NY Times Interview: J.J. Abrams on FRINGE ~ Fringe Television - Fan Site for the FOX TV Series Fringe

NY Times Interview: J.J. Abrams on FRINGE

      Email Post       8/25/2008 09:59:00 AM      

The New York Times has an interview with J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Bryan Burk on FRINGE, where they discuss the FRINGE formula, and the lessons learned on Lost, Alias, and Felicity on how to make a TV show complex, without making it confusing.

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J. J. Abrams says his new show, “Fringe,” will require less of viewers than shows like the three above: “Lost,” top; “Alias,” center; and “Felicity.”Complexity Without Commitment

IF you’ve ever been utterly baffled by a television show that J. J. Abrams had a hand in creating — too confused to follow the serpentine plot twists of “Lost” or “Alias” or, heck, even “Felicity” — know that Mr. Abrams, the prolific writer, producer and director, has been annoyed too. With you.

“I just got tired of hearing people say to me, over and over, ‘Yeah, I was watching it, but I missed one, I got really confused, and I stopped watching it,’ ” he said in a recent phone interview.

If viewers find this kind of show frustrating, it’s his own fault: he practically invented it. Over the past decade Mr. Abrams, 42, has helped pioneer a storytelling style that demands total commitment from audience members, requiring that they keep up not only with complicated single-episode plotlines (can a time-traveling castaway alter past events to help himself in the present?) but also with fiendishly intricate narratives (how did the Oceanic Six get off their mysterious island, and how might they get back?) that can take an entire season — or seasons, plural — to play out.

It is a strategy that has built cult followings for Mr. Abrams’s series and won him praise for his braininess. Yet even he recognizes that when it comes to recruiting new viewers, it’s about as effective as proposing to go steady on a first date.

“If you start going out with someone and immediately they’re like, ‘Look, we have to see each other every week,’ you run from that person,” Mr. Abrams said. “It’s like, ‘Can’t we just see how it goes?’ ”

Mr. Abrams is especially mindful of the television-series-as-relationship metaphor as he prepares “Fringe,” which will have its premiere on Fox on Sept. 9. Created with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the screenwriters of “Transformers” and Mr. Abrams’s forthcoming “Star Trek” film, “Fringe” is an hourlong drama about an investigative team whose explorations lead to a shadowy world of science fiction and the seemingly supernatural.

It is also Mr. Abrams’s attempt to rectify the narrative (and viewer attention span) problems he faced on previous shows and to synthesize the many lessons he has learned from them into a series that is both complex and accessible, and that is capable of arriving at a determined conclusion over an undecided number of episodes.

“The evolution from your ideas and expectations and intent to what actually occurs in the series is a massive gulf,” Mr. Abrams said. “It’s a best-effort scenario. But I think that’s what a series is anyway.”

His newest show was born from pragmatism. In 2007 he was preparing to direct “Star Trek” for Paramount, but he also owed a television series to Warner Brothers, the studio that produces “Fringe,” and he turned to Mr. Kurtzman and Mr. Orci for help. They traded ideas about beloved fantasy films and television series — “The X-Files,” “Altered States,” the early movies of David Cronenberg — but also looked carefully at procedural crime dramas dominating the networks. “When 6 of the Top 10 shows are ‘Law & Order’ and ‘C.S.I.,’ ” Mr. Orci said, “you have to be a fool not to go study what it is that they’re doing.”

Cross-pollinating these genres, they came up with three characters — a neophyte F.B.I. agent (played by Anna Torv), a brilliant but mad scientist (John Noble) and his wayward son (Joshua Jackson) — who solve a single mystery each week. (For starters: Who unleashed a flesh-melting virus on an airplane, killing all its passengers?) The initial goal, Mr. Abrams said, was to create a show that suggested complexity but was comprehensible in any given episode — a goal he felt eluded him on “Alias.” On that series, a spy thriller that appeared on ABC from 2001 to 2006, the internecine warfare between the C.I.A. and a rival agency called SD-6 became so bewildering that, Mr. Abrams said, no casual viewer could keep up.

“You’re trying to track this show,” he said, “in which these bad guys are acting like good guys, the good guys are acting like bad guys, and the good guys are letting the bad guys exist. I can completely understand tuning in to Episode 3 and being like, ‘Huh?’ ”

In the second season of “Alias” ABC asked Mr. Abrams to conclude the C.I.A./SD-6 story line, an abrupt move that he said hurt the show. “There was this inherent joy that the series took in its Byzantine DNA,” he said. “Once we destroyed that convolution, the show was a little aimless in some ways.” But not all of Mr. Abrams’s colleagues agree. “I was often taking the side of the studio and the network,” said Mr. Orci, who produced “Alias” with Mr. Kurtzman. The lesson of “Alias,” Mr. Orci said, is that “you can slow down, and you can tell stand-alone episodes with the same scale of story and mystery.”

