FOX 'Fringe' Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Jeff Pinkner interview
By April MacIntyre Sep 17, 2008, 16:00 GMT
07/26/2008 - Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman - 2008 Comic Con International Day Three - San Diego Convention Center - San Diego, CA. USA © Albert L. Ortega / PR Photos
Post-second episode of FOX series "Fringe", the show continues the edge of science themes with a dramatic tale last night that involved a serial murderer who was a victim of "Fringe science" experiments himself, as he was gruesomely self-medicating with the extracted pituitary glands of unwitting female victims to stave off rapid aging and death.
The series continues the partnership and personal story arc of Anna Torv's all business FBI agent Dunham, with her smart aleck partner, Peter Bishop, played by Joshua Jackson. Bishop spends a great deal of time wrangling his genius dad Dr. Walter Bishop for help in attempting to crack cases that make up the "Pattern." The writers seem to save the best lines for John Noble's brilliantly befuddled Doctor.
After the anticipated premiere last week of Fox's sci-fi drama series "Fringe," writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are looking well ahead and having a good time researching what's "out there" unexplained, as they ramp up the dramatized possibilities in the far-out realm of what some scientists refer to as "junk science."
Orci and Kurtzman explained to Monsters and Critics and other journalists on a recent conference call that the amount of researched materials and a generous budget from FOX will guarantee "Fringe" continues to engross viewers with smartly written twists, turns and jaw-dropping special effects.
Monsters and Critics spoke to Alex Kurtzman, Co-Creator, Writer, and Executive Producer on "Fringe", Roberto Orci, Co-Creator, Writer, and Executive Producer on "Fringe" and Jeff Pinkner, Executive Producer, "Fringe" about their new series.
How do you feel about the shift from Toronto for the pilot to New York City for the series?
A. Kurtzman I think we were very excited to be able to shoot in Manhattan because it felt to us like Manhattan is becoming the perfect backdrop for our storytelling. We will actually get to do more at the production level in Manhattan because of the tax breaks that are coming with shooting there.
R. Orci I was torn. I actually lived in Toronto as a kid for a few years, and so I was excited to visit some of my old … and I got to do that during the pilot. Obviously it’s easier to travel back and forth to New York.
And even though I’m an L.A. native, I will say that Manhattan is the best city in the world. I’m just happy to be there.
What are the challenge of continued storytelling for Fringe and figuring out what the series is going to be on a manageable week-to-week basis?
R. Orci The good news for us is that they are not skimping on resources. And since the pilot itself was two hours, the pattern for – no pun intended – the pattern for our hour-long show should allow us to fulfill the production that you saw. We also get part of the production value that you see on the show comes from not shooting in L.A. We very consciously wanted to shoot someplace where the production value would be visible merely as the environment, and so shooing in New York gives us that as well. It gives it a reality. You can tell when you’re shooting a show in L.A., and this show will not feel that way.
A. Kurtzman We really don’t limit ourselves at all when it comes to what we want to do and what we want to see. We will open our episodes with kind of … an incident event, and that’s always a fairly large thing. But mostly it’s just about how do you hook an audience and how do you keep them interested in what makes us interested in the show. So far, we have not been told to be limited by anything, so that’s great.
I think what’s really fun for us, as the series unfolds, is that when we sat down, we had a million ideas about where we wanted to go with these characters and the kinds of stories that we wanted to tell. But of course, until you’re picked up, you never really know, so those ideas just stay bubbling in the back of your head. Now it feels like the floodgates have opened, and we can just keep peeling back the layers of the onion and going for all the stuff that we wanted to do that we couldn’t put in the pilot.
Are you happy with the ratings for the Fringe premiere?
R. Orci If it was a movie, we’d be concerned, but a TV show is a marathon, so next week I think will be more a time to celebrate or be concerned.
A. Kurtzman Yes. And I think we got exactly what we wanted out of our key demos, so that was the most important thing. There is a period of time early in September where people are still finding television again because everyone is going back to school. And I think, for us, we kind of thought it’s very likely that people will be still coming back to the television sets, and there’ll probably be a two- to three-week ramp up. So we didn’t see it as particularly daunting in any way. I think we just feel like, in a way, you always take that into account, but you have to tune it out a little bit and just keep telling the stories that you want to tell.
R. Orci And that’s probably why we were trying to be disciplined about having a show that you can come in week two, week three, or week four and still catch up. So if you’ve missed the pilot, it’s okay.
A. Kurtzman Yes. The serialized elements of the show will have to do with kind of the emotional … of our characters, but you certainly don’t have to have seen the pilot or episode two to know what episode three is about.
What interests you in the fringe science?
R. Orci We’ve always been fans of science fiction, period, and it started becoming more apparent to us how often mainstream media news sources were covering things that just sounded very unbelievable, things that ten years ago would have seemed like science fiction. The example we keep bringing up is we just read on MSNBC a couple weeks ago that the Pentagon has developed an invisibility cloak.
