When "Knight Rider" premiered 26 years ago, the idea of a talking car was preposterous, outrageous and completely cool. With David Hasselhoff behind the wheel of the chatty Knight Industries Two Thousand, or KITT, the action series ran for four years before it ran out of juice.
Last February, "Knight Rider" was resurrected as a two-hour movie, with a supped up KITT and a new star in Justin Bruening. He plays Mike Traceur, son of Hasselhoff's Michael Knight. Drawing 12.7 million viewers during the all-important sweeps made a spin-off version the next logical step, and it quickly got the green light from the network.
But soon it became clear that while the nostalgia factor might have been enough to pique interest in a TV movie, it wouldn't be enough to hold an audience on a weekly basis. And neither would a talking car. Thanks to OnStar and GPS, "Everybody's car talks now," reminds series producer Gary Scott Thompson, a fan of the original. Thompson realized that to interest a generation that grew up with "Transformers," the Batmobile-turned-Batpod in "The Dark Knight" and a plethora of video games, KITT would have to be nothing short of spectacular, and the action -- to reference the title of a movie Thompson scripted -- had to be fast and furious.
"Audiences won't sit still for people just talking anymore. There are too many options out there --movies, hundreds of channels, video games. Our competition is Xbox and Playstation," Thompson points out. To get new, younger fans to tune in along with fans of the original, "We had to make it faster paced while telling entertaining stories," he notes. "The idea is to do a 43-minute movie every week. This is arguably the biggest show in TV, between the stunts, the cars, the visual effects and special effects," he says.
Bruening and his team, played by Deanna Russo, Yancey Arias, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Paul Campbell, Smith Cho and Bruce Davidson, operate out of a high-tech KITT Cave in the series, which "is much more in the 'Mission: Impossible' vein," says Thompson. But as he, Bruening, and everyone else involved readily concede, the centerpiece and star of the show is undeniably the car, and a lot of work went into making a sporty, black Ford Mustang morph into the Knight Industries Three Thousand supercar.
KITT in its normal mode is a production model Ford Mustang GT 500 "with some tuning and suspension modifications," says Ray Claridge, founder of Cinema Vehicles, a North Hollywood firm that builds and customizes rolling stock for movies and TV shows. Claridge's team added features like a rear spoiler with lighting, mirror lights, strip lights and what he calls "heartbeat lighting" as part of the design specifications ordered by artist Harald Belker. But other design elements were a bit trickier.
"In the original design, the front of the car was probably an inch and a half off the ground. That isn't gonna work. You can't drive a flat surface everywhere you go. You hit a bump and that's the end of that. So we made some adjustments so it could function on the highway while staying true to the design," explains Claridge, who worked closely with Ford "to make sure that the integrity of their product was kept in place. When you see the car, you know it's a Mustang."
To date, he has created six KITT cars, four facsimiles of the normal 'hero' version for beauty and stunt use, and two attack vehicles, with performance enhancements. While producers wanted to use as many practical effects as possible, time and budget precluded some of that. Television producers "have a feature mentality on a beer budget," observes Claridge, noting that each vehicle costs around six figures.
"Compromises have to be made. [The network] wanted a lot of it to work practically, but budget constraints get in the way," notes Claridge. "So some of the mechanical effects are now going to be CGI [computer-generated imagery]." When KITT transforms from normal into attack mode, "the transition will be CGI. Our product is the end-product." So far, KITT has morphed into other Ford models including a pickup truck and a Predator.
Computer effects also come into play in KITT's interior. "There's a touch screen across the front windshield, much like an iPhone, so you can download information and view 3-D objects while driving the car," outlines Thompson. "KITT has satellite surveillance that can track anybody and anything around the world. And KITT is learning, through artificial intelligence. KITT operates from a logic point of view. He's almost more human than the humans are."
KITT's voice, however, is not digital, and in fact may sound familiar. It belongs to actor Val Kilmer, about whom Thompson raves. "He gives you multiple options and multiple ways every time he says something." Kilmer records independently, so Bruening does his KITT dialogue scenes with a voice double "who can impersonate Val very well -- same cadences and everything." But does Bruening actually drive the car himself, or does he have a stunt double do the driving for him?
Stunts & Logistics
Bruening and other cast members took stunt driving lessons to be able to perform the less dangerous stunts. "I'm working with Corey Eubanks, my stunt driver, and I'm learning to do things like reverse 180s and how to slide a car toward the camera without hitting it. It's really nerve-wracking," he confides. "It's not that I'm not comfortable behind the wheel, it's that there's a group of 30 people standing there, and I have to slide the car to a certain point so I don't hit them. Corey is amazing. He can take this car and have it go around a barrel, two inches from the barrel. He's teaching me to do a lot -- not that -- but I want to be able to a lot of things that you see on the show."
Bruening does "98 percent of the fights" in the show, and is eager to do so, "as long as it's nothing that can potentially injure me." A fan of the original "Knight Rider," he re-watched it when he won the role. "It was probably one of my favorite shows," says the star, who turns 29 on the series' premiere date, September 24.
"Knight Rider" shoots on location in Los Angeles, which poses its own set of challenges. "Shutting down freeways and highways and downtown is sort of a pain," sighs Thompson, who previously produced "Las Vegas" for TV and wrote the screenplays for "The Fast and the Furious" and its sequel. "It doesn't make me a popular person."
Another challenge facing the "Knight Rider" creators is finding a way to not only please fans of the original series and attract new viewers too young to have watched it, but also to retain the interest of those who liked the two-hour TV movie -- even though some cast members have been deleted and added and plots tweaked in an effort to serve an ongoing story. "We had to expand the mythology in order to be able to pull off a series," says Thompson, who did not work on the telepic version.
While he wonders if fans will be disappointed that David Hasselhoff, who had a cameo role in the TV movie, isn't in the series, Thompson says it's not a dead issue and the original Knight Rider could return.
Thompson and his co-executive producers realize they can't please everyone, but they're going to try, putting an emphasis on lighthearted entertainment. It's a lesson learned from last season's short-lived reboot of "The Bionic Woman," which Thompson found too different in tone from the original. "It was fun wish fulfillment, and they forgot about that part. It was dark and brooding. They forgot the fun aspect. It would have been fine for a channel like Sci-fi, but for a network, you've got to broaden your horizons and your appeal." And give 'em the coolest car on TV.
For more information on Knight Rider, other really cool cars and related topics, speed through to the links on the next page.
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- Gary Scott Thompson and Justin Bruening interviewed July 21, 2008
- Ray Claridge interviewed August 21, 2008