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‘Fringe’: Interview with Executive Producers Jeff Pinkner & J.H. Wyman

by Lynn DeVries on December 2, 2010 · 0 comments

in Fringe,Interviews

Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, John Noble

Yesterday, several of us got a chance to talk to the two executive producers for Fringe, Jeff Pinkner & J.H. Wyman. They are obviously close friends as well as colleagues because they nearly finished each others’ sentences at times and they were both making fun jokes as the conversation went along.

They wanted to talk about tonight’s episode of Fringe and how the series will leave us eagerly anticipating its return after the first of the year. Here’s how the conversation went:

Q: What’s the mood about moving to Fridays? Are you guys excited about that? What is the thought behind that?

J.H. Wyman: We are excited. We think it’s open territory that can be conquered. We really do believe our fans are loyal. I believe they’re going to follow. It’s a chance for us to sort of bring back that … and get away from that statement that Friday night is not an opportune night though we can actually deliver like The X-Files did, or something like that. I think we both agree it’s a good opportunity.

J. Pinkner: Well when Fox informed us of the move, what was most important to us is we understand that our audience is watching the show not sort of like a standalone audience watches the show, but their actually watching it as an investment over time. We wanted to be able to tell our audience that the story, the ongoing, the long arching story that we have planned for our characters, is going to get told. It’s funny there are more Fringe fans in the building at Fox then sort of like any show we’ve ever worked on before. I think they and we all feel that if we can build a fan base on and sort of like carve out some territory on Friday night we can be there for years.

Q: What sort of preview or hints can you tell us about the second half of the season?

J. Pinkner: Well the first half of the session was sort of like the condition of Olivia being trapped on the other side over there and Bolivia being among our characters. Now with this episode we’re sort of—the remainder of this season, I don’t know how much we want to spoil, but this episode sort of like brings the first half of the year to an end. Then the rest of the year will be the consequences and the fall out of what happened both emotionally and plot wise for all our characters.

As we’ve said from the beginning, like we’re committed to telling stories over there and the first half of the season will dramatically change the conditions over there as well. Once Olivia returns to our side, the storytelling’s not just going to be contained on our side.

J.H. Wyman: Yes, I mean we’re going to sort of like come to a crescendo using both sides.

Q: Along that line, you’ve got a lot of repercussions for what is going to happen at the end of this winter breaks episode. When you guys come back in the end of January will you be heading towards a resolution either with machine at the end of the season, or is that going to go longer in terms of arch, in terms of that backbone of the story line for half the season and maybe even going into another season.

J. Pinkner: There’s actually one more episode before the winter break after this one, but—

J.H. Wyman: We don’t want to drive things out and make people frustrated with what that machine is and what it means to the series and the characters themselves. By the end of the session you’re going to fully understand what that machine is and what it’s purpose is. What it’s for. Meaning for this universe and that universe and what it means to our characters. We definitely are going to have some sort of resolution.

Q: While you’ll still go back and forth will it still be under the same office that you’ve done in the first half of the season with the flip-flop, or will you pick and choose when you think it’s necessary for you to do alt world or do reality world?

J. Pinkner: It won’t be ever other. Having Olivia sort of like one of our three main point of view characters over there gave us license to tell every other story over there. Once we get into the remainder of this series, the storytelling will be focused more on our side, but the conditions over there certainly character wise with Bolivia and Walternate are still ongoing and have changed based on what happened. Walternate’s got a plan in mind. He was using Olivia for a reason to try to figure out how to cross safely to our side, and now he has some answers. The middle of the season we’ll sort of build to a collision point for these two sides as we get to the end.

Q: Whose decision was it to make the trailer for “Entrada” look like a movie trailer?

J. Pinkner: Fox has a division called special ops, which is very—

J.H. Wyman: Very special.

J. Pinkner: —very dramatic and daunting sounding. There’s a guy over there named Ari Margolis who’s sort of like a wildly talented genius and that’s his work. I don’t know if it was his decision but it’s all his work. He did one earlier in the season, and he just does just a great job.

J.H. Wyman: Yes, I mean their always trying to come up with really interesting ways to platform our show in things you haven’t seen before, and they always hit the mark in our opinion.

J. Pinkner: Did you like it by the way?

Q: I thought it was awesome. Actually, the last time I was talking to Andre Royo he mentioned that he’d like to see Henry and Olivia in a spin-off driving around in his cab.

