Interview with Executive Producers J. H. Wyman & Jeff Pinkner from Fringe

Tonight is the exciting fourth season premiere of Fringe. Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to participate in a Q&A with Executive Producers and showrunners, J. H. Wyman and Jeff Pinkner. It was a very informative session, and you can tell these guys really have a master plan for the series. I’d like to thank them for taking the time to speak with us. Here are some of the highlights:

On reassuring Joshua Jackson fans

J. H. Wyman: Basically, look, Peter is part of the DNA of the show and we’ve done some pretty crazy things in the past that people were always like, “Well, wait a minute. Why are they doing that? What’s going on?” I mean hopefully in Season 4 people will trust us enough to realize that we are doing things for a reason. To sort of have Fringe without Peter in some way, shape or form is really not Fringe.

So, while we can’t really comment—for those of you who haven’t seen the opening or what’s going on, he’s part of the show. He’s part of the language of our show and a very big part of it. So, there are kind of two things that we want to get across without really ruining anything and that is, number one, yes, Peter is part of the DNA and he’ll always be that. Number two is that just because he doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that the three years that we’ve all invested in and watched does not exist; it didn’t happen. It really did happen and it’ll unfold itself for you to understand in what context I’m speaking of.

But, yes, people shouldn’t worry. We love Peter and we know how much everybody loves Peter. We both can’t imagine telling the series and the story without him.

J. Pinkner: What we would say is the show constantly tries to re-contextualize your perception of the story. We introduced Walter Bishop in Season 1 and by the time you get to Season 2 you realize that in many ways he’s the chief architect. Our most sympathetic character is the chief architect of all the trouble in two universes. There’s a version of the narrative where he’s the biggest villain of the entire piece.

So, the idea that Peter is gone, and ultimately he’s not permanently gone, we’ve made it very clear, is an opportunity to sort of re-contextualize the story of everything we’ve seen again, which is something that we love to play with.
 
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On what it means to have that trust from the fans and the critics to do a storyline like this

J. Pinkner: Well, obviously, it’s outstanding. One of the things that has occurred to us, obviously unproven, is that there’s always a trust in the television show.

Currently, in the current landscape where you can TiVo shows and sort of watch them at your leisure, what seems to be happening a lot is people are unwilling to invest in new shows right away because they don’t know if they’re going to last and they don’t want to spend their time. So, you let four or five shows pile up on your TiVo in the queue and then you hear the show is good and you’ll check them all out, right?

It seems that with a lot of storytelling like ours, which is about an ongoing journey, it seems sometimes people—again, this is our unproven theory, but it’s our own taste as well. It seems sometimes people are unwilling to invest in the show because they’re afraid it will die, it will get cancelled, it will lose its way and their time will not be rewarded.

Because we’ve always had a plan and because the audience has started to understand our season finales pay off what was said up at the beginning of seasons, over time we’ve developed this trust. Which is obviously paying enormous dividends for us because it’s allowing us to be really adventurous and not worry about constantly within the narrative say to the audience, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. Don’t worry” because by now, they kind of hopefully have a sense that we know what we’re doing. We know that we have their best interest at heart as well.

J. H. Wyman: Yes, you know, what just sprang to mind is that it was really tough on us when the Kirk Acevedo thing happened. I mean if you remember back, there were stories up that he got fired. There were stories up that he quit and everybody was saying, “I can’t believe that he’s gone. He was one of my favorite characters. I’m never watching the show again.”

We knew very well that nobody really dies on Fringe. We knew what our plan was to bring him back in the capacity that he came back and that was part of our storytelling, but we couldn’t really say, “Hey, everybody, take it easy. There’s a method here.”

When people saw that—it’s those little incremental moments of trust that, “Oh, okay, I get it and I really enjoyed that. I really liked that.” At the beginning when we introduced Olivia, everybody hated her and they were like, “Why are you doing that?” and “Peter should only be with Olivia.” We knew that every great love story is a very winding road. So, by the end when we realized that Olivia is not as bad as all that and she’s a person or a character as well, people really started to love her and really liked her.

