Tonight's episode of Fringe, called "The End of All Things" (not to make you nervous or anything...) finally has September revealing the details of who he is, what he is doing, and what he needs Peter to do. As with every episode of Fringe, one story thread is resolved and another is loosened. We chatted with producers Jeff Pinkner and Joel Wyman about the significance of tonight's episode, and whay lays ahead for the show.
So you guys have at least four universes going on at any one time. Is it confusing? How does that work for you guys and the actors trying to keep everything straight?
JHW: I think that that's actually funny. The characters and actors are so in-tune with what they're doing that the minute that they get an opportunity to play in one universe or the other, or one time or the other, they jump at it. So this is a huge deal for them. We don't really have to talk to them much. They're so great. They know exactly where they are, what their characters are doing, where they're coming from, what version of the characters they're playing which is a [testament] to the talent and their ability.
But for us, Jeff and I, no, we don't get confused. We don't shoot them separately. We shoot them as they come up and as we write them. They're sort of like, "Hey, okay. We're in this universe this week." It seems to be very clear to us. But I'm sure it's not clear to everybody else.
JP: What's actually amazing though is after a couple of years of living with these characters and writing these characters and talking about these characters, as we sit in the writers room and break episodes or whatever, it strikes you every once in awhile that you're talking about a character that's played by the same actor who you've been talking about forever. For instance we talked about a character dying or something, you get emotional and then you realize, oh but wait, the actor is still on the show.
How important do you think social networking is to the success of the show?
JP: I think we all operate now in a world that is so different than it was even two or three years ago. The fans have access to the show and access to the creators even if it's not direct. I don't know any television creators that don't follow the message boards. The feedback is so immediate to see what is working and what isn't working and what's working better than you anticipated. Then there's such a temptation to just constantly write things that are going to make the fans happy. You know, constantly just want to satisfy the fans and not stay true to whatever the vision was of [the story arc]. Sometimes it takes a little bit of unhappiness to make those happy payoffs work better. That's something that is fascinating to us and has really changed the way that stories are told.
JHW: Yes. You get an immediate reaction. Jeff is right. I think Twitter for us is important because we have incredible fans that are always fighting for us and trying to spread the word and are so devoted. For us, that's why we do it. So to hear them and to see the responses instantaneously it's really amazing because you get to see, like Jeff said, what's working and what's not. But I feel really close to the fans because we have dialogues with them on Twitter. I think they feel closer to us and I don't think that was possible several years ago. Nobody kind of felt connected to the show. I think our fans are really connected to the show in a deep way not just because they're fans, but because we interact with them.
"The End of All Things" is a pretty important episode. What part of the story were you most excited to share with viewers?
JP: Well, I don't think we would play favorites in the stories we're telling. It's sort of like the episode was designed to tell a few things that all interacted, and the story between Olivia and Nina. Any time Jared Harris as David Robert Jones is on the screen is just fantastic. And allowing Michael Cerveris as our Observer to peel back some layers and reveal some truths about what his agenda has been and to really use that as an opportunity to revisit the things we've done before in the show. All of it was really fun and exciting for us.
Is the Observer intel something you've been wanting to let loose with for awhile now?
JHW: Well that's an interesting point because we always said that you'll find out about the Observer this season and that we're going to investigate them a lot more. So we're excited about it all because that's a highlight–the Observers are a highlight. For us to constantly break what you think you know, and sort of reset, and have to go, "Wow, I didn't see that coming," that's kind of why we get up in the morning. It's to take people on the ride. So we're excited about what's coming up for people.
It's been another stellar season and I hate to have to ask, but what have the conversations been lately with Fox and what are you guys hearing about for next season?
JHW: Obviously that's a big question. We get that every year. This is the god-honest truth. We, Jeff and I, just do what we do. You have no control. We didn't have control last year, the year before either, and the year before. So we can only do what we do and that is make the show that we love, continue to follow the path with the stories that we want to tell, great compelling stories, that interest our fans and really hope for the best.
I think that any show that doesn't have huge ratings, that's kind of what you're always up against. Meanwhile, conversations are ongoing. Everything is running the way that things usually run in these types of situations. I guess, we'll find out like everybody else. But we don't fret about it because, really, it's out of our control. We can only step back and do our work and therein lies the path to serenity. So we're hoping for the best and just doing what we love.
JP: One of my favorite stories when I was a kid was The Little Engine That Could. So I think we're the little engine that could constantly. You know, I think I can, I think I can. We're always struggling, and struggling, and struggling, and hoping, and hoping, and hoping. We just keep making the shows that we love and the good news is we can never rest on our laurels of knowing we're going to be on forever. So we're constantly challenged to write the very best story we can, week in and week out, hoping that will allow us to keep telling more of them.
