"I have cupcakes," a tardy JJ Abrams proclaims to the various reporters on hand for today's roundtable at the Gansevoort Hotel in New York City about his new drama "Fringe" (premiering Tuesday at 8:00/7:00c on FOX). "The old bribe them with cupcakes routine," adds fellow co-creator Roberto Orci, who along with Alex Kurtzman, Bryan Burk and Jeff Pinkner were on hand for the discussion.
As is typical, talk initially began about the genesis of the show. "I call this a planned pregnancy," said Orci. "Which means we literally said let's sit down in a room together and create a show... We set out to kind of just blend our three tastes... The first thing I brought up was 'Real Genius.' Remember the old Val Kilmer movie, a comedy? It's about a bunch of geniuses at a university solving scientific problems with science. So that was sort of my weird touchpoint... Alex was a big 'Twin Peaks' fan, so he wanted that sort of surrealistic FBI element to it. And JJ loves Cronenberg. He loves 'The Fly' and loves, those kind of... where medical science or something like that goes just slightly wrong and becomes kind of horror. It's kind of those three sensibilities mixed in together."
Abrams echoed his comments: "The fun of this for us was taking the kinds of things we loved growing up and combining them and sort of playing with them and making them into something that is hopefully brand new while being in the spirit of things that inspired us. So 'The Twilight Zone,' for me was the most impactful show, mostly because it combined characters that were ultimately damaged and often heart-breaking with situations that were absolutely terrifying and weird."
With the premise set, the challenge then became about how to structure the show - from its mythology to its procedural elements - as well as take into account the lessons everyone here learned on "Alias." "There's a large mythology which we all kind of decided on when we wrote the pilot," Kurtzman shares. "We knew that when we went to series we were going to have to reach a certain end point, that end point is very flexible in terms of when we get there. If they let us run for 12 seasons, we'll see it in season 12. If they take us off the air by nine episodes, you'll see it in episode nine. So, there's a lot of room there."
Orci adds that, "We're trying to crash a procedural with kind of the more genre type stuff we like. And in a classic procedural, the characters are together because they are assigned to be. In this show, they're together because they kind of need each other. And because one of them's the father, she needs him. And he can't be there without his son, who doesn't exactly want to be there either. So it's a tenuous situation that they're in." He's also quick to note that, "When nine of the top shows on TV are called 'Law & Order' and 'CSI' you have to study them a little bit to figure what it is they're doing that makes such a satisfying standalone."
What kinds of stories then should viewers expect? Orci reveals that the idea is to "keep it a couple of minutes into the future, but not weeks, not years. We're trying to do what's... read any of those tech/science parts of the newspaper nowadays and there's just really strange articles in there that 10 years ago would have been unbelievable and now it's, 'Oh, the Pentagon has an invisibility cloak.'" He later adds that, "We're trying to take a lot of our ideas from mainstream news sources and try and turn them into stories. You can figure out what we're going to do just by getting online or getting Science Today magazine or whatever."
Character however also remains in the forefront of the creators' minds. Kurtzman says, "I think literally 'fringe' refers both to fringe science and to these characters that are exploring the fringes on their personality, that the odd demons that they face in these cases force them to confront their own demons, maybe things that they haven't necessarily wanted to face in their lives."
As far as the underlying theme of the show, Orci's mantra is "the family you choose." Abrams however adds that "Bob's a much deeper thinker than I am. I tend to think, to feel more what is cool... my feeling is that it's they're characters that feel compelling to me in any situation. And the fact that they are together and thrown into these really weird situations, all I know is that it feels like fertile ground for drama and comedy and terror and romance and the unexpected and that to me is the show I want to watch."
Abrams and company also get peppered with more than a few questions about the difficulties of serialization and having a complex mythology, things that hampered shows like "Alias" and to some extent "Lost" before an end date was settled. "I don't think that the stories we are going to generate and continue to generate are dependent on 'the answer,'" Orci notes. "So we can, in theory, indefinitely continue to do what we're going to do whether or not we have 'the answer.' The fact that we actually know what we're doing and have an end point is kind of a bonus. It allows us to have everything sort of make sense retroactively but I don't think our show is predicated on the notion that we're going to have to [be] revealing our secret every week."
Pinkner piggybacks Orci's comments: "The mythology of the show is one of the rails of the storytelling but it is by no means the one we don't think people are going to come back for. It's really just the cherry on top of the sundae and it will... it's there already, it's there in the pilot, you won't even know it's there and unlike shows we've done, we're not asking the audience to be wondering who is Rambaldi, what is Rambaldi about, what does Rambaldi want. It's much more of an open mystery and the sense of revelation won't be like, 'Oh, thank God they finally answered that question, now I can move on to another.' We're approaching it from a different point of view."