And so, I think those tiny things, like those things that people who are investing and really watching and they feel like, “Okay, I’m in good hands. I mean I feel like this narrator behind my back pushing me through this journey and I feel like I can trust them.” That’s the greatest reward that we could have.
 

On what really provokes such a rabid following among fans

J. Pinkner: I think they’re just fans of adventurous storytelling and I think that they’re fans as much as the geeks are people that are willing to jump onboard a story and really follow it. And I think surprisingly—not surprisingly, I think that the truth is they’re sort of treated as this outsider element of fandom when the truth is they’re wildly passionate about the stories they like. What sort of separates them is their willingness to sort of really, really invest and make stories an important part of their lives.

We have always said that one of the things that appeals to us about this show is our ability to go deep both with our characters and with our themes. And, as we’ve said often, to us, the best form of like both ongoing television and certainly scientific fiction is when it really speaks about characters and the human condition and what it means to be alive at this moment in history. These are hopefully things, certainly things that we try to touch on and hopefully things that people are appreciating.

We’ve also said that not everybody likes licorice. But, the people that do like licorice tend to really, really like licorice and we’re happy to be making licorice.

J. H. Wyman: It’s interesting because science fiction is—like a lot of people in the viewership of the intelligent world, some people just get turned off just by the term “science fiction” and they’re not really willing to invest. Which is peculiar to Jeff and I because all the movies that are so successes right now like Inception and all these great—

J. Pinkner: Avatar.

J. H. Wyman: Yes, I mean all these great science fiction things. I mean in the cinema, people are willing to say, “Yes, sign me up. I want to go,” but on television, I don’t know. I mean there’s still a negative connotation to a lot of viewers.

So, our fans, the ones who are kind of willing to embrace that, this form of storytelling and science fiction type of marker, those are people that are willing to sort of really go out on a limb with us and to really sort of check out some really far out ideas. I think that’s the difference. I think they’re willing to just invest 150% because they’re in with the entire genre.
 

On whether viewers can expect continuity when Peter re-enters the universe, or a reset

J. Pinkner: You can absolutely [expect] continuity.

J. H. Wyman: Yes, continuity. Yes, for sure. I touched on earlier, I mean we really want to just assure that we don’t have any intention of just kind of saying, “Guess what? It was all a dream. Everything you learned is not real.” I mean that would suck and that for me and Jeff, if I saw that I’d be livid. So, that’s not what we’re doing. You’re definitely going to get continuity and you’re going to get—

Here’s the interesting thing. The show has played a lot with secrets and sometimes the audience doesn’t know the secret and we play that they do find out with Walter’s secret and then we found out, okay, that everybody else found out. We had the secret against Peter.

What’s interesting for us is like there’s a paradigm shift because now it’s like the audience completely understands what’s happened in the last seasons of the program and they know and so does Peter. So, the fact that everybody is sort of together with him and saying, “Oh, my gosh, I want things to go back to normal and Peter’s the stranger in a strange land.” That’s going to have its value and there’ll be some good rooting interest there because everything you did know is still relevant and is still valuable.

So, that’s how we’re going to integrate this aspect of the storytelling. The audience participation is paramount.
 

On how often the two universes will work together

J. Pinkner: How often is clearly one of the chief driving conditions of this season is how are these two universes going to work together in order to heal their joint damage now that they have a means of doing so. So, we will definitely be telling stories. Unlike last year where we were bouncing back and forth, this year there will definitely be stories where the two universes have to work together. Certainly there’s an implication that that Walternate, despite to all promises to the contrary, is still a bad guy manipulating things behind the scenes. So, that’s also a story that we’re going to be delving in.

As far as what it’s like to plan out the episodes, certainly there’s some logistical complications because our actors are playing two roles. So, from a production standpoint, the episodes are very complicated, but we love that stuff. Those are the challenges that as hard as they are our crew in Vancouver is just outstanding and with every episode, we get better and more seamless at being able to really have actors interact with themselves.

