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Fringe: Interview with Exec Producers J.H. Wyman and Jeff Pinkner

by Lynn DeVries on February 14, 2011 · 0 comments

in Fringe,Interviews

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Once again, the executive producers for FOX’s hit series Fringe sat down to answer some questions about this week’s new episode of the show. Exec Producers J.H. Wyman and Jeff Pinkner are very friendly to talk to and at times seem to even finish each other’s sentences. But they tackled many questions with good humor and without giving too much away. Be sure to watch this week’s episode of Fringe when it airs on Friday at 9/8c on FOX. Here’s how the conversation went:

Q: Obviously, it seems like two of the main characters, Peter and Olivia are sort of unraveling at this point in time, Peter more so than Olivia. Are they going to sort of get worse before they get better or what can you tell us about that?

Jeff Pinker: They will get worse and better. I don’t think the value won’t be good or bad. It’s going to be more complicated than that. Since Olivia returned and their relationship sort of shattered and they’ve been trying to pick up the pieces, they’ve been getting closer and they will continue to, but the problems that they’re dealing with are going to continue to complicate.

So it won’t be as simple as, “Hey, now we’ve put our relationship troubles to bed and we can be a couple again,” or, “Hey, now we’ve dealt with the problems of our universe and our relationship is taking a back seat.” The two are going to be—we’re throwing a whole bunch of things at them including the consequences of the episode that you haven’t yet seen that we’re talking about now.

J.H. Wyman: We’re always trying to get deeper, more complex emotions because we find that’s a really rich area for us to investigate in. There are so many facets to a real relationship, and these are incredible circumstances that they’re going through, but we try and make it as deep as we can. So you’ll see a whole bunch of shifting still to come in the entire rest of the season.

Q: As such a creative show, it’s sort of unfortunate that so much of the talk is about the ratings lately, but it sort of is what it is. So I’m wondering since the move to Friday, what sort of feedback have you guys gotten from the network?

J. Wyman: We went into it with the understanding that there’s a number that would make me very happy. That’s like 1.2 to 1.4. That was something that was—look, there were a lot of naysayers in that. People get nervous when things move to Friday, and Friday became a landscape that shows just don’t do very well as business for the network. But we felt that our show sort of—we were going there on a creative high, at least from our perception, and you guys in the media have been so cool. It’s largely because of your reviews that our viewers are coming and staying and loving the show. The network takes a lot of notice in your reviews.

So we felt confident going into Friday nights knowing that we’re on a creative high, and we know what the show is. A lot of shows that came before us that went to Fridays, they weren’t, for one reason or another—it’s so difficult to make a show, so anything can go wrong at any time, but for one reason or the other these shows weren’t on their creative upswing. They were maybe diluted maybe because the original vision didn’t work and they were trying to find the show or it just got to a point where people weren’t interested in the mythology anymore so they tried to do some drastic things to change it. There were a lot of shows that died there.

So we were hoping that our fans would follow and say, “No, we’re loving what they’re doing, and we love the show and we’re going to follow.” So we’re really happy, obviously. Who can’t be happy with a 1.9 and a 1.9 and a 1.6 something? Our DVRs just … it and they’re really great. So we feel really good about it, and so does the network.

J. Pinkner: The truth is there are very few fortunate enough network television dramas that they don’t watch the ratings. It’s just a fact of life. There’s only so much that we can control. We can control the creative vision of our show. We can control the institution of our show, and FOX are legitimately fans of the show. They’ve told us that from the beginning. They’ve demonstrated it to us again and again and again.

The move to Friday night was—they have American Idol. That’s one of the shows that’s not a drama. That’s one of the shows that we’ll never have to worry about ratings, at least for the foreseeable future. They made the business decision that they wanted that show on Wednesday and Thursday this year. We had to move somewhere.

Our fans had been asking FOX to move us for a year off of Thursday night. They moved us to Friday and our fans freaked out, understandably. People are afraid of change. We all are. Human beings are afraid of change, but change can be good. It seems like our audience, who as Joel said, are insanely loyal and we’re so grateful for them, moved with us.