J.H. Wyman: Yes, so would we. It’s like collateral but over there.

Q: What would you guys think of that?

J.H. Wyman: Of a spin-off with Andre and Anna? I don’t know. I mean it’s like we really like the dynamics between the characters but to be honest really there’s so much story to tell. It’s kind of like we’re still really jazzed about where we’re going. I couldn’t even think of a spin-off. Can you?

J. Pinkner: No but what’s fun is for us the stories over there are kind of a spin-off within show. This season what’s been really fun is Charlie is not a new character but this version of Charlie certainly is, and Lincoln and the Alt-Brandon. We feel like our toolbox got twice as big this year.

J.H. Wyman: Yes we have two stories about one story. We can go over there and our spin-off is just right. Our spin-off is over there. We can sort of develop the characters further and—

J. Pinkner: The energy and the vibe of the Fringe team over there as we tell those stories and as we write those scripts, it’s energetically it’s different and it feels sort of like a spin-off within the show. Those episodes, it’s not just that the stories are different. Obviously, they all relate to what’s happening on our side, but sort of the energy and the attack feels like you would hope a spin-off would.

Q: Now that Olivia is back, how long is it going to take for her to find out just how deep the relationship was with Peter and Bolivia?

J. Pinkner: That’s certainly the big thing and it won’t take long at all. What we find really valuable is just letting the truths come out and then playing the consequences of those truths. This is certainly, plot aside from a character point of view, that’s certainly the most significant thing that has happened in the front half of this year.

J.H. Wyman: Yes like last year we really focused on the secrets and this year it’s definitely the results. We wanted to get into the real dramatic equation between Peter and Olivia with that at the center as quickly as possible.

Q: What story line has maybe gone off in a way that you didn’t expect this season? What has surprised you the most?

J. Pinkner: Well that’s an interesting—

J.H. Wyman: You’re going to see some stuff with Walternate that—hopefully—you’ll agree with us and say, “Wow, that’s really interesting.” Because we really realized that dimensionalizing him gave us a lot of narrative engine. There’s some surprises with him to look forward to.

J. Pinkner: I think we realized what has become the biggest happy surprise for us is the more we started to tell stories over there the more it made us realize that Walter is as much a bad guy as Walternate, and that all the damage in a way that we sort of always understood him, we’re always moving towards. Exploring Walternate and the consequences of having his sons taken from him and having his world invaded has really allowed us to look at Walter and what he did through a new perspective. Our show has always been about sort of how like how ultimately science is neutral but the application of it can be positive or negative. It sort of like recontextualized our main characters for us.

Q: Are we going to maybe then start to go through withdrawal as we go into the next section of the show when we are mostly over here with the over there guys?

J. Pinkner: What’s really fun to us is early on in the season when we started telling these stories both our network and studio partners, who we adore, were like really, really anxious that the audience wasn’t going to enjoy the stories over there. They were desperate for us to bring Olivia back as quickly as possible. Then as they started getting scripts and cuts of episodes, they started feeling the same thing you’re feeling, which is, “Oh we love the stories over there. Are we going to miss them?” The good news is no, you won’t because we’re going to continue to tell stories about those characters. We love them too.

J.H. Wyman: Also, we also try and connect over there with over here in our storytelling now because it’s just like such a glaring factor that exists so you can’t really ignore it.

Q: When you first came up with the alternate world concept, did you have any reservations in the beginning as to how it would be received by viewers?

J. Pinkner: I don’t think we had reservations about how it would be received because it’s not a hard concept to grasp. Everyone dreams and dreaming is just another reality. People believe in heaven and hell, which is just another reality. The notion of an alternate universe is sort of like in human consciousness in all different ways and it’s in public consciousness in all different ways. We’re not the only people who are telling stories about alternate universes and science has acknowledged it for a long time. Our concern was doing it in such a fashion that the audience would get hooked emotionally and making it an emotional story and not just an abstract sort of conceptual one.

Q: What episodes did you enjoy working on the most?

J. Pinkner: We love all our babies.

J.H. Wyman: We like all our babies but I think we feel particularly close to “Peter.” I don’t want to speak for you but I—this is Joel, I think “Peter,” “August,” “White Tulip”—

J. Pinkner: I think our season premier this year was pretty special for us. The episode “Entrada,” the episode, which is about to come on the air, was sort of like—

J.H. Wyman: Really fun to work on.

