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September 08, 2008
J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci dig deep to discover "the pattern" in their new Fox series, Fringe


By Kathie Huddleston


They are no strangers to conspiracy television with deep, dark mythologies. Executive producers J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, in fact, cut their teeth on ABC's Alias. Not only did that series make Jennifer Garner a star, it also made mythology cool while dressing up sci-fi as a spy series. Add to that successful TV and movie writing and producing careers, and a little series by Abrams called Lost, and you have the formula for a new chapter in sci-fi conspiracy television called Fringe. Fox's 95-minute pilot premieres Tuesday, Sept. 9, at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
Fringe tells the tale of FBI special agent Olivia Dunham, who must partner with a brilliantly insane scientist named Walter Bishop and his brilliant slacker son, Peter, to uncover a mysterious pattern of fringe science experiments that seem to be based on Walter's early work. Add to the mix a megacorporation called Massive Dynamics, which was created by a man who used to work with Walter, along with some fringe science gone bad, and the mythology begins to get interesting. Fringe stars Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, John Noble, Lance Reddick, Kirk Acevedo and Blair Brown.

Beyond Alias, Lost and Fringe, Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci have been involved with numerous television and movie projects. Abrams' projects included Felicity and the film Cloverfield. Kurtzman and Orci have written Hercules: The Legendary Journeys episodes and the film Transformers. The three producers co-wrote Mission: Impossible III and are working on the upcoming Star Trek film, which is due to be released next year.

Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci chatted with SCI FI Weekly about star Anna Torv, creating mythology and the Kurtzman/Orci band.
How do you feel when someone calls Fringe the X-Files for a new generation?

Abrams: That would be a wonderful thing. I certainly could only hope for a fraction of the success that show had.
How did Fringe come about?

Abrams: The specific story just came out of long discussions that I had with Alex and Bob. After much discussion about many different options, this is was the one that hit for us for a lot of reasons. Many of which are about the long-term story, the characters' backstories, things that are not evident but alluded to in the pilot.

Kurtzman: We spent a lot of time thinking about what was our trifecta of characters that we knew we needed to put in this series and why were they uniquely interesting. We came to the idea that telling a father-son story and a relationship story was a really compelling one [to the story], and a very accessible one. So you don't necessarily have to know anything about science, because everyone has a parent and everyone has issues with a parent [laughs]. And I think for us it's always about coming into it through character.
What excites you about Fringe?

Orci: Lately you can either have a procedural or you can have something extremely serialized and very culty. ... And to us the idea of seeing if you can do both simultaneously is a new kind of storytelling, because it is a father and son and this woman, who is in a way bringing them together. It's not your classic procedural, where your characters are merely assigned to a division. These characters have to choose each other on an emotional level every episode. ... The idea of literally crashing Law & Order with Lost basically is very exciting for us.

Abrams: Since we started working on it, as you look in the paper almost every day and certainly every week, there are stories [where] I think, "'Excuse me! This is exactly what our show is doing." Meaning 10 years ago I think Fringe undoubtedly would be called science fiction. I'm not saying things happening in this show are happening in this instant, but I think if you actually look at what the show is doing or what it's alluding to and what its subject matter is, a majority of the things that we are dealing with are real.

Orci: Every week you can literally open the newspaper or get online on any one of your favorite news sites and you'll read a story that would have seemed like science fiction 10 years ago ... Fringe is as current as can be.
Once you get past the pilot, how will the stories be set up?

Abrams: Every week there will be a case that will challenge [the team] and put them at risk that they'll have to deal with. In many ways it's a puzzle, and there is a classic cop procedural element to it. On the other hand, what they're dealing with, and who is responsible for what they're dealing with, is connected to a larger story. And when the episodes arise with the larger mythology, you will be brought up to speed if you haven't seen it before.
How are you incorporating the mythology?

