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JJ Abrams (Fringe/Star Trek)

JJ Abrams (Fringe/Star Trek)

JJ Abrams has it good right now.  His cult hit, Fringe, just ended a pretty successfull first season and has been picked up for a second and his revamp of Star Trek recently opened to enormous box office success and even larger critical acclaim.  We sat down with Abrams to talk about the show and where he intends to take it in season 2.

SHAKEFIRE: Tell us a little bit about the conversation that landed Leonard Nimoy in the season finale, if you would, please.

JJ ABRAMS: I believe what happened was it began with an e-mail that I sent to him – oh no, this is what happened, this is what happened.  I remember, 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 basically 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, and 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, where we told him the idea, ..., and his response was interest and intrigue, and I knew that was a good sign.

SF: 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?

JJ: Well, thanks for the question.  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, sort of what it wants to be, and it was clear as we were going that getting to William Bell could and should be pushed off, and we should pace ourselves.  And that's one of the biggest challenges, I think, of any first season of a show is really finding the pace of the series, especially a show that has both a stand-alone episode-to-episode and a ... to follow.  So that was very important to us.

SF: There's time travel in Lost and time travel in Star Trek movie.  Will there be time travel on Fringe?

JJ: 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 would do.  Obviously, it is not a brand new convention, the 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 in traveling through space.

SF: I'm wondering if Season 1 was about learning about the enemy, learning about ZFT and learning about how Walter and Olivia cross paths with that.  I'm wondering if you can speak sort of generally about what Season 2’s arc might be.

JJ: I would say that, yes, I think the first year was about not just getting to know the enemy but getting to understand that there is an enemy.

SF: Right.

JJ: I would actually argue that in a way Season 2 is getting to know the enemy.  Season 1 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 that you’ll see that there will be a really interesting shift in the sort of fundamental paradigm of the show at the beginning of next season, in a very cool way. 

So, without going into any details about it, it has a kind of fun, fresh way in next year that I think is, you never know how it's going to work, you just cross your fingers and pray people like it, but I feel like it's one of those next season beginnings that feel thrilling to me, in a way that is more than just, oh, I can’t wait for him to come back.  It's, I can’t wait for him to experience what we're doing, and for them to come back this way.  And so that's the thing that is, I know I'm being insanely vague, but I would say that the excitement is not just now, in sort of these characters knowing each other, but now it's with playing with them a little bit.

SF: I'm wondering, what lessons, if any, did you learn from Lost that you applied to the creation of the first season of Fringe?

JJ: Have Damon Lindelof run it.  No, well 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 could we take our ideas that we had, these big picture ideas, and actually make a series out of it, which ... what happens with every show.  But one of the lessons that I learned from Lost, and from Alias, was to try and create a show without ... 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 the show, which was like, 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 and then making it in that regard, limiting to and unwelcoming ...  Thank you for the question.

SF: I want to return to something you were talking about a couple questions ago about sort of not confounding the audience.  This past week began with a three or four minute monologue from Broyles, sort of catching viewers up, and there have been several episodes that have had similar expositional, in case you're just joining us, monologues.  Do you foresee a day at some point, next season maybe, hopefully, where you don’t need to do that any more?

JJ: 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, network studio, wherever it comes from, to try and provide clarity, there is almost always the net result of confusing the hell out of people, like clarity looks like one thing on a script but is another thing ...  And I feel like those kind of monologues of exposition don’t help anyone.  I mean, although, by the way, I think Lance delivers them beautifully and he's a wonderful actor, but I think any actor tasked with catching an audience up deserves a drink at the end of the day.

SF: Anyway, 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?

JJ: I would say that it’ll be very difficult now that John’s show got picked up.

SF: Oh, that's right.

JJ: But 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 other place that you were referring to.  And again, it's part of the fun of the show and I think and hope that it will become one of the aspects of Fringe that again, make it incredibly unique, meaning my favorite kind of ideas are things where we work on them, we think, like, that there's no other show on TV that could do that weird thing.  Like that's my favorite kind of an idea.  And I just think that if you don’t go for those, then the show becomes increasingly mundane and just disposable, but the more you can do something, even if it doesn’t work, to try and do those things that feel specifically, that show.  So anyway, there are some things ... place that I think are going to continue that I think will ....

SF: One of the things that's always worked for me on the show since the beginning is Walter and his son.  It's like a little sitcom right inside the middle of an action adventure show.  What's been the thinking on developing that relationship as the show has gone on?

JJ: Thank you for the question.  I think that the father/son relationship was, at the very beginning, one of the things that got all of us excited, Alex and Bob 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 sort 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 this is happening 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, I think, some issues between them and some sort of set back 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.

SF: My question is a silly one, but it's about the ZFT manifesto.  I'm probably overlooking something totally obvious, but I was wondering how Walter knows that the missing chapter pertained to ethics when his memory is so unreliable.  I love his character, but it doesn’t seem like ethics are always a high priority for him.

JJ: I think you're right, and I think that you’ll see as we go you’ll learn more about that background, including the manifesto.  One of the things about Walter that I think you could either say is a writer’s convenience or conversely actually an interesting character trait, which is the untrustworthiness of his memory, that there is this sort of swiss cheese quality to it, which is not to say that there aren’t pieces there, but without existing memory there are no holes.  Meaning, that I think that the fun of it is that he will have the ability to recall something, to understand something, but then not understand how it pertains to something else.  In fact, I have to say, part of my desire would be to see more of that, which is what we had more at the beginning of the year, that sense that Walter is on a track and he understands something, he's made a connection, but then he literally can’t understand something as simple as how or where or when he did an experiment. 

I remember when we did Regarding Henry and I went to a recovery center where people who had suffered brain trauma were in therapy and recovery, and there was a young man who had been in a bad motorcycle accident who was sitting doing some cognitive therapy, and they were showing him a book and there were simplistic line drawings of a dog, and he would say “dog,” and they'd turn the page.  There was a tree, and he'd say “tree,” and they'd turn the page, and there was a house.  He'd say “house.”  They'd turn the page and there was a car, and he just stared at it, and he said, “I know those are tires and wheels.  I know that's a steering wheel.  I know you sit in it.  I know you go places in there.  I know that's how you drive, I even know how to drive,” but he could not remember the word.  And after this long pause ... and he was searching, they said “car,” and he said “car.” And it was one of those things that has stuck with me that the idea that you can, depending on what you’ve been through, and you learn more about that next season on Fringe for Walter, but the idea that a very specific piece could be missing, right next to a piece that is there, is part of the way the brain actually works. 

So it feels like it might be the convenience of storytelling, but I think when you're talking about a show like Fringe there’s a certain kind of creative license you can take to tell stories and provide information.

Peter Oberth
Interview by Peter Oberth
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