You can't get away from J.J. Abrams nowadays – not that you would want to. With Star Trek exploding at the box office, Lost going strong, and Fringe getting picked up for a second season, Abrams is on his way to becoming the next Jerry Bruckheimer. He manages to take a few moments to talk about the evolution of Fringe over this season, and gives us a few little teasers as to what's on tap for season two.
Tell us a little bit about the conversation that landed Leonard Nimoy in the season finale.
I called him and I just essentially started begging, and I told him that we were doing this show. He was familiar with it, but I don't think he'd seen it. But he knew of the show and I explained that there was a critical character who had been mentioned throughout the first season, including the pilot, and it was a big deal for the show, not just where he came from and what his back story was, but where it was going, and that it would be an obvious honor if he would consider playing the part.
He was open to the idea of it but he wanted, of course, to see the show and read some pages, and so we sent him everything that we could, and I was thrilled when he called back and said that he thought it was intriguing and interesting. And that was how we actually ended up getting him to return to the role of Spock in Star Trek.
When you originally conceived of the series, did you have anyone in mind for the part of William Bell, and were you planning to hold off for the entire season before he first was revealed?
We discussed having him show up earlier in the season, but as you work on a show and as the season progresses it tells you as much as you're telling it what it wants to be. It was clear as we were going that getting to William Bell could and should be pushed off, and we should pace ourselves. That's one of the biggest challenges, I think, of any first season of a show: to really find the pace of the series. Especially a show that has both a stand-alone episode-to-episode and a story arc to follow. So that was very important to us.
Fringe seems to be getting a lot funnier as the episodes go on, and Olivia seems to have loosened up a bit. How much of the arc of the season did you have planned from the beginning, and how much of it, as you say, is the show finding itself and "telling" you what it wants to be?
We actually had a surprising amount of plans in terms of broad strokes, but the crazy thing is, as you work on it, like I said, you start to get resistance, not from an actor and not from a director, or even other writers on the show, but the show just defines its shape in a strange way. One of the things that I love about the show is the kind of inherent humor in the insanity of it. If the show takes itself too seriously, then I'm afraid people will laugh at it. But if the show has humor inside of it, then the show itself is embracing and admitting to the preposterous nature of many of the episodes and stories.
I love preposterous stories. If you look at Jaws or Alien or Tootsie, or whatever, there are movies that if you describe the story, you go, "What? All right, well, okay." But done well, you're like, "Oh my God, this is the greatest story ever." So for me, the humor did increase as the season went on and things like bringing Olivia's sister in gave her a chance to be warmer. She's a character who admitted in the show that she doesn't really have friends, so I think that the story for Olivia is one of a guarded, protective woman who, over time, is, in a sense, forced to be more vulnerable.
You seem to like time travel. There's time travel in Lost and time travel in the Star Trek movie. Will there be time travel on Fringe?
Well, I definitely think that one of the fun aspects of doing Fringe is the kind of open-ended possibilities of the show, where we could go and what we could do. Obviously, it is not a brand new idea, especially science fiction, the idea of traveling through time and space. But I would say that while Lost concerns itself more with traveling through time, I would say that Fringe can serve itself more with traveling through space.
All of your projects feature very strong-willed, independent females like Olivia. Who or what is your inspiration for those characters?
I would like to think that I've been lucky enough to work on projects that have strong-willed characters who happen to be male or female, and certainly in the case of characters like Kate [from Lost] or Sydney Bristow [from Alias], and certainly Olivia Dunham, that those are females who are interesting because they are strong-willed. But I also could point to certain male characters that have the same thing. So I guess the answer is, I don't really try to write characters who are strong women, I just try to write strong characters, and if they happen to be women, they happen to be women.
In my life I've got the most spectacular wife in Katie McGrath. She is probably the strongest and best influence on me that I've ever had, and I would say that it's no coincidence that it was after I met her that I wrote Felicity, mostly because I think she reminded me to write about stuff that I actually care about again, because it had been a while. She has strength and this amazing ability to immediately understand right and wrong. She's very socially active and politically-minded and fights a good fight, and she's someone who is definitely an inspiration, who happens to be a woman.
Can you speak – generally - about what season two's story arc might be?
I would actually argue that, in a way, season two is getting to know the enemy. Season one is identifying that there is an enemy and really getting to know each other. But I think that as the show progresses what you'll see in the second season is that it's building to a very specific type of confrontation and I think you'll see that there will be a really interesting shift in the fundamental paradigm of the show at the beginning of next season, in a very cool way.
