J.J. Abrams Talks ALCATRAZ, Serialized Storytelling, the Final Season of FRINGE, and Upcoming TV Projects

     January 23, 2012

The new Fox drama series Alcatraz follows a unique trio investigating the mystifying reappearance of 302 the most notorious prisoners and guards, 50 years after they vanished. As San Francisco Police Department Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and Alcatraz expert and comic book enthusiast Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) help government agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) and his associate, Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra), piece together the inexplicable sequence of events, they ultimately discover a much larger, more sinister present-day threat.

While at the TCA Winter Press Tour, executive producer J.J. Abrams talked about what intrigued him about the premise of this series, the changes they decided to make to the original pilot, why serialization has become a dirty word for TV, and that this was designed as episodic with an over-arcing large story and mythology stories that they’ll get to, over time. He also talked about how hopeful he is that Fringe will get renewed for at least one more season, said that Eric Kripke (Supernatural) is doing a great job developing the Revolution pilot that he will be producing, and that he is excited to be working with One Tree Hill creator Mark Schwahn on a show in the vein of Felicity. Check out what he had to say after the jump:

Question: How did you find out about this series?

J.J. ABRAMS: Well, what happened was that we received the original script that was written by Steven [Lilien] and Bryan [Wynbrandt], who are the creators with Liz Sarnoff. They wrote a great script. The premise was awesome. It was one of those things where I heard Alcatraz, and I thought, “What the hell. How could there never have been a show about this before?” It immediately made me lean forward. And then, when we heard the premise, we wanted to keep working on it and keep developing it. Lost was ending, so I called Liz Sarnoff and begged her to read it and come on board, and she did and helped the pilot get to a place that I thought was extraordinary and really cool.

So, we got to make this pilot, and then it went from there. Knowing the changes and things we wanted to do, Liz ultimately chose to step down because she didn’t feel like she was the right person to make all the changes we wanted, but she was running the show, at that point, with Jennifer [Johnson]. So, Liz decided to help out and stay on board, but Jennifer has been running the show, and Dan Pyne came on, who has been extraordinary, as well.

How do you feel about doing another show on an island?

ABRAMS: The thing is that, in theory, any land mass is an island, so you could argue that every show ever made [is about an island]. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is much like Lost, as Alcatraz is, honestly. Jorge [Garcia] was the first person cast in Lost, and he was the first person that was cast in Alcatraz. When I met Jorge, the weird thing is that his girlfriend was obsessed with Alcatraz and was talking a lot about it because she was writing a book, and we were developing this show. I was going to talk to him about it, and she was going on about Alcatraz, so I said, “That’s cool because we’re actually working on a show. Jorge, would you want to be in this show Alcatraz?” And, he was like, “That’s cool.”

Are you worried about the ratio of questions to answers that you’re providing to the audience, having had that problem before?

ABRAMS: Yeah, I think it’s a really good thing to learn lessons from. You can’t expect audiences to sit there asking fundamental questions for years. It’s unfair and it’s wrong, on the one hand. However, I also think that sometimes people can miss the point a little bit. Sometimes situations exist to create great stories. It’s important that we not have people asking, as a consensus, fundamental questions that we never answer. It would be cruel and unusual. So, there are lessons to learn from all past experiences. We are going to make sure that people aren’t banging their heads against the wall. But, if we answer everything at the end of Season 1, that’s never a good thing for any show. I would be lying, if I said, “Yes, by the end of the first season, you’ll know everything.” Of course not! But, it’s a multi-tiered story, so there isn’t just one answer.

What made you decide to make changes to Sarah Jones’ character, Rebecca Madsen, after doing the initial pilot?

ABRAMS: Well, one of the advantages of being a mid-season show instead of a fall show, where you have to say, “Oh, it would have been cool if we had actually had the time to make changes,” you actually can. Part of it was that we just felt like we wanted to invest more in a specific thing with Rebecca, so that viewers connected with her more and had a stronger connection to Alcatraz. There was a cool intellectual notion, but it wasn’t something that was viscerally demonstrated and dramatized in the episode. And there are a bunch of little things, too, that we realized. With the romantic interest that she had, we felt like it wasn’t really quite going with the rest of the show, and rather than say, “Well, let’s suck it up and move on,” we actually had a chance to make some changes and improve upon it.

What is it important to you to keep your Lost actors in the fold with your other projects?

ABRAMS: Because when you are lucky enough to work with people who are great and they, for some reason, want to work with you, it’s insane not to try to cultivate that relationship and let it last, as long as possible. I’ve been very lucky to get to work with some really amazing people, in front of the camera and behind the camera, and I just try to do my best to continue that.

How will you balance doing the Star Trek sequel with Alcatraz?

ABRAMS: The truth is that I didn’t create this show. I’m a producer on it. What I’ve been trying to do is help, whether it’s reading the scripts, giving notes, giving suggestions on cuts and doing the theme music, to get it up on running. But, the truth is, whether I was doing Star Trek or not, this was a show that was always going to be run by Jennifer [Johnson] and Dan [Pyne]. This is not something that I am suddenly stepping away from and not running. They’ve been carrying the ball, not me. Of course, I’ll still read and watch and give notes, but directing a movie obviously precludes me from being involved in any greater way. But, the job was never to do more. It was always to enable. My job on this was to try to help facilitate it and give notes that they could take or leave. It really is a show that they are doing a beautiful job running, and I’m lucky to be working with them. There is no big game plan, in terms of what my involvement is in TV. It’s project to project. This was one that, when it was pitched to me, it wasn’t my idea. I just loved the pitch, and felt very lucky to get to be a part of it.

