Unlike criminal investigator Nick Stokes, who’s buried alive in the “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” season finale, Quentin Tarantino didn’t feel at all trapped by working within the confines of network television.
“It wasn’t a challenge in that regard because ... I like the show,” says Tarantino, who conceived and directed the episode. “I just wanted to do my episode of it. So the format was all the stuff I embrace. I just wanted it to be bigger, to feel in someway like a ‘CSI’ movie.”
TV’s top-rated program concludes its fifth season Thursday (8 p.m. Eastern) with Tarantino’s two-hour “Grave Danger,” subtitled Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 in homage to his most recent feature project, “Kill Bill,” released in two parts.
Tarantino, who rose to auteur prominence with 1994’s audacious “Pulp Fiction,” has seen every episode of “CSI” — many watched while shooting “Kill Bill” in Beijing, where he says the series played on “what was called the Adrenaline Channel” at 6 p.m. on Sunday — his day off.
Like much of the “CSI” audience, he’s “fascinated by the whole forensic thing.” And head criminologist Gil Grissom (William Petersen) is his favorite TV character — “the best detective to come along since Columbo.”
Tarantino’s unabashed admiration for the series led to his doing this season’s last show.
“Word spread like wildfire that Quentin Tarantino was watching and we all took such pride in that, and eventually we started to think if he’s such a big fan, why don’t we ask him to write and direct a show,” says executive producer/writer Carol Mendelsohn.
Petersen called the filmmaker, who immediately accepted. Working with the show’s writing team, Tarantino came up with a script that originally was supposed to be one hour. But as filming started, it became clear there was enough material to fill two.
‘Adrenaline shot’George Eads, who plays Stokes, says Tarantino’s presence on the set energized cast and crew alike.
“So when Quentin came on that set, everybody had a little pep in their step, excited to be at work,” he recalls. “They were laughing and smiling. They loved being there and after five years, it was like the adrenaline shot that was in ‘Pulp Fiction’ that the girl got in the chest. That was exactly what our set needed.”
Mendelsohn describes Tarantino’s mood while shooting as “pure joy. There’s nothing he would rather be doing ... and when you see him bring such wide-eyed enthusiasm and energy and love for his job, you just say ‘I know why I do this!”’
Veteran character actor John Saxon, picked by Tarantino to guest-star as the criminal mastermind in the finale, also was taken with the director’s spirit.
“He’s so overwhelming enthusiastic. I think it really is one of his great strengths,” Saxon says.
Tarantino says he chose Saxon because his favorite episodes of “CSI” have Grissom “matching wits with another mastermind ... I needed a big sequence in the middle with him and Grissom facing each other like (Robert) DeNiro and (Al) Pacino in the middle of ‘Heat.’ I needed an actor who could really hold his own against Billy (Petersen) in that kind of situation and John Saxon is the only actor to ever steal a movie from Marlon Brando,” a reference to the 1966 Western “The Appaloosa.”
Any one of the criminal investigation team could have been chosen to be the buried-alive victim, but Mendelsohn gave the job to Eads because “I didn’t think anyone had more raw emotion inside of them at this point than George. I felt that he had something that needed to come out.”
Tarantino couldn’t agree more.
“It was just kind of perfect for this character, where he falls in the surrogate family,” the director says. “He’s kind of the bastard stepchild. Grissom has never really given it to him 100 percent — they did an episode at one point about that — so it was perfect to see him now as the son who has never quite got the attention, but now they maybe are going to lose him and they realize how valuable he is.”
Tarantino, who guest-directed a scene for the lurid feature “Sin City,” says he had few problems staying within the bounds of CBS’ censors. “I wasn’t trying to have them (the cast) cuss,” he laughs, “and the show’s pretty far out there anyway.”
But as graphic as regular “CSI” episodes can be, Tarantino — who directed an episode of NBC’s “ER” in 1995 — says he created one scene “so gory I think we are going to have to show it in black and white. But it’s a hallucination sequence, so it will work kind of well like that.”