JHW: Yes. I mean, it's a strange thing. It's a sci-fi show on network television and everybody knows that that in itself is an amazing feat, that we've been on for so many years. The press has been so incredibly kind and so incredibly supportive that we feel like it's a success in any way, shape or form.
It's an expensive canvas, everybody knows it. To do what we do every week, it costs a lot of money and you have to have a return on it. That's show business and you've got to do it. We just hope that the dollars and cents can make sense and we can continue doing it. But if this was the last season, speaking for myself, I would feel, obviously, incredibly sad because I know how much of the story that we have left to tell and that we would love to tell. But in the same breath I would feel that I could take care of the fans. That's the most important to us, that we feel like we have an ending that would leave people feeling like, "wow, I feel sad but satiated. I feel like that was definitely worth my four years of investment. I really love these characters and I can see where it would have gone. But I feel good." That's all we're concerned about: making sure that the fans don't feel like, "Wait, what? What happened? I've invested four years of my life and I don't get any kind of resolution that makes sense." That's not what's going on. And to be 100% frank, our partners at Fox would never want to consciously allow that to happen. So everybody knows that Jeff and I are very prepared. We're ready for anything. Hopefully we go on. But it's out of our control.
With shows like Fringe, Alcatraz, Terra Nova all having a tough time in the ratings, how do you guys see the state of sci-fi on TV today and how it can survive in the future?
JHW: In the cinema everybody goes to sci-fi. They're like the biggest movies and in television nobody wants to touch it with a barge pole. It's strange. I think it's because maybe there's a legacy of television shows that sort of felt a certain way or depicted sci-fi in a certain way that turns off a lot of viewers. And maybe there's a negative connotation.
What was so great about Lost is that it sort of came to the front door as a drama that was straight up and really gave you sci-fi underneath it all. So it backed into sci-fi show, at least in my opinion. So as soon as people got hooked, they were like, "okay, I'm there." But the minute you show it's about strange science, things out of control, it takes an investment. I actually love the genre because it allows you to tell such human stories.
I think once people start to realize the consistency of quality that is coming, they'll start to sort of open up their minds a little more, saying like, "Wow this is great. I'm going to tune into this." It's not just for the geeks and the people that are into it. It's actually really fascinating. That's my take on it.
There's some online talk about Charlie Francis returning. Can you guys touch on that?
JP: I think that we have been in talks with Kirk about coming back. As we've said before, nobody ever really dies on Fringe - or so it would seem. But there's nothing definitive yet.
Tonight's episode is really "mythology-heavy." What can you say about how it's going to affect what we see in the final stretch of the season?
JP: Well it's definitely, as they say, a game changer in that our characters learn a lot more and the audience is going to learn a lot more about the Uber plot of our season and our season bad guy David Robert Jones. This season is going to start to unfold in ways that, hopefully, will be really both satisfying and challenging to our characters. This is the 14th out of 22 episodes and it's very much a hinge episode that's going to launch us into the back half of the season.
Joel, you're directing the first episode back from the winter break. Did you want to do that one particular episode or is it just how you came up into the rotation?
JHW: Directing was the most incredible experience. When you run a television show it's kind of like it's something that not many people actually get the time to do because you're so consumed with everything that's going on. You can't just disappear. So fortunately, I have an amazing partner that allows us to do these different things. He will be directing an episode himself soon I'm sure. But it's amazing. I love directing and I think that it allowed me to get closer to the actors and actually work with them on a level that I haven't before and really get down there with them. I would jump at the chance to do it anytime I could.
The episode itself was something that was not in the rotation. I was supposed to direct a couple of episodes last year and time didn't permit. If I can't go away then I can't go away and somebody else has to step in. So that's sort of what happened last year. This year, the same thing happened at the beginning of the season, when I was going to direct. Work just put an end to that. So I couldn't do it. Then an episode was coming up that we were thinking about writing and I really felt close to it. The opportunity came up where somebody had fallen out and I felt that this is the perfect time because everything was completely under control. It allowed me to go and do it. It's an episode that's really close to me. It's about love and it's about all the great things that we talk about on Fringe.
To us, Jeff and I, it's kind of like a perfect version of what a Fringe show is because it has a great terrifying element to it which is very "fringy." On the other hand it has this incredible love story aspect and things that people are going to be really, really excited for, we believe, as far as the relationships in the show. So it was an honor to do it and it was just incredible. It turned out really well. We love it. It was just an incredible experience.
Is there a chance, Jeff, that you'll be able to direct an episode before the end of this season?
JP: It's unlikely that I will do one this season. But I look forward to doing it next season. And I can tell you that Joel did a spectacular job and I have a lot to live up to.