Both the live numbers and the DVR numbers have worn that out so far, knock on wood, and the stories that we’re telling, we had written and filmed before we knew we were moving. So we’re not doing anything in reaction to the move. We’re just doing our jobs and telling the best stories we can in the way that we enjoy telling them, and if you build it hopefully they will come.

J. Wyman: In general, the network’s incredibly supportive of the numbers and they’re actually very pleased with the move.

Q: What you were talking about before, of course while you’ve had some really amazing stories with the machine invent, it’s really been about the emotional journey. As you’re heading out towards the last part of the season, who’s maybe, even in the writers room, surprised you in terms of—you have an intention of where you want to take Peter and Olivia and Walter and such and such. But as the writing happens, I’m sure even more stuff has come up or characters take a direction that has been even surprising and fun for you guys to write. As this path moves forward, who has kind of more sent you a story line that’s just really jazzed you guys up, and as we move forward what will we see from that?

J. Pinkner: I think one of the things that has been really fun for us is we knew, I think we knew, how much there was to discover with Walternate and Bolivia and how much those two characters would provide counterpoint and shed light on their alter egos that we’ve known for going on three seasons now. I think one of the things that’s been really fun for us, didn’t surprise us so much and was sort of like what we were hoping for, but the dynamic between Lincoln and Charlie and Bolivia and the energy of the stories on the other side. It feels like a different version of our show that just has a different inherent rhythm and different inherent chemistries in those characters, and that’s been really joyful for us.

J. Wyman: Yes, we get to do two shows about one show. So that turned into a great thing. In particular, a lot of great things came, like the alternate Broyles investigating that and having our Broyle actually stand next to his own dead body was sort of cool.

J. Pinkner: Lance is an amazing actor, and the truth is he’s providing such a necessary and awesome function for us that it was really fun to see a different version of him as well. It gave us an opportunity to explore that.

Q: I know there had been trepidation early on from the network about doing the back and forth story lines. That obviously was really successful from their perspective as well as that of the audience, and I know that you’re doing a couple of episodes before the end of the season, hopefully in the best world, which we all want, if you guys come back again. Have you figured out a pattern of how often you will jump back and forth? What works for you guys in terms of story telling that you’ve discovered this season?

J. Wyman: That’s funny, because that was a huge thing for us. Obviously, when we say we’re going to go over there, there was some hesitancy because yes, the core viewers want to see what they know, and that’s what the network and the studio, obviously and rightly so, are concerned that our core audiences would like to stay with our main characters. So it was a gamble, and nobody really—hindsight’s 20/20, and now we’re looking at it and a rare opportunity we get to say, “Oh, yes, it did work, and that’s great.”

So we did know this though, that we wanted to tell really compelling stories over there and get the mythology over there really firing, and we became slowly in love with over there when we were conceiving it. So we knew though that we couldn’t do it justice, if we were going to go a couple of scenes in one episode over there, and you’re back here and you’re bouncing back and forth, we just felt that that wouldn’t do it justice. It wouldn’t do the idea justice. So we really dove in full tilt with the different credit sequence and say, “Look, this is what you’re going to get.”

But as far as a pattern goes, the story telling in our show at the beginning of the year, we know what we want to do, and the stories sort of dictate where we are going. If there is a certain theme that we want to examine, that we find is really important to get across in several different episodes, it’ll be really interesting to tell a thematic element over here. Then see how our characters sort of deal with it, and then show a very different facet of that same theme over there, which is really a great position to be in. So we don’t really decide we’re going to have two over here and then one over here and then two over here and one over here. It’s definitely dictated by our story telling and our narrative.

Q: Could you connect these next ten episodes in addition to the construct of the machine. Who Peter will ultimately choose, which Olivia and which universe? Are there going to be any other wrinkles going on during these next ten episodes?

