JJ Abrams and Joshua Jackson Interview – FRINGE

     September 9, 2008

Written by Cal Kemp

“Fringe” hits the airwaves tonight at 8:00 with a special two-hour pilot and will continue, all season long, at 9:00 Tuesday nights. With heavy inspiration from both “The X-Files” and “The Twilight Zone”, Abrams tells the story of three unlikely investigators into the paranormal and cases that balance on the edge of “fringe science”.

JJ Abrams joined star Joshua Jackson for a special press conference regarding the series and Collider was there to catch all the information. For the record, I was less than wowed by the “Fringe” pilot (Check out my review here) but I think that Abrams’ track record so far has earned him the benefit of the doubt and I’ll keep tuning in to see how the series progresses.

Question: 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?

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

Abrams: 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.

Q: 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.

Jackson: 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.

Q: Were you staying away with the purpose for the last five years of not wanting to go back to TV and try to define yourself as not that character you had played? Or was it with intent or just happenstance?

Jackson: 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.

Q: In regards to all the different types of, I guess, going into this Fringe science, are the writers, is everybody sitting around and wondering how far can we 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?

Abrams: Thanks for the question. 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. Some shows, I think, as we’re writing scripts will deal with science very much as it exists. But I think for the most part the fun about it for me with movies and TV shows, especially in the genre of either horror of sci-fi is that pushing of the envelope and going further than you might otherwise. I think the show will definitely be pushing the edge of the envelope, but I don’t think it’s going to be about that. I don’t think we’re going to be trying to top ourselves every week because then we’ll just be in a race against ourselves and then there’s no way to win that one. So I feel like the key is to tell stories that are as compelling, as emotional, as funny and certainly as weird and out there as possible, but not to try and have it be exploiting that aspect of the show. I would rather be delving into who these people are and what makes them tick than doing something just for shock value.

Q: J.J., for you what did you see in Josh that made him right as your “Peter Bishop”? Josh, for you, talk about working with John Noble and Anna Torv and what interests you about “Peter’s” relationships with their characters.

Jackson: Should I put the phone down for a couple minutes?

Abrams: You can go first.

Jackson: I go first? Okay. I’m sorry what was the second half of the question again? What is it about Anna and John that brings “Peter Bishop” to life?

Q: John especially because he’s playing the character kind of like a little bit of a mad scientist type of way and Anna is very straightforward. So it’s interesting for you to play off of, I’m sure. And then what interested you about the character’s relationship to their characters?

Jackson: Actually, the answer to both ultimately becomes the same because while there’s a lot of stuff going on with “Peter Bishop,” what I’m finding is a lot of the fun of playing him is exactly what you described, the relationship basically which boils down to being a translator more often than not between “Walter,” who is brilliant, but sort of half cracked, and then “Olivia,” who is an intensely no-nonsense type person. She’s not the type of character that you would sit down and have a lyrical, philosophical conversation with. She’s very much a “Just the facts, ma’am” type of person. And you bring this other character, this “Peter” character, into that world who has to try and be the go-between, and initially the extremely reluctant go-between who’s really only brought in by happenstance and then can’t get himself out. That’s an interesting dynamic because ultimately what that boils down to in my mind, and J.J., feel free to correct me, is a very typical dysfunctional family. And you put that dynamic, something that’s relatable and understandable to everybody, and you put it in this fantastically outrageous world of Fringe and it makes for an interesting day’s work.

Abrams: To answer your question, I’ve known Josh a little bit for a long time back in the days of Dawson’s Creek. I was doing Felicity, so we were sort of in that same universe

Jackson: Actually, not to make this too romantic, but I remember the first time we met.

Abrams: At Disney.

Jackson: Yes, exactly, at the screening for Felicity.

Abrams: That’s right. I’ve always been a fan and loved his sense of humor and also the gravity that I thought that he could bring to something, even something as soap operatic as the stuff you were doing on the WB. I felt that same way about when I was working with Keri Russell. It’s like you find, there are actors, you go, “Okay, they are really good, they elevate the material. They make it better.” As a director/writer/producer, all you ever want is to work with actors who make you look better, who make the work you do seem as good as it can be and even better than it is. I always felt that Josh had that ability. I’m thrilled to finally get a chance to work with him.

Q: 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?

Jackson: 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.

Abrams: 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.

Q: Is there some point you want to make about corporations in this and how much will that figure in the show?

Abrams: The show doesn’t quite hit on the corporate conspiracy aspect, as the pilot might suggest, but there definitely is an ambiguous role that is played by Blair Brown. She works for a company that it’s much more important, the relationship between her boss, who we have yet to meet, and “Walter,” John Noble’s character. Their back story, how they ended up where they are, these are things that are much more about the characters than about a sort of cliché, cynical look at corporate culture. Having said that, I don’t trust corporate culture at all.

Q: Can you tell us who is playing her boss and how soon we might see him?

Abrams: I can’t tell you that yet, but I can tell you that you will definitely meet him, he’ll definitely be a featured part of the show. We want to make sure that when you meet him it’s something you’re hungry for, as opposed to something that you’re just experiencing. So the way it’s going to happen, which will happen over time, but by the end of the first season you’ll meet “William Bell.