What lessons, if any, did you learn from Lost that you applied to the creation of the first season of Fringe?
The truth is, when I was on Lost, at the beginning, we were just trying to figure out how the show was going to work and how we could take our ideas, these big-picture ideas, and actually make a series out of it. But one of the lessons that I learned from Lost, and from Alias, was to try and create a show that would not confound people if they happened to miss the first two or three hours. And it was a very conscious decision at the very beginning of developing Fringe: let's come up with a show that could just be a series of really crazy week-to-week insane events, and knowing that we all love the ongoing nature of series television character development and stuff, we knew that we would never not have that as a part of it.
So secondarily, we knew we would be doing, of course, character stories which you would see evolve over the years. So we try to pace ourselves out in that regard. But I think that the biggest lesson was to try and avoid hurting people's brains by making the show too confusing too early which in turn would make it limiting too, and unwelcoming.
How much do you really, truly understand about everything that happens on Fringe, in terms of science?
I've always, and I'm sure to a fault, been of the mind that if you have a cool idea that's compelling and crazy, that's the idea you follow, and you do research to back it up. There are occasions when research actually yields a story, but I have often found that that's not the case for me. Instead I will think, "Can someone blow up spontaneously?" And then I end up working backwards and finding out that there are insane tests where people have applied microwaves to their bodies. Fringe was never intended as a course on any kind of physics or medicine or science. It was always meant to just be a kind of fun, cool, and insane representation of what it feels like to live in a world where science seems to be limitless in what it can do.
The crazy thing about a show like Fringe is, as you're working on it, as you're writing about things that are insane, like a cold virus the size of a football, or whatever the hell you happen to be playing with that week, invariably you will see a story online that is weirder than what you're writing, that actually happened. Whether it's a body part that was grown, whether it's about something that was replaced, whether it's about somebody that came back to life, whether it's about some really weird spontaneous event, like it just seems like the weirdest part about Fringe is, as we work on it, pushing the envelope, kind of having fun for ourselves, inevitably there is some real life story that feels almost beyond what we're playing with. I kind of feel like, yes, it's fantasy, it's fiction, and yes, we're inspired by gut instinct much more than we are factual data, but I think that we all live in a moment where nothing surprises us any more, where almost anything that we would see online or in a paper, we would believe. So I just want to feel that we are in that weird place where, as crazy as Fringe is, we no longer need to look to the supernatural ghosts or aliens to feel like there is an unpredictable and terrifying enemy among us. I think that we have made that enemy ourselves.
Many episodes of Fringe open with a monologue from Broyles, sort of catching viewers up. Do you foresee a day at some point – maybe even next season – where you won't need that exposition?
Yes. I can't say yes loud enough, fast enough, or with more passion. There is nothing more crazy than having that sort of massive chunk of exposition thrown at you at the beginning of the story. It is one of those things that I would love to avoid, and I think that sometimes the desire of either the producers, writers, and network execs is to try to provide clarity. The net result is almost always confusing. I feel like those kinds of monologues of exposition don't help anyone.
Now that we've seen Charlie and Broyles in this alternate reality, do you think we might run into, say, a still-breathing John Scott over there?
I would say that it'll be very difficult now that John's show [Human Target] got picked up [laughing]. Having said that, I'm very excited his show got picked up, and I do think that there will be some very interesting things happening, given this "alternate reality" that you were referring to.
The relationship between Walter and Peter is like a little sitcom in the middle of all the weirdness. What is the thought process behind developing that relationship?
I think that the father/son relationship was, at the very beginning, one of the things that got all of us [co-creators] excited, Alex [Kurtzman] and Bob [Orci] and myself. And one of the things that I think has happened over the course of this season is that there is a sort of sense of facility of their relationship has increased. There's no longer as much of a conflict between them as there was at the beginning. Now granted, they've gotten to know each other and they develop a rhythm, but one of the things that I think we're going to play with a little bit, which I think speaks to our sense of evolution of that relationship, is that there will be some issues between them and some sort of setback that I think will make their working together, frankly, a little bit more dynamic and a little bit more interesting, and not just so familiar and easygoing. But I could not adore the actors, both Josh and John, more and I think they're wonderful together and I just think that when you give them more, when there are more sparks between them, I think it's that much more interesting. So we're playing with that now.