Abrams also notes that, despite his resume, viewers' expectations should be decidedly different. "The truth is that I don't think this show has the same sort of ticking clock and increasing body count as a show like 'Lost' does. We've got a fairly small cast in comparison. There are things that we have told various actors about their backstory that we think is important for them to know in doing scenes. Other things we learn as we go along. And other things we don't want to tell them because we feel like they shouldn't be playing, going towards these things. So it's sort of a combination of things."
The bigger issues going forward then seem to be communicating the actual science of the show, which is where the character of Peter (Joshua Jackson) comes in. "Part of why we wanted the two characters of Walter [John Noble], the scientist and his son [Jackson], who is in a sense a translator from him. And he's just as smart as his dad but he can say, 'What he means is... it's going to melt your face off.' And that helps you bring it down." Abrams later adds that he hopes Joshua is "finally going to leave the Creek after this season... All I love to do is make Pacey jokes." In all seriousness though, Abrams says his favorite thing about the Walter/Peter dynamic is "he's this guy's son and he's never really found a purpose. And the odd thing is, in his life, despite his screwed up relationship with his father, despite not wanting to be there and not really being good at staying in one place, this guy finds his purpose in this unlikely situation."
"And he's not a cop," Pinkner emphasizes. "So he's not hampered by legal proceedings. He can come at problems through the side door because he doesn't really have to answer to anybody."
And what about Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman's day-to-day involvement on the show, considering their active feature careers - will they be in the writers' room every week? "So far we have been," Orci says laughing. "Yeah our main contribution is going to be creative. We're not Jeff Pinkner... he's the one that has to deal with the actual pain of the other stuff besides creative. But our contribution will be - try and keep it creatively on track."
As for Abrams, he can't forecast his involvement beyond what he's done so far. "I don't know. What I can tell you is my involvement in the show right now is about as involved as you can get. I mean, we are all talking - far too often to each other - and the truth is that because it's something that we all care about and we want to see be as sort of functional and as successful in the storytelling as possible, you can't walk away from something that matters to you like that. In the case of something like 'Lost,' where I went off to do 'Mission: Impossible 3' and Damon really took over that show day to day, it was so easy because he simply ran with it and did such an extraordinary job. And it wasn't like I was needed to do this or that and it quickly became clear I wasn't necessary to have that show be what it's become. On "Fringe," we have such a shorthand. We know each other so well. My gut is that we will be as involved as the show needs us to be and that's really just going to be an evolution."
Rounding out the day's topics was talk of "Fringe's" home of Tuesday nights after "House." "It's totally on us. FOX could not have given us a better opportunity, better support or better time slot," Abrams is all too happy to proclaim, adding the shows look to be perfect companions. "I remember when 'Lost' had 'The Nine' come on after, which is a really good show. I thought they did a great job with that show. [But] there was a sense of almost exhaustion having been through the crazy, weird, unraveling mysteries of 'Lost' and then being expected to instantaneously without a commercial be thrust into another one in 'The Nine.' And it didn't occur to me until I watched it the first night it was on. And I was like, 'Wow this is a lot of mythology to kind of take in,' despite the show being really, really good. I don't know how it's going to look when you watch 'House' and then 'Fringe,' but my feeling is it doesn't require the same kind of like 100%, you know, religious dedication."
And about FOX's "Remote Free TV" initiative, in which viewers will see just five minutes of commercials per each hour of "Fringe?" "The really only challenge is production," Abrams admits. "We didn't go out and say, 'Let's do a two-hour pilot, we just thought let's write a pilot... oops.' But it would be easier if we were shooting a typical length episode and we're, you know, quite frankly still figuring out how to pull that off and do it effectively. It's tough, you know? It's something that as a viewer, I would much rather be watching the story continue than not. But it's also strange to, simply having been trained over a decade basically to be working on stories and have a certain length. It's harder to adjust than you'd think in a weird way. You think, 'Oh it's just longer.' But there's a weird exponential thing that happens where it grows everything a little bit, and finding the right pace and the right way to do it is part of the growing process."
Burk follows up that, "Traditionally shows that [run] longer are HBO shows [and] have significantly more days to shoot. And it's just kind of trial and error right now to figure out how many days you need, how long the script should be and we have to cut to time in a different way." JJ concludes that, "I think the answer, at least for now, our answer is to do a typical 42-minute episode and then have eight minutes of the cow."
"Fringe" premieres with a 95-minute installment on Tuesday at 8:00/7:00c. Episodes will then run Tuesdays at 9:00/8:00c following "House."