What was the most fascinating thing you learned about Alcatraz, as you got into this project?

ABRAMS: There are so many unbelievable details, even little things, like the pool table that is up in the officer’s room that happens to be exactly the same size as the cells in the prison. There are all these crazy little things. You hear about some of the stories of prisoners and the relationships they had with the guards. I learned that families lived there. Kids lived there with their families, and they would go to school in San Francisco and then come back on the ferry. It was a whole community. It wasn’t just a prison. There were families, and they would show movies there and hold religious services. On the one hand, you go, “Of course, they would do that. That makes sense,” but you don’t know that. It goes from being a mythic place, to a place where lives were lived. That was the most interesting thing.

How hard was it to get permission to shoot the pilot there?

ABRAMS: Surprisingly easy. The hardest thing was getting permission to pay for it. We’ve had amazing luck, on Fringe and on the recent Mission: Impossible movie, shooting in Vancouver. There are amazing crews and wonderful sets. On the one hand, it’s a trade-off that we don’t get to go to San Francisco as much as we’d like, but on the other hand, it’s a wonderful place to shoot.

Do you think serialization has become a dirty word in TV, these days?

ABRAMS: I think it has, which is an unfortunate situation because I do love it. A lot of serialized shows were purposefully complex and about asking big questions that they became so quickly impenetrable. I know what they’re trying to do. When there’s an authentic mystery, as opposed to just a question being asked, that’s what makes you lean forward. Usually, there’s an emotional connection to that, that makes it interesting. All I know is that I’ve made some big screw-ups, and I’ve done some things that have done all right. I just keep trying to learn from the mistakes I’ve made. At the same time, I can’t help but like shows that have an ongoing mythology. It’s the way life is. It’s a weird thing, to me, to feel like things are always just wrapped up completely. Hopefully, Alcatraz will allow things to exist over the long term, and also have a week-to-week, specific puzzle that needs to be solved.

Is there a way to successfully serialize the show, and still make sure that people can tune in to any episode?

ABRAMS: I’ve told this story before, but years ago, when Alias was on, I went over to a friend’s house and there was an episode that was on, and I watched it. I had had a bad day and I wasn’t really focused, and I watched about four minutes of the opening and was like, “What the fuck is going on in this show? I have no idea!” Now, of course, I knew the story and I worked on it, but my heart broke for everyone I knew had to work as hard as they had to, in watching that show.

Having said that, I loved doing Alias. It was one of my favorite things. In fact, that show was really built as a serialized show. And, when we were instructed by the network, at the beginning of Season 3, to stop that, we then went to episodic shows, and I think that the show suffered for it.

Having said that, this show was designed, very much, as an episodic show with an over-arcing large story, and with mythology stories that we’d be able to get to, over time. But, the premise was that every episode is about these underdogs having to track this person down. It’s very different from the Alias SD-6 conundrum.

What’s your sense about the likelihood of Fringe getting another season?

ABRAMS: I don’t know. For some sick reason, I’m hopeful. There is some stuff coming up that is so great. They’re doing such amazing work. Maybe it’s just that dumb optimism of hoping that, when good work is done, it gets rewarded. Some of the work that Jeff [Pinkner] and Joel [Wyman] are working on now is so good that I’m just crossing my fingers it gets to continue. And, if not on Fox, maybe somewhere else.

Has Fox given you any indication that they would give you a heads up before canceling the show, so that you can make sure things get wrapped up?

ABRAMS: I would think that, if the show was going to end, they’ve been so wonderful and incredibly supportive and really aware of the audience that they have and don’t have, I’m sure they would be courteous enough to do that.

What can fans expect from Fringe, for the remainder of this season?

ABRAMS: I don’t want to talk about anything specific that’s coming. But Joel Wyman, one of the showrunners, directed an episode that is incredibly romantic and powerful and emotional, and has my favorite combination of weird and sweet, sci-fi and romance.

Are you planning an endgame, story wise?

ABRAMS: Not in the immediate future. My dream would be that the next year would be the great ending for the show, to have one more season, but of course, any producer would say that.

How is the Revolution pilot with Eric Kripke (Supernatural) coming along?

ABRAMS: Great! I love Kripke. Kripke is killing it. He’s doing a great job. Fingers crossed. He’s turned the script into us, but we’re doing some work and it’s awesome.

And, you’re also developing a pilot with Mark Schwahn (tentatively titled Maine, and revolving around the staff and guests at an inn there)?

ABRAMS: He’s also writing, but I haven’t seen a draft of that. It is, as of yet, unread, since he hasn’t turned it in yet, but I’m loving working with him.

What made you want to work with him?

ABRAMS: I was very excited about the idea of working on a show that felt more in the universe of Felicity. This show felt like it was going back to that kind of a tenor and mood. He has had One Tree Hill on for 43 years, so it was good timing to find someone who was looking for another show and who was already very familiar with that kind of A+ level, soap opera type show. That’s what we tried to do with Felicity.

Is there anything else you have in development for next season?

ABRAMS: There are a couple other things, but those are the main two. We’ll see.

Click here for all of our previous coverage on Alcatraz, which includes our visit to the premiere in San Francisco.