J. Pinkner: And a culmination of a lot of things that we had been working on for quite a while. Then the episode that airs right after that one is pretty fantastic as well, it’s call “Marionette,” because it’s one of our most cinematic.

Q: I want to go back to the move to Friday nights because you guys sound very positive about it, but if you read any blogs on the internet people are already starting to say that this is the beginning of the end, and it’s the graveyard for Fox and all that. Could you just sort of say a few words to the fans of the show to sort of reassure them that the show is not pending cancellation?

J.H. Wyman: Yes, we have a tremendous amount of support from Fox. Like on the inside of this job, you really know when people are starting to disengage and this is not the case. I think that the naysayers are always going to be there and they said the same thing about our Thursday night move, “Oh they’re going to be gone in half a season,” and that wasn’t the case either. Fox said, “We’re going to support you on Thursday nights, and we’re going to try and get a little bit of a foothold and have Thursday nights taken seriously for us,” and they lived up to that commitment.

A lot of times sure shows that move to this time slot they don’t last, but I think that has more to do with the quality of the television show and how it’s doing then it is a market. I mean if we learned anything from Thursday nights, what we learned was our DVR numbers are so high and the improvement is so great that we realize that our fans, they’re watching the show. They’re just telling us, “We didn’t want to watch it on Thursdays. We’ll tell you when we want to watch it through the DVR.” Thursday night is traditionally a romantic comedy night with the Bones and Grays. It was always a place for us that was— We were assured we were going to be safe and not be taken off the air in that context and they lived up to it.

So yes to the fan, we experience a great amount of support all through the building with Fox. We feel like we have true partners. The landscape is changing so much on network television who knows what Friday nights are going to be. We’re going in there with 100% confidence.

J. Pinkner: But what’s ironic is when we moved to Thursday nights, and for the last year all the message boards have been, “Please move the show off of Thursday nights,” and now that they did. So it’s sort of one of those from the fans point of view being careful what you wish for, but as Joel said Fox and Warner Brothers are very happy with this move. We can only follow their lead. Again, from the inside, you know when you’re losing support with your network and studio partners and for us it’s been just the opposite, as evidenced by the support for this episode.

We wouldn’t be doing this call right now if the move to Friday night were sort of like, “Hey this is the beginning of the end and we’re sort of just moving you there to die.” The truth is the opposite and you would hear it in our voices. The truth is the opposite and the good news is our show sort of, as Joel was saying, developed a devoted rabid fan base. Our critical praise has never been higher and our fan support has never been more passionate. If we can translate that to Friday nights, which has much lower expectations, as we said, we’ll be around for a good long time and we have stories to tell.

Q: Then if tomorrows episode really is—can you talk—? How explosive is this episode and is this a good place for new people to join the show for the first time?

J. Pinkner: Actually if the only episode of Fringe you ever tune into watch is this one, sure it’s going to take you five minutes to sort of like catch up, but you will feel what’s going on. You will understand the relationships. It’s a great entry point. The truth is the one right afterwards, which is the falling out of this episode and sort of the picking up the pieces episode, is equally a great place to join both because it’s a reset episode. Olivia will be home and sort of like dealing with the consequences. It’s Rip Van Winkle dealing with the consequences of everything that she missed. Both of these episodes are actually a great place to join in.

As a storyteller, you hope, we hope, that people watch these episodes and if they’re new to the show watch these episodes and go, “Oh wow let me start going back and seeing what I missed.” The good news is in today’s world there’s Hulu and things like that on demand were you can catch up pretty quickly.

Q: I wanted to give you a chance to expand on the emotional content of the show since it’s so very clear. You have like a really unique triangle kind of in Peter, Olivia, and Bolivia and then you have the real conflict between the father and son, the Peter/Walter stuff.

J.H. Wyman: I don’t know any other show that could do the triangle that we have and we really appreciate you noticing that because it just has so many emotional things that people can comprehend. It just dovetails beautifully with what the huge theme is of the program, which is what would I be over there right now. Is there something I don’t know that I don’t know? Is there another version of myself? What are the choices that I’ve made in my life?

It actually has our heroine pitting herself against a better version of herself in a lot of ways. One that wasn’t abused, one that didn’t have a difficult time, wasn’t dosed with Cortexiphan, wasn’t involved in the trial, and was able to be the best version of herself she could be over there. To kind of lose your relationship to a better version of yourself is really unique, and we’re having a great time with it.