Tonight's episode, "The End of All Things," will mark a three-week hiatus for the show. Did you know that this was a break point here because it works out really well that you have a pivotal episode.
JP: We did not know that this was going to be a break. We thought that the break was going to come after the next episode which also is a wonderful episode to take a break on. We're sort of in a zone of episodes right now where each one is pretty amazing. Each one either turns the story or resolves something important or leaves a cliff hanger. We are very happy that this ended up being one before we went on a little break. But I think the fans are going to be very well satisfied to come back and watch the next one as well.
Have you guys written the final episode of the season yet?
JP: No, we have not written it. In fact, we are talking about it specifically as soon as we get off this phone call. But we do know what it is. We've known the shape of our season before we started [this season]. Fortunately, at the end of every season we sort of close the chapter and start anew. That's the language of the series now. So it just sort of organically can come to a conclusion that we love.
Do you think that part of the reason the ratings have gone down this season is being opposite Supernatural and Grimm?
JHW: I don't know. If you look at the DVR numbers, Friday night is a tricky spot. I truly believe that there needs to be some new way of measuring who's watching what. There are satellites that can see a Levi's tab on the back of your jeans but they can't tell you who's watching which television show. I'm a little suspicious.
But, look, the truth is that people–it's changed. Times have changed. People have hard lives. They're making it work. They're coming home from work. They're telling us when they want to watch the show because the DVR [ratings], they go up like crazy - like 80%. It is nuts. So they're watching. They're just not watching on Friday. You know, those other shows that you mentioned are great. I don't know that their ratings have gone up so much that it would be like they're taking [our] viewers or anything.
I just think that... there's only the people who have the Nielsen boxes and if they're not watching live or they're not watching it, you're done. It has nothing to do with what the mass is [watching] because when the big numbers come out on DVRs you understand there are a lot of people watching the program, just not on Friday nights. So they're dictating to us, "Another time. I don't want to watch it right now. I want to watch it tomorrow morning or I want to watch it on Saturday night with my girlfriend" or whatever.
JP: There are TV producers that spend a lot of time analyzing numbers and analyzing the competition and sort of knocking on the doors of the people that work at the studio and saying, "Change our night. Change our time. Don't you see what you're doing to us by having us on [whatever night]?" We don't do that. Our approach has always been, and maybe to our detriment, that the best thing that we can do for our show is to write the best show possible. So as Joel said earlier, we sort of leave these questions and these issues that we can't control to people who can and we just write the best version of Fringe we know how. The one that satisfies us. The one that makes us excited to go into work everyday. The one that makes us feel something. We've been really, really gratified that the people that watch the show respond to it in the way that they do. Beyond that, we just sort of leave it to the gods.
When will it become evident exactly what David Robert Jones uber-plan is specifically, and how Olivia fits into it?
JHW: Spoiler alert! Obviously, we can't tell anything. But just remember that on Fringe we try to make like nothing is as it seems. That there's always a little more to the story behind the story. He's definitely a large part going forward. I think a lot of things will come full circle. But you'll be like, "oh, wow." And again, I hate to use the word but he will recontextualize a lot of things that you've already seen.
Do you ever take the fans's feedback to heart? Does it influence the direction a story might go?
JP: As you know, by the time we see feedback on any individual episode, we have written and filmed several episodes ahead. We don't have the ability to change our story telling on a dime. It's very much like trying to steer a cruise ship. The reaction time is delayed. Having said that, we're well aware of how intelligent our audience is. We're well aware that Fringe is a show that you really need to pay attention to and think about. It's not designed to be a show that you can watch while you're folding laundry. So we're well aware of the questions that our audience is inevitably going to ask. We're well aware of how carefully they watch the show and hold us to continuity. We're certainly aware of the debates that are going to occur. Our audience holds us to an incredibly high standard of continuity and authenticity and emotional authenticity. We don't toy with that but being aware of that, we oftentimes will write stories in order to spark debate. But we're very determined to always give the answer. We don't want to leave a lot of things open to debate at the end of the day.
Nina has a pretty large role in tonight's episode. What kind of role is Nina going to play going forward?
JHW: You know, it's funny because, since season one, people have always been saying, "Nina is such a great character. We've got to give her something that's kind of cool" because you know she's an incredible actress. Dare I say, so much more capable of the things that we're capable of giving her to do on the show, just by the constraints of characters amount of screen time. You know what I mean? So we're always looking for something very special for her and we just want it to be right. We didn't want to just give her an episode that was kind of, "oh, this is the Nina-centric episode." We wanted to make sure that you actually could watch a tour de force and allow her to do the things she does so well and have it be worthy of her ability. So I think that's where we are right now. You're going to see some stuff that I think will blow you away.