J. Wyman: We’re full of wrinkles.

J. Pinkner: We’re more like a pair of corduroy pants. Yes, the answer is yes. Largely this season has been sort of like a march to war, and it will continue to be so driven equally by the relationship of Peter and the two Olivia’s, but we’ve got more stuff coming. We’re going to complicate it, and like we’ve done in the past two years, sort of as we drive to the end of the season, it will be as much as anything about setting up next season.

J. Wyman: We sort of look at it like chapters. For us, like when we read a great novel and you finish a chapter you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, something that happened at the end of the chapter that’s going to propel me forward.” That has been sort of how we desire to emulate because like in season one you get the whole concept of, “Oh, my God it’s … that was a big deal.” Then you came back and said, “The show’s going to change slightly next year because of all this new stuff.” Then season two the same thing sort of happened, and she’s over there and over here.

So this one we can definitely guarantee you that it’s going to be—in the last stretch of this, it’s going to be very compelling because you’re going to turn the page of a new chapter. You’re going to understand our show in a different capacity, and it’s going to stretch your mind and it’s going to make you think, “I never saw that coming,” and that’s what we feel we owe the fans. Is to make sure that for a very good reason, nothing crazy like we don’t deserve and haven’t earned, but something that is definitely integrated into the story line that you just hopefully didn’t see coming. We have a few cards to lay down that I don’t think anybody really expects.

Q: Then keeping with the no spoiler policy I will phrase my follow-up like this, information revealed at the end of this week’s episode will it make its way to the other universe sooner rather than later and is there going to be drama about how it gets to its intended recipient or is it more about the reaction?

J. Pinkner: D, all of the above. Based on the information revealed at the end of this episode, there will be consequences over there for Bolivia and certainly Walternate and sort of escalating the story telling on that side, which will absolutely—the two universes are in kind of disharmony. They’re in a fractured balance so anything that happens on one side, certainly for the duration of this season and moving forward by design, will affect the other side. So the short answer to your question is the information in the reality of what is happening over there will get to our side relatively soon and will absolutely affect what’s going on over here.

J. Wyman Yes. So we will qualify with this, that on our show we’re really lucky because we get to tell things that maybe you understand as a view and you’ve seen before, like it’s not the first time you heard about somebody having an affair outside of their relationship. That’s always very interesting drama, but it becomes a totally different thing when the person that your loved one’s fooled around with is yourself or another version of yourself. So in keeping with that, the expectations that one would have with that reveal at the end of last episode that we will not mention, it will not unfold in a way that I think is traditional. So I think that people should be prepared for that and that could be really interesting.

Q: Tell me about some of the challenges that you face. Once you’re kind of looking back to our side, what are unexpected challenges, I mean visiting that world? Or was it all just part of the fabric of what you were doing this whole season anyway?

J. Pinkner: I think Joel hit on this earlier. What was really interesting for us was when we shared with our studio and with our partners in the beginning of the year our intentions, they initially, and we’ve said this before, they initially wanted us to bring Olivia back much sooner. We were actually thinking we would bring her back around episode eight to ten, and ultimately we convinced them that we’ll do it at the earlier part of our intended timeline, but we really wanted to spend suitable time setting up the alternate universe because we wanted to go back there. Similarly, the network and the studio were agreed to that and were thinking, “Sure, sure, sure, sure,” but in their mind thinking that we would never actually go back to the other side, because in the end we wouldn’t have earned it.

Frankly, they were very nervous of telling stories that John Noble playing Walter wouldn’t be in. Like we touched on earlier, what we discovered was that the energy of Lincoln and Charlie and Bolivia made up for the lack of Walter. Obviously having Walter in John Noble was in the episodes, but energetically and rhythmically it made up for missing Walter, so rather than recognizing or discovering that, it became a creative challenge. The discovery for us that was really wonderful was that it was a joy to go to the other side, and it was really a joy to explore another version of our show with cases that affected everything happening on our side with character that we, as writers, had come to love.

I interesting, because the fans were sort of like all inclined to hate Bolivia, and slowly over time they’ve started to—whether or not people want Peter to be with Olivia or Bolivia is a separate issue. But at least as far as we can tell, people are finding the relationship between the characters on the other side and the stories we’re telling on the other side charming and also really intriguing. It’s just deepening everything that’s happening over here. So rather than a challenge, we actually found it to be a really great creative outlet.

