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JJ Abrams & Joshua Jackson

JJ Abrams & Joshua Jackson: The Interview

With the enormous success of such cult serials as Alias and, most recently, Lost, JJ Abrams is no stranger to the stress of living up to emense buzz.  But, Joshua Jackson, somewhat dormant since his days playing the trouble Pacey Whitter on Dawson's Creek, is facing a new challenge.  We sat down with both of them to discuss their new show, Fringe.

SHAKEFIRE (SF): Like lots of people, I sort of have the election on the brain.  I’m wondering do you view this show and its contemporary setting through the filter of anything that’s happening in American society at the moment?  Does it really make any difference to Fringe which party takes over in January in terms of storytelling?

JOSH: I’m going to leave that one to you, boss.

J.J. ABRAMS (JJ): I really think that Josh should answer this because, first of all, because the show, I’ll try to answer quickly in a non-political mode, which is, the show is obviously coming out at a time when every week we read or hear or see about some kind of potentially horrifying scientific breakthrough.  The reality is that we are in a time, whatever party is leading the country, where science is out of control.  Having said that, maybe everything is out of control and maybe the show should be called ….  The political aspect of it is obviously—it wasn’t created to mirror the election, all I’ll say is hope is a good thing.

SF: Josh, I want to ask you a little bit about your decision to come back to TV.  Were you purposely staying away from the genre for a while and decide to go back in, or was it this project specifically that drew you to getting back on TV?

JOSHUA JACKSON (JOSH): It was this project specifically that drew me back to TV.  Frankly, first it was the quality of the script, which is now our pilot and the density of it.  And the fact that even while it was a totally satisfying story unto itself, you can see that it was laid in there, the potential for a whole world, a whole universe of other stories.

And the other J.J. on the line and his ability with the group of people that he keeps around him to tell these stories well over a long period of time.  Because that was my hope, if I ever came back to television, to be part of a group of people who had the track record of being able to keep shows at a high level of quality over a long period of time.  J.J., cover your ears.  I think he’s the best on TV at that right now.

SF: So was it your purpose to distance yourself from television?   

JOSH: There was some purpose in that TV is exhausting.  It takes a little while to recover, but I don’t know.  It’s hard to say.  I try not to live my life as much as possible defining myself against something.  So I wasn’t really too worried about coming back and being labeled as “Pacey” or as that guy from Dawson’s Creek because that’s really an actor’s job.  If I get labeled as that, it’s probably because I’m not good enough to define myself as something else.  So I wasn’t purposely running from that, but I certainly wasn’t looking.

SF: So, do you or the writer sit around and wonder how far you can push it before it becomes unbelievable?  Or is that one of the nice things about this type of genre work where you can keep everything together and be able to tell something maybe far-fetched, really true science fiction type stuff to still keep the audiences in?  

JJ: The truth is that when we did the pilot for Lost, we had the monster appear at the end of the first act.  We did that very consciously because we wanted to say to the audience, “We’re jumping the shark now,” like we’re doing crazy stuff from the beginning.  We’re not going to wait.  On Fringe, we very consciously did what is in many ways a preposterous out there, far-fetched scientific story point in order to say to the audience, “This is what you’re going to be getting on the show.”  Now it may be more extreme in some cases, less so in others.  

SF: So with the Anna and Josh chemistry we have going on, will there be love in their future?  Josh, you also mentioned at the premiere that it would be kind of inappropriate for their characters to get together.  Inappropriate how, if you could both touch on that?  

JOSH: I’ll leave the big question to you, J.J., but the little question, actually what I said at the premiere was that it would be inappropriate in the pilot because it’s awkward hitting on a woman when her boyfriend is dying in front of her eyes.  But the big question I’ll leave to you, J.J.

JJ: The odds are so much better.  There’s no doubt going to be a sort of slow burn relationship that develops between the two of them.  I don’t think it will happen exactly as you might think.  But there obviously will be a dynamic there that we will play up, but like Josh said, it needs to be burned and it needs to be done right.  There’s a lot going on their lives on the show that are more urgent issues, but there’s definitely going to be over time a relationship between the “Peter” and “Olivia” characters.  

SF: You seem to have a recurring theme about distrust of corporate culture.  It’s something that pops up in Lost and it’s something else that pops up in Cloverfield.  I’m wondering where that all stems from.

JJ: It probably comes from—I feel like there are so many entities that are powerful and far reaching.  It’s funny, the descriptors of many large corporations could be applied to countries and when you have such a large presence it’s hard to look at those companies and not at least ask the kind of questions, at least dramatically, that make that kind of institution interesting.  

So while it’d be easy to not ask those questions and not scrutinize, to me there have been a few instances where I’ve looked at things that certain corporations have done and I just can’t help myself and think, “Okay, wait a minute.  What’s the real agenda there?  What’s really going on?”  Because there’s got to be something more than—and so it’s just a very real thing that we are all surrounded by, as much as we are surrounded by the geography and the political world, we’re surrounded by a corporate world.  It’s hard to believe that there isn’t some kind of interesting, compelling intrigue happening behind the doors of those corporate headquarters, so it’s an intriguing idea.

