J.J. Abrams

The co-creator of the series talks about the first-year hit

J.J. Abrams scored yet another TV hit when Fringe premiered in the fall. The series he co-created with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman is coming to the end of its first season with the Season 1 finale episode, There's More Than One of Everything, which will air on Tuesday, May 12 at 9 PM ET on Fox. Abrams recently held a conference call to discuss the first season finale, and here's what he had to say.

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

J.J. 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.

What can you tell us about that season finale?

J.J. Abrams: I can tell you that it is, in the story of Fringe, it is the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. If you look at the show as a series of stand-alone episodes, I think it even works in that regard, but because we're trying to do both, have a show that you can tune into at any time and get a Fringe fix, or you can watch regularly and sort of ride the wave of the overall story and see how things connect and fit together that you might not otherwise expect to. This show feels like it is definitely one of those tent pole episodes in the ... of the show. But I think it really does begin the story that's in the beginning of the show, we knew wasn't ..., but the first season was really about the set-up of this world, the characters, their roles, their jobs, getting a sense of, and I think that as the show went on, we got more of a handle on their actions. But getting a sense of the rhythm of the show, but this is really a massive sort of turning point in the long term arc of the series.

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?

J.J. Abrams: 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.

Mr. Abrams, three weeks out of the last four, I believe, my TiVo has missed the conclusion of Fringe because it ran past 10:00 p.m., after getting a late start due to the expansion of American Idol. I've heard the same complaint from numerous of my readers. So I have two questions, notwithstanding my instructions to only ask one. The first is, does it bother you that the show is carried by a network run by drooling ... idiots? And second, can you tell me what happened in the final two minutes last Tuesday night?

J.J. Abrams: Well, I will say that I do have a different opinion about the network. But I will say that I, too, have heard from a number of people in frustration that the shows have been cut off, and it's infuriating. And this happens to me, obviously, as well when I'm watching something, not necessarily Fringe because I get the DVD. But it is infuriating, and I would say that I would be happy to send you, rather than describe what happens in those last two minutes, which I think are actually pretty cool, I'd rather send you the DVD, if you don't mind, than describe it to you because I think it's fun to watch.

The show, I don't want to say it changed tone over time, but it did seem to be a lot funnier as time went by and also, I think, maybe Olivia became less of a, or maybe I hate to say it, but a robotic character? How much of the arc of the season did you have in your head when you started and how much of it, as you say, is the show finding itself and telling you what it wants to be?

J.J. Abrams: Well, thank you for the question. We actually had a surprising amount of plans in terms of broad strokes, but the crazy thing is, as you work on it, like I said, you start to get resistance, not from an actor and not from a director, or even other writers on the show, but you start to, the show just sort of defines its shape in a strange way. I do think that one of the things that I love about the show is the kind of inherent humor in the insanity of it. If the show takes itself too seriously, then I'm afraid people will laugh at it. But if the show has humor inside of it, then the show itself is embracing and admitting to the preposterous nature of many of the episodes and stories. I love preposterous stories. My favorite movies, if you look at Jaws or Alien or Tootsie, or whatever, I mean, there are movies that if you describe the story, you go what? All right, well, okay. But done well, you're like, oh my God, this is the greatest write ever. So for me, the humor did, I think, increase as the season went on and I do think things like bringing in Olivia's sister, I think, began to give her at least opportunities to sort of be warmer to someone. She's a character who admitted in the show that she doesn't really have friends, so I think that there's a, the story for Olivia over the course of time is one of a guarded, protective woman who over time is in a sense forced to kind of be more vulnerable and forced in, and this is as you'll see, something that happens definitely next year, but it is an evolution for her.

You seem to like time travel. There's time travel in Lost and time travel in Star Trek movie. Will there be time travel on Fringe?

J.J. Abrams: 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.

All of your projects feature very strong-willed, independent females like Olivia. Who or what is your inspiration for those characters?

J.J. Abrams: Well, thanks for the question. I would like to think that I've been lucky enough to work on projects that have strong-willed characters who happen to be male or female, and certainly in the case of characters like Kate or Sydney Bristow, and certainly Olivia Dunham, that those are females who are ... because they are interesting and strong-willed. But I also could point to certain male characters that have the same thing. So I guess the answer is, I don't really try to write characters who are strong women, I just try to write, where I can, strong characters, and if they happen to be women, they happen to be women. In my life I've got the most spectacular wife in Katie McGrath. She is probably the strongest and best influence on me that I've ever had, and I would say that it's no coincidence that it was after I met her that I wrote Felicity, mostly because I think she reminded me to write about stuff that I actually care about again, because it had been a while. But her strength and her amazing ability to not only immediately understand right and wrong, but she's amazingly capable at articulating that position, and she's very socially active and politically-minded and fights a good fight, and she's someone who is definitely an inspiration, who happens to be a woman.