Q: You guys touched on this a little bit ago talking about season four and coming to the end of season three. How far into season four do you guys already have your head into that?

J. Pinkner: Season five.

J. Wyman: Yes. We never really have a shortage of ideas that we like, and some of them ultimately will cancel each other out or sometimes you realize, “Well, that’s maybe not as interesting as I thought,” or something that you didn’t think was as interesting turns into something fantastic. So we are definitely of the school of thought that preparation is nine tenths of the walk because there are things that we like to do as storytellers that we share, Jeff and I, that is the following; you can be smarter if you’re prepared.

You’ll realize that if you go back to this, for instance off the top of my head, if you go back into season one and you see the bus—there was a pattern episode that the bus had amber on it. I don’t know if you remember that, but the truth is the people here didn’t really know what amber was. They really didn’t understand what it was, but we knew.

So it’s like you can really set things up and they can pay off in really great ways. I think there’s a lot of that stuff coming up that will demonstrate the forethought, and the keen viewer will be able to say, “Oh, my gosh. Oh, I remember that.” Now that’s taken on a whole different meaning. The only way that we can do that is if we know where we’re going.

J. Pinkner: The truth is we’ve been setting up season four in brush strokes very early on in season two, and we’ve been setting up what we imagine, with luck and grace and hoping we stay on the air this far, we’ve been sort of setting up season five since season one. It’s just a matter of whether we have the good fortune of getting to tell these stories.

J. Wyman: I don’t know about other people’s process, but I—could you imagine not begin prepared? I don’t understand how you sit—we could do it no other way, and I guess I have a huge amount—I’m impressed with people that can do it, but that’s not us. We need more time, and we’re trying to tell thematic stories. That takes times. The multiple levels that we like takes time. I’m sure that we fall short of our goals all the time, but there’s enough fear every week, and like okay, what story are we going to tell this week. If we didn’t already have kind of a blue print, it would be—the anxiety would be overwhelming.

Q: In your words, how would you tease this week’s episode?

J. Pinkner: Without spoiling we would say that it’s an episode that makes you—there are at least two different kinds of parasites in the episode. Only one of which is a bug.

Q: That is a good teaser. Going back to last week’s episode quickly, should we be trusting Sam?

J. Wyman: You know, don’t trust that Weiss.

J. Pinkner: If anybody unfurrowed the anagram that was on the chalkboard in Walter’s lab on the other side, it said, “Don’t trust Sam Weiss.”

J. Wyman: Sam is a character that I feel safe in saying that he still has many, many, many, many layers to reveal, and his motivations will become clearer and you’ll get a better understanding. I’m saying that we’re not going to keep pushing it down the line and not answering it, because that frustrates everyone. You’re going to find out about him. Hopefully it will be something that you don’t see coming.

Q: What is going on with Peter being all dark and killing shape shifters and lying to Olivia?

J. Pinkner: He will come clean to her soon enough.

J. Wyman: There’s a reason.

Q: Will it be this season?

J. Pinkner: Oh, yes.

Q: So she’s going to find out. How is she going to handle that type of betrayal?

J. Pinker: You’re asking the right questions. That’s what we’re building a story around. I think that as far as she’s concerned, the biggest betrayal was the fact that he was sleeping with a different version of her and didn’t realize it. All of these other smaller betrayals sort of cascaded from that and things that—the truth is, the shape shifters are more—he has reason to be more specifically concerned by what they’re doing than anybody else on our show. There’s a drawing of him standing inside that machine. So he’s got questions, and by nature he’s a character for years has only relied on himself.

J. Wyman: Jeff brings up a good point. For years he relied on himself. He only had himself to trust, but them he’s thrust into this situation where he has no knowledge and he’s basically reacting. So he’s been reacting since he actually came on the scene. So he let go of a certain amount of control in his life to be a part of this family and to actually sort of go down the road, and then realized he’s in the nucleus of this entire thing that’s happening. He doesn’t have any answers, and this season was always going to be a season about self-actualization for a lot of the characters. So this is the beginning of those steps.