To us the best science fiction are human stories and demonstrating what it’s like to be human and what we go through. I think that those relationships—the father and son, the triangle—they’re always talking about things that anybody can relate to.

J. Pinkner: We’re looking to cut a promo for the show to the New Order song, “Bizarre Love Triangle.” We definitely have unique, among television shows or movies even, is a love triangle between a man and two versions of the same woman. As Joel was saying one who’s more damaged than the other and who just grew up under different conditions who are the exact same person genetically. The father and son theme is one that everybody has a dad in one way or another whether you know them, whether you have a good relationship or bad relationship, everybody has a father, and sort of that—

J.H. Wyman: And everybody’s looking to connect.

J. Pinkner: And everybody’s looking to connect. Really at its heart our show—as we think the best shows are—sort of like a family drama masquerading as a science fiction exploration show.

Q: Is there going to be any room in the second half of this season for any romance for Walter?

J.H. Wyman: Well look there’s Walter and there’s Walternate and we’re going to expand in a couple of different areas. I mean this is a really— John Noble and thanks to you guys. I mean everybody was sort of outraged that he wasn’t recognized, and I really do mean thanks to you guys because to us we can scream until we’re blue and nobody’s going to hear us, but when you guys say, “Hey that was a complete robbery and this guy’s doing some fantastic work,” we appreciate that.

We felt that he did such a great job with what we gave him last year that it was this season was—we had to dimentionalize on that and we had to say, “Okay we don’t want to play the same thing. How do we grow him as a character?” His views of himself and his self-actualization are a very large part of his journey this year. That will have a lot of questions: romantic, personal, psychological, emotional.

J. Pinkner: As Joel mentioned earlier one of our favorite episodes last year took us back to 1985 and the moment when Walter brought Peter from the other side. He lost his son and in order to save the other version of his son, brought him back to this side. We met his wife Elizabeth and then earlier at the end of the season we met the other version of her. We’re going to revisit that story. We’re going to revisit the past and sort of like Walter’s relationship with his wife and the consequences of bringing this boy into their family that wasn’t really theirs.

J.H. Wyman: The aftermath of that.

Q: How are viewers taking to the alternate universe concept? How much, or what percent of the viewers say, “Yes, go for it. This is great. It’s plausible. We get it,” and what percent are saying, “Please folks just one universe. Please stick to that”?

J. Pinkner: 94.6% love it.

J.H. Wyman: We’ve done tests.

J. Pinkner: They’re all locked up in our office.

J.H. Wyman: Like Jeff said earlier we recognize the other side has a way— We didn’t want to as just do it as just, “Hey, this is kind of a tricky thing.” It’s not a parlor trick where you’re like, “Okay, guess what? There’s two worlds,” because me personally I hate when people do that because it’s not hard work. It’s just sort of like, “Guess what?” Then this happens, and then it’s kind of like, “Well, why?” We knew right away that we had to get in … and have a very good reason for the alternate universe and how it reflects our story line and our characters.

Right away we were sort of like, “Okay, we love it,” because we think we can tell more about our characters and dimentionalize them more with this alternate universe and tell stories that we’re not able to tell without the alternate universe. That was the criteria. If we can’t tell new stories and dimentionalize our own characters through this, we’re not going to go that way or examine that choice. We we’re really please at the initial reaction of our fans because obviously we listen and we’re interested in what they think. We were ecstatic because everyone went, “Wow, that’s so cool,” and they loved it.

J. Pinkner: Our feedback isn’t complete. Our feedback is from our network and studio partners and our friends and our fans and the people that we see at events and … and things like that.

J.H. Wyman: And the stuff we read.

J. Pinkner: And then stuff we read on the message boards. Antidotally, the only people who are frustrated with the alternate universe are frustrated in a way that we want them to be in that their frustration is out of anxiety for Olivia. It’s out of fear and concern that this heroine that they like is trapped over there and suffering and they don’t want to see her suffer and their equating that to like, “Please bring her home.” Then as soon as we do as evidenced by our network and studio partners, they’re like, “Oh, but wait. What’s going on on the other side?”

I don’t think there’s any frustration out of confusion. I don’t think there’s any frustration out of like, “Oh come on, give me a break. There’s no such thing as an alternate universe.” I think that people are actually really enjoying the storytelling over there and then seeing like the little subtle ways that the world is different.