As the “Fringe” creators further developed the show, they decided it should have an overarching narrative — that its many paranormal phenomena and mysteries would turn out be part of a larger pattern, referred to simply as the Pattern — to tie its individual episodes together.

Such storytelling devices, Mr. Kurtzman argued, were practically mandatory for a science-fiction-theme show in an era when Internet spoilers are a perpetual hazard. “When we were kids, you had to wait three years between ‘Luke, I am your father’ and Luke showing up at Jabba’s palace,” Mr. Kurtzman said, referring to the original “Star Wars” movies. “You want new information, you’re going to have to wait for the sequel. Obviously that’s not an option anymore.”

Yet the strategy of the multiepisode (or multiseason) story arc — of soap-opera-like story elements that are revealed, drip by drip, over the life of an entire series — is one that Mr. Abrams has introduced to his other series, often spontaneously.

When “Lost” began (with an idea from Lloyd Braun, who was then the ABC Entertainment chairman, for a series about survivors of a plane crash), Mr. Abrams and his collaborator, Damon Lindelof, quickly composed an outline that introduced major characters but lacked the arcane story components that became synonymous with the show: no Dharma Initiative, no Hanso Foundation, no enigmatic Others. Once this outline was approved, Mr. Abrams gathered the founding creative team of “Lost” to figure out what the show would actually be. In this meeting he began to concoct some of its more fantastical elements, including the use of flashbacks to reveal who characters were before they arrived on the island.

“Immediately we were like, yes!” recalled Bryan Burk, Mr. Abrams’s longtime producing partner. “And then J. J. was like, ‘And there’s a hatch!’ ” — a mysterious underground bunker, introduced halfway through the first season of “Lost,” whose full significance has not yet been revealed.

The hatch, Mr. Burk said, posed a problem: “Do you discover the hatch in Episode 2? Or do you discover it in Episode 10? And upon discovering it, do you go in it in Episode 11? Or Episode 12?”

The solution to such narrative puzzles, Mr. Abrams and his colleagues said, is to have a game plan with clearly defined goalposts that can be moved around as a season and a series unfold. Know the ending to your series when you begin it; hope your show continues in perpetuity but always be prepared to wrap it up. (In this spirit the producers of “Lost” announced last year that the series would conclude at the end of its sixth season, in 2010.)

In the case of “Fringe” its creators say they have figured out a finale — naturally, they declined to describe it — that could be deployed at any point in the series. “If we’re canceled at Episode 13,” Mr. Orci said, “we’ll tell you at Episode 13, and if we go on, you could literally find this out in seven years.”

Recollections differ as to how much of the increasingly complicated “Fringe” story line was pitched to executives at Warner Brothers and at Fox when the series was ordered. “You always have to be on the up and up with your studio and your network,” Mr. Burk said. “There’s too much at stake, and they’re taking the biggest gamble.”

But Mr. Abrams cautioned against too much candor. “There are certain details that are hugely important,” he said with some mirth, “that I believe, if shared, will destroy any chance of actually getting on the air. These are the kinds of things that scare people away.”

Mr. Abrams has learned the hard way that a network gets what it wants, and that it’s not always detrimental to his shows. In 2002, when he was producing the final season of “Felicity,” his college soap opera on WB, the network told him that it was ordering five additional episodes of the show — just as he was preparing to shoot the graduation episode intended as the series finale. He and his staff quickly devised a five-episode epilogue styled after “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which the title character revisits crucial moments from her past. “It was the craziest idea,” Mr. Abrams said, “but as soon as Felicity went back, she was the most interesting character she’d been in years.”

If “Fringe” is a hit, such decisions about what plot devices to employ and when to employ them will fall less and less to the show’s creators — who are busily preparing films like “Star Trek” and a “Transformers” sequel — and more to a writing staff led by Jeff Pinkner, a former “Lost” producer.

At this early stage in the show’s progress, Mr. Abrams acknowledged, it can be hard to let go of the reins. “We’ve been thinking about this story for a year, and our staff has been thinking about it just for a couple of months,” he said. “Right now it’s all hands on deck, to micromanage every decision.”

But on that day, some months or years away, when he is no longer fully immersed in the making of “Fringe,” when his writing staff produces plot points that take him by surprise, Mr. Abrams said, he will know the show is a success. “It takes discipline to be able to be gracious and go: ‘I had nothing to do with it. They really ran with it. This is their ball now.’ ”


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