So that kind of story, any time you look now in the science and technology section of any major media outlet, there are some really strange stories in there.
A. Kurtzman I would go so far as to say we would not even have pitched that kind of an idea for Alias because it would have sounded too insane, and Alias was as crazy as it gets when it comes to plotting. Suddenly, when that’s actually your reality and your TV has to match up to that, I think we just kind of felt like there’s just a whole new opportunity here.
R. Orci Also, it feels like it’s … that things aren’t exactly as they seem. I think a lot of people are feeling that, and I think Fringe is sort of a codeword for us as well for looking behind what is presented to you as reality, both media and just your beliefs growing up.
A. Kurtzman Yes. I would say, taking that a step further, that at the character level, these characters, while touching fringe science, are also either revealing or being forced to reveal the fringes of their personality, and that was always what really attracted us to, say, Cronenberg movies where someone was … or even Altered States, which we obviously make reference to in the pilot … someone wants to dig deeper into science, and in so doing, reveals a part of themselves that they didn’t necessarily know was there or were actually afraid to see.
So it just felt like a great way into that.
R. Orci Growing up, you find out Columbus didn’t discover America. George Washington didn’t chop down a cherry tree.
What made the actors appealing to you for the cast of Fringe?
A. Kurtzman The pilot process is a crazy process because you see literally thousands of actors in an incredibly short period of time. It can be exhausting, but in a way that exhaustion works for you because when the right person walks in the room, you just know it immediately. You don’t have to try and shove them in a box. They just are that person.
And a lot of the time, I think, for us, an audition is just as much about what they say when they’re not saying the lines and how they walk in and out of a room as when they’re actually saying the lines. And the three of them were just, they seemed like incredibly warm people, which I think was important for us because there’s accessibility about each of them, but they also bring, I think, the unique characteristics we needed each character to have to the table.
R. Orci Yes. Noble is warm, but there’s a dark side to him. Josh is as smart and as sort of jaded as his character. And Anna is appealing, but real, and we like the idea of discovering someone as opposed to having a character that brings some kind of preconceived baggage or notions or previous characters. We like the idea of the audience getting to know her as a character for the first time.
The mythology of Fringe and Lost has some overlap. You guys work on so many genre projects together. When you sit around and pass ideas to each other, do you ever swap them and think, where does this one go? How do you compartmentalize and keep them all separate?
A. Kurtzman I think by making sure that the idea is coming subjectively through whatever characters we’ve chosen. If the ideas don’t somehow make sense through the point of view of the character, that’s usually a good barometer. I tried to put Spock in Fringe, but no one would allow it.
How tough was it not to allow the science to overshadow the storytelling?
A. Kurtzman The balance is obviously tricky, but once the science starts detracting from character tracking, that’s when the science is too much. And so, the science needs to be there just enough to support your plot and just enough to be able to reveal certain things to and about the characters. But once it starts to become a driving force, I think we’re in a science-heavy place.
What other types of cool science can we expect on Fringe?
R. Orci I’m telling you, just pick up any major news site or whatever and look at the story, and there’ll be something about it. I mean we read the other day that China was controlling the weather during the Olympics.
They were launching capsules into the atmosphere to make sure that it was clear skies, etc.
How do you decide what is left unsaid and what needed an explanation?
A. Kurtzman Well, I think we have had a million ideas for where we want the stories to go, and the pilot, in so many ways, was about seeding these ideas and letting them start to grow over the course of seasons and introducing our audience to our characters. So for us, I think it was about putting just enough to leave a bunch of questions on the table so that you would want to watch and find answers.
How will you keep that balance of making sure that people can still jump into the show and then, of course, revealing that mythology?
A. Kurtzman Jeff, how are you going to do that?
J. Pinkner I think if you take a show like ER for example, obviously you could watch every fifth ER and still, by four or five minutes into the episode, you know everything you need to enjoy that episode. Sort of using that as a model, our intent is that the people who have watched the show very loyally and very carefully will understand things at a deeper level than the people who are just watching intermittently.
But the people who are watching intermittently will understand everything they need to understand for the enjoyment of that episode. There will be self-contained elements of every story, every episode will have a distinct beginning, middle, and end, though there will be things involved. There will be nuances that the loyal viewers will understand on a deeper level.
How many more characters do you think you’ll be introducing?
J. Pinkner Every episode will have at least one major guest star, sort of the story of the week. And as we move forward, we’re introducing. We’re constantly introducing. The show takes place in the universe, in a world populated by characters who will come in and out, and they will inform the stories, both episodically and over the season long and series long arcs.
In much the same way, an example, and it’s not a perfect example, but you could pick up any Harry Potter book and each one starts at the beginning of a school year, and my kids started with the third book. And I had started with the first book, so I knew things on a deeper level.
I recognized connections and themes and little subplots that they didn’t, but it didn’t detract from their overwhelming enjoyment of any single story.
And in much the same way, we’re creating a world. And by the time we get down the line in seasons, it will be much more richly textured than it is now, but you don’t do that immediately. You do it slowly over time.
