J.J. Abrams on TV's Fringe

J.J. Abrams on TV's Fringe


TV hitmaker J.J. Abrams has a new series premiering this Tuesday (September 9) on Fox. Fringe is about the weekly investigations of a trio of paranormal investigators –– an FBI agent and a father/son science team to be precise. It begins with a plane crash (that's worked out well for other shows), and reveals deeper conspiracies as the subsequent investigation unfolds.

A sci-fi fan, as evidenced by the previous TV shows he developed (Lost and Alias) and by the fact he was picked to direct the new Star Trek movie (XI), Abrams accepts the legacy of shows like the The X-Files that precede Fringe. There's more than just that swimming around in his mind though.

"I love The Twilight Zone and Nightstalker and Cronenberg films and Crichton movies," Abrams said. "All these things connect in some way and X-Files is right there at the top of the list. It wasn't like, 'Okay, let's do The X Files again.' It was, 'What kind of show is something we would tune in to see?' I thought we would get slammed doing the David Cronenberg/Altered States stuff because for me that was always something I was obsessed with when I was growing up."

Week to week, the show is in the hands of head writes Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and producers Jeff Pinkner and Bryan Burk. It's Abrams' name telling people to watch though, and he took a break from editing Star Trek to try to explain Fringe. Like the best episodes of Lost though, it only leaves us with more questions.

Question: At this point, everyone looks forward to a new J.J. Abrams show. How cool is it to be the brand yourself?
J.J. Abrams: Well, every time someone says, "Oh my God, I love that Lost episode," I always say, "Damon Lindelof runs Lost. He's the guy who's on that show."
Q:
But we still say your name.
JJ:
I think that it does happen and I do everything I possibly can to make sure that people are realizing that A, it's not me alone. B, in cases like Lost, it's not me now at all. It's Damon and Carlton [Cuse] running that show. In the case of something like Fringe, Alex and Bob and I sat in a room and came up with this together. I didn't write this and then say, "Hey guys, wanna be part of it?" We did this together which is why I said to Fox early on, it's important even in the publicity of this that people know that. I feel like I never want to be in a situation where the people with whom I work and who I love and get to work with again and again and again resent me for attention I don't deserve. So on something like Fringe, I feel like I am thrilled to be part of the team, but it's a team.
Q:
Are you worried about making another complicated show that people might have a hard time following?
JJ:
Lost has garnered a certain reputation for being a very complicated show and one that you have to watch every episode. Fringe is in many ways an experiment for us, which is we believe it is possible to do a show that does have an overall story and end game, which Fringe absolutely does…We can do a show that has that, so that there's a direction the show is going and there's an ultimate story that's being told, but also a show that you don't have to watch episodes one, two and three to tune into episode four.