Hey, JJ, since everyone else has been asking about the show, let me just ask you about your mood today. It's got to be a super weird day for you to have a movie come out, the first full day of it and get the kind of reviews you've had and so forth. You've been looking forward to it for so long. Just how do you feel right now? What kind of day is this for you?

J.J. Abrams: Well, it's nice of you to put it that way, and thank you. I'm, of course, on the edge of my seat in terms of what the business of the film will be like. I just pray people go, and that they like it. But in terms of my actual day, it was wonderful because my oldest son didn't have school today so he and I got to hang out, and especially given how much traveling we've all been doing on the movie, it was really nice to just get to hang out with him and have as close to a non-working day as possible. So it's just been fun. It's been good.

I'm wondering if Season 1 was about learning about the enemy, learning about ZBT 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.

J.J. Abrams: Well, first of all, I would say that it's ZFT.

ZFT, sorry.

J.J. Abrams: 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. 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.

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

J.J. Abrams: 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.

I talked to Jasika Nicole recently, and she told me that the season finale is going to reveal good secrets about Peter and his past, and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that. I know you can't tell us what they are, but like maybe what kind of things we're going to see, or give us any kind of hint.

J.J. Abrams: Well, instead of, obviously, giving any details away, because I'd rather not do that, but I would say that what's particularly cool about where we're finally going now, and where we're going to be next season, is that the story has, it's working on all three characters strengths. And that is to say that over the course of the season you'd find what sort of, is most exciting about a character and you figure out what are the elements that aren't working as well and what are the things that you'd love to see a character experience. I think that where we are at the end of this year, yes, you're going to get a little bit of a piece of Peter's ultimate story; but I think that it also is a huge turning point for the other two as well. And so, again, without giving anything away, I think that the fun of this first year was getting to know our people and their getting to know each other, and I feel so grateful that FOX were as supportive as they were and that we're coming back. They have the reputation for immediately canceling shows and I think that we are proof positive that it's not always the case, and again, I stand here incredibly grateful. But I think that the fun of next season is going to be now that we have this life, is that we're going to get to actually delve not only deeper into sort of who they are, but like I said, we're going to push the buttons that I think are working particularly well for each of the characters. And again, I just hope the show becomes more and more, the best version of itself, though. And I hope that the next year, we'll see that.

So, how much do you really, truly understand about everything that happens on the show?

J.J. Abrams: On Fringe?


J.J. Abrams: You mean in terms of the science?


J.J. Abrams: Well, I've always, and I'm sure to a fault, been of the mind that if you have a cool idea that's compelling and crazy, that's the idea you follow, and then you do research to back it up. There are occasions when research actually yields a story, but I have often found that that's not the case for me, that I'll have ideas here and there, but usually it's an idea that comes to the, okay, well, if that's the case, can someone blow up spontaneously? Like, could that happen? And then you end up working backwards and finding out that there are insane tests where people have applied microwaves to their - and you're like, oh, okay, and then you just kind of go with whatever feels closest. Fringe, ... these words, but Fringe was never intended as a course on any kind of physics or medicine or science. It was always meant to just be a kind of fun, cool, and insane representation of what it feels like to live in a world where science seems to be limitless in what it can do. The crazy thing about a show like Fringe is, as you're working on it, as you're writing about things that are insane, like a cold virus the size of a football, or whatever the hell you happen to be playing with that week, is invariably there will be a story online that you will see that is weirder than what you're writing, that actually happened. Whether it's a body part that was grown, whether it's about something that was replaced, whether it's about somebody that came back to life, whether it's about some really weird spontaneous event, like it just seems like the weirdest part about Fringe is, as we work on it, pushing the envelope, kind of having fun for ourselves, inevitably there is some real life actual story that's reported that feels almost beyond what we're playing with. I kind of feel like, yes, it's not, yes, it's fantasy, it's fiction, and yes, we're inspired by gut instinct much more than we are factual data, but I think that we all live in a moment where nothing surprises us any more, where almost anything that we would see online or in a paper, we would believe unless someone would whisper in my ear and said, by the way, that's .... So I just want to feel that we are in that weird place where as crazy as Fringe is, we no longer need to look to the supernatural ghosts or aliens to feel like there is an unpredictable and terrifying enemy among us. I think that we have made that enemy ourselves.

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?

J.J. Abrams: 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.

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?

J.J. Abrams: I would say that it'll be very difficult now that John's show got picked up.

Oh, that's right.

J.J. Abrams: 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 ....

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?

J.J. Abrams: 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.

My question is a silly one, but it's about the ZFP 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.

J.J. Abrams: 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 ... 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.

Be sure to catch the season finale of Fringe tonight, Tuesday, May 12 at 9 PM ET only on Fox.