J. H. Wyman: Yes, true because right from the get go when we started to decide how we were going to tell the story of that alternate universe. Is it going to be like a little bit here and a little bit there in one episode, or are we going to actually go over there for a whole episode and so forth?

What we realized is the reason we’re doing is to sort of highlight and contrast our characters that we love with versions of themselves that maybe are not similar to sort of highlight some of the aspects and the individual characteristics of our team. So, this offered us a great opportunity to go further with that, to be able to sort of have them in the same frame and actually watch how any or imagine if the two Olivias are looking at a problem very differently and their solutions are very different. This thought kind of goes back to our major theme, which is like our experiences of who we are.

J. Pinkner: The good news is that Anna Torv and Seth Gabel are finally ready to admit that they’re both one half of a pair of identical twins. So, now we have their alter egos acting. It’s made it much easier for us.
 

On what cases the Fringe teams are going to tackle this season and the challenges in putting those stories together

J. Pinkner: Again, at the risk of spoiling things, as always, we have a slew of really crazy, hopefully thought provoking, far out cases that deal with time travel and out of control biology and humans who either, for very understandable and sometimes not so understandable reasons, are messing with the rules of nature and the rules of physics.

In a really fun way, every episode seems—we’ve never had an episode that didn’t present challenges. And unlike some shows that both Joel and I have been associated in the past where by Season 4 you kind of know what you’re dong, despite the fact that storytelling-wise we have a really good handle on what we’re doing, production-wise is seems to always be we’ll write a script. We’ll give it to our, again, genius, brilliant, adventurous, outstanding production crew and the first look in their eyes is a deer caught in the headlights – “How are we doing to do this one?”

J. H. Wyman: We’re always switching the envelope and somehow every week they just impress the heck out of us we’re like, “Wow, that was awesome.”

What’s really cool about the other side and now, our side being together and working together, we get to tell some really great far out sort of mytholons as we call them, freaks of the week type of thing that are sort of integrated into our larger mythology. Really, this year, we feel more than any other year we have some really mind blowing, stand-alone stories that just—we’re just enabled to tell these great far out things because over there is so messed up and over here is a little suspicious as well right now as you guys will find out. But, it just gives us carte blanche to really kind of push our imaginations to the hilt and see some really cool things realized.
 

On the culmination of free will versus destiny where the Observers are concerned

J. Pinkner: Well, I’m not sure about culmination because we hope the show goes beyond this season, but certainly the notion of free will versus destiny is interesting. We told an episode last season that took place in 2026 and among other things, in a world of details, Broyles had a milky eye because something had clearly happed; some tragedy, some event had happened that injured him. Now, because of the choice that Peter made we know that that future specifically will not happen. But maybe, inevitably, the same event will end up happening in this future where Broyles ended up getting injured.

So, the notion of fate versus free will, if you try to run away from fate is that going to lead you right to fate’s door itself. The whole … story is something that we’re constantly interested in. And yes, the observers are sort of a Greek chorus to that notion and also themselves meant to observe, but sometimes interfere with fate. So, absolutely, it’s a theme and a story that we will continue, but whether or not it will culminate we will see.
 

On their collaboration with DC Comics

J. Pinkner: If it’s not clear just in the nature of the show, we’re both big comic book fans. So … Goldman, who was obviously a huge contributor to the program, developed a relationship for us, put us in touch with Geoff Johns who’s the president of DC who is both a fan of Fringe and now a friend of ours.

So, the Warner Brothers initially generated the idea of a comic, but as soon as we got Geoff involved in the program and said to him back in Season 2, “Hey, how would you feel about making alternate covers of some of the famous issues of comic books” he immediately said, “Okay, done. I’m going to go to the original artists.” He got so invested in that project because as you can imagine, somebody who’s the president of DC Comics is himself quite a geek and the opportunity to do something as fun as that for him.