J.H. Wyman: People have really responded to that, the small little things that we put like whether it’s the zeplins and the concept of Amber, the small little— People comment on the movie posters that we put over there.

J. Pinkner: Things that hold a mirror up to our world and the way we live are sort of like just a human curiosity. It’s fun and it’s thought provoking.

J.H. Wyman: Yes because the whole thing is the headline of “What If?” I think that’s really intriguing and everybody can understand that. I don’t think there’s anybody out there that doesn’t say, “What if I would have done this? What if I would have lived my life—just … a different choice? Oh my gosh, would I be in a different place?”

J. Pinkner: Which, as evidenced by Facebook in some ways, for a certain generation of people Facebook is an opportunity to like check in with that person that I was dating in high school. What happened to them now? It’s really just a version of what would my life be like if I’d gone in a different direction. It’s sort of in the popular epos any way.

Q: I wonder what an alternate Facebook would be like? I wonder if Mark Zuckerberg would do with that. Anyway as a follow up another Fox show The Simpsons has been getting a lot of mileage of late for doing satire along the lines of, “We’ll bite the hand that feeds us.” The opening title where Fox portrays a sweatshop; the Fox’s channel digs that Bill O’Reilly responded to; the Jeff Zucker situation where he dies from the plague and is told to shut up. Any thoughts about injecting some satire into some of your upcoming episodes where you might take a little humorous dig at Fox in sort of a Sci-Fi way?

J. Pinkner: You’re referencing The Simpsons of course, but no we’re not a satire show. We’re a show that comments on our world but not in a way that—Obviously The Simpsons is coming at their storytelling from such a different context and a different point of view and ours is much more as Joel was saying earlier we’re trying to reflect on the human condition. Certainly, we’ve referenced Fox before and we’ve referenced The Simpsons in an episode and we do things that sort of like have fun with popular culture but not in a satirical kind of way.

Q: When Fringe first came on the air there was a handful of other Sci-Fi shows on Fox. Now you’re kind of the last dog standing so to speak. What do you think Fringe has done differently to distinguish itself from these other shows?

J. Pinkner: There’s this ironic thing, which is for some reason on TV—and Joel will elaborate—for some reason on TV Sci-Fi is like a naughty word. Where as in features all the biggest movies of all time—

J.H. Wyman: … Inception right now.

J. Pinkner: Avatar is a science fiction movie. Inception is a science fiction movie, Star Wars, Star Trek, ET, Jurassic Park, these are all— The reason that these movies work is because they’re movies that are not about hard science fiction ideas. They’re about people and our show is about people. The science fiction of our show isn’t like, “Hey guess what time travel.” It’s, “What would you do if you had an opportunity to save your wife? To go back into the past and save your wife who died in a car crash? But in doing so you would affect the lives of all these other people that you didn’t know. What kind of choice would you make?” We always try to boil our storytelling down to human stories.

J.H. Wyman: I think that’s exactly right. We always start with the dramatic equation like Jeff was referencing “White Tulip” and “White Tulip” was sort of born from trying to be an essay on law and regret. We start with very human things and situations that people can really relate to. I can’t speak to anybody else’s program because I wasn’t the writer’s room or I wasn’t writing any of them, our style—my style and Jeff’s style—is that. We think that people want to see that.

I think science fiction in the Isaac Asimov window is absolutely genius and can actually tell stories that are almost impossible to tell without science fiction. The more science fiction they become in his stories or in those great stories the more about the human condition it is. We’re both sort of schooled in the science fiction. We really understand collectively why they work for us.

When we came to that conclusion, we found that we got a lot of response from that and others agreed with us. It’s so interesting to build a story and so many people have different ways of doing it. That gets down to process and all these other boring things, but it’s were you’re starting from and what you’re really saying. We just try on a weekly basis try and tell stories that people can relate to through the lens of science fiction.

J. Pinkner: If someone were to ask us to describe the show, science fiction would not be in the sentence because to us science fiction is as a genre at best and we love it. We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t love it. In the vein of the Twilight Zone, it’s just an opportunity to be a little bit rarified and a little bit larger than life, a little bit three feet off the ground and tell stories about the human condition but from a point of view where it’s a little bit of a fresh take. It’s not the straight dramatic versions of the stories you’ve seen before. There’s an element that’s new and fresh and different that sort of like allows you a different perspective. So much of our show is just about perspective and perception.

[Photo: FOX Broadcasting Co.]

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