Having said that, it’s also been overplayed and done a million times so if you don’t have something interesting to say about a corporate culture, conspiracy, you probably should say nothing.  But it is, for whatever reason, it is interesting to me.

SF: When you talked a little bit earlier about the serialized nature of the show, how it won’t be as much serialized as Lost and Alias, do you envision more like the X-Files where maybe ten out of 20 episodes in a season have to do with one particular back story and the others have nothing to do with it, or more like Lost where there’s a number of different mythologies, but they’re introduced every episode and don’t seem to go anywhere, but you plan to revisit it at some point?  Which do you see it more as?

JJ: I’m such a fan of not just X-Files, but the Twilight Zone is one of my favorite shows of all time.  I love the original Nightstalker was great.  What I love about shows, the X-Files did so well is they could do creepy stuff Twilight Zone style, and like you said, it was actually even more than half the season, but they would do a number of shows that had nothing to do with the overall storytelling, the overall mythology and then they would jump in and do one.  That is definitely closer to the model.  I would even say closer to that—it’s closer to ER almost where you have these ongoing relationships, these ongoing storylines and yet week to week when the door bursts open you’re faced with the insane urgent situation of the week.  

A show I loved when it was on was The Practice.  That’s another show that would do that well, which is they would deal with the interpersonal relationship stuff.  The funny thing about, I am so interested in those relationships.  When I look back at doing Felicity, and I’m sure Josh felt this way on Dawson’s Creek as well, that the problem with those shows is that there’s nothing to interrupt the relationship story.  So while there are things here and there that you come up with, there was no franchise that would distract the main characters from their emotional storyline.  

So I think a show like ER is a good example of a show where if these characters were not doctors and they were just hanging out, you go through their emotional stories in a few episodes.  But because of what’s happening everyday, every week on those shows, there’s stuff they have to deal with, there’re fires to put out.  So anyway, the X-Files is definitely a good model.  ER for some reason is one that feels more in line with the rhythm of what we’re doing, but the X-Files is a great example.  

SF: When you look at the current television landscape and you think about what shows like Lost and Heroes and Battlestar have done and what Fringe could potentially do, do you consider this to be almost the golden age of sci-fi? 

JJ: I would like to think that we’re—it’s funny because Lost was always a sci-fi show that was kind of secretly a sci-fi show, and something like Battlestar Galactica is obviously much more overtly science fiction.  The weird thing about Fringe is that although you can say it’s science fiction, a lot of what we’re talking about is stuff that is at least in the realm of possibility, even though we’re definitely pushing it.  So some of the stuff that we’re talking about now is not as much sci-fi as much as it is just sci, like when Star Trek came out and they had their communicators, that was a cool dream and now we all in our pockets have communicators and it’s just real.  So when we’re working on an episode and we read as we did a week ago, that invisibility is coming, they think we’ve cracked invisibility.  And you’re like, “Okay.”  Like the stuff that you just would never in a million years think is actually possible is happening every day.  

So I think we may be living in the golden age of sci-fi for the TV, but I think it’s partially because we’re living in an incredibly advanced, and almost uncontrollably so, period of scientific achievement.  It’s pushing what we all thought was our … it’s that comfortable almost quaint version of what sci-fi is to a very different place, and that’s where Fringe lives.

SF: Hello, J.J.  I’m wondering about, one of the more important questions that have come up, Fringe is done in such a cinematic fashion and we’re seeing a lot of shows now on television deal with this, we’re seeing more kind of a movie type atmosphere.  Do you like this direction for dramatic shows?  Do you think more shows should incorporate it into their style?

JJ: I do.  I feel like obviously the standard for what TV looks like changes all the time.  There’s certainly a cinematic quality to much of what you see on TV.  In fact, it’s funny when you watch some movies now, they’ve gone to a much more rough, the Bourne films, for example, that feels almost documentary style the way Paul Greengrass does his stuff.  So it’s funny how television has taken on a very sort of cinematic look, more sophisticated lighting and camera moves.  A lot of movies have gone to a rougher place.

So it’s interesting to think the line is so blurred now, it’s hard to know.  If you just want to look at something in a vacuum, I don’t know if you’d be able to say, “That definitely is a TV show. That’s definitely a movie.”  I think it’s sort of become, just as, by the way, actors and writers and directors are seemingly existing in television and film without real regard to being a TV star or a movie star, if you’re an actor, you’re an actor and the medium is less important than the material.   

SF: Any closing remarks?

JJ: Give a little speech.  Thanks very much.

JOSH: I’m sorry.  I didn’t prepare a speech, strangely.

JJ: Okay.

Peter Oberth
Interview by Peter Oberth
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