He picked up the ball and ran with that. We ended up having a gallery show of those comic book covers and a fundraiser at a local LA comic book store. There’s always these “fringe” benefits; sorry for the pun. There’s always these fringe benefits of doing a show like this, which is we both get to sort of let our inner passions, our inner geek out and do things which really are fun and … for us like this comic book, which is an opportunity for Josh to explore his storytelling and Berkeley.

So, I’m sure you’re all familiar with Bloom County and Opus, which we love and it’s sort of in the world of those things that you’ve loved before. So, we tell stories in an alternate universe. We totally cold called, cold e-mail, wrote an e-mail to Berkeley Breathed who writes the comic and said, “Hey, we have this television show Fringe. Part of it takes place in an alternate universe. Would you consider drawing a comic for us that we could feature? What if Opus were written in an alternate universe? What would that look like?” He wrote back instantly and said, “I would love to”

The following morning a full script showed up in our e-mail inbox and two weeks later it was on the shelf.

J. H. Wyman: Yes, we’re so lucky because what it does is like in a weird way it allows other artists to sort of recontextualize their own work. It’s not only in the comic book medium. As far as music is concerned, the B-52s gave us a song that hadn’t been released.

J. Pinkner: And will never be released.

J. H. Wyman: And will never be released and we got to play it on the other side because they’re like, “You know what? That’s really cool. What would the B-52s be like over there?” And so, we got a lot of support from a lot of artists. So, we’re really, really lucky.

J. Pinkner: It allows us to be fans.

J. H. Wyman: Yes.
 

On getting new viewers up to speed for the fourth season

J. Pinkner: We’re actually doing a couple of things. One, our friends and colleagues at FOX have put up a Fringe past, present, and future series of sort of like all you need to know or ever needed to know about Fringe, sort of small pieces on the Web.

But as this season sort of starts, because of the nature of the storytelling, because Peter has disappeared, the season sort of starts fresh and if you’ve never seen the show before, this is not marketing tool. Really, if you’ve never seen the show before, this is a great place to dive in because everything is new. If you have been watching the show, now you’re watching with the eye towards everything is new and different and it’s making you question or re-imagine what you’ve seen in the past. If you’ve never seen the show before, it’s a great place to dive in.
 

On contingency plans if last season’s finale had to become a series finale

J. H. Wyman: Well, I mean we’re in a kind of … position because FOX has been very, very, very up front with us about the plans for the show. They’re incredibly supportive and they always have been. Every time we got moved, every time there was any sort of adjustment, they were very transparent about what their business plan was, which is something that—I know you guys know this, but it’s really incredible and it’s something that you never really get.

So, we were very confident that they were pleased creatively where the show was going. They know that we have incredible rabid fans. So, Kevin Reilly was very happy with where we were at. So, we knew that we were going to be okay.

But that said, we have a really strong idea of where the show is going and we do think from time-to-time too. Nothing is forever and we’re lucky right now to be able to tell these stories and who knows if that’s going to continue. You never know.

One thing that we’re always concerned about is making sure that the fans feel like if that should happen that we could actually give them something that would make them feel like there’s a natural closure, that there’s a natural sort of end to a chapter, maybe not the book. My favorite novels allow me to kind of imagine the characters afterward and what happened and that I’ve witnessed a really great story, the world goes on.

So, we’re always concerned with that because we don’t want people to sort of be invested and then sort of be left like, “Oh, my gosh, now I don’t know what every happened.” So, in our minds, we have something should something drastic and terrible happened, but as of right now, we’re going to continue to tell the story and at the pace and measure that we’re doing it and just sort of considering ourselves lucky as we go.
 
 
The series of 12 videos recapping Fringe up through Season 3, teeing up Season 4 are available on the FOX Broadcasting YouTube channel here: Fringe: Past, Present, & Future and the viral fan generated video titled Where is Peter Bishop? is also on YouTube.

Don’t miss the season premiere tonight on FOX at 8/7c.

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