you consider those still having existed in this TV movie, or does it matter?

Bartis: I have watched all that stuff. I watched “Knight Rider 2000” and I even saw “Team Knight Rider.” I don’t think there are any inconsistencies. Nobody is going to watch this and go, “Wait a minute, that’s contradictory to the mythology in “Knight Rider 2000.”

CS: You talked about the technology and about the car being green. Were most of the effects done with the car practical, or did you do a lot of special effects work in post?

Bartis: We did both. I mean, we did a tremendous amount of practical stunts, partly for the reason I was mentioning earlier. We found a way to control a full size car on location and put the actors in it. Incidentally, we also built a remote control version of the car, which the actors also performed in. Things like the morphing and the car’s ability to shield itself and all that kind of stuff; there is probably four-hundred plus frames of a fax, which is right up there with any kind of studio big budget movie. So, it’s a good balance. You get the energy and excitement of feeling the reality of the stunts, but the coolness and technology of some of the new higher end special effects that we can do.

CS: In this film is there any mention of the previous version of KITT from the earlier shows?

Bartis: There is mention of the original KITT, but not a mention of the car. There were just certain limitations in terms of how much time we had to get into certain things. That would be the kind of thing we would explore more in the series, if we are lucky enough to go to series.

CS: Justin, did you feel any extra pressure to live up to the way David Hasselhoff played the role?

Bruening: Oh yeah, wholeheartedly. Being a fan of the original series I want to keep it as close to the original, as well as having a new take on it as I can. David was talking about the balance thing. That falls in that category as well. I do feel a lot of pressure. My friends would bring it up more than anyone else. I’m taking over the franchise and it is humbling and an honor at the same time. I just hope I do it justice.

CS: Do you remember your first car?

Bruening: Oh yeah. It was a really badly beat up 1976 Buick Riviera. If you would have pulled the top it would have come off. It was rusted and a piece of crap.

CS: Have you ever modified a car that you owned?

Bruening: The newer cars baffle me. I don’t know how to make them better. They are pretty good as they are. When I was growing up we used to rebuild classic cars in the garage. I remember one thing we did was we took the engine from a 1976 Camero and we put it in a 1950 pickup. That didn’t work out very well.

CS: You’ve got one of the great character actors Chris Mulkey from “Twin Peaks” playing the sheriff. Can you tell us more about his role and what he does?

Bartis: I don’t want to give it away too much because Chris is somebody I have worked with in the past. He’s an incredible actor and he was perfect for this role. I can’t tell you too much without giving away the story stuff. I did a pilot that went to series with him about fifteen years ago called “Arrested Behavior.” I felt lucky we got him for that role because he is such a good actor.

CS: Are you preparing for when the “geek” squad will start saying things about their interpretation of the sequel in comparison to the “Knight Rider” mythology?

Bartis: We try to make all the connections we can in the time we have to the original series. That’s why I think the Charles Graiman character is going to be so effective because he is that bridge to the past. He talks about building the original KITT twenty-five years ago and he talks about various references of the past. There is only so much we can do in the time we have. We are expecting to get analyzed. It’s not just the “Knight Rider” hardcore fans. We’ve seen just car fans respond to the Mustang. It was just overwhelming. It’s unbelievable.

CS: What year is the new KITT movie set in?

Bartis: It’s now. It would be 2008.

CS: If this gets picked up as a series would it be more episodic or would there be a deep underlying mythology where you learn more about the Knight Foundation and possibly the background about the characters as the series goes on?

Bartis: Our plan is to have a balance. We will probably be a little more close-ended than something like “The Sarah Conner Chronicles,” which I’ve been watching. I think they are doing a great job, but to me that is more serialized than what we are going for. We will have missions of the week that Mike is involved with and the whole team that we put together. We will, like any show, continue to roll out more mythology and more back story. Our instinct is to go more close-ended.

CS: This is for both of you. Was there a particular scene that came off differently than you expected, but it turned out even better?

Bruening: There was the one that I know that turned out differently. It was a scene that we did in the audition process that I did about four-billion times because I helped to read and test the girls. Every time we did it in the audition process it was a comedic scene and it was very funny. When we got to filming it, it took a serious tone. It actually turned out surprisingly, you know, it felt right with that serious tone, which was very interesting.

Bartis: The car stuff exceeded all of our expectations. It was something that not a lot of people have tried yet in film or television. We were really excited about how the chase scenes and the car stunts came out. That was definitely a pleasant surprise. I love the scene that Justin was talking about with him and Deanna, who plays the Sarah character. It was great to see something evolve from something almost pure comedy to pure emotion, a real character moment for both of them. That was another pleasant surprise.

CS: Was there a particular scene that kind of created a challenge for you that you had to overcome?

Bruening: As far as the challenging thing, anything green screen. There was another challenging scene that turned out surprisingly weird. In the middle of a fight scene I dislocated my knee. That was a shock, for me anyway.

CS: How did you work around that?

Bruening: We took a three week break. They were gracious enough to give me three weeks to heal. Then I came back and finished that scene and a couple of other fight scenes. Anything that was left was inside the car so that was easy to disguise.

CS: David, what were the challenges you faced on the set?

Bartis: The tough thing was Justin blowing his knee out because we did have to hold production for a few weeks and then come back and do it and work around his injury, which fortunately he has been getting over very quickly. This was a big production and it’s going to be over eighty minutes screen time. We shot in twenty-seven days tons of stunts, tons of location work, and a lot of very technical effect work. This was a big challenge for all.

CS: Was there any breaks where you could kick back and get ready for the next shoot?

Bruening: When KITT drives you just lay back and let him do it. No (laughing), the overall feeling on the set was very light. It was always a great time and we always joked around. We never really needed a break. I was actually eager to continue on to the next scene until I blew my knee up and then I just wanted to lay in the hospital on morphine. Then, I was fine.

CS: Will Michael Knight reminisce about the original KITT and what happened to it?

Bartis: We do reference the original KITT. You actually do see glimpses here and there of the original KITT if you look really carefully. The thought we had was that some of the technology from the original KITT is in the new KITT. That would be a great series opportunity to explore that. We just didn’t have time to get into it. In our minds, we believe that the original KITT’s sort of motherboard is somewhere buried in the new KITT and enhanced.

CS: Listening to each of your comments I assume that you are both onboard for a series if it goes that route. Is that true, and David, can you say that about the rest of the cast?

Bartis: Absolutely. We have such a fantastic cast and team put together on this. We just got lucky, knock on wood right now. It’s been a great experience. We had a lot of fun making it and everybody’s performance has been spectacular. It’s always been a combination of good planning and good luck. It happened that way for us. Yeah, we are hoping we get that shot.

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