I feel like, especially with Alias, which by the way had the craziest storyline where she was a good guy working for the bad guy but the bad guys were pretending they were good guys, it was definitely a show that while I so loved working on that show and miss it, I can see how it was difficult. This show you have a different sort of paradigm. Week to week there will be stories. You can tune in and just watch that, but there will be, over the course of a season, and then the series itself, bigger arcs of story. So I think we're trying very diligently to be a show that doesn't require the kind of insane absolute dedication to a series that if you miss an episode, you truly have no idea what's going on. Hopefully you'll want to see every episode because they'll be exciting.
Q:
Already there are some subliminal blips on the screen. What are they?
JJ:
It's something that we're doing for people who care to figure it out and follow it, but it's not something that a viewer has to consider when they watch the show.
Q:
So far it doesn't seem there are any frogs on the show, so why are they all over the ads?
JJ:
It works simply as sort of weird eerie imagery, but these images will be part, as you'll even see in the pilot, there will be references within the show. So it's not disconnected from the series. It's not like the ad campaign and there's the show. It's part of the code of the show.
Q:
Do you have the whole seven year plan mapped out like they did on Lost?
JJ:
We have the long term story and we're sort of saying, only because if you start to say seven years, it's a very difficult thing to even wrap your head around. What we're doing now is saying five years, just for us. The truth is, it's one of those things that my gut is that the flexibility required when you do a series, I think allows for the kind of characters and stories that you would never anticipate.
Q:
Will you demand an end date like Lost?
JJ:
I think that once we see where it's going, in terms of what other elements are there, there will be a place where maybe we will say, "Give us an end date so we can tell the story right." Because I do worry on a show like Fringe that if we don’t have the opportunity to really know the pace at which we should be telling our story, it could become one of those things. We've all seen series where it should've ended after season six, or they should not have done those last two seasons or that last year was a disaster. That's the last thing you want is for the thing that resonates at the end to be like [makes fizzling out noise].
Q:
How have you felt to see Lost ramp up this year?
JJ:
Well, I obviously know what the story is but what's amazing is to watch the work that not just Damon and Carlton but the whole writing staff and cast and crew, to see the work that they do from the outside. It's weird. It's a little bit like seeing your kid in college or graduating or working or whatever. Literally, that feeling of watching your kid playing baseball and you're like, "Oh my God, look, he's out there. I have nothing to do with it. Yeah, he's my kid and I threw around with him but that's what he or she is doing." I feel like to watch the show, I feel completely connected to it and yet I'm not working on that show week to week, so to see what they're doing, I'm amazed at the work that they do. I call Damon and I'm just blown away by how good he is.
Q:
How involved with Fringe will you be able to be with movies in production?
JJ:
Well, we co-wrote the first episode together. We are all very involved in breaking all the stories. This is the first show that I've been a creator on since Lost. I care desperately about it. For me, I'm going to be deeply involved in the show in writing or doing rewrites when necessary, or breaking stories and certainly in t he story arcs of the show. But we're all going to be very involved.
Q:
Will you direct one?
JJ:
I can't wait. I so look forward to it. I feel jealous that I didn't get to do the pilot.
Q:
Do you have any regrets about letting others take the reigns of shows like Alias?
JJ:
It's a weird thing. At a certain point being lucky enough to direct a movie or something, where you're controlling what it is and how it looks, is a very different thing, when you do a show, when you create the show and all of a sudden, episodes six, seven, eight, it's its own thing. If you, and I am, comfortable with working with incredibly talented people who deserve a shot and who are really good at what they do, who even kind of help launch a certain story…then it's incredibly fun. It's never exactly how you'd want it to be. If you were working with someone who's writing a story for a newspaper or online whatever, and you say, "Well, here's the kind of thing I want you to go do," and they went off and did it, it would never be what you would do. But if they were good, they'll do things that you would never come up with and they would elevate certain aspects of it and maybe not get certain things as well but to me, it's a collaboration. The question is, are you excited? Do I like having the collaboration? Again, I feel blessed to work with people like this and Jeff and Brian. It's a great group.
Q:
How is Star Trek going?
JJ:
That's coming along. Almost done with that.
Q:
Why didn't you take Star Trek footage to Comic Con?
JJ:
Well, [the studio] said they're not going to take anything, not G.I. Joe, not Transformers 2. We have well over a thousand visual effects shots. It's a huge thing so I'm very disappointed because the characters are so good, the actors are so good. I would have been psyched just to show some of the stuff that's about the people because it's not really about the visual effects. But with so little done, and this is a big strategic decision on their part, so I was disappointed.
Q:
What was the biggest challenge of taking on that franchise?
JJ:
I think the biggest challenge was trying to make it relevant to now. To do it despite it being Star Trek. I don't think it's enough to say, "Oh, it's Star Trek." It's a question of how do you make it something that would be what it wants to be, even if it hadn't been a series before.
Q:
And how do you?
JJ:
Well, you invest completely in the characters and you tell a story that is good, regardless of the setting in a weird way. I think that’s what we found, with Alex and Bob's script, and the cast was so good, you love these people so you'd go with them anywhere.
Q:
Where do you want to maintain the spirit of the show versus updating it for new audiences?
JJ:
I think what's so funny is these devices that everyone's holding, in the show would have been insane fantasy. Now everyone's got them. We all have the iPhone that does more than the communicator. I feel like there's a certain thing that you can't really hold onto, which is kind of the kitschy quality. That must go if it's going to be something that you believe is real. Our Star Trek is not parody, so the idea of maintaining character relationships, the dynamic between the characters. I never saw how Kirk and Spock became so connected, and that's what this movie does. It does it with the entire family of the Enterprise.
Q: :
With Zachary Quinto, is Spock a hunk now?
JJ:
If Zachary's your cup of tea, yes. Zachary brought a gravity and an incredible sense of humor, which is a wonderful combination because Spock's character is deceivingly complicated. The revelation for me watching the movie, when I finally got to watch the whole thing after working on sequences, was that he is extraordinary. He was doing things I didn't even realize while we were shooting, these amazing things to track his story.
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