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Q: Josh touched a little bit on the successful longevity of some of your other shows, such as Lost and Alias. So I was just wondering how you felt Fringe compares to these shows and what kind of expectations you have for it compared to those.

Abrams: My expectations are sort of irrelevant because I never really know what to expect. You can never guess or assume what anyone is going to think. I can say that it’s one of those shows that if I had nothing to do with it and saw it coming out, I’d want to kill myself. I’d be so miserable because it is so the show that I’d want to watch. That doesn’t mean that anyone else will. That doesn’t mean that it’s good or bad. It just means it is so the kind of the show that I am excited to see. In terms of the other series, I don’t know how to compare. Fringe is a very different show, but I would say that one of the experiments that we’re doing on Fringe is writing the show so that it is not as overtly serialized as certainly Alias and Lost are or were. So how that translates, I don’t know. What it will mean, I’m not sure, but because I’m so drawn to overarching and sort of long-term stories, there will still be the mythology, the evolution of characters, the revelations of their story and what “The Pattern” means and what they’re doing and how they connect to that. So there’s all the stuff that’s happening. But we’re doing it in a way that is much less week to week installments of that story, which then requires you to reset things every time you do an episode that is a mythology episode, which makes it, I hope, something you can watch without feeling like you’re not in the club if you’ve missed an episode.

Q: Josh, do you have a head for science? I’m not talking about fringe science, just the generally accepted kind of science they teach in school.

Jackson: Head for it as in my interest for it?

Q: An aptitude for it, an interest in it, are you good at it? Is that why you’re an actor because you’re not good at it?

Jackson: I think the standard answer to that is: I’m an actor because I’m not good at a lot of things. I don’t know. I would have to say it’s been a long time since I applied—well, that’s actually not true. We all apply scientific knowledge in one way or another on a daily basis. But it’s been since high school since I found myself in lab. Some of the jargon is new to me, but I find the world of science interesting. I find the fact that we’re in a couple of weeks going to turn on the large Hadron Collider and maybe or maybe not incinerate the entire universe, that definitely piques my interest, so I certainly in the popular science world, I guess I’m aware of it, but no, I think the science kits, my chemistry set has been in the basement for a long time.

Q: We’ve got a quarter of the new shows out there coming from overseas. You have cost cutting at the networks. Do you think it’s a tougher climate right now for writers with new ideas? Also, what advice would you give to somebody, a young writer that wants to get the kind of show runner clout that you have?

Abrams: I think it is a particularly difficult time. Obviously I’m thrilled that Fringe, the show was not based on a format from another country or something that was imported, just because I feel beyond feeling lucky that we got a show on the air, it’s good to see that what is probably a fad, a limited phenomenon of importing these foreign shows. It’s nice to see an anomaly to that, although all the actors are imported. What was the second question?

Q: What advice would you give to a young writer that aspires to have the kind of show runner clout that you have to get stuff on the air?

Abrams: I feel like it is at least 51% luck that I’ve been able to view any of what I’ve done. I would say the great news about writing and being a show runner is that it’s free to write. You don’t need equipment. You don’t need permission. For anyone who wants to run a show, it literally is just about exercising that muscle. Because writing as much as you can, it’s been said that if you write a great a script and you throw it off the Brooklyn Bridge, someone will find it and make it because people are desperate for good material. Having said that, I’ve read a lot of stuff that is far better than what I write that has not gotten on the air. We’ve all seen stuff that is generally perceived as garbage that gets on all the time. So there are no rules, but I think really the key is writing as much as you can. And then when you write it, you’ve got your leverage. You’ve basically created your own momentum. At that point if you want to get a show, if someone wants to make that script that you’ve written and you want to be a show runner, you need to say, “This is what my involvement is going to be.” But really, the only real answer, the practical one is, if you want to be a show runner, the key is write the pilot that is something you want to make, which is literally—that just goes back to: what is it you want to see? Don’t write what you think they want to see or what you believe or what you’re told is selling. Write the show that you desperately want to see and that is the closest you can get to certainty that will appeal to a lot of people.

Q: There is this recurring theme of 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.

Abrams: ….Gillette …. 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.

Q: 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?

Abrams: I’ve never seen the X-Files [laughs]. ….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.

Q: 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?

Abrams: 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.

Q: J.J., you have a really great track record with your leading ladies, Keri Russell, Jennifer Garner, Evangeline Lilly. How did you find Anna Torv?

Abrams: Our incredibly talented casting director … showed us a video audition that Anna did for another show, a movie. We were trying to see as many people as we could and I saw this audition. It’s just that feeling that you have where you just immediately know that’s the person. I wish there was some really cool, clever technique that we use to do this, but the truth is whether it’s Keri Russell walking through the door, Jennifer Garner, who I’d gotten to work with on Felicity, and who my wife was insistent was going to be a star, or Evangeline Lilly, who I got a video of her audition, or now Anna, it’s simply the fact that when you see the right person, the first thing you’re concerned about is, “Oh my God, can we actually get her? Is she really available?” Like it’s no longer about giving her the part, it’s just we have to make this work. When I saw Anna, I just knew that she had a quality that was unique and smart, and she was beautiful, but not in a way that felt like she was phony. She seemed tough and sophisticated. I just felt like she was the right one.

Q: 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?

Abrams: 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.

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