Kurtzman: I think for us part of the general approach is to always know your big-picture idea, so that you are working backward from the larger story you want to tell, but at an episodic, week-to-week level. We really like to ask ourselves, "How do we surprise ourselves?" "How do we find structural ways into the story or turns and twists that we would have not predicted?" That, for us, needs to be the barometer on the week-to-week basis. Because the minute this starts to feel predictable or you can start to discern some kind of a pattern to the way we tell stories, I think the audience loses their interest.

Orci: My short answer is we're going to do it slowly, that's how. There is going to be an overarching theme that we love, but it's going to be doled out slowly, because we do have the amazing benefit of the convention of a procedural that allows you to tell stories with a beginning, middle and end, where you don't have to have a shock that changes the series every show.

Abrams: There is a mythology. There's an overarching storyline. These characters do not react exactly the same episode to episode. But, on the other hand, we know the reality of viewers and the way TV works. You can't make a show that requires you to watch every week and not, to some degree, limit the amount of viewers you're going to have. The crucial thing is finding that balance between how user-friendly is the show going to be and how hardcore niche you want to be. So a show like Alias or Lost, it's difficult tuning in for the first time at Episode 48. It's probably a conundrum. Although I believe the way Damon [Lindelof] has run the show and gotten to a place, I believe it is so dramatic and so compelling, hour to hour, that it's still great TV to watch. But you're going to understand tuning in to an episode of ER, Episode 203, where you don't need to know a thing. And you'll understand, "Oh, I get their relationship. I see it." Because you know the world. You know which way is up. You understand the rules.
Your three main characters have an interesting dynamic. What's going to keep them together?

Orci: In this show they're all around because of their personal relationships with each other. For a network that's kind of frightening, actually, 'cause you get a lot of thoughts like, "Well, we don't understand. This is not like the classic procedural." And we say, "Great! That's exactly the point." These characters are going to have an emotional memory and an emotional investment and, like any good marriage, they're going to have choose to remain on the show. The idea this should/could fall apart at any second is great. We want to feel that. We want to feel that Josh Jackson might decide he is tired of taking care of his father, and it's not his job anyway, and he's going to leave. That kind of thing is very exciting to us, and so the overall theme ... we're going to make sure that they are dealing with each other, not just dealing with the case of the week.
There are a lot of new shows this fall. Why should viewers watch Fringe?

Abrams: I would say tune in because I think it's an incredibly entertaining hour, or in the case of the pilot, an hour and a half. The show itself is all the things that I love in movies or shows that exist in that place just outside of what's normal. Which is it's funny, it's relatable, it's emotional, it's scary as hell, it's shocking, it's compelling. I think one of the assets we happen to have are three great characters played by three wonderful actors at the core of the show. But we then also have an amazing supporting cast. ... To me the show really is so many of the things that I love in entertainment thrown together in one hour. On the one hand, a hardcore sci-fi show. But on the other hand, it exists completely in the real world. So it's that bizarre thing where you don't have to ever have seen, cared about, watched or read science fiction to watch this show and get it and, hopefully, love it. But I think many hardcore sci-fi fans are going to feel right at home.
What's your biggest challenge with Fringe?
Kurtzman: I think the biggest challenge is making sure that the episodes stay surprisingly unpredictable. ... That's always the hardest thing. And I don't mean necessarily like what is the mystery of the week. It's how you tell the mystery of the week. Coming up with the big idea of each episode, that's the easier part. It's how you tell it and how you tell it in a surprising way. And that usually requires a lot of banging your head against the wall and a lot of conversations and a lot of taking about ideas and then throwing them out and finding new ones, before you uncover the things you didn't expect.

Orci: Audiences are so savvy nowadays, not just with information but about the process of storytelling. They've all watched a hundred billion hours of television and a hundred million movies, and so Alex is saying there is a difference between a plot and how that plot is revealed. We can all come up with a plot, but what is the structure of the story that allows you to tell it in a way that is different than the way it's been told?