What drew you to science and sci fi personally?
R. Orci For me, my uncle got me into science and science fiction as a kid. In fact, he was kind of my secret advisor on Star Trek as well. We even named a character after him. Alex, where did you get your love of science?
A. Kurtzman: Of science fiction or science? Because I was actually a terrible student in science when I was in school.
It was something I was really bad at, largely because I have a very difficult time following rules. I think that one of the great things about being a screenwriter is you can pretend to be anything.
Now, with the advent of the Internet, I find myself going back to all the things that I should I have studied in high school and college and kind of learning them again through screenwriting.
But I think maybe part of it is just the great mystery of it, how much it seems like science is pointing to the fact that anything is possible these days, that anything you can imagine is possible. So there’s a new excitement about that for me. In terms of science fiction, that I was into from the point I was two years old, so just the opportunity to keep doing things that are in the vein of what we loved when we were kids is just a huge gift.
Talk about your writing styles, how you work.
R. Orci: As writers, we know that there’s a difference between a plot and a structure, and so although there are many plots that have been told, and it’s hard to find new plots, there are new ways to tell old stories, and that’s where the challenge comes.
The plot of – pick your plot – how things are revealed when they’re revealed and from what point of view, that is a new and exciting thing, and that is what audiences are so savvy about, and that is what audiences need to feel that they are not seeing things that they’ve already seen before. They need to see different kinds of storytelling, and I think all three of us are students of that kind of thinking.
A. Kurtzman: Yes. I think we just often ask ourselves what we want to see as viewers. Then when we come to kind of a collective answer, we then go, okay. How can we justify that? What in the world and what in science can make that feel plausible?
J. Pinkner: I think I agree with both of them, and I think what we’re finding a lot of fun with this show is the research we’re doing, is there are a lot of very smart people with a lot of money in the world these days, and they are spending a lot of time and money and smarts.
The world has changed in such a way that science doesn’t seem to have a goal anymore. When we were kids, it was, let’s get to the moon. And a lot of money and brainpower was spent trying to figure out how to get men onto the moon.
Now there’s a lot more money, it seems, and a lot more people that have it and a lot more private industries that have it. And they’re all sort of following their imaginations and doing anything they can. And some of it seems to be morally good, and some of it seems to be morally a little bit careless.
But anything that we can imagine, either good or bad, seems that the real world is already two steps ahead of our imagination.
So our stories are being told through our characters, but the things that they’re dealing with have kind of made us, as writers, slightly more wary of our world and, at the same time, a little bit more astounded by the possibilities actually exceeding our imaginations right now.
Do you think that audiences now are more ready for a show like Fringe because of what’s going on in science today?
J. Pinkner: It’s funny. I don’t think our show is a science fiction show. I think of our show as sort of every week is sort of its own self-contained little thriller. The stories are rooted in science, but they are – Alex and Bob, do you guys agree?
A. Kurtzman Yes.
J. Pinkner: I wouldn’t really call it science fiction.
R. Orci: We said this is one of the marketing lines for Star Trek, but it could easily apply to this, which is, the future is now. When that stuff came out, it was actually the last millennium. That show was in the 20th century, and we’re literally in a new millennium and a new century, and I do think that audiences feel that way.
J. Pinkner: Yes. I think science fiction also for us is kind of a very specific category. 'BattleStar Galactica' is science fiction. 'BattleStar Galactica' takes place in the future. It’s a vision of the future, and this is, as Bob is saying, a vision of now.
A. Kurtzman: And I think we’re all huge fans of 'BattleStar Galactica.'
J. Pinkner: Huge.
A. Kurtzman: Because the stories are really just mythic stories told with our archetypical characters. But to speak to your question of whether the world is more ready for science fiction.
I think the answer to that is yes because science fiction and science fact have sort of become one in the same right now. It’s not a space opera, that’s for sure, our show. It’s much more a version of, you know, it’s hopefully an entertaining version of what’s really going on in the world of science, and it might feel like fiction. And if it does, we’ve served our job because the truth is, it’s all based on fact.
When you were researching the science, at what point did you have to start to take liberties, or did you?
R. Orci: You have to take liberties because we don’t have access to all the classified information that most likely exists out there.
So you do take liberties in that sense. And you take liberties also in just we can go through the entire proof and dissertation of what we’re attempting to do in every episode, so you take liberties, storytelling liberties, but we’re trying to take as few liberties as possible in terms of what is theoretically possible.
A. Kurtzman: I think we take liberties in the same way. Obviously we want our stories to be entertaining and exciting, but I think we take liberties in the same way that a show like 'The Practice' takes liberties with the way that an actual trial is handled.
R. Orci: Right.
How did you guys hit upon the transparent skin?
J. Pinkner: One of the conspiracy Web sites that I love is called rense.com. It was based on this disease that has not fully been acknowledged or it’s not clear if it’s real. It’s called Morgellons disease where fibers grow out of the skin and they seem almost like silicon and they’re somewhat translucent, so it was based on that.