J. Pinkner: The truth is, every one of us as human beings, even in a committed relationship, has moments and thoughts and actions that, whether or not are their own private matters and whether or not they share them with their loved one and how and when and why, sort of tells you as much as anything about them as people and their relationship. We’re going to explore that as well between these two characters.

Q: This next episode “Immorality,” it has a bioterrorist with insects that eat people. Can you give us a hint of other weird things coming from the other side that we might see for the rest of the season?

J. Wyman: Well the other side gives us an opportunity to do some pretty wild things, as you can imagine, because things are dangerously out of control there. So we’re fascinated enough with the notion that things we take for granted, like sheep for example, don’t exist over there because they were killed out by this beetle.

I think that you’re always going to see things that—what we try and do is with this—I guess you want to call them the mythelones, like where you’re watching the freak of the week type of concept, but it’s connected to our mythology. You’re going to see a lot of things—taking things and tropes that we know in our world and sort of turning them on their head.

J. Pinkner: The very next time we tell a story on the other side this season will be very much a character centric episode, and sort of the threat will be specific to our characters. So it won’t be the same sort of independently acting bad guy. It will be more of a story that specifically is driven by and affecting our characters, but within that, there will be hopefully very both fascinating and, in some ways, eye opening/troubling matter of biology, which is a well that we go back to all the time because our bodies fascinate us.

Q: From watching the trailer of that episode, it reminded me of the scare of beetles in those Mummy movies. Is that where the idea came from or where you do you guys get the ideas for these things?

J. Pinkner: Well typically they come from nightmares.

J. Wyman: They come from a lot of dreams, a lot of nightmares. Just like thoughts like Jeff and I try and freak each other out. I think that inherently human beings have the same fears, like bugs, feeling of being alone, not being able to breath, drinking something, ingesting something that you can’t get out of you. These are things that we like to—

J. Pinkner: We read an article recently that human beings are psychologically far more afraid of bugs than they are of driving a car. Whereas people get killed by cars every single day, and there is hardly ever a story of people getting killed by bugs. It’s because it’s part of our reptile brain. You know, way, way, way, way back in our ancestry, bugs were a threat and parasites were a threat. So it’s a well that we can go to. We toyed with the specific …, sort of Wrath of Con, and ultimately didn’t go with it in this episode, but it wasn’t really driven by scare of beetles more of just a primal fear.

J. Wyman: And also biological engineering. That’s what we’re interested in. A major theme that we’re always touching on is how far is too far? What are we supposed to know? As human beings, are we supposed to be meddling in these kinds of things? Where does the line begin? For us, that’s the best sort of science fiction stories that talk about these things that I think are incredible questions about advancement in technology, but also relates to very human conditions.

In this case, you asked our process. For us, it’s always, “Well, what’s the theme?” Immortality is the theme. Wanting to leave something behind, but you may leave something behind that you don’t want. So we always start the stories with—sometimes like I’ll come in and I’ll say, “Hey I had a dream about this,” and then we’re like, “well, what and I really talking about. What is that a metaphor for?” and we’ll get to the bottom of it, or Jeff will have an idea and we’ll say, “Well what’s the metaphor for that? What are we really saying with that? How do we investigate that?” So that’s how the ideas come about. So the beetles really were a very small part of what we feel we were trying to get across in the episode, and it’s always, we think, richer when it has something behind it, where the creatures or the intention has something behind it that touches on a science fiction level.

J. Pinkner: And like we said, there’s two kinds of parasites in the episode, and both which thematically touch on immortality and how when you die can you leave a part of you behind, and obviously the bad guy in the episode, with the best of noble intentions, is trying to change the world for the better. He’s just doing it in a very misguided fashion.

[Learn about the cast of Fringe]

[Photo: © 2011 FOX Broadcasting Co.]

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