Abrams: Any show that has its own version of "monster of the week" is going to be nodding to every version that's come before. You want to make sure the stories you're telling feel familiar to a certain degree. But I think the answer to any great story, given the fact there are truly few stories to tell in drama at all, is the specificity of character. It's not the beginning and the middle and the end that is always going to be the most unique. Although you try as hard you can, it's truly who is going through the beginning, who's going through the middle, who's going through the end. So hopefully our characters and their stories and the way they interact is what makes the show special.
What surprised you most as you developed this series?

Abrams: I'd say the thing that is the most surprising, which is the most wonderful surprise, is how open Fox as a network has been to a show that is embracing the weirdness and the long-term stories that we want to tell. I mean, usually I feel like I've been up against, whether it's networks or studios or people, trying to limit the stuff that is daring and limit the stuff that is in many ways the deep roots of a story. So that everyone wants a show that has meaning and depth of character and an ongoing story, and yet most networks are afraid of doing something that actually allows you to tell long-term stories. In order to have characters that are real and alive, you need to think about on an ongoing basis. Fox is open to the mythology. Fox is open to the ongoing story. That's not to say this show is a purely serialized show, because it isn't. You will be able to tune in and you'll understand immediately, 'Oh, I see, this is their job. I see what they're doing,' and week to week there's a new variable of what they are up against every week. So you have these characters you never have seen before who are responding to that new thing, and that's your way in.
What does your star, Anna Torv, bring to Fringe?
Abrams: The great thing about Anna, among other things, is she's not a kid. She's beautiful, but she's not the kind of beautiful that you don't believe exists on the planet. I think she's got a great, real look. She's got an amazing emotional and vulnerable side, but she's also tough as hell. She's very, very smart. She's got a wonderful way about her. She is Australian, and she's got this, as many Australians do, a wonderful, warm and friendly way about her. She's this great combo of sophistication, great talent, amazing looks and a complexity that is the key to the character being an interesting central character.

Kurtzman: She's a real woman. There is something very inviting about Anna. She's someone you want to spend time with. And that's very critical when you're dealing with cold hard science.
What about the rest of your cast?

Abrams: It's a wonderful cast. I mean, Lance [Reddick] and Kirk [Acevedo] each bring very different personalities to it. But they are both incredibly strong, substantial and wonderful actors. I can't tell you how lucky we are to have them. And Blair, who I've been a fan of since Altered States. ... The terrific thing is you've got this great group supporting the three main [actors]. Josh Jackson I've known since the WB days, when we were doing Felicity and he was on Dawson's. He is a wonderful actor with a great charisma, charm and terrific sense of humor, and it really is a reflection of how smart he is and how great he is to work with. And we've got John Noble, who is wonderful actor. When we first started working on this, we said our dream was to find someone who is so obviously Walter, who was always going to be someone of John's age. And we thought instead of casting a familiar face, the dream on this would be to cast someone who is relatively unknown, in the States at least. Who in many ways can be a discovery for people, and yet someone whose talent and abilities were deserving of this kind of lead role. I feel like we've just hit a home run with John, because this guy is all those things.
Why do a series in this time of your career?

Kurtzman: I think we're driven by what interests us and what we love. Television taught us to do a lot of things all at once, so we are doing lots of things. When Bob and J.J. and I sat in a room and started to think about these ideas and how they seemed to make sense as a series, we also got really excited by that and thought, "Let's just do that. Let's just do what we love."

Orci: We sort of can't help ourselves. This slightly impractical problem with us being around each other too much—we were all working on Star Trek together, and when you're sitting around and you start talking about other things, then you suddenly get excited about other things. Then suddenly you've created a television show with two of your pals. So it's hard to go, "This is not the time for this. Let's put this away." It's kind of a bundle of joy that's a surprise for us.
You've worked together for a long time on a lot of projects. Is it like a family for you?

Orci: We think of it as a band, frankly. Alex and I have been together now 18 years.

Kurtzman: Yep.

Orci:: So when we team up with J.J. or with Damian or anybody we team up with, we always think of it like we're going